Start reading this book:
Detective Sean Highwater sat tapping his finger restlessly on the steering wheel of his unmarked police unit as he watched the people in the park. He’d been restless all day. It must have been Thanksgiving that had thrown him off. It had been so late this year, just two days before the end of the month, that he was still mentally trying to catch up now on the day after. And they were already looking at the Corbyns’ tree-trimming open house—the unofficial start of the Christmas season in Last Stand—tomorrow.
He’d never liked the changing date of that holiday anyway. It offended his sense of logic, of rhythm, of pattern and progression. Most other holidays were regular, predictable, never moving from their dates. He had to deal with enough randomness—as in that of the human race—in his work, he didn’t like having to deal with it on the calendar, too.
Be thankful They don’t screw with everything else the way They did with Washington’s birthday. If They’ll mess with George Washington just to get a long weekend, They’ll do anything.
He wasn’t sure who “They” were, just that it was spelled with a capital T.
He was sure that he was among the odd ones. He always had been. Sometimes he wondered what would have become of him if he’d been born to some other family, who maybe weren’t as accepting of the quirks of his brain. But he’d been lucky. He’d had his father, a man who loved him whether or not he understood him, until he was eighteen. He’d had Slater, his brilliant brother who truly had understood how his mind worked. He’d had Shane, who had stepped into their father’s sizeable boots and held them all together after the grim events that had taken place just down the street from where he sat now, when the Highwater clan had been nearly blasted to pieces forever. And he had his little sister Sage, the girl they had all come together for, and that every one of them would drop everything to help even now.
Then it happened and his finger-tapping stopped. He’d been waiting for this since he’d spotted the knot of kids next to the park’s playground. He saw the shift in posture, the arranging of the many against the one.
The taunting had begun.
He’d picked up the vibe the moment he’d seen them, and recognized it instantly. Because many, many times in his life at that age, he’d been on the receiving end. Been the geek, the nerd, the odd one out. The one who liked puzzles and stories more than he liked most people, and video games best of all.
The kid in the blue sweatshirt could be him. The kid he’d been. The sweatshirt had a video game character on it. He didn’t know from what game—he’d graduated to first-person shooters at fourteen—but he recognized the style. And even now, when video games had become mainstream, there were still those who mocked them, and some who did worse than mock the devotees.
Or went after kids who just had that air of being different.
Or just kids smaller than them.
With some bullies, it didn’t take much.
And this kid had had the bad luck to run into a handful of them. On a day off from school with time to kill. And now the threats had begun. He knew the cycle well, he’d lived it often enough.
Happy day after Thanksgiving, kid.
He got out of the car. Calculated the distance. Seven seconds, tops. The taunters never saw or heard him coming. He’d gotten very good at silent movement when he’d been that age and been sneaking down to play his games in the dark. Of course, Dad had solved that by confiscating the headphones he wore to keep it silent in the middle of the night, so he had to check them out from him, as if they were a book from Joey’s library. And he only got the right to do that when his ranch chores were done.
“You shoulda stayed home and played your silly game, weirdo. I’m gonna kick your ass.” The boy he’d picked out as the likely first aggressor, Max Cortez, shoved the boy in the sweatshirt, who stumbled backward and fell to the ground. The bigger boy’s right leg shifted, as if to deliver the promised kick. “Then I’m gonna—Whoa!”
The startled yelp came as Sean grabbed the kid’s collar. And the hood of the jacket on the kid he’d judged next most likely to lay a hand on their hapless victim. The three other boys spun around, but wisely didn’t move. He recognized one of them, the Garrett kid. And he recognized the boy’s expression; he didn’t like being here, but he’d been accepted by the cool kids. Sean could have told him it wouldn’t last, but right now he had to focus on the situation. At least, he wouldn’t have to worry about Chris Garrett; when Taya heard about this the kid would find out just how his mother felt about bullies.
“Well now, haven’t y’all just made it worth my time to come to work today,” he drawled.
“Shit,” one of the other kids muttered in recognition, “it’s a cop.”
“A Highwater cop,” Taya Garrett’s son groaned, more audibly. The upside and downside of being part of a well-known family in Last Stand: even in plain clothes they knew who you were.
“It is,” Sean agreed genially. “And you are now in custody for assault.”
“Assault?” the ringleader yelped again. “I barely touched him!”
“You didn’t have to touch him at all.”
“What?” the other boy he had a grip on exclaimed.
“Texas Penal Code section 22.01, Section A, Subsection 2. A person commits assault if he intentionally or knowingly threatens another with imminent bodily injury.” He added helpfully, “Following through isn’t required.”
“You, however,” he said to the shover, “jumped right on up to Subsection 3, physical contact, when you pushed him. And that’s a much hotter pot of water.” Of course, since they were juveniles none of the adult laws exactly applied, but he saw no reason to tell them that just now. He wanted them worried, and for as long as possible.
While he had them gaping at him, he assessed their victim with his peripheral vision. He’d gotten to his feet, so he wasn’t really hurt. And no longer scared, although he was still watching warily. But also, Sean realized, with interest. He looked familiar, although Sean was fairly sure he hadn’t encountered him before.
The other boys were exchanging glances. And their feet were getting restless. “Don’t even think about it,” Sean said.
“What?” one of the three he didn’t have a hold on asked, feigning innocence. Badly.
“Running. You might be able to outrun me, since I’d have to drag these clowns with me, but there’s no way you can outrun a police radio.”
The feet stopped moving. It was beginning to sink in that they were really in trouble.
“Look,” the ringleader said, sounding anxious for the first time, “we’ll leave him alone. And we didn’t really hurt him.”
“Actually,” Sean said rather breezily, “you’re the only one who’ll be charged with that, since you’re the one who physically assaulted him.”
The boy paled then. And went quiet.
For the first time Sean turned to look directly at their chosen victim. Warm brown eyes stared back at him. “Okay if I deputize you for a minute?”
Those eyes widened. “Me?” He gulped.
“Yeah. Just need you to get my phone out and take a picture of these clownhats.” He grinned at the boy. “They’re just stupid enough to try and run if I let go.”
“They are stupid,” the boy agreed, and when Sean moved so the boy could reach his shirt pocket he grabbed the phone, held it so Sean could press his thumb to the reader, then quickly—very quickly—figured out the camera app and snapped the shot.
“Thanks…what’s your name?” Sean asked. The boy hesitated. Sean grinned purposefully. “I gotta at least know my deputy’s first name.”
The boy smiled, but still cast his tormentors a wary look. “Marcos,” he said.
It didn’t trigger any recognition for Sean, and at the moment he didn’t want to push for the surname. But the kid still looked familiar. “Okay, Marcos, now we—”
He broke off when he saw a marked unit driving south on Hickory. It was barely a block to the station, but somehow he thought maybe a ride in the prisoner section of a police car might pound the lesson home. So when the unit spotted him and slowed—Ry Murdoch, he noticed, which was good because he’d fall right in with the plan—he nodded him over. And within five minutes, five extremely chastened would-be bullies were headed to the station. And their victim was actually smiling as he watched them go.
Sean turned back to the boy. “Well then, Marcos, now it’s up to you.”
The boy blinked. “What is?”
“What happens to them. I mean, no matter what, we’re all going to visit the police station, but you have to decide which would taste sweeter, watching them carted off to juvie detention, or knowing every time they see you they’re thinking about how they owe you for letting them off.”
He looked, as Sean had suspected he might, as if the second option was more appealing. He’d have to explain to Shane the reason for the big show, but his brother would understand. He’d done the same thing a time or two when he was on the street, and successfully; he’d scared Cody Moran so straight after a similar situation that the kid was in the police academy right now.
“We do need to call somebody for you either way, though,” Sean said.
“Can’t I just go home?”
“I need to talk to at least one of your parents.”
The brown eyes lowered. “Only got one.”
“Better than none.”
Marcos looked up again, a flash of…something flaring in his eyes. And his tone was angry. “My dad’s dead, what’s better about that?”
Ah, there it was. “That sucks. Big time.”
The anger was still there. “What do you know about it?”
Driven by instinct, Sean did something he rarely did: dragged out his own history. “My mother drank herself to death when I was six, and my dad was mowed down by a truck a block from here twelve years ago. Any other questions?”
The boy gaped at him. Closed his mouth. Then opened it to say only, “I forgot.”
The joy of small-town Texas, and having your life known to all. “Now, where’s your mom?”
Sean drew back slightly. “Who’s watching you?”
The boy scoffed. “I don’t need anyone.”
Sean stifled an inward sigh. If he was dealing with a parent who left a kid this young on his own, this could get messier than he’d ever intended. “How old are you?”
He looked younger. Which had probably contributed to the attack. Belatedly it occurred to Sean that the boy had said he didn’t need anyone, not that there wasn’t anyone. He remembered all the times he’d told his father he didn’t need anyone to look out for him, usually after hearing his father assigning either Shane or Slater to do just that when he had to go somewhere.
He tried another tack. “So who got assigned to watch you, even though you don’t need it?”
The boy slid him a sideways upward glance. “My gran.”
“Can she come and get you?”
Marcos shook his head. “She’s got the flu.”
“How long ago did you leave?”
The boy shrugged. “Maybe a couple hours.”
For a moment Sean just looked at him. Then, softly, because he knew this child wasn’t like the others he’d just had carted away, he said, “So you gave your sick grandmother the slip and left her there to worry about you when she realizes you’re gone?”
The boy gulped audibly, and he knew he’d been right. “I didn’t think about it like that.”
“You should have.” He gestured at the boy’s sweatshirt. “Life can be like a game sometimes. You have to think a few moves ahead, figure out how what you do now will affect what situation you end up in later.”
The boy looked thoughtful then. “You mean like when you climb a castle wall because you think the treasure’s on the other side, but it turns out to be a dragon?”
Sean couldn’t help grinning. “Something like that. You saying your gran’s a dragon?”
“No, but my mother can be,” the boy said, looking as if he’d only now realized that he was going to be facing his dragon of a mother soon.
“Better a dragon than someone who doesn’t care at all what you do.”
The boy studied him for a moment. “You mean like your mom?”
Whoa. Don’t underestimate this one. “Yes. Exactly like that.”
“Why didn’t she care?”
Feeling like he’d suddenly lost control of the situation, he muttered, “She only cared about herself.”
“My mother loves me,” Marcos said, with certainty.
“Then you’ll get through this. Let’s—”
He broke off when his cell rang. It was the department inside number, so he answered quickly. And was startled by his sister’s voice; he’d forgotten she was filling in today. Usually it was Lynn, the daytime dispatcher, but on this holiday Sage was subbing. She’d graduated the police academy—Sean thought just to prove she could do it—and although she’d decided against the job in the end, she was more than competent at helping out here and there. The flexibility of a small-town department, and their big brother being the chief.
“Hey, Bro, you got the victim of this cluster of little would-be tough guys?”
“I do,” he said.
“Bring him on in,” Sage said. “Somebody who knows him saw what happened and told his mom, and she’s already here.”
Sometimes being in a small town made things easier. Except his sister’s voice had held an undertone he knew all too well. “Okay, what is it?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Just get the kid here.”
She hung up before he could call her on what he knew, just from her voice, was a flat lie. Whatever she was up to, he probably wasn’t going to like it.
When they got to the station and he walked Marcos to the interview room they’d taken his mother to, it all hit him at once.
No wonder Marcos had looked familiar.
He should have pushed the kid for his last name.
He should have just taken him home.
And he was going to strangle Sage.
The waiting woman stood the moment she saw the boy. Sean saw her look Marcos up and down as if to satisfy herself he was unhurt. The boy started to speak but stopped immediately when she held up a hand.
“We will deal with what you did to your grandmother later.” Her words had a formal touch, but her deep, husky voice was enough to make him shiver. “You may think of how you will apologize to her while I speak to your defender.”
Finally she looked at him. Sean stood frozen, much more intimidated than the eleven-year-old had been. Because standing before him was no dragon, but a tall, beautiful, impossibly elegant woman with long black hair up in a knot and searing dark eyes that took his breath away.
Maria Elena Valencia de la Cova.
The name he’d memorized without meaning to.
The face he’d never had a chance of forgetting.
The woman he’d been entranced by since the first time he’d ever seen her.
The day his father died.
End of Excerpt