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"We're behind schedule," Teo Hernandez said.
"I'm not worried," Jenna MacAllister replied to her construction foreman, smiling into the phone as she walked to her car.
"Of course you're not," he grumbled. "You're the eternal optimist."
"With the two of us working together to make the Marin family's dream come true, how could anything possibly go wrong? You have to think positively."
"Trying to build a home with volunteer labor in a neighborhood, that's challenging, to say the leastthen you go and promise we'll be done by Halloween?"
"This is not the toughest job we've done, and look at the bright sideit's our fourth house in that area, and the residents are getting excited about how their neighborhood is improving. I can't wait to see what got finished today."
"Now? It's already eight o'clock and you're just leaving work? Don't you ever keep regular office hours? Pretty girl like you ought to be out on a date."
Well, at least she'd distracted him from the litany of woes, even if she'd turned the spotlight squarely on herself. "I was brainstorming a fundraiser."
"With myself, if you must know."
"You need more help. College kid interns aren't enough. You go on home. You can check out the house tomorrow."
"I've been stuck in the office since seven this morning. Plus I don't live that far away Oh! I almost forgot! I might have a line on a new volunteer, a plumberawesome, right?"
"A licensed one?"
"Okay, okay. You produce a plumber so I can stop getting down on these old knees, and I promise that I'll be so sunny you'll need dark glasses."
She laughed as she got in her car. "Admit it. I'm good."
"No one in their right mind would try to say you're anything but hardworking. Okay, and hardheaded." she heard the chuckle in his voice. "Thanks a lot, Mr. Grumpy." Despite tonight's list of complaints, Jenna couldn't be fonder of Teo and she knew how fortunate Foundations for Families was to have someone so devoted to the cause. He'd retired several years ago as a plumbing subcontractor, intending to kick back and do nothing after a lifetime of hard manual labor, but that had worn thin very soon and, as he'd put it, his wife had told himnot completely in jestto find something useful to do or one of them had to go.
Jenna thanked her lucky stars daily that Teo was a failure at idleness. He'd originally come to volunteer part-time and now supervised each job from start to finish.
"I just call it like I see it, Sunshine. You know it's true. Sure you won't go on home?"
She grinned, hearing Teo use her father's pet name for her. "A quick drive-by first, then I'll be in bed and snoozing. It's just. .this family is special to me."
"Everyone is special to you, girl. You take on every sad case that crosses your path."
Her family said the same and despaired of the fact, though she thought they were proud of her, tooeven if her four overprotective big brothers tended to treat her like she was still a little girl. "I love my work. Neighborhoods invest when we locate a project there, you know that. Everyone draws hope from it."
"They do." He sighed. "Okay, good night, Sunshine."
"Good night, Teo." She disconnected and started her car.
In a few minutes she was approaching the newest project of Foundations for Families, a fifteen-hundred-square-foot home being built for the Marin family: single mom lucia, her four children ranging in ages from fifteen to two, and her widowed father, Alberto Gonzales. As required by the program, the adults contributed labor, even Alberto, who was badly crippled from the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis but still gamely worked alongside the crew. Lucia's two eldest, fourteen-year-old Beto and fifteen-year-old lili, worked on weekends, as well.
As Jenna neared the pale yellow one-story, she smiled. Every home warmed her heart, but this one was especially meaningful to her. Lucia was barely older than Jenna's own twenty-nine but she'd dropped out of high school when she'd gotten pregnant with Lilian old story, but Lucia hadn't given up there. She'd received her high school equivalency certificate while juggling two small children and a night job housekeeping in a motel, then she'd managed one or two classes a semester at Austin community college as she'd risen to a supervisor's job. When her husband had left her after the fourth child, Marisa, was born, she still hadn't admitted defeat. She was now the accounts payable supervisor for a small chain of five motels, and she'd taken in her father when he was widowed.
How could you not root for someone like that?
So she was eagerly anticipating the progress she'd find on the site, but as she drove up to the house, Jenna's heart took a tumble when she spotted the broken front window.
Oh, no. Lucia would be so upset. She was extremely proud of her home.
Jenna hoped the break had been an accident that Teo had just forgotten to mention. She couldn't bear to think it might be vandalism. She rolled down her window to get a better look.
Just then, a young man came around the side of the house and stalled in surprise when he saw Jenna in her car, his hands full of electrical wire. The copper in it was a valuable commodity that could be sold.
"Hey!" She held out her phone. "Drop that, or I'm calling the police."
Then she recognized him. A friend of Beto's who'd showed up to help last weekend. "Freddie?"
She emerged from the car. "You don't want to be doing this." Poor kid. She'd noticed the ragged condition of his clothes, the too-prominent bones. "Put it back. Beto and his family deserve better. He's your friend. How can you do this to them?"
"Miss Jenna I " His eyes were scared and confused.
"It'll be okay, Freddie. Just set it down and go on home." Where did he live? she wondered. And why was he out on a school night? "Are you all right? Go on, take it back, and we'll work something out."
His jaw firmed. "I can't."
"Freddie " She held up her phone. "I don't want to have to call the police, and I know you don't want to hurt the Marins. You've worked hard here. Return that wiring, and let me take you home. We can pick up a snack on the way and talk."
He looked as though he might cry as he cast a quick glance behind her.
A hand clapped over her mouth while the other snatched away her phone. "The cops? I don't think so," said another voice she didn't recognize. "What the hell you doin' here, puta?"
Whoever this was, he was taller, older. Stronger. When she resisted, he tightened his grip painfully.
She tried to shake him off, but instead his fingers dug into her cheeks.
"Stop that. Go on, Freddie," he barked. "Get your ass in gear. Give me a piece of that wiring first."
Freddie froze in place.
With a look of apology to Jenna, Freddie complied.
Jenna struggled. Her captor threw her phone to the ground and grabbed her hair in his free hand, yanking it so hard her eyes watered.
Okay, then. He might think she was weak because she was small, but she didn't have four brothers for nothing. She cast her eyes down to gauge where his knees were, then gave a backward kick aimed at crippling him.
"Shit!" He grunted but didn't let go. Instead, he yanked her right arm behind her, brutally tight.
She jammed her left elbow into his gut. He bent double and lost his grip on her.
She ran for her phone, scooped it up and raced toward her car.
He recovered too fast and charged. Knocked her to the ground. "Oh, you shouldn't have done that "
Jenna screamed loudly with what air she could summon.
The man cuffed her head, and her ears rang. "Get over here, dumbass," he shouted at Freddie.
"Freddie, run!" She wriggled frantically to get free, but the man outweighed her significantly.
"You be still, or you ain't gonna like what happens."
Though it went against the grain, she complied while her mind raced over every last self-defense tactic she'd ever learned.
Roman Gallardo couldn't exactly date when he'd become a night creature. He only knew he hadn't slept for more than four hours at a time since he'd left Iraq.
He spent his nights outrunning his memories, physically and mentally, becoming adept at navigating his way through the darkness and its blessed balm of concealing shadows. The heat in his brain cooled when night fell, and he could think more clearly. Most people troubled by nightmares feared the darkness, but to him it was a comforting friend. In the night, others passed you and went on their way, eager to get to their destinations.
But in the daylight, people wanted to talk. Expected you to smile and be normal.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt normal.
But he knew exactly when the only life he'd ever wanted had ended. Nineteen Iraqi children lying massacred in the sand in retribution.
Because of him. Because he'd believed he could make a difference. Oh, he had, all right. Just not the one he'd intended.
No. He would not think of it now. The night was for calm, not for thinking. Not for memories. He redoubled his pace, intent on finishing his ten-mile run with at least two minutes shaved off his pace.
Then he heard the scream, clearly feminine.
He angled to the right toward where the sound seemed to have come from and kicked up his pace, covering almost a block before he spotted the small blonde lying on the ground, held there by a knee jammed in her back. Her attacker was waving a knife in her face.
For a second, he felt the sting of sand and the whip of the wind. Heard the rumble of armored vehicles the screams of the women, the groans of the injured the dying down a long, hollow tunnel drawing him into the vortex
No. He squeezed his eyes shuthard. No.
Then he opened them again. Night. Trees. Here, not there.
He braced one hand against a trunk, let the bark dig into his skin, grounding him.
He focused on the scene in front of him. The knife was far too close to the woman. She could be hurt before Roman could get in range of her assailant to disarm him. Roman had no weapons except the one that always traveled with himhis own body, a formidable and well-honed defense, courtesy of the United States Army Special Forces.
There was concealing shrubbery a few feet away, so he edged backward and made his way around with all the stealth he'd taken years to perfect. He noted the cell phone lying on the ground near the womantoo far away to be of help.
Roman himself had foregone most of what others considered civilization, living without telephone or television, gladly going without what most people believed to be a minimum level of connection to the outside world.
He'd had enough of the world and avoided people whenever he could.
But now it meant that he could make no convenient calls to the cops. Unless a neighbor had heard her scream, this woman had only Roman to depend on.
He emerged from the vegetation five feet behind the man, who appeared agitated, likely hopped up on something, as he cursed and gestured with the knife. On cat feet, Roman closed in with one more long stride, then launched a well-aimed kick that sent the knife spinning away. He used his momentum to topple the assailant, then pin him to the ground. He spotted wires lying on the ground and swiftly restrained the man at both wrists and feet.
"Are you all right?" he asked the woman.
"Yes." To her credit, her voice shook only a little.
"You have no business out here alone at night."
"Yes, I do. This is my project. I know the neighbors."
"Didn't help you much, did it?" He glanced around at closed front doors, at the absence of a single person or light. "I don't see anyone rushing to your aid."
Just then they both heard the sirens, and she turned to watch for the police. "See? The neighbors called for help."
Damn it. He didn't want to talk to the police, didn't want to be making statements or appearing in court. Too many people. He wasn't ready. He didn't look at her again, but he didn't need to. She was pretty and naive and valiant, a sure recipe for trouble. Instead he tugged his ball cap down lower over his eyes as he edged back into the cover of darkness, still near enough to watch over her until she was safely in someone else's hands.
But not close enough to be spotted.
The moment the police cars arrived and officers emerged, he slipped away as quietly as he'd arrived.