SECRETS I KEEP, Chapters 1-3

Chapter 1

* * *

The tumbler turns in the lock. I hold my breath.
If it weren’t for Sophie and Mom, I’d run.
My ears strain for signs that someone’s awake. In the living room, the muted television’s flickering light illuminates the figure sprawled on the sofa.
My pent up breath escapes. It’s just Mom, not him. I spread the quilt over her and turn off the TV.
Down the hall, I push open Sophie’s door and stumble over toys to her bed.
She rubs her eyes. “Mom took those pills for her somnia. Is she asleep?”
My heart cringes. It does every time Sophie asks about Mom. “It’s insomnia, Soph. Yes, she’s sleeping. Seven-year-olds should be too, kiddo.”
A door slams. Every muscle in my body grips the nearest bone. Sophie inhales like she’s going to speak, but I cover her mouth. We wait, eyes wide, watching for movement or shadows in the crack of light around the door.
Sophie’s jaw clenches under my palm. A banging in the kitchen is followed by shattering glass and slamming cabinet doors, then cursing.
Minutes inch by on their hands and knees. Footsteps come, and then retreat. I count to ten and whisper, “Was he gone all evening?”
Relief floods my veins. Maybe he’ll go straight to bed and leave us alone.
I climb in next to Sophie, brushing the hair off her forehead. Once again, I stay the night in Sophie’s room to guard against the last person she should need protection from— our father.

* * *

The fridge may as well be the barren tundra of Siberia. Our cupboards are in the same sad shape. We’re down to our last three pieces of bread, and not much choice of what to put with them.
 Mustard, crackers, or tartar sauce. Freaking great.
 I draw a mustard smiley face on the slices and crumble crackers around the edges for hair. Maybe Sophie will think it’s fun and not realize this is a terrible meal with almost no nutritional value. Her little feet swing over the yellowed linoleum as she sits at our rickety table in the one unbroken chair. She’s not smiling, but not complaining either. I guess I can’t ask for more than that.
 Somehow, I don’t think this is what Mom had in mind a month ago when she set it up for us to stay with her younger sister, Cynthia, until I find a job and get on my feet. It's definitely not what I expected.
 When Sophie’s done eating, I turn on the television and park her in front of it. “I have to go out for a bit. Can you watch TV while Cynthia sleeps?”
 She sits cross legged and pets the carpet like it’s a scruffy dog. “I wanna go with you.”
 “Sorry, kiddo, but I have to walk and it’s ninety-six degrees outside, in the shade. That’s too hot for you right now. Try to be really quiet. Maybe when I get back we can have another snack.”
 Her shoulders slump, so I kneel and straighten her t-shirt. “You can go in a couple of months when it’s cooler out.”
 What I don’t say is, hopefully in a few weeks I’ll have a job and enough money that I won’t have to pick up cans on the side of the road anymore.
 My first stop is the minimart three blocks over. When I pull open the door, cool air rushes across my heated skin. I rub the sweat from my forehead and wipe it on my pant leg. The idiot behind the counter creeps me out dragging his gaze to my sneakers and back up, his smile growing.
 I ignore him because I need a job. Though the idea of working with this guy is less than appealing, I don’t have much choice. “I’d like to fill out an application, please.”
 “You can fill it out, but we’re not hiring.”
 Somehow this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve applied to twenty-six places over the last few weeks. No one’s hiring. What I wouldn’t give to win the lotto and finally be able to go to college. Of course, I’d have to spend money to even play the lotto, and I can’t even afford to do that.
 “Thanks anyway.” I turn and push the door open. I step into the sun, and the heat all but singes me.
 I tuck my hair under my ball cap, hoping it makes me less recognizable. Pulling the garbage bag from my back pocket, I walk the four mile stretch on the northbound side of the highway to the next exit.
 As I cross under the overpass, a white SUV slows its approach. My heart hammers and I turn my back to the vehicle.  As it passes, I catch a glimpse of the back bumper. Texas plates. Thank God. It’s not him.
 Swiping the sweat from under the bill of my hat, I head along the southbound side of the road. Peeling my shirt away from my back with one hand, I lug my bag full of aluminum cans with the other. Luckily, there’s a place another mile up that buys scrap metal.
 It’s a good thing people ignore that whole “Don’t Mess with Texas” antilitter campaign, or I’d have a hard time making a dime. As bad as it is, I’d rather be here than back home, under Dad’s thumb.
 I sell the cans. Thankfully, it’s enough that I don’t think I’ll have to dip into my emergency get the hell out of town cash. It’s another twenty-five minute walk to the Dollar General. I seriously need to get job so I can afford a car.
 Groceries for Sophie and me consist of two cans of soup, a mini-box of cereal, graham crackers, and a bag of popcorn. These should last through breakfast, maybe even lunch tomorrow, if I ration them. Hopefully, Cynthia will go food shopping soon.
 Sophie jumps up from the floor when I walk in, her cheeks bright pink, the hair on her forehead damp with sweat.
 “Let’s turn the air conditioner on. Why didn’t you tell Cynthia you were getting so hot?”
 “She’s not here.”
 Of course not. “Where is she? When did she leave?”
 “I fell asleep watching TV. When I woke up, she was gone.”
 What kind of idiot leaves a five-year-old home alone?
 I grab the phone and dial Cynthia’s number. Holding it to my ear, I wait for a ringtone, but there’s no sound—no dial tone. Nothing.
 Nice—real freaking nice. She must’ve forgotten to pay the phone bill.
 In the hall, I tap the thermostat’s blank display screen. Jeez, is this thing on the fritz again? After opening windows in all the rooms, I unload my small bag of groceries with Sophie underfoot.
 “Here, Soph, put these in the fridge, please.” I hand her the graham crackers.
 She looks at the back of box, one eye squinting. “Why don’t we keep crackers in the cabinet?”
 “The ants can’t get to them in the fridge.” I pull open the door and point out the magnetic strip around it. “See, this makes the door stick to the outside edge.”
 “Why don’t you ever talk to Charlie anymore? I thought she was your best friend.”
 Where’d that come from?
 I look into her eyes. “Well, we moved. I’m just settling into our new home and leaving behind old ties.”
 “But we left Mom behind. You’re not going to untie her too, are you?” Her bottom lip pokes out, like when she was two and couldn’t find her Bunny Buddy. My chest tightens.
 Taking the crackers, I pull her into a hug. “Oh, no, sweetie, I’d never do that. I’m going to figure out a way to get her to come and live with us.”
 I set the box on the shelf. The light’s out in the fridge. Crap, this thing’s not working either. How can everything break at once?
 Great, I guess the phone’s not the only bill Cynthia didn’t pay.
 I flip the light switch twice. Nothing. To double check, I go to the living room and hit the power button on the TV remote. Nada.
 What now?
 In Cynthia’s room, I search through the debris field until I find the electric bill under the bed, buried behind a pair of new boots. Boots? When did she buy these?
 I push my anger aside long enough to find the other unpaid bills that need taking care of if we want to stay in this house. There’s also the water bill and a letter from the landlord saying the rent is late. Perfect.
 Of course, the hot water is gone, so I take a cold shower. I step outside and look down the street in both directions, scanning for Dad’s white Expedition or any other car from North Carolina. Once I’m sure no one’s spying on us, I go across the street to the one neighbor I’ve already met. Mrs. Hennessey.
 A potted plant maze clutters most of her front porch. I have to weave through the labyrinth just to get to her door. I get it thought. If I could put up an obstacle course between the world and my house, I’d do it in a heartbeat to keep Sophie safe.
 I knock twice and wait for what seems like a reasonable amount of time, and then I bang harder. After a couple of minutes, I’m turning to leave when the door opens behind me. Mrs. Hennessey dries her hands on the hem of her neon orange house dress, her voice full of gravel when she asks, “What do you want?”
 Her hunched back has me straightening my shoulders. “Hi, Mrs. Hennessey. Can I please use your phone?”
 “What for?”
 “I need to contact the electric and the phone companies. I promise it should only take a few minutes. Please?”
 She pushes the screen door open and waves me in with a gnarled hand, blue veins scrawling across her oversized knuckles. “Best get that fixed. Poor Lee Roy—he lived down on the corner. I heard his air conditioner went out and he couldn’t afford to get it fixed. Heat got him.”
 Some poor old guy sweltered to death. A shiver runs through me in spite of the warmth. I follow her through the indoor junkyard made up of more plants and stacks of magazines. Books and boxes of all sizes are stacked along the one clear path of avocado green carpet running through it all. The stale odor of cigarettes is almost overwhelming, but I choke down my cough before she thinks I’m rude and kicks me out.
 I dial the ancient phone and it click-click-clicks counterclockwise to its starting position after each number. I’ve never used a rotary phone before, but Mom and I saw one in an antique store a few of years ago and she explained it.
 Mrs. Hennessey stands beside me, cancer stick hanging from her paper thin lips while I talk to the utility people. They can only turn our stuff on if I have money to pay them when the service guys come out. I thank Mrs. Hennessey and make tracks across the street.
 I’m almost back across the street when a short woman with gray hair calls to me from a couple of houses down. “Hello. Oh, wait, please. I wanted to introduce myself.”
 At the end of our driveway, I stop and wait. I hope she doesn’t want to chat for long. I need to get inside and check on Sophie. I pull my cap off, and wipe my forehead on the back of my arm.
 As she limps closer and comes to a stop in front of me. She seems out of breath. “Whew. It’s certainly hot enough out here.”
 “Yes, ma’am. How can I help you?” I know it’s polite to talk about the weather, but standing in the sun just makes me wish I weren’t here now, melting.
 “Well, I keep seeing glimpses of you and your sweet sister, I just wanted to let you know, I babysit sometimes, if your mom ever needs someone to help out. I’m Geraldine Dunlop.”
 “You’ve seen Sophie?” Dang it, I shouldn’t have said that. I thought I’d kept her pretty much out of sight. I hope no one else has seen her.
 The woman’s eyes widen. “Oh, was she not supposed to play in the front yard?”
 “No—well, I try to get her to play out back, I think it’s safer that way.”
 “Ah, yes, I guess so. She’s so cute. Reminds me of my granddaughter.” Her smile lights her round face, making a small part of me want to take her up on her offer to babysit. If I had a sitter, maybe I could find a job.
 Of course, I’d have to pay her and that’s where I’m stuck in the never ending loop. Can’t find a job without a sitter, but I don’t have money for a sitter without a job—not to mention, I can’t afford the electric bill, or take a hot shower, or buy food. But who’s going to hire a stinky, sweaty, half-starved mess like me?
 My smile feels more like muscle strain. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll keep you in mind if we ever need a sitter.”
 Anyway, I’m not likely to leave Sophie with a woman I don’t know. She could be a child trafficker or worse. Look how sweet the witch who trapped Hansel and Gretel looked—and that sure worked out for them. Not.
 As I start toward the house, she says, “I didn’t catch your name, dear.”
 I stop, slap on a smile and turn back to her. “Lily. Nice to meet you. I need to get inside. Have a good afternoon.”
 Escaping into the house, I let the door slam behind me. As I head down the hall, I push both of my neighbors from my mind. I’ve got more important things to deal with at the moment. It’s getting late and, if I don’t get the electricity turned back on, we’ll be stuck in the dark with no way to heat our crappy dinner of soup and crackers.
 Once in my room, I dive into my closet. Prying up the loose floor board, I pull out the backpack holding my emergency stash. I check behind me to make sure Cynthia hasn’t come in. Hiding it is the only way I’ve managed to save the little bit of money Mom scraped together for us.
 It’ll be our safety net. If we get kicked out of the house, Sophie gets sick—or worse, Dad finds us and we have to run, we’ll need money. Of course, I can’t let Sophie burn up in the Texas heat either. So I’ll part with some of the cash. It should be okay, as long as I keep a couple hundred bucks. At least, I hope.
 I slide the zipper open to find the stack of fives and tens bound with rubber bands. I count out the right amount for both the phone guy and the electric company. Please let them take cash, or we’ll be left in the dark, dying of heat exhaustion.

* * *

It’s been three days. I’ve called everyone who might know where Cynthia is. It’s a short list. Of course, no one has a clue where she might be. I’m not so upset about the unpaid bills now, just worried something’s happened to her.
What if some guy from the bar where she works snatched her and she’s tied up in some dude’s trunk right now? Or she could have accepted a ride from some douche who strangled her and dumped her body in a ditch.
I pick up the phone and dial 9-1, but then I stab the on-off button. No police. What if they call Mom and Dad?
On Sunday night, Cynthia comes stumbling up the walkway with some guy I’ve never seen. She’s giggling and he lets out an obnoxious guffaw as he almost goes down. Then he bounces up again like an awkward jack in the box.
I hustle Sophie into her room and push the chest of drawers in front of the bedroom door.
“Why are you doing that?”
“Because, we don’t know that man. He could be a mass murderer. I’m keeping us safe.”
Soph and I cuddle close on her single bed, which I’ve parked against the chest of drawers for reinforcement.
I say, “Okay, and this is how it goes: My toaster’s name is Boaster.”
She giggles. “Boaster likes to ride roller coasters.”
A thousand miles from home and we’re playing this damned game again, pretending to have fun, pretending we’re safe. As if safe is something anyone can ever really be. Sophie eventually drifts off while I keep watch. Using her nightlight, I sketch her sleeping form on a piece of spiral notebook paper I found crumpled under the bed, trying to distract my own mind from the demons that lurk at the edge of my sanity.
The walls might as well be made of paper for all the privacy they provide. Cynthia’s bed springs creaking scratches the edge of my brain. At least it’s not Sophie’s door hinges squeaking as someone creeps in, threatening to steal away her innocence. I pull my pillow over my head, trying to block the noise, hating that my ear buds are in my room, while I’ve barricaded us in next door.

I roll over and snuggle into the covers. Sophie’s nestled in and warm next to me. A shadow falls over me. I barely get my eyes open, when my scalp screams in pain. My eyes go wide. He’s got me by the hair, pulling me from Sophie’s room.
“Girl, if I told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times—don’t leave dirty dishes in the damned sink!”
I grab his hand, trying to pull myself up. He drags me through the living room. Mom is asleep on the couch. Her jaw hangs open. A small snore escapes. Hope bubbles in my chest. “Mom! Mom, help.”
She’s out—sleeping pills. Hope deflates like a balloon at the end of a spear.
“Stop your squalling.” He yanks me forward, sending shards of pain through my head. My socked feet slip on the wood floor. Unable to get traction, I hold on to his arm. I try to lessen the pain as my hair is ripped out by the roots.
We round the corner into the kitchen. Still struggling to get my feet beneath me, I flail. Tears stream down my hot cheeks. “Daddy, I did the dishes before bed. I promise. I did them!”
His hand grips my underarm and he stands me upright. “Oh? You did?”
I try to look up at him. The light blinds me. It doesn’t matter. He turns me toward the sink and pushes. I slip. Throwing my arms in front of me, I try to stop myself. It’s no use. My forehead strikes the edge of the counter with a loud crack. Pain explodes through my head and down my neck.
Oh, God, help me.
I cover my face with shaky hands. Warmth runs over my fingers—wet and metallic smelling. The air drains from the room and I gasp for breath.
Then he’s got me again, wresting me to my feet, shoving my head into the sink. I blink several times, straining to see through the tears and blood. The Formica cuts into my ribs.
A lone glass rests upside-down on the sink mat. My lower lip trembles, but I know better than to let out the wail pushing at the back of my throat.
Crying will only make it worse.

“Lily. Lily!” Sophie’s shaking my arm.
I bolt upright, my chest still clutched in the slashing claws of my nightmare. “What? What is it?”
“You were breathing weird.” Her big eyes are frightened.
I do fine ignoring all the crap that comes with being me—during the day, at least. I’m able to numb all the things that might rip the scabs off my feelings. But at night, when the nightmares come, no amount of emotional scar tissue can protect me from my memories.
I sit on the side of the bed, rubbing my face, ridding it of the remaining sting of my nightmare. “Did that guy leave?”
She lifts one shoulder and both eyebrows in reply.
I move the furniture away from the door. “Stay put. Okay?”
Floorboards creak as I tiptoe down the dim hallway, fingertips skimming the wrinkled wallpaper on either side. My gut is lined in lead. I stop for a moment outside Cynthia’s bedroom, but there’s no noise. Good, maybe he’s gone.
Relaxing a bit, I step through the kitchen door and end up chest to chest with the guy. Wearing nothing but boxers and black socks, he breathes funk into my face. I throw my hands up, back peddling into the wall. A hairy hand reaches for me, but I skitter to the side before he can get a hold of me.
His smile reveals a black spot where he’s missing a front tooth. “Whoa there. Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”
I stand taller and harden my jaw. “You didn’t scare me. I just wasn’t expecting you.”
He rubs his whiskered chin, swaying like he’s still drunk. “You must be the older niece, right? Nelly? You’re a pretty little thing.”
“Yeah, whatever. Do me a favor and honk when you leave.” I turn to go, but he grabs the strap on my tank top, almost pulling me off my feet. I jerk, and the strap tears loose, but I’m out of his reach now.
He says, “Where’re you going? Don’t you want to get to know me a little better?”
“No.” I all but run to Sophie’s room.
“Bitch,” he calls after me.
I barricade Sophie’s door again and promise her I’ll get us breakfast as soon as the creeper’s gone.

An hour later, an engine rumbles outside and tires squeal. I chance leaving the room again and find Cynthia slumped on the sofa, eyelids at half-mast. She looks so much like Mom it hurts.
“Cynthia, we need to talk.”
“Not now. I’m too tired.”
I straighten my back and force myself to stand up for Sophie’s sake. “Too bad.”
Cynthia scowls, sending me death glares.
“You buy new boots instead of paying the bills? And then you decide to take off for days without telling me? Calling me? I thought you were dead in an alley somewhere.” Oh, God, I sound like my mother.
I pause and she jumps in. “Well that’s just tough shit. I’m a grown up, so what I do is my business. If I want new boots, I’ll buy new boots.”
“But you left Sophie by herself, with no food in the house and no electricity. What’s wrong with you?” Stopping, I take a deep breath. I can’t believe I’ve let her reduce me to yelling.
“Wah, wah wah. I didn’t even want to take you two in, but your mom begged me. So suck it up, princess.”
I flex my hands at my sides, resisting the urge to wrap them around her neck.
“Oh, quit your belly aching. That money order had my name on it, so I can do whatever I want with it. You need something, get a job. That’s what I’ve always had to do.”
She heads off down the hall, the bedroom door closing with a bang behind her. Through it, she yells, “And if I decide to take off for a few days, or a week, or even a month, that’s my business. Got me?”
Then the door opens again and she pins me with a hard look. “And don’t call my work looking for me. You’re gonna get my ass fired. Understood?”
The door slams shut again.
Oh, Mom, what were you thinking? Who sends their kids to live with a thirty-four-year-old child who barely takes care of herself?
A month ago, Mom came in, still dressed in her robe and slippers. She grabbed my duffel from under my bed and started stuffing my things into it. I sat like an idiot, unable to move to help. Once she packed a few sets of clothes, she zipped it up.
She sat on the bed next to me. “All right. Now, listen to me.”
Her face was so tired, hair mussed, and mascara smudged under her eyes. The one on the left was turning purple and green—it matched the bruises on my ribs. She grabbed my jaw, a bit too tight and said, “Are you listening? This is important, Lilianna.”
“I’m listening.”
“I contacted my sister. She’s agreed to help you out until Sophie can go to school and you get on your feet.”
“Wait. Your sister? Cynthia?”
“Yes. Cynthia.”
My stomach plummeted.”Isn’t she the one who I’ve heard you on the phone with—telling her how she needs to find a steady job and quit moving every three months?”
 Well, yes. Look, I know Cynthia’s not got the best track record, but she’s all we’ve got right now. And staying here isn’t an option. We need to let him cool off and calm down for a while. You going to that party really upset him.”
 “But Mom—Cynthia?”
 Brushing the hair from my face, she took my cheeks in her hands. “Baby girl, just give her a chance. I haven’t seen her in years, but when she was little, she had a good heart.”
 She paused and caught my wandering eyes with her own gaze. “And if she seems rough around the edges—well, just remember she didn’t grow up with me. After Mom and Dad died, I was too young to take her and she ended up stuck with our uncles. I’m sure they weren’t exactly easy to grow up with.”
 I opened my mouth to protest again, but she opened my hand and crammed a used envelope into it. Folding my fingers over it, she squeezed them tight. “This is Cynthia’s information. You’ll meet her in Las Vegas. She’ll take you somewhere else from there. I won’t know where, so I won’t be able to tell your dad.”
 “Figure this out? What’s to figure out? Dad’s a massive asshole, we all leave. Done deal.”
 “I can’t do that. Life isn’t so easy. But you can get Sophie away, and that’s what you’re going to do. Now.”
 Next, she went to Sophie’s room and packed for her, and then she took us to the station.
 She handed me tickets and a wad of cash. Grabbing a hold of me, she crushed me in a hug. Her shoulders shook. My own cheeks were wet as I looked to Sophie, standing wide-eyed and tearful, her bottom lip trembling.
 Mom took Sophie’s clammy hand and pressed it into mine. Then she hugged us both again, kissed us goodbye, and put us on a bus to Las Vegas.
 A freaking bus. From North Carolina to Nevada? I mean, what was that?
 Thirty-six stops, four transfers, one full sketch pad of every funny looking person Sophie pointed out, and two and half days later we made it there. I was traveling with a five-year-old for Heaven’s sake. If I never sing The Wheels on the Bus again, it’ll be too soon. Or play hangman. Or I Spy.
 It was hell, pure and simple. But this is worse.

Chapter 2

* * *
I thought getting into the Air Force was a shitload of red tape, but that was nothing in comparison to what’s required just to work for a private investigator. After I finished all the paperwork and my background checks were complete, they called me and told me to come in and fill out my tax forms.
The blue haired HR lady, who seems to have her frown sculpted into her face, hands me my photo ID card.
“Don’t lose it. You have to pay for a replacement.” Her beady eyes bore into me.
“Yes, ma’am.”
She shoves a sheaf of papers into my hand and grumbles. “Here’s your first assignment. This one’s for a friend of the big boss. So don’t screw it up.”
“Yes ma’am.” I smile, but she doesn’t even slightly.
Stepping into the sun, I head to my old truck, glad I don’t have to work in an office with her every day. I slide my fingers under the long envelope’s flap and pull out the signing bonus check. Very nice. The five figure amount sends a thrill through me. Maybe this was a good idea after all.
Getting out of the service after four years was daunting. I floundered for eight months, trying to decide what I should do with my life. This makes it much easier to think I’ve made a good decision. I’ll have to thank Dad for telling me about this opportunity. Of course, if it doesn’t work out, then I’ve screwed myself.
Flipping through the papers, I find the name and phone number of the guy I need to meet to get started. I dial the number as I pull out of the parking lot.

* * *
I sit at a picnic table, in the shade of an old oak. A breeze blows my hair. I brush it aside as an Expedition pulls into the parking area. A man steps out of it. Other than the kids working at the Chargrill across the street, I haven’t seen anyone for the last half hour. This must be him.
The guy’s bald head shines under a few strands of his comb over. A wind gust flips the hair up. I stand as he comes closer.
“Mr. Blanco?” I offer my hand.
“Call me Ethan.” He shakes it with a firm grip and looks up into my eyes.
“I’m Jax Alexander with P-Eye Corp. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. So, you’re going to bring my girls back to me, eh?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Good.” He wipes his hands on his knees, almost like he’s nervous—probably just worried about his kids.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why didn’t you contact the police and let them handle this, instead of a private firm?”
He swipes his hands over his face and slumps onto the bench. “My daughter, Lilianna, took her sister. I don’t want her to go to jail. She’s a little off, I guess you could say. So, no police. Just go find them, bring them home.”
“The office said you’d provide photos for identification.”
His chin falls to his chest as he shakes his head. “No, I can’t, I’m sorry. All the pictures burned in a fire.”
My stomach tightens. “Oh, wow. Sorry about that. Okay, well, I have a basic physical description. Are there any scars or tattoos?”
“No, there aren’t.”
I pull out my note pad and a pen. “You understand I can’t detain them without a warrant, right?”
He lets out a deep sigh. “Just find them. If she won’t let you bring her home, I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ll do everything in my power to do so. Now, can you tell me where they were last seen?”
“I believe they took a bus from here to Vegas. But from there, well, I have no idea. But I’ve got a friend of mine looking for them as well. If he comes across anything, I’ll contact you.”
“Okay, that’d be great. I’ll need to get some personal information which may help in my search.”
“Sure, whatever you need.”
* * *

Easing off the accelerator, I roll past the clapboard house. The curtains are closed, lights out. Loose shingles flap in the breeze on the wavy roof. I pull into the driveway of the house next door. This one’s detached garage leans a bit to the left. A jigsaw puzzle created by broken slabs of concrete with gravel filling the holes takes the place of pavement.
Home temporary home.
I got damned lucky that the place next door was available for rent. It will sure make surveillance a hell of a lot easier, at least until I know I’ve got the right girls.
Unloading my motorcycle from the trailer, and then the boxes from the truck, I half expect someone, anyone, from the surrounding houses to come and introduce themselves. No one does, though almost every house on the street has someone checking their mailbox or watering the grass. Some don’t even bother to pretend—those just stare openly.
After checking the perimeter of the property, I look over the entry points of the house for weaknesses in security. Then I stack my personal boxes in the corner of my room, where they’ll probably stay until I blow this joint and head to my next assignment. Luckily, the electricity is already on, but the cable isn’t, so I hook up my video game instead.
Then I pull out the dossier on Lilianna Blanco, for probably the fifteenth time since I received it.

Age: 19
Height: 5’6”
Hair: Dark Brown 
Eyes: Brown

I’ll have to get a picture of her or the sister, to send their dad for a positive ID. Shouldn’t be too hard, I’ll just use my phone. When they aren’t looking, snap and done.
In the living room, I flop onto the couch and pop the top on a beer. Hell, I figured my first gig would be something a little harder than just finding a couple of girls and returning the little one to her parents. I’ll probably be done in a day or two, and then maybe they’ll give me something a more challenging.

Chapter 3

* * *
Pushing the screen door open with my foot, I slip outside. I make my usual check, side to side. Up and down the street. No sign of him. Guess we’re safe—for now.
Faded paint peels and scatters across the deck like crispy chocolate curls. Honeysuckle hangs thick on the humid air as I sit on the porch swing. I munch on my cereal, while somewhere down the street two dogs bark back and forth. Something about sitting on this front porch swing relaxes me, lessening my anxiety about the jobs I can’t get, the colleges I’ll never attend, and the past I can’t forget.
A squirrel stops a few feet from the steps. He sits on his haunches, cussing at me in squirrel speak, bushy tail whipping at his back. Then a string of human curses erupts from the rickety garage next door.
I stop the swing. More cursing. A push mower is hurled out of the mouth of the darkened doorway, clunking across the gravel drive to a skidding stop on its side. “Piece of shit!” follows it.
Holy crap!
I lean over the rail, trying to get a look at who’s ticked enough to chuck their mower across the yard.
The screen door slaps against the doorframe behind me. I whip around. “Sophie, don’t slam the door.”
Sophie frowns, arms crossed. “What’s all that noise? I can’t hear my cartoons.”
I eye the lawnmower, which still lies in a heap at the edge of our yard. Bending to Sophie’s level, I say, “I don’t know. But maybe you should go inside, he sounds mad.”
She looks past me and her eyes get huge. Then her arm shoots straight out in front of her. “Look, it’s Thor.”
I cover her mouth. “Shush, it’s not polite to point.”
She dances away, dodging my hands before I can get a hold of her again. “No, really, it’s Thor. Lookie.”
“Sophie, Thor’s make-believe.”
“He’s not! Look, Lil, he’s right there.”
She darts off the porch and across the grass to the mower now being circled by a tall, shirtless guy with blond hair and more muscles than any one human being ever needed.
I rush after her. There’s no telling who this guy is. What is she thinking?
Sophie is two feet from him and I don’t even think he’s noticed her. Before I can retrieve her, she says, “Could you tell my dumb sister, you are too Thor?”
When he turns, I stop short. The wrinkles in his forehead smooth, and the jagged line of his mouth transforms into a smirk.
Breathing is impossible for a moment.
Then he winks and my heart flops on its side, like a fat puppy begging for a tummy rub.
He squats in front of Sophie, dotting the end of her nose with the tip of his finger. “Sorry, squirt, but I’m not actually Thor, just his stunt double.”
I haul her backward. “Sorry about that. She’s—she’s five.”
Stunt Man stands. “No problem.”
He tosses a glare at the wreck lying on the grass, but when he turns his tropical blue eyes on me, he’s smiling. “Sorry if you heard that. I’ve been working on it for fu—sorry—for-freaking-ever, but that—that piece of crap refuses to start.”
I drag Sophie another couple of steps. “Yeah. No—I. I mean, it’s fine.”
God, what is wrong with me?
I try to retreat further, but Sophie digs in, saying to tall, hot, and muscle-bound, “But you at least know Thor, right?”
“Well, we’re not best friends. Still, I could get a message to him if you wanted me to. But, only if you introduce me to your bodyguard.” He winks.
She covers her mouth, giggling. “She’s not a bodyguard, silly. She’s just Lily.”
“Nice to meet you, Lily. I’m Jax Alexander.”
His large, grimy hand sticks out, waiting. I swallow hard as it closes over mine, warm and slightly callused. Our handshake sends vibrations through my whole being.
He really does look like Thor, a little younger than Chris Hemsworth maybe, but still a couple of years older than me. Maybe twenty-three or twenty-four.
“I—yeah, we should go. Leave you to—to fight with your mower.”
I pull Sophie toward the safety of our front porch, my eyes never leaving Jax. His brow furrows for just a second. Then he gives a quick wave. “Okay, well, nice to meet you.”
Sophie struggles under my hands, wiggling loose. She runs to Jax, unencumbered by nerves, or hormones, or whatever’s strangling me at the moment. He drops to one knee and she slides right up to him, one arm around his broad shoulder. I might be a little jealous of that arm. Then she’s whispering with her hand cupped at his ear. His face lights up and his eyes land on me.
He stands, tousles her hair, and says, “Sure thing, kiddo. Hey, what’s your name?”
She throws her arms up, smiling like I haven’t seen her do in months. “Sophie!”
“Okay, Sophie, consider it done.”
Pumping her fist in the air, she skips across the grass and breezes into the house, leaving the screen slamming. I’ve got to get that thing fixed before it completely falls off.
After picking up my cereal bowl, I let the door bang shut behind me too. Then I lock it, because sexy or not, Sophie doesn’t need to be talking to strangers. And no way am I staying outside watching Thor’s younger doppelganger abuse his lawn care equipment.
Cynthia sits up, rubbing her tangled head. “Hey, hold it down, would you? A girl can’t even get a little sleep around here.”
“Sorry,” I ruffle Sophie’s hair. “C’mon Soph, we’ll play a game in my room.”
“Good. And don’t come out until at least three.”
Every morning she drags in around four, since her bartending shift at Chief Fire Water’s is over at two. I have no idea what she does during the in-between hours, but she’s not been out buying groceries, that’s for sure. The pantry and refrigerator are almost empty, again.
I need to stand up to her and stop letting her run over me. She’s almost as bad as dad.
No, that’s not true.
Dad at his best is way worse than Cynthia at her most horrible.
That’s why Mom sent us away.
While Sophie sets up a game for us, my mind replays for the hundredth time the events that led to our leaving home. I’d gone to a graduation party and Dad found out a few days later.
I was lying on my bed with my ear buds in, listening to my favorite playlist, but drowning out Dad’s yelling wasn’t easy. Cranking the volume up, I closed my eyes for a second, focusing on my happy place. Running my thumb back and forth at the bottom of the page where I’d sketched it out, I blended shades of grey for depth. There was a beach, palm trees on either end of a hammock, and a good book I could imagine losing myself in.
Dad had been home all of fifteen minutes and already he was on what Mom called “a tear.” Even if everything was perfect, he’d still find something to gripe about. His cup was too big or the wrong color or his underwear was folded incorrectly.
When my door burst open and slammed against the wall, my eyes went wide and my heart lurched. Dad snatched the cord from my ears and flung the whole thing across the room. “What the hell is this about you going to some party?”
All my false courage crash landed against my lungs. Mom came to the door, wringing her hands. “I told her she could go, Ethan. It’s my fault.”
His brown hair stuck out around the back of his bald head and his eyes burned. “I told you about fucking around, girl.”
I jumped from the bed, gaping at his accusation. “But I wasn’t. I don’t—”
“Oh, don’t give me that. I know you were out there, spreading your legs for whatever smooth talking jackass looks twice.”
My jaw dropped and I could only stare. Spittle spraying, he got in my face. “Weren’t you? Was it good, to feel his dick pounding you? Did you like that?”
A sick chill spread down my back from the top of my head, seeping into my gut. I pressed my lips tight, gritting my teeth and blanking my features. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of making me cry.
Chin up, I stood, staring at the wall past his ear, waiting for him to run out of filth to spew. Mom tried to pull him out of the room, but he shook her off and pushed her away. She stumbled against the doorframe, yelping when her head slammed against the wood molding.
After a few minutes, when he started repeating himself, I let my mind wander to the beach on my drawing pad. Every few minutes or so, I’d say “yes, sir,” so he’d think I was listening. But then I messed up, said it at the wrong time, or for the wrong thing. My cheek exploded in pain and I flew across the room, falling against the far wall.
Tears gathered, too many to stop, and I tucked into a ball as he rushed at me. His foot found its mark on my back and sides. I screamed, but it didn’t stop him. One. Two. Four times he kicked, all sharp reminders that he was the one in control.
Mom threw her body over mine. “No, Ethan! Stop. Just—” She let out a cry, and then another, as his foot connected. Each thump vibrated through her to me, but only enough so I knew he was still taking out his rage.
Finally, Dad turned and stalked out of the room.
Mom crawled off and swept her arms around me, sobbing. “Aw, baby, I’m so sorry.”
I sniffed and my chin wobbled, but I blinked until my tears receded. He couldn’t make me cry, not anymore. I was done letting him have all the power.
Raising my head, I looked into her crumpled face and said. “I swear I’ll get out of here.”
And I promised myself I’d never again put myself in the position of having a man take care of me or be in control my life. Ever.
Later that evening, after Dad left to go to a meeting, Mom came to my room, where I’d been holed up all day. She sat next to me and brushed my hair behind my ear. “I don’t know why your Daddy would get so upset about you going to a party. I’m so sorry he reacted like that.”
My lip trembled, so I bit the inside of my cheek.
She took my face, looking into my eyes. “What is it, baby girl? Please talk to me.”
Mom’s dark eyes reflected my face like a mirror. Our expressions were probably almost identical. Sadness. Regret. Fear. Most likely for different reasons.
She has no idea. If I gave her my answers, they wouldn’t be to the questions she was asking. My answers were for other questions, ones she didn’t even know she should ask. Things she’d never imagine she needed to ask.
Mom has always kind of looked at the world through her own lenses, even more so than most people. If something is too hard, she hides behind her happy-glasses and puts off dealing with it until tomorrow. Most of the time, tomorrow never comes. If I answered her questions, her lenses would shatter and the truth would bury her. I couldn’t do that.
So I took a deep breath, my bruised ribs screaming. Looking her right in the eyes, so she wouldn’t doubt my words, I said, “I don’t know what his problem is.”

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