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"Sean, Sean, spawn of the con!"
Dominic Payette turned and watched from the porch as five jeering boys pounded down the sidewalk in front of his house, chasing a scrawny, sandy-haired boy. With his bulging backpack weighing him down, the kid didn't stand a chance. The pack leader, a big guy with ruddy cheeks and shocking red hair, grabbed the bag and yanked the kid to a stop.
Dom set down the box he was carrying.
"You ignoring me, con?" The big guy shoved the whelp hard. The other boys circled, penning the kid in. "Think you're better than us, little rich boy?"
"Leave me alone."
"Or what? You gonna tell your mommy?" Another shove. "Gimme your money, rich boy."
"I don't have any. You took it all at lunch!"
Dom gripped the banister hard. He had to give the kid a chance to defend himself. He knew from all those years of being picked on that bruises healed quickly, but pride took much longer. Maybe it was tough love, but those were his rules.
He could see the tense line of the boy's bony shoulders, the wildness in his eyes. The kid mumbled something, head bowed in resignation.
His tormentor's lip lifted in a snarl. "Take his bag."
The gang seized the boy by his sticklike arms while the redhead punched him in the gut. The kid doubled over, and his backpack was yanked off him.
But the bully didn't stop there. He kicked him in the chest. Hard.
Dom leaped over the railing off his porch, outraged by the redhead's viciousness and complete lack of honor. He had the kid outmatched and outnumberedit was hardly a fair fight.
In a few long strides, Dom was on top of the pack, wading into them like a lion into a pile of field mice. The boys froze and stared up at him wide-eyed.
Dom knew he could be scary looking when he wanted to be. Five feet ten inches of solid muscle honed from years of mixed martial arts training, a shorn scalp and the fading bruises along the underside of his jaw would intimidate anyone. He glowered down at the boys. "You guys got a problem?"
The bully whirled around to face him. He went so pale even his freckles disappeared. "Let's go! C'mon!"
The kids scattered, huge eyes still fixed on Dom. They dropped the backpack as they raced away.
"Are you okay?" Dom asked.
The boy slowly got to his feet, cradling his midsection, panting. His face was tomato-red, as if he was holding his breath.
"Hey, if it hurts, I find it's better to shout it out." Dom didn't need to bruise the boy's ego any more by telling him it was okay to cry like a girl. Boys at this age were trying to be men. Dom got that the kid needed a different outlet. "Just yell. I swear, most of the pain, it's in your mouth. Like this " Dom's booming bark startled the kid.
But he didn't say anything. He'd swallowed his pain, forced it deep inside. Defeat dulled his soft gray eyes. He picked up his pack and brushed himself off.
Dom grimaced. "Do you live around here?" he asked.
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," the boy said warily.
"I guess that makes you smarter than me." He smiled. "My name's Dominic. I just moved here for the summerin that house right there." He gestured to the two-story Victorian behind him.
Showing the boy he lived on his route home from school might make him feel safer.
The kid glanced from the house to the U-Haul truck at the curb. His eyes widened when he spotted the equipment inside.
He inched closer, his caution melting away like snow in the sun. "Are you, like, some kind of boxer?"
An easy misconception, since the most visible piece of gym equipment in the truck was a punching bag. "I do some boxing," Dom said, "but I'm actually a mixed martial artist. My specialty is karate, but I also have training in wrestling, boxing, judo, Muay Thai and Brazilian jujitsu."
The kid gazed up at him in awe. "You're not, like, in the UFF, are you?"
"Actually, yeah." Dom grinned, wondering if the boy would recognize him. Dom was at the top of his league, poised to win the welterweight Unlimited Fighting Federation belt in September. "Are you a fan?"
"My mom doesn't let me watch fights on TV. She says they're a bad influence."
Dom's lips quirked. Mixed martial arts wasn't really for children; people got hurt in the cage and bloodshed was common. But the sport was misunderstood by many, and criticized unfairly as being nothing more than a glorified bar brawl.
The kid walked up to the edge of the truck.
"Wow, look at all that stuff. It's like you have a whole gym in there."
"I pretty much do. I train eight hours a day."
"That's so cool. My name's Sean MacAvery." He stuck out a grubby hand. The defeated child from moments ago had disappeared. Dom's cal-lused paw swallowed the boy's hand and the kid pumped it with more vigor than expected from someone who'd just been kicked in the ribs. "I live across the street, over there." He pointed to where almost identical houses lined the road. "Do you need help moving your stuff in?"
Dom had to be careful. In his experience, people in small towns could be suspicious of outsiders, and judging by the way the neighbors kept flicking back their curtains to watch him, he figured the inhabitants of Salmon River hadn't made their minds up about him yet. "You'd better ask your dad first," he said.
Sean looked away, reddening. "I don't have a dad."
Oh, boy. He'd sure stepped in that one. Dom struggled to amend his faux pas. "I'd love some help. But you should definitely ask at home, let them know where you are."
Sean brightened. "Okay!" He started to run, but jerked to a stop and turned. "You think you can teach me some moves? I mean, those guys "
Dom couldn't say no to someone who so obviously needed a boost to his confidence. "Yeah, I think I can show you some techniques. But you gotta ask at home first."
The kid's grin stretched the length of the street. He bounded down the sidewalk and waved as he walked up to a two-story house with a tidy garden and a dark green door.
Sean might be scrawny, but he bounced back from a beating quickly. Dom had to admire that. Rubbing the bruises on his jaw, he wished he was half as resilient.
Fiona glanced at the clock again. It was almost five. Where was Sean? Her son was never this late getting home from school, unless
Her gut churned. A lot of things could happen to a ten-year-old boy, even in this quiet little town. And Sean was so small, nearly a head shorter than his classmates. The doctor insisted he was due for a growth spurt any day; he was just
The front door banged open and her son bounded in. Right away, Fiona spotted the mussed clothes, the brightness of his eyes and cheeks, a fresh scrape on his knee. He'd been in another fight.
"Oh, no, not again." She hurried to him, checked him over. "Are you all right? What happened?"
"Mom, there's a UFF fighter moving in down the street!"
"A what?" Her mind was too clouded with concern to really understand what Sean was saying.
"I'm gonna help him move in, okay? Please?"
"Slow down, Sean. Tell me what happened to you. Who beat you up?"
"It's nothing, Mom."
She touched the scrape on his cheek. "It's not nothing. Was it Rene again?"
"I'm fine." Sean tugged out of her embrace. "Just leave me alone."
"You have to tell me if people are hurting you," Fiona said sternly. "I'll go to the principal"
"You did that before and it didn't stop them." The color of his cheeks deepened. "They just hurt me more."
She knew it. That bully, Rene Kirkpatrick, and his little gang of hoodlums were always giving Sean a hard time. She'd have to settle this with Denise Kirkpatrick directly; obviously the school couldn't protect her son.
"Did you do all the things I taught you?" she asked in earnest. "Did you tell them to stop? Did you walk away?"
Sean glowered at her. "That doesn't work, Mom." His shoulders hunched up defensively. "It doesn't matter what I do. They all hate me."
"I'll start picking you up from school," Fiona declared resolutely. "Aw, Mom "
"I'll meet you at four o'clock." It would mean she'd have to make arrangements at work to leave early, but it was worth her son's safety.
"I don't want a ride home." Sean jerked back. "I'm old enough to walk by myself."
"Don't argue with me, Sean. This is for your own good."
His face turned scarlet. He scrunched up his nose and flung down his backpack. "You always say that! You said that when we moved here and I had to leave Grandma and Grandpa and all my friends! I hate you! I hate it here!" He dashed up the stairs to his room and slammed the door.
Fiona sank into a chair, counting to ten. She knew her son had been having a hard time fitting inthey both had. But she hadn't thought Sean hated Salmon River. She hadn't thought her sweet-natured son capable of hating anything. much less her.
She supposed she should have guessed it, though. Since moving into the house her aunt Penelope had willed to her, Sean had grown quiet and sullen and increasingly more reserved. Her neighbor Gail, who often babysat for her, said it was perfectly normal for a boy his age. "And mind you, he doesn't have a father to look up to,"
the woman, who'd been a good friend to Penelope, had added without rancor. "Boys need male role models."
not that Mitch Farrell had ever been much of a role model or a loving father or husband.
In her experience, the best way to deal with her son's temper tantrums was to leave him alone for a while. Sean would probably hide out in his room to cool off. She'd do some laundry and by the time she'd made a snack, he would have calmed down.
But when she did go up to his room an hour later, he wasn't there.
"Sean?" She went through the house, checked the backyard. He was nowhere to be found.
Had he run away? He was getting to that rebellious age when he would do anything for attention. But lately, attention was the one thing Sean didn't want from her .
What if he'd been snatched? What if he'd been hit by a car, or was hurt, unconscious, unable to call for her
Calm down. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, going over all the places he might be.
Wait, hadn't he said something about a new neighbor?
She grabbed her keys and headed out the door.
Sean MacAvery was surprisingly helpful for someone so tiny. They'd moved the bulk of the boxes in, chatting amiably about mixed martial artsMMAand Sean's school and life in Salmon River. But when he got to the box bearing the pads he used for training, Dom decided to reward the boy with a few lessons.
"Try again," he instructed, holding up one large rectangular pad. "Step forward as you strike. That way, you put more energy into your hit. And breathe out. Shout if you have to."
"Ha!" Sean's tiny fist impacted on the pad.
"Good. Think you can do both fists? One-two, right-left."
"Ha! Ha!" The punches came harder this time, and Dom was surprised when he rocked back on his heels. He hadn't expected the short, sharp blow to move him.
Underestimating your opponent. Just how soft are you getting?
Dom smirked to himself. "Good work, Sean. next thing you want to do"
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" a woman shrieked behind him.
The man jumped and practically stumbled over his own feet as he wheeled around to face her.
Fiona's mouth went dry. He looked like a cross between a Greek god and a marine, with a little
Hollywood hottie mixed in. He was all muscle, sculpted from lean hips to broad torso. His hair was only the barest shadow of dark stubble, but he had a perfect head for the bald look. His eyes, blue as the sky, widened as he took her in. His lips curved up, and she felt her body warm. That was one lady-killer of a smile.
And then she noticed the bruises.
Her blood went cold. She would never get involved with a bad boy ever again. Not after Mitch.
"Hi, Mom!" Sean wiped the back of his hand over his sweating brow. "This is Dominic Payette. He's moving in for the summer."
The wattage of the man's smile turned up. "It's Dom to my friends," he said with a slight New Orleans drawl. He held out a hand.
"What do you think you're doing?" she repeated.
He blinked slowly, retracted his hand. "Sean's very graciously volunteered to help me move my stuff in. He asked if I could teach him some self-defense moves."
"If he had hurt his back or dropped something on his foot and broken it, you'd have been liable."
"Mo-o-om," Sean complained.
She tried hard not to be a helicopter parent, but Sean was so little, had been through so much, it was hard not to want to protect him. "He shouldn't be learning how to fight."
She saw the man's blue eyes flicker, saw the lines on his face deepen. "If you wouldn't mind a word aside?"
He guided her by the arm, and she flinched from his light touch. They moved a few steps away from Sean. "I caught a bunch of boys in an altercation with your son."
She cursed under her breath. "Did you see who it was? Was there a big, chubby boy with bright red hair and piggy eyes?"
Her new neighbor's mouth twitched. "That sounds like him."
Rene Kirkpatrick. His mother was definitely going to hear from Fiona.
"But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about," Dom said. "Sean needs to learn how to defend himself. If he doesn't"
"Excuse me, but I've been teaching my son to resolve his issues nonviolently." Not effectively, but still. "I don't want him learning how to beat other kids up."