Dusty's Fate

Dusty's Fate

Vickie L. King

May 2014 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-4-785

Book 2 of The Braddocks

He was hired to find her.

The last thing he expected was to find himself in love.


 

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Copy

West Virginia Private Investigator Dusty Braddock thought he’d never recover from the grief and guilt over his wife’s death in a car accident.

Then he helped Jules Donovan and her son reconnect with the man who might be the brother Jules never knew she had. Jules, a family-loving loner, wants a family for her son and travels to West Virginia with Dusty. But the man who makes her feel like she belongs to a family turns out to be Dusty and his sprawling, affectionate Braddock clan. If she gives part of herself to him, how can she ever go back to her normal life if it doesn’t work out? Will Dusty abandon her, too?

Vickie King has published short fiction in Woman’s World Magazine. Her debut novel, CARLY’S RULE, has already hit the bestseller list in ebook. She loves to hear from readers. Write to her at VKHeartstrings@aol.com or visit her on Facebook or at vickielking.blogspot.com.


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Excerpt

Chapter 1

WHEN LOOKING for a missing person, experience had taught Dusty Braddock to be prepared for anything, but nothing could have prepared him for the woman standing in the doorway of the garage apartment.

Something about those vivid blue eyes windowed an old soul, or maybe she could actually see into his soul, into the blackness of the guilt that would be forever anchored there. Nauseated that his own blame never strayed far from his mind, he scrambled internally to put his thoughts together.

"Julianna Donovan?” Between two fingers, he held up the beige business card he’d picked up at The Artist’s Mall in Scottsdale where she sold her pottery.

He saw the moment the young woman in the loose-fitting khaki shorts and clay-smudged tee shirt recognized it as hers. She had to be asking herself how he’d gotten her home address, when only her name, web address, and phone number were listed on the card. As a private investigator, her physical address had been the easy part for him.

She stared at him as if she were memorizing his features in case she had to identify him in a lineup or describe him to a sketch artist. "That’s me. But customers aren’t allowed at my workshop, and I don’t sell any pottery out of here... ever.”

Yeah, well, he wasn’t all that friggin’ excited to be here either, but he had a job to do.

"If you need something special made, place your order through the website, through The Artist’s Mall, or call the number on the card.” The woman took a single step back from the doorway.

The motion released a waft of blessed coolness from inside that teased his skin, which had been heated by the blazing Arizona sun. He glimpsed the potter’s wheel behind her, evidence that the ground floor of the two-story garage unit served as a workroom.

"About that,” he blurted out quickly for fear she might close the door in his face, and secretly wishing she would so he could get on with his life. "This is too important for a phone call.” He pulled one of his own business cards from his shirt pocket and then handed it to her.

She took it, regarded it warily, and frowned. "A private investigator?”

"I’ve been hired to find Betsy Donovan. You’re her daughter, right?”

Her eyes widened, big and round like the deer back home in West Virginia, when headlights spellbound them in the dark. Within seconds, the initial surprise drained from her eyes, leaving a guardedness that bordered on defiance.

"Betsy Donovan gave birth to me, but she’s been dead for years. Why are you looking for her? If she had old debts—”

"I know she passed away. I’m sorry about that.” He had a copy of the death certificate in his messenger bag. "This isn’t about money, though.”

"Then, what?”

"My client hired me to find his mother, Betsy Donovan.”

On a sigh that appeared to be born more of relief than frustration, some of the tension drained from her face, putting a little more natural color into her high cheeks, enhancing that earthy, scrubbed-clean look about her. Her lips curved in a slightly crooked tilt, and, for the first time, he noticed the resemblance to his brother-in-law, Luke. Dusty’s stomach twitched. Not just any twitch, but that old familiar, sit-up-and-pay-attention hitch he’d always gotten when he was on the right track. He hadn’t experienced it in a long time.

"Has to be a different Donovan. I don’t have any siblings, Mister...” She looked at his card again. "Mr. Braddock.”

"Dusty will do.” Sensing, more than seeing, her withdrawing from the conversation, he glanced behind him at the old-fashioned glider on the open breezeway that connected the garage apartment to the house next door. He motioned toward the seat. "Maybe we could sit for a minute.” He hated to do business under the unspoken threat of a door about to be shut in his face.

"Why? Your Betsy Donovan wasn’t my mother. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

How he wished he could excuse her and be on his way, but since he’d accepted this case mainly to get away from his family’s hovering, he only had himself to blame. "Give me two minutes, and then I’ll go.”

She sighed, looked over her shoulder. He got a glimpse of the dark braid that fell down her back to her waist. Then she stepped out, pulling the door nearly closed, yet never taking her hand from the doorknob. Guess he had his two minutes.

"Years ago, my client’s mother left a six-year marriage and a five-year-old son behind in Texas. The son hired me to find out what happened to his mother.” Dusty couldn’t fault Luke for wanting that closure. At least someone in the family would be able to put their past to rest.

"Well, there you go. The woman who gave birth to me wouldn’t have stayed with the same man for six months, much less six years. Now, please—”

"I’ve followed the trail of my client’s mother from Texas to Arizona. Was your mother born in Texas? If she had lived, would she have been forty-eight years old this year?”

Her eyes widened, but only for a few seconds.

With the exception of the rattle and hum from the ancient air conditioner poking out of the window only a few feet from him and releasing a constant drip, the seconds rode out in silence.

Her shoulders sagged a little. "Let me make this easy for you. My mother was an alcoholic. She stole, turned tricks, and did whatever she could to get booze. She never had a normal life with a husband and a son. You have the wrong person."

No love lost between this mother and daughter. "I don’t think so. I think you’re the right Julianna Donovan. It’s possible you and my client, Luke Donovan, share the same mother.” Without an actual DNA test, Dusty had only his research and gut instincts to go on.

"Think about it,” Dusty continued. "How many Betsy Donovans born in Texas nearly forty-eight years ago had a daughter named Julianna?” No coincidences. "I’ve done my research, and all the pieces fit. I have a copy of your mother’s death certificate, and it lists she had two live births. I also know that after Betsy’s death, her daughter, Julianna, grew up in foster care. Were you in foster care?”

"Yes, but...” As her voice trailed off, he could practically see the woman mentally sorting through the bits of information, taking in the news that she might have a sibling.

Luke had given Dusty enough history that offered the possibility Betsy had been pregnant when she left her marriage. Julianna could very well be, not just a half-sister to Luke, but a full sister.

When Julianna didn’t comment further, Dusty knew he’d have to carry the conversation. "Does this change your mind at all about the possibility that we’re talking about the same Betsy Donovan?”

She lifted her chin a notch. "I think we’re done here.”

Searching his mind to find something she could relate to, he latched onto her stint in foster care, because it meant she’d had no one else. "I would think you’d like to know if you have relatives.”

"You’d be wrong.” Her gaze hardened, until her eyes reminded him of the icy blue prize marbles he’d had as a boy. Yet, something shadowed there in those eyes, something that tugged at him.

He could kick himself for not getting the name of her foster family, if nothing else than to help with her acceptance of the situation, but he hadn’t been at all sure how far he’d be taking this for Luke. No matter what she said, his gut told him that since she’d been a foster kid, she’d be hungry for family, regardless of whether her foster years had been a good or a bad experience.

He opened the well-worn leather messenger bag, preferring it to the fussy new briefcase his parents had gotten him last Christmas, and pulled out a manila envelope. "I’d like to show you some photos of my client and his family. They were meant for your mother, in the event I had found her. I won’t take up a lot of your time, but I think it would be a shame not to at least look at them.”

Dusty had asked Luke to gather a few photos. There weren’t any pictures of Luke’s mother. He believed his father had destroyed them all. They’d been gone since Luke was a kid, so Dusty had selected a few of Luke as a boy and several more recent ones.

The woman stared at the envelope. After some hesitation, she looked up. "Mr. Braddock, I’m sorry. I can’t help you or your client.”

"Can’t or won’t?” What would make her not want to find out for certain if she had relatives?

"It doesn’t really matter, since the result will be the same. I’m sorry.” She slipped into the coolness of the workroom and closed the door. Something intrigued him about that whispery lilt to her voice, and he knew it would stick in his head for a while.

WITH TREMBLING hands, Jules Donovan flipped the lock on the workroom door, and then hurried to the window to look out. The private investigator crossed the street and got into a dark sedan.

Unsettled, she lifted her hand to cover her mouth. A brother? Was it really possible? If it were true, how could she have gone her whole life without knowing, without her mother mentioning him even once? It didn’t make sense.

In her early years, she’d wanted a family more than she’d wanted her next meal. She’d wanted a mother who cared, who gave warm hugs and whispered words of comfort at night to keep the boogieman at bay, which usually came in the form of one of her mother’s drunken boyfriends. It hadn’t taken Jules long to have that dream squashed by reality, and it still made her quake to realize how close she’d come to being violated as a youth.

She kept a microwave in her workroom and went to it now to heat water for a cup of chamomile tea to take away the jitters. She punched the button for ninety seconds and then leaned against the worktable.

No way could anyone convince Jules that her mother had ever led a normal life with a husband and a child. Not the woman she knew, the woman who lived out of a bottle and rarely acknowledged her own daughter. At the absurd idea, Jules nearly laughed. Nearly.

She made the tea, sipped at it, and willed it to calm her, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the visit from the private investigator

Like coarse sandpaper, painful memories of her childhood scratched the surface of her mind. She didn’t need anyone else in her life. She had a few good friends, and she had her son. At the moment, he jabbered in the playpen she kept set up so she could watch him while she worked. Long ago, she’d put to rest the need for someone to love and comfort her.

Now, that same need, which had lain dormant for years, began to pulse inside her once again, growing with intensity. She huddled in a corner of the workbench, drew her knees to her chest, and prayed for the feeling to go away, just as she’d done so many times as a child.

Her only solace—the safety of her workroom below her cheerful garage apartment—sheltered her, instead of her taking refuge in the closet of that tiny, dirty apartment she’d shared with Betsy.

DUSTY SAT IN a corner booth of a steakhouse near his hotel and took a pull on the bottle of cold beer. Even if he couldn’t forget her eyes, the woman he’d met today wasn’t very approachable and not at all receptive to the idea she had a brother. He could call Luke, give him the news that his mother had died years ago, but that he might have a sister. No might about it. He did have a sister. Dusty saw too much likeness and too many similarities for it to be coincidence. Then he could turn it all over to Luke and let him take it from there. Case closed.

The right thing to do would be to see this through to the end. At one time, Dusty would have done exactly that without a second thought. But that man didn’t exist anymore. He didn’t want to make the effort to try to convince this woman she had a brother. If he couldn’t fix his own life, what made him think he could fix anyone else’s?

The old Dusty was dead and buried along with his wife, and it had nothing to do with the grief he should feel for her—the grief that his own family thought was the root of his demise over the past three years. Fearing he might plunge off the deep end at any moment, they watched him too closely. They thought he was simply going through the grieving process, still mourning the loss of his wife and child. If only they knew the truth. Guilt outweighed his grief by far.

How could he properly grieve for a woman whose blood covered his hands?

With a sigh, he flipped open his cell and dialed Luke’s number. When Dusty’s sister, Carly, answered, he said, "Hey, Slick. Luke around?”

"He’s in the workshop. Hold on, I’ll buzz him.” In the background, he heard Carly on the intercom that connected their house to the workshop a couple hundred feet away. She came back on the line. "He’s coming. So what did you find out? No. Never mind. I’ll let you tell Luke first.” The pause in the conversation lasted only a few seconds. "So, are you doing okay?”

Dusty didn’t want to go there. The hovering always started with what appeared to be a simple answer to a simple question. Better to ignore it completely. "Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” His sister had about a month to go before her due date.

"I’m fat. I waddle, instead of walk, and I’m sure there’s a watermelon sitting on my bladder, because I have to pee every ten minutes.”

He grimaced. "Nice.” Way more information than he needed, but at least it took the focus off him. No matter how much he loved his sister, she had to be the most frustrating of all his family members. She hovered, asked if he ate proper meals or got enough sleep, and she constantly invited him over for dinner. If she knew how he truly felt about her fussing over him, it would hurt her, and he loved her far too much to say anything. Better to be out of her sight. Getting away from his family had been the main reason he’d taken Luke’s case to find his mother.

"Luke just walked in. I’m handing the phone over. Take care. Love you.”

"Love you too, Slick.”

After a bit of shuffling, Luke came on the line. "I’m not sure I’m ready to hear what you’ve found out. Good or bad, just give it to me straight.”

Knowing his sister, Dusty pictured Carly clinging to her husband’s arm, awaiting the news that had been such a long time in coming. That made the telling all the more difficult. "I wish I had better news about your mother, Luke. She passed away about fifteen years ago. I’m really sorry.”

Dusty had expected the thick silence that immediately followed his announcement, so he waited, letting his brother-in-law take in the news.

"How?” Luke asked.

Wishing he didn’t have to tell his brother-in-law this, Dusty closed his eyes. Even though Luke hadn’t seen or heard from his mother in many years, hearing bad news never got any easier. "There was an accident. She fell from the fire escape outside her apartment window.” He’d seen the police report, but too many questions rose in his mind, and he hoped Luke didn’t ask for details.

Luke heaved a sigh. "Well, I may never know why she left, but at least I know what happened to her.”

The defeated tone in Luke’s voice didn’t sit well with Dusty, and while he knew that telling his brother-in-law about Julianna Donovan would change that, it would also set in motion a series of events down a path he wasn’t sure he wanted to take. It meant someone would be depending on him for something else, when he really wanted to drop everything he’d found in Luke’s lap.

Thoughts of the woman with the startling blue eyes flashed through Dusty’s mind. Something he’d seen in them burned into his brain. He didn’t want to remember it. He also didn’t want to spend time trying to convince her she might have a sibling. Quickly, she’d rejected the idea she could have family, and she had absolutely no desire to get to the truth of the matter.

"Guess we’ll see you in a few days,” Luke said.

Dusty took a deep breath. "Uh, there’s more. Betsy Donovan had a daughter seven months after she left your father.”

"What?”

"Looks like you’ve got a sister.”

"Are you sure this woman is my sister?”

"As sure as I can be without a DNA test.”

"I didn’t see that one coming.” Luke’s slow Texas drawl melted into silence for a few seconds, before he started up again. "Where is she? What’s her name? Does she know all about me?”

Carly must have been listening nearby, because Dusty could hear her sniffling in the background. Tears. His gut tightened. Why did she have to pick now to start that? Her tears always got to him. "Let me tell you what I know.” He gave Luke a rundown on his search results and a brief version of the meeting with Julianna Donovan.

"I want to meet her,” Luke said. His voice shook, but it was clear he readily accepted he had a sister.

Dusty rubbed the back of his neck. "I have to tell you she’s not all that receptive to having a sibling. She’s not convinced that her mother and your mother are one in the same. Actually, she’s dead set against it.”

"Why? You have to talk to her, Dusty. Convince her. Ask her to come to West Virginia to meet with us. Let her know I can’t come there, not with Carly due in a few weeks. Maybe if I talk to Julianna. Could I call her?”

Tension built within Dusty. He rolled his head from side to side. "Let me see what I can do on this end. I might be able to set something up, eventually.”

A pause silenced the conversation. "I can’t believe this. I have a sister.” Once again, Luke’s voice broke. "Whatever you need to do, whatever it costs, do it.”

"I’ll be in touch.”

Looked like he’d be paying a second visit to Julianna Donovan, whether he wanted to or not.

LATER THAT afternoon, driven by a maternal instinct, one her mother hadn’t possessed, Jules went to the bedroom. She peered into the sturdy oak baby bed she’d purchased at a garage sale. The sweet scent of baby lotion drifted up to her. With his legs tucked under him and his diapered bottom stuck up in the air, Cooper slept soundly. At fifteen months old, he’d be out for at least an hour.

He’d kicked off the quilt her landlady had lovingly sewn. Because of the air conditioning and because she wanted him to feel safe and secure, she tucked the covering around him again, taking care not to disturb him.

She never got tired of looking at her son. Her gaze wandered over his pink chubby cheeks, a head full of dark, baby fine curls that refused to be tamed, and long, dark lashes feathered against tender baby skin. His thumb rested against his bottom lip, and even in sleep his mouth worked in a sucking motion, as if his thumb were still inside. Then her little angel smiled in his sleep, a slightly crooked grin that mirrored her own.

Her heart melted, and for the umpteenth time since her son had been born, she thought how grateful she was that his father, Steven, didn’t want to be part of Cooper’s life. How could she have been so naïve as to let herself be sucked into a relationship with Steven? Every time she thought about it, nausea churned in the pit of her stomach. She’d been so desperate for someone to love her that she’d let her guard down.

In hindsight, Jules knew she’d been attracted to Steven’s artistic nature more than anything else. He painted with a vengeance, baring his soul on canvas. As an artist herself, she understood that, but it had blinded her to anything else about him.

After leaving the room, she checked the baby monitor on her desk in the small living room of her one-bedroom apartment. She booted up the computer and began a search for Luke Donovan, but she didn’t have much information to go on, so she changed her mind and picked up the business card for the private investigator from West Virginia. She pulled up the website listed.

She clicked through the pages to his bio and his credentials. He had a master’s degree in criminology, worked privately and for state and local law enforcement in West Virginia. She skimmed the photo of him accepting some kind of award. Impressive, especially for someone who looked like he’d be more suited to riding a motorcycle than driving the dark, sensible sedan she’d seen at the curb.

The sharp, clean-cut image in the professional bio photo didn’t fit with the man she’d met. The man on her doorstep had hair a little longer and a little more tousled, but that was surface stuff. Something she remembered about those soulful dark brown eyes of his stirred the nurturing side of her. Then she shook her head. Could have been that punch-in-the-gut smile he’d given her when she’d first opened the door.

Thinking about that smile brought back the memory of the easy country lilt in his baritone voice and the probing, yet reflective way he’d stared at her eyes, as if he were ready to jump in with both feet. Looking back, she figured he’d probably been searching for a resemblance to his client.

She returned to scrolling through the website. He seemed legit, and she truly hoped the investigator found his client’s mother, if for no other reason than to know what happened to her.

Jules couldn’t imagine running out on Cooper like that other Betsy had run out on her little son. But then some people, like her own mother, just weren’t meant to be mommies.

She flipped through the website and stopped when she came to a test for a home security check. She went down the list, mentally checking yes or no to the safety questions on the security of her home. It worried her that she’d checked no so many times.

Footsteps struck the stairs that led to her apartment. It couldn’t be her landlady. Velma wasn’t expected back from her cruise until tomorrow. A little on edge after taking the home security test, Jules padded to the door and looked through the peephole.

Evening sunlight illuminated the private investigator’s face. Jules’s stomach coiled into a knot of tension. She didn’t want to go through this again and seriously thought about not answering the door at all, but if she didn’t, he’d probably be back.

After flipping on the light, she opened the door a few inches, leaving the chain hooked. "You’re persistent.”

"I’ve been called worse.”

Sizing him up through the narrow space, she said, "I believe you.”

The man gave a half-hearted chuckle. "I brought the photos again. Will you give me at least five minutes to show them to you?”

If she looked at them, maybe he’d leave her alone. Plus, she had a nagging question that wouldn’t let her rest. "I might if you’ll answer one question for me.”

"What?”

"How did you find me this morning? I never give out my physical address.”

"You got a speeding ticket a few months back. I took a chance that your address hadn’t changed.” He shrugged and lifted a brow.

She closed the door long enough to slide the chain from its guard. My one and only ticket. While she’d been working at The Artist’s Mall, Cooper’s chest cold had worsened. His fever had spiked, and the babysitter said he seemed to have trouble breathing. She’d been hurrying home when the cop pulled her over.

She opened the door, bringing with it that clean, fresh scent of shampoo from the private investigator’s finger-combed damp hair. "I didn’t realize a person could be located that way.”

"There’s a lot of information out there, if you know how to find it.” The tilt of his head, underscored by the arrogant cut of his jaw and his tall, intimidating presence on her small deck, gave off a tough, careless attitude, almost as if the whole world could jump off a bridge for all he cared. But that couldn’t be entirely true, or he wouldn’t be working so determinedly for his client. He cared about something.

Unwilling to let him into her home, she said, "Give me a few minutes, and we’ll sit on the deck.” She needed to check on the baby.

He didn’t move, but his gaze scanned inside the room, and she knew the minute he spotted his website pulled up on her computer screen.

Her stomach tightened. She had every right to do a little investigating herself, so why did she feel as if she’d been caught peeping into his bedroom window?

Jules glanced away from the computer and back to the investigator. She shrugged. "Safety first.”

"I can give personal references.”

She cleared her throat. "Okay. That’d be great.” She leaned away from the door to pull an ink pen and pad of paper from the end table.

He cocked a brow, but said nothing as he took the items from her outstretched hand. After scribbling names and phone numbers, he handed back the pad and pen. "I’d give you the sheriff’s name and phone number, but he’s my brother, and he’s still fuming because I traded his signed baseball glove for a BB gun when I was eight.”

She didn’t want to laugh. Didn’t want to feel comfortable around this man, whose agenda would disrupt the life she’d made, but darned if she didn’t feel the corners of her mouth betraying her.

"If you want to have a seat, I’ll be right out.” She gestured to the small table and two chairs on her deck.

After making sure Cooper still slept, she grabbed the baby monitor, and then shoved her cell phone into her pocket. She opened the door and stepped out onto the deck, which was just big enough to hold the wrought iron bistro set she’d gotten for practically nothing on Black Friday last year at Wal-Mart. The little overhang, an extension of the roof, provided perfect shelter.

When she took the seat opposite the investigator, he narrowed his gaze. "You look like him—my client.”

Was that one of his persuasion techniques to plant the seed in her mind that she could be related to the man? She didn’t acknowledge the comment.

"The dark hair, strong cheekbones... those blue eyes.”

Heat flamed her face, not because of what he’d said, but because of how he studied her in that unhurried way of his, as if probing beneath the color and shape might unearth something else, something hidden.

She set the baby monitor on the table. "Everybody looks like somebody. Isn’t that the old saying, Mr. Braddock?”

"See for yourself.” He lifted the flap on the messenger bag, then took out an envelope. "And call me Dusty. Given the number of Braddock men in our family, I rarely answer to the other.”

"Lots of brothers, then?” She didn’t know if she was just making small talk, or if she genuinely wanted an answer.

"Four. Got a sister, too.”

What must it be like to have a large family? Once again, that old ache began to pulse inside her. She didn’t need this, didn’t want to hope for something only to have it ripped away.

When he handed her the packet, she couldn’t reach for it. She didn’t want to search for any likeness of herself in the stranger who probably wouldn’t turn out to be her brother. Before the thought had even faded from her mind, she scuffed her damp palms on her jeans and took the manila envelope anyway, but only because she’d agreed to give him five minutes. She set it on the table. It loomed in front of her, bringing forth an onslaught of old fears and insecurities.

Taking a breath, she opened the flap. She lifted her gaze. "If I look at them, will you leave me alone about this?”

"Are you really not interested in knowing if you have family, Julianna?”

"Honestly, I’ve had just about all the familyI can take for one lifetime. And I go by Jules, not Julianna.” When she’d lived with her fourth foster family, the Eldermans, their three-year-old foster daughter hadn’t been able to say Julianna. The shortened version stuck, and she’d been Jules ever since.

What a rare and happy time in her early teens, until the car accident had shattered any hope of a normal family life. After Mrs. Elderman’s death, her grieving husband wasn’t in any shape to take care of the kids. They were all fostered out to other homes. Keeping the nickname had comforted Jules. Pushing aside the bittersweet memories, she slid the photos out onto the table.

"I’m sorry someone didn’t look into this more thoroughly back when your mom died.” Did his brown eyes express pity or compassion?

Unable to abide either look, she stiffened. "Don’t feel sorry for me. The good thing about being a foster kid is that you grow up. Turning eighteen was the best thing that ever happened to me. I left all that family behind.” With one finger, she separated a few pictures from the haphazard stack. "My mother isn’t in any of these photos.”

"My client’s father destroyed the photos of his wife, or at least that’s what Luke believes happened to them. Here’s a picture of his father, Wes Donovan. His mother helped him raise Luke. Wes rode the rodeo circuit. When Luke was seventeen, his dad took a fall from a horse. His injuries were fatal. Time-wise, Wes could have been your father, too.”

Her father? An eerie chill enveloped Jules, but she fought against the need to shiver and rub her arms for warmth. She didn’t look up either. Didn’t want to show any outward emotion to the PI. Didn’t want him to know how something like this could affect her. Once you gave a person insight into your emotions, you gave them an advantage over you.So she forced herself to stare at the photo of the tall, lean man in the worn jeans and western shirt. One booted foot rested on the bottom rail of a wood fence.

She tried not to search for a likeness of herself in the man, but curiosity pulled her gaze to that smiling face. Did she look like him? She couldn’t tell.

On her birth certificate, the name of the father had been recorded as unknown, so she’d always thought her biological father had been one in the long list of her mother’s boyfriends. There’d never been any other option for Jules, believing bad blood ran inside her body from both parents. She couldn’t fathom any similarities to her mother and the woman who had married Wes Donovan.

Needing to clear her head, she took a deep breath. The picture of the stranger didn’t mean anything, didn’t prove anything. She detached herself mentally from the photo, and saying nothing, she pushed it aside for another.

Dusty watched Jules stare at the photos, hoping to see a spark of interest. What he saw instead proved so removed from anything he’d expected that his gut tightened.

Void of curiosity, her expression remained still and blank, as if the pictures had wiped away any and all emotion. Then he saw it—a clench, a single pulse in the muscle of her jaw that betrayed her nearly perfect control. If he hadn’t been studying her, he might have missed it. Why try so hard not to show any emotion?

It disturbed and confused him. What had happened in her past? Someone had done a number on this woman, because she’d learned to hide her emotions beneath that deceptive calmness.

He wanted to know who and why. The need to protect and to reach out in comfort rose like creek water in a rainstorm, and he nearly lifted his hand to cover hers. Immediately, he fisted his fingers beneath the table, annoyed that he’d reacted so quickly. Long ago, he’d deliberately worked to get rid of those protective urges. Sentimental thinking never led anywhere good. Focus on the job, and stay away from this woman’s problems.

He pushed away the old familiar urge to protect, and tapped the photo of Brooke. "This is Luke’s daughter, Brooke, your niece. She’s nearly fourteen, very bright, and your typical teenage girl.” He held up another. "Luke, your brother. Born in Texas, lived there until almost a year ago. Here’s a picture of him and his wife, Carly, on their wedding day last year.”

Dusty couldn’t remember ever seeing his sister that happy. She and Luke had a history that went back to their teens. There was a time when Dusty wanted to ram his fist into Luke’s face for the hurt he’d caused Carly. That, too, was history.

Dusty continued talking and holding up photos.

"You have something in common with Luke,” he told Julianna. "The artistic side must run in the family somewhere. He’s a wood craftsman. You should be able to Google him and bring up his website. Wooden Possibilities is the name of his business. Your brother—”

"Okay, that’s enough.” She jerked to her feet. The chair skidded backward a few inches, hitting the stucco wall of her apartment. Despite the heat of the evening, she wrapped her arms around her middle.

A reaction—not the one he’d hoped for, but better than that perfect control. Still, he couldn’t help but feel the guilt of having been the one to put a chip in that armor of protection around her, allowing a smidgen of vulnerability to seep in. "My client has offered to pay your travel expenses to West Virginia and back.”

"It’s not that I don’t understand your client’s need to reach out to find his mother or a family member, but I don’t believe he and I are related, so I’m not going to waste his money on an unnecessary trip.”

"He doesn’t consider it a waste.”

"Let me ask you this, Dusty.” It was the first time she’d used his name. It rolled off her tongue in the familiar way of someone who’d known him forever. It nearly made him lose his concentration. "Forget about any likeness you think is there and any artistic talents we might share. Do you know for certain that your client is my brother? We’re talking, one hundred percent certain.”

In his gut, Dusty knew it. Doubtful she’d go for that. "Research-wise, I’m sure. Can I be one hundred percent certain? No, you and Luke will need to submit to a DNA test. I have a friend in a lab back east that can speed up the result. He owes me a favor.”

She rubbed her arms and leaned back against the house, instead of taking her seat again. "Put yourself in my place. Let’s say I go to West Virginia and get to know your client. Maybe even form an attachment to him and his family, and then the DNA tests come back that we’re not related. What then? Why should I put myself through that?”

"If there’s even the slightest chance you’re related, how can you not put yourself out there?” He wanted this to end well for Luke. Dusty wanted to do something right this time. But in his soul, he knew nothing could ever absolve him of what he’d already done.

Her shoulders gave a fraction. Had the armor she wore begun to crack? "I don’t often speak about this, but I want you to understand why I can’t get excited over the possibility of family.” She eased into the chair again.

"I appreciate that.”

She slid the photos back into the envelope and pushed it toward him. "At eleven I went into foster care. Because of my home life, I had a nice-size chip on my shoulder and very little trust in anyone. An eleven-year-old with an attitude. Nobody wants to adopt a troubled kid.”

She picked a dead leaf from the plant in the middle of the table, then crushed the brown crispy leaf in her fingers. They were slender, her nails short, well cared for, and free of any polish. How did a potter’s hands feel to the touch? Smooth or calloused? Hers looked smooth.

"In foster care, you’re usually with a family who has a bunch of other foster kids, so there’s not a lot of individual attention and few attachments form, but once in a while, you’re with a family that actually wants you there.”

She pinched off another dead leaf and continued. "I’ll spare you the details of my childhood, but I lived with fourteen different foster families, until I ended up in a group home. In one of those foster families, I actually thought I had a chance of staying. But my foster mother died. In the end, all the kids were farmed out once again.” A shadow of emotion crossed her face, but in a blink, it vanished.

He couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be shuffled from one family to the next. "That had to be difficult.”

"Yeah, well, it’s the life of a foster kid, or at least my life. There have been a lot of so-called families in and out of my life. I’m done with that. I won’t put myself through it, but most of all, I refuse to put my son through that.”

While he hadn’t found a marriage certificate for her in his search, when she’d opened the door, he’d seen the basket of assorted toys and the little riding truck in the corner of the living room. Plus the monitor on the table looked similar to what his brother Mac used for his nursery. Until now, Dusty hadn’t been sure if those items meant Jules had a child or if she babysat for one. "How old is your son?”

Her face softened, and her eyes crinkled at the corners with maternal pride. "Cooper is fifteen months old.”

"There would certainly be an exception on the travel expenses so you could bring your son along to West Virginia, and even for a significant other, if you want.”

She shook her head and made a sarcastic sound that really wasn’t a laugh. "You really don’t give up, do you?”

If she only knew how much he wanted to give up on this, on a lot of things, but he’d committed himself to Luke’s case. "I can’t. In my profession, I’d never accomplish anything, if I did.” Dusty leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table. "I didn’t locate a marriage certificate for you, so I can only assume you’re a single parent.”

He hoped she wouldn’t get offended, but he played a hunch, hoping to use it to get her to come over to his way of thinking. "I would hope that your son’s father and his family are active in his life, but if they’re not, have you given thought to who you’d turn to in time of need, or who your son would turn to later in life?”

She stiffened her spine. "Trust me. I’m capable of handling anything that could come along. I’ll teach Cooper how to do that, too. I don’t need a man in my life for that.”

So the father wasn’t in the picture. "And if something happens to you while he’s still young, I would think you’d want to know family existed and would be there for Cooper.”

"You’re assuming a lot. You don’t know me or who I have in my life for myself or for my son.”

Jules stood, pushed in her chair, and Dusty knew he’d worn out his welcome. He rose and glanced at the photos he’d intentionally left on the table. Maybe she’d look through them after he left. "I’ll be here for a few more days.” He took a pen from his satchel, scribbled his hotel and room number on the back of another of his business cards. He didn’t know if she’d kept the first one he’d given her. "You can reach me on my cell or get in touch with me at the hotel where I’m staying.”

She took the card, and he rounded the table toward her.

"I hope you change your mind.” He held out his hand, and she shook it. Cool to the touch, her hands felt smooth, as he’d imagined. He had a vision of those hands sliding over wet clay, molding it.

Her firm grip didn’t surprise him, and yet, he sensed the strength in her went beyond physical. He admired that. Her eyes darkened. Must have held her hand a little too long, because she pulled away and picked up the monitor from the table.

He paused. "I know this is a lot to take in, but if there is any possibility the quality of your life and your son’s life would be enriched by finding a family member, I’d think you’d want that. Luke is a good man. He wants to talk to you himself. Give it some real consideration. That’s all I ask.”

With that, Dusty started down the stairs, but as a thought came to him, he stopped and turned around. "Luke never had much family, either, so finding a sister is like finding a missing part of his life. This isn’t just affecting you.”

Maybe it was simply the play of the evening sun or the reflection from the waning light, but her eyes had taken on a sheen that made him wonder if she were fighting tears. Hating that thought, his gut tightened. Seeing a woman’s tears always tore him up. Still, he hoped one little thing he’d said had gotten through to her, and not just for Luke, either.

Accepting the job to find Luke’s mother had been somewhat selfish on Dusty’s part. While he hoped things worked out for his brother-in-law, Dusty didn’t truly have a need to fix anyone else’s life. Not anymore. Not like he used to. He couldn’t even fix his own life. These days what he wanted, what he needed was much simpler—to get away from everyone and everything familiar, to get away from the reminders.

Nothing would truly release him from the death of Marci or the unborn child she carried, and he couldn’t really run from the guilt eating at his insides like a cancer, either. No, he hadn’t been driving the car the night of the accident, but he’d killed his wife and the baby growing inside her, as surely as if he’d been behind the wheel himself.


 

 

Chapter 2

"GET YOUR SKINNY butt in here, and get me a beer!”

The book fell from Julianna’s trembling hands.

"Leave her alone, Frank, she’s just a kid,” Mama said.

"You need to do something about that kid. She ain’t right. Too quiet, if you ask me. The other day, I found her curled up in her closet in the dark.”

"You were in her room?”

A bottle shattered. "You got a problem with me going anywhere in this apartment? Just say the word, and I’m outta here.”

Yes, tell him. Please tell him to go. Julianna didn’t like how he looked at her, how he called her name in that strange singsong voice. It made her stomach hurt. Holding her breath, she waited, hoping to hear whatever it was that would make him leave, so her heart would stop pounding so hard, and so she could breathe again.

"Frank, you don’t mean that, do you?” Mama’s sugary sweet voice sounded like the girls who stood on the corner by the building where the windows were painted black. "You wouldn’t really walk out on me. Don’t pay her any mind. Forget she’s even here.”

"Why don’t you take this and go get us some more beer,” he said. "We only have a couple more left.”

Don’t leave me here alone with him. Please. The front door slammed.

"Hey, kid.”

Heavy footsteps drew closer and stopped outside her bedroom door. No. The doorknob jiggled. Would the lock stop him? She hurried to her window, shoved it up, and climbed out into the dark and onto the wet fire escape. Rain splattered her hair and ran down her face. She didn’t care. Didn’t want to be alone with him. He scared her. After pushing her window down, she climbed higher and found the corner that would hide her from the street lights.

Huddling there, she watched her mother cross the street and disappear into the building with the black windows. Julianna would wait on the fire escape until her mother came back across the street. Mama didn’t love her, but she would never hurt her. Maybe Frank was right. Julianna scrunched closer to the wall. Maybe something was wrong with her—so wrong that she couldn’t be loved. She sniffed, hating it when she cried like a baby. Shivering from the December rain, she hugged her knees and wished. Just once, she wanted someone to hug her and say the words. I love you. It wasn’t that hard. She’d practiced—

"Hey, kid!”

Jules awoke with a violent start, her breathing ragged. Fear clutched at her pounding heart. Her sweat-dampened shirt clung to her. Disoriented and shivering, her gaze darted around, searching, until she saw the familiarity of her own living room. Relief came swift, but still her pulse skittered. She sat up, took a deep breath, and tried to push the memories of the past from her mind. A bad dream. That’s all it had been. Her hands shook. No, it wasn’t just a bad dream.

She’d relived a night out of her childhood, the night that had set the course for the rest of her life. Thankfully, she’d grown up, and that old life didn’t exist anymore.

And it didn’t matter that she’d still never heard the words I love you. She said them often to Cooper. Every day of his life, he would know love. He would feel it, hear it. In turn, Jules sensed it from him when he put his little arms around her or when he reached out for her to take him. One day, maybe she’d hear those sweet words for the first time and from the most important person in her life, her little son.

THE MOMENT Jules stepped into her landlady’s kitchen the next day, Cooper reached out for Velma to take him.

"How’s my little man? I’ve missed you.” Velma Tolley had been on a cruise for the past week. She looked tanned and happier than Jules had ever seen her. It wasn’t the vacation that had put that sparkle in her friend’s eye. It was the retired military man Velma had been seeing for the past seven months. Velma squeezed the baby close to her, gave him a noisy kiss on the cheek, then said, "You go back to your mommy, while I get these baked potatoes out of the oven.”

Earlier, she’d called Jules and invited her for lunch, so Jules had fed Cooper before leaving her apartment. "Where’s Tom? I thought he’d be here.”

"He was, but he wanted to check things out at his home. He’ll be back this evening, so it’s just us for lunch.”

Jules settled Cooper in the high chair that had been used by all four of Velma’s children and her five grandchildren. He immediately began to bang his cup. Jules took out the container of oat snacks she’d brought and sprinkled a few on the tray. Distracted from the banging, he smiled and put one in his mouth.

"You okay? You look a little peaked.” Velma’s concern warmed Jules.

"I’m fine.” Few people knew a history existed between the two women, and, to this day, Jules would forever be grateful to the now retired schoolteacher for seeing something worthy in a troubled kid so long ago. "But there is something else.” Jules needed to talk about it, needed someone else’s opinion on the situation with the private investigator.

"What is it?” Velma’s brows pulled together.

"I’ll tell you all about it over lunch.” Jules carried the salad to the table, while Velma grabbed the sour cream and butter from the fridge. If Jules could unburden herself to anyone, it was this woman.

They’d barely seated themselves, when Velma said, "Okay. Out with it.”

"I had a visit from a private investigator. Two visits, actually. His client is looking for his mother. A woman by the name of Betsy Donovan.”

"But that’s...” Her voice trailed off, and her gaze narrowed.

"Yeah, my mother’s name. Weird, isn’t it?” Jules gave Velma the condensed version of her meetings with Dusty Braddock.

"What are you going to do?”

Jules lifted her shoulders. "Nothing. I mean, it’s hard for me to believe that Betsy ever had a husband and a son.”

"But it’s not impossible.”

"No, but I’ve thought about it, and to be honest, even if any of it is true, I don’t know if it makes a difference one way or the other.”

Velma tipped her head. "Sure it does. You might have a brother out there, an uncle for Cooper, a role model for him. That would be worth everything.”

Jules didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Too warped on the subject of family, her mind reeled in confusion and anxiety at the whole situation.

"Is it the money that’s stopping you from going out to meet this Luke Donovan? Because if it is, you know I’ll help.”

"That’s sweet. Thank you, but evidently, he’s willing to pay for the trip. Even if he wasn’t, I have some money in savings I can use. Besides, I wouldn’t dream of letting you loan me money, Velma. Once was enough.” Jules remembered another time, years ago. She’d been ten years old and taking orders for her school’s fundraiser.

On the day she’d turned in her orders, all the cash in her envelope had been missing. She’d known Betsy had stolen it to buy booze, which left Jules no choice but to explain its disappearance to her teacher. Velma had been that teacher and Jules’s own personal angel. The woman had quietly replaced the money and let Jules earn it back by doing chores after school. She had never forgotten that kindness. Years later, as an adult, she’d looked up the teacher that had been so nice to her. They’d been friends ever since.

"I’ve given it a lot of thought, and even if I could make myself believe it, I don’t think I could go through with it.”

They were quiet for a moment, and then Velma put down her fork and straightened. "Now listen, heaven forbid that anything would ever happen to you, Honey, but what if it did? Who would take Cooper? I know you don’t want Steven to get custody of that baby. There’s me, of course, and while I think of him like a grandson, I’m no spring chicken. I couldn’t raise another child.” Her slender fingers covered Jules’s hand. "No matter how difficult this is, you need to check out those references Mr. Braddock gave you, and if it’s even a remote possibility you have a brother, then you should go.”

What Velma said made sense. Ever since Cooper’s birth, Jules had given thought to a guardian for him if anything were to happen to her. She’d just never been that close to anyone, except Velma. Jules had always pushed the subject to the back of her mind. If she didn’t think about it, she didn’t have to face it. While she worked hard to stay healthy and fit, life could change in an instant. Anything could take her away from her son. The thought tore at her.

She didn’t know one person in this world who could raise her child. She didn’t know anything about her mother’s side of the family. It wouldn’t be the first time the idea flashed in her mind to look for them, but the fear of finding grandparents just like her mother had always quieted that need for family.

If something happened to her, she didn’t know which would be worse, that Cooper could go into foster care, like she had, or that the courts would give him to his father. Both images made the hair on her nape stand up.

After lunch, Jules buckled Cooper into his car seat, then set off for The Artist’s Mall to check her inventory and pick up her money for her recent pottery sales. The envelope of pictures from the private investigator stuck out of the side of the diaper bag. She’d made up her mind about the situation with Dusty’s client.

The risk to her heart was too great. Cooper was her family—the only family she had. She’d come to terms with that. She would stop by Dusty Braddock’s hotel and return the photos. No sense in dragging out the inevitable.

In the parking lot of the art shop that housed her pottery, Jules lifted Cooper from the car seat. Forgoing the stroller, she hefted him onto her hip. With the other errands to run, she couldn’t dawdle. If she took the stroller, she might be tempted to browse the nearby shops to admire other artists’ work. Since art was her passion and her weakness, time could easily slip away from her. She liked adhering to a schedule, liked knowing what came next, and derived an odd sense of peace from it.

Jules wanted to be in and out in twenty minutes. The sooner she got to the private investigator’s motel, the sooner she could put that business out of her mind and get on with her life.

Eighteen minutes later, she’d buckled Cooper into his car seat and slid behind the wheel of her old Chevy. "Your mommy set a record.” She peered into the rearview mirror at her son, who continued jabbering and pulling at the plush toy truck fastened to his car seat.

She backed the car out of the space, bringing her in line with another vehicle. Its signal flashed, as it waited to take her spot. "All yours,” she muttered.

But the vehicle didn’t pull into her vacated place. It continued behind her to the exit. So much for wishful thinking that the driver would go in and wipe The Artist’s Mall out of its inventory—more specifically, her inventory. It hadn’t been a great month for sales, but she had a line of jewelry she’d designed and would soon be ready to get some pieces for that into the shop.

Jules pulled into the flow of traffic, easing across the lanes so she could turn at the next street. The motel Dusty listed was less than five minutes away. Soon she would be rid of the pictures. She knew it was irrational to think that when the photos were out of her hands, the situation would go away. It wouldn’t, but she had to start somewhere.

After making several turns, she saw the vehicle still behind her, and when she rounded another corner, so did the auto. Jules strained to see the driver, but the sun’s glare on the windshield kept her from identifying the person. Uncomfortable, she straightened in her seat and took a deep breath. Nausea hollowed the pit of her stomach. With that glare, the exact color and make of vehicle evaded her.

On a whim, she signaled right and drove into a McDonald’s parking lot. She hugged the outside lane and passed the line of cars in the drive through, catching a better glimpse of the vehicle, a hunter green Jeep—exactly the make and color that Steven drove. Instinctively, Jules gripped the steering wheel. Her breathing hitched and scuttled.

This was no coincidence. Besides Steven, she couldn’t think of one other person who would follow her, but she needed to get a clear look at the driver to be sure. Jules made a few more turns that threaded her through the shopping center parking lot behind the fast food restaurant. All the while, she glanced into her rearview mirror. When the glare had left the Jeep’s windshield, her suspicions were confirmed.

Steven.

Creeping along, Jules fumbled through her purse for her cell. She scrolled through the most recent numbers until she recognized the one from that morning. She had let it go to voicemail. When the number highlighted, she pressed the call button. He answered on the second ring.

"Hello.” Once, the familiar voice had been so welcome, so full of promise, and now it held nothing but disappointment for her.

"Steven, why are you following me?”

"Jules, finally. You don’t answer my calls. I’ve even been to the house, but you’ve moved.”

How could he even think she’d want him around after all that he’d done? "Not enough of a hint for you?”

His exasperated sigh tore at her already taught nerves. "I had to resort to hanging out near The Artist’s Mall. I figured it was only a matter of a day or two before you stopped in to check on your stuff. How else was I supposed to contact you?”

"My stuff?” Still an egotistical jerk, who thought his canvas paintings were the only form of true art.

"Your pottery then.” He enunciated the word pottery, as if he couldn’t bear to speak it.

"What do you want?”

"To see my son.” His voice took on a sickly sweet tone.

She doubted that reason. He needed something from her, or he wouldn’t have been trying to get in touch. Probably money or a place to crash. "Seems we’ve been down this road before, Steven. I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave us alone.”

"Come on, Jules. This is ridiculous.” The sweetness had dissolved from his voice. "How many more times do I have to say ‘I’m sorry’ before you’ll believe me?”

"You can stop anytime.”

"We used to have some good times. We were good together.”

Once he’d moved in with her, it had taken her less than a month to realize she’d made a huge mistake. She’d been trying to stay clear of him ever since. "When was that? Let’s see, do you mean when we were living together, and I came home and found you’d sold everything that wasn’t attached to the floor or walls? Maybe you mean the time you said you were clean, and I let you stay a couple nights, because you were down on your luck. You said you wanted to visit with your son. You never even held him or played with him. Not to mention, you wiped out the cash in my wallet before you left. Remember that?

"Wait, I’ve got it,” she continued. "How about the time you broke into my house and stole the money from Cooper’s ceramic piggy bank? Seriously? The baby’s bank? Are those the times, Steven? Because if those were the good times, then I’ve had all the good times I can take.”

"I couldn’t help it. I was using then. I’m clean now. I’ve been showing my work, selling a few pieces. Getting my life together.”

"If that’s true, then I’m glad for you. I wish you well. I really do.” Dead silence on the other end had her pulling the phone from her ear and glancing at the display... still connected.

"You could at least give me a chance. We made a baby, Jules. We’ve got a history together.”

What did he really want? Jules’s frustration level climbed, but she managed to tamp it down. She didn’t want the baby sensing anything wrong. She glanced at the rearview mirror. Cooper jabbered to himself. "You’re right about that, but historyis the operative word here. I’ve moved on with my life, and you need to do the same. Besides, I’ve given you a lot of chances.”

"You can’t just keep putting me off.” Bitterness edged his calm voice. She shivered. "Is it too much to ask for you to let me stay a couple of nights to visit with my son?”

Must have worn out his welcome with his other friends. She had to be his last resort. "Yes, it’s too much to ask. I can’t trust you, anymore. Look, I have to go.”

"You always thought I was the one with problems. I got mine under control.” His voice filled with eerie sarcasm. She doubted he had anything under control. "But you’re one cold, emotionless bitch, and there will never be a way to fix that. Cooper will probably grow up to be just like you. One day, he’ll hate you for not letting me see him.”

Stunned at the quiet rage in his voice, Jules’s hand froze on the phone. A second later, tremors shook her hands. Nausea churned in her stomach. She disconnected and tried to take a deep breath, but only managed a few shallow gasps. One quick look at her son who’d fallen asleep was all it took to get her breathing under control and her focus back, but nothing could truly keep the fear away.

In the rearview mirror, Jules could still see the Jeep coming closer. Too close. What was he doing? If she braked, there would be an accident. He was right on her—

Thump.

The impact jolted her forward. Her seatbelt snapped tight. The wheel nearly jerked out of her hands, pushing her car into the next lane. She tensed. Hot fear flashed through her, as she prepared for a possible collision with another vehicle. None came. With a white-knuckled grip, she got the car under control.

"Idiot,” she said through gritted teeth. "Was he trying to scare her or get rid of her?” Increasing her speed, she carefully maneuvered in and out of traffic, increasing the distance between them. The last thing she wanted to do was get into an accident, especially with Cooper in the car.

She wished she could drive straight to one of the police sub stations, but that meant filing a report, which could lead to a court hearing. It might snowball into something far worse—like Steven getting visitation rights. Jules wanted to think the justice system would be fair enough not to allow that to happen, but as a foster child, she knew the system often failed.

No way could she risk her son’s safety. When Cooper turned eighteen, she wouldn’t stop him from seeking out his father, if that’s what he wanted, because by then, he’d be able to take care of himself. Until then, her son depended on her for everything. His safety came first.

Trying to lose the Jeep, she made a few quick turns. No matter what she did, Steven’s vehicle seemed tied to her bumper. Since she had known him, he had never physically hurt her, but she watched his mental decline. Now, she wasn’t sure what he was capable of doing. His last words to her still echoed in her mind. Cold, emotionless bitch. She’d never heard that tone of voice come out of him. Never imagined he’d go this far. Was he on something that made him this way?

Alternating the main streets and side streets, she tried to get away from him, but she couldn’t shake the Jeep. Ridiculous. How long would he keep this up? As much as she hated admitting it, she couldn’t do this alone. She needed someone to help her. Spying the envelope of pictures sticking out of the diaper bag on the passenger seat, the private investigator’s image flashed in her mind. Willing herself not to panic, she fumbled for Dusty’s business card, which she’d stuck on the console earlier.

When she stopped for a red light, she dialed his cell number, then gritted her teeth when it didn’t connect. Out- of-state number. Using all the digits, she called again.

"Hello.”

"It’s me. Jules. Are you at your motel? I’m on my way there.”

"I’m here.” There was something calm and reassuring about his voice. She needed that. "Is everything all right?”

"No,” her voice broke. "No, everything is not all right. I’ve got someone following me. I can’t shake him. I’ll explain later. Will you watch for me?” She gave him the make, model, and color of her car. "When you see me, I need you to come out. I’ve got Cooper with me. I’m afraid for him.”

"Take it easy. I’ll be waiting.”

She let out a shaky breath. "Give me two or three minutes. I’m not far away.”

"I’ll call the police.”

"No.” She’d nearly shouted the word. "Promise me you won’t call them.”

A few seconds of silence ticked by while she held her breath. "All right,” he said, finally. "I won’t call them.”

"Thank you.” She disconnected and tossed her cell in the diaper bag, giving another quick glance in the rearview mirror at Cooper. Still holding onto his toy, he dozed. Just looking at him tugged on her heart. It wasn’t fair to this sweet little boy that his mother had chosen such a loser to father him, but at least Steven would never be more than a sperm donor to her son. She couldn’t risk anything more.

FAIRLY NEW AND built for economy, not luxury, the motel sported two levels and outside entrances to each room. Dusty had listed his room as 254. Jules scanned the numbers on each door. All the rooms in the two hundreds occupied the second floor. Spotting the number, she slowed, but didn’t see him. Where is he? Panic welled up in her. She circled the building again and gushed a sigh of relief at seeing him standing outside the front office.

She’d never been so happy to see anyone. When she pulled up, he walked to her side of the car.

"Is it the Jeep?”

She slid the window down a little. "Yes.”

"I’ll be back. Roll up the window. Keep your doors locked.” He turned toward the Jeep.

"Don’t go back there. Who knows what he’ll do?”

Dusty fisted his hands at his side. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and, for a moment, Jules didn’t know who she should fear more. No, she knew. Her gut told her Dusty was nothing like Steven.

"Please. I don’t want to have to bail you out of jail for beating him up, if that’s what you had in mind.”

Dusty turned, threw one glance over his shoulder at the Jeep, then went to the car. "Unlock the door and scoot over.”

She put the car in park and hit the button. After unhooking her seat belt, she clamored over the console to the passenger seat. Dusty slid behind the steering wheel.

His mere presence in her car calmed her. He was all lean muscle and strength, and she gave thanks for that dominating impression.

He pulled out of the lot and maneuvered into the afternoon traffic. "Why is this guy following you?”

"Do we have to talk about it now?”

"You said you’d explain.”

"He’s an ex-boyfriend.”

"You have to go to the police.”

"I can’t.” She was being followed and couldn’t go to the police. It made perfect sense to her, but she doubted it held a thread of logic for anyone else. She didn’t want to do anything that might create a loophole for Steven to get time with Cooper.

"You may have to elaborate on that.”

"Right now, I just want you to lose him. I’ll give you a better explanation, when I can take a full breath.”

Much to her relief, he didn’t comment, just wove in and out of traffic. Jules sat back, let him take control. It had been a long time since she’d leaned on anyone for support. As he concentrated on the road, she watched him. Although determination edged his profile, his arms and body were now relaxed, unlike hers. How could a person make such a quick change in body stance?

He shifted lanes and slid easily between two cars, when there seemed to be no available space. Several times, he glanced into the mirror. She turned and saw the Jeep three cars back in the middle lane.

Without signaling, Dusty swung the wheel to the right onto a side street. An angry motorist honked. Jules peered through the back glass. Unable to move over in time to follow them, the Jeep drove passed the intersection, but she saw the vehicle’s brake lights flash red. The car switched lanes. Steven probably searched for a place to cut through.

"Take a right here,” Jules told him. "It will lead us over to Camelback. Take a right on Camelback.”

He whipped the car onto the side street. She looked back. "I don’t see him.”

"Ready to tell me what’s going on?”

Jules didn’t want to admit to anyone she’d had such a burning need to be loved that she’d let it blind her to Steven’s addictions and destructive ways. And she wasn’t about to let her mistake filter over into her son’s life. How did she begin to tell Dusty the full story without humiliating herself?

"His name is Steven. He’s Cooper’s father, and he has problems. Ones I didn’t know about until I was already involved. It’s complicated. This is the first time he’s ever followed me. Mostly he phones, and when he knew where we lived, he would show up at the house for money or a place to crash. I’ve moved since then.” She paused. "He purposely hit my bumper, knowing Cooper sat in the car. That shocks me most, because Steven just said he wanted to see Cooper.”

Dusty’s gaze snapped to her. He pulled into a shopping center and shut off the engine.

"Why are we stopping?” She swung her gaze to the rear window. "Steven could be anywhere.”

"We’ve lost him.” Dusty unbuckled his seat belt and shifted slightly toward her. "Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Your ex just hit your vehicle on purpose, which amounts to him trying to run you off the road, but you won’t go to the police. Does that about sum it up?”

"I can’t report this. There would be a hearing. What makes you think they will believe me over him? I don’t want Steven around Cooper. My son’s safety is priority.”

"I’m going to advise you to go to the police and file a report. There are laws that can protect you.”

"Where were those laws when I was a kid being shuffled from one foster home to the next?” Her voice hardened. "Don’t tell me how the law protects, because sometimes that just isn’t so. I’m not going to the police, and that’s final.”

 


 

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