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"Mister, will you get my mommy out of jail?"
Colt Mason glanced up from his desk at Guardian Angel Investigations and stared at the dark-haired little boy, surprised at his request.
He was probably what, five or six years old?
"I don't gots a lot of money," the boy said, then hoisted the piggy bank he held in his arms onto Colt's desk. The change inside clanged and rattled as he shoved it toward Colt. "But you can have it all if you'll help me."
Colt grimaced. The last thing he wanted was the boy's savings.
Besides, the kid's eyes were red and swollen from crying, and he was breathing hard as if he'd been running.
Where had he been running from?
"Why don't you sit down, son, and let me get you some water. Then you can tell me who you are and what's going on."
The boy slid into a chair, his shoulders hunched. Colt stepped from his office into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of water, brought it back and handed it to him.
The kid's big brown eyes studied Colt warily, but he took the water, unscrewed the lid then took a long drink. Finally he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sighed. "My name is Petey Stover. My mommy said people here help kids. And she's in trouble so I come here." Petey pointed to the nameplate on Colt's desk. "You gots the name of a gun."
"Yeah, I do." Colt fought a small smile. "Now, tell me what happened, Petey. How did your mother end up in jail?"
Worry tightened Petey's bowlike mouth. "Last night my mommy had a date with this man named Mr. Lyle. But he pushed Mommy against the fireplace, and then he grabbed her neck." Petey gulped and Colt noticed his hands shake. "I didn't like him hurting her."
Cole clenched his jaw. "I wouldn't like that either. What happened next?"
"She stomped on his foot and kicked him in the you know" he pointed to his private parts "where it hurts."
Colt barely resisted a smile. "Yes, I know. Then what?"
"I tried to pull him away 'cause now Daddy's gone I'm the man of the house." Another deep breath and he squared his small shoulders as if to prove he was a man. "But he knocked me down on the floor."
Anger made Colt grip the chair edge. "He hit you?"
Petey nodded. "Then my mommy got the fire poker and yelled at him to leave."
Colt narrowed his eyes. "Did your mother hit him with the fire poker?"
"No." Petey took another swig of water. "She acted like she would though 'cause she was scared. Then the man got mad and said she'd be sorry."
Colt wouldn't have blamed the woman if she had killed the bastard. "What did he do then?"
"He gives her a mean look but he left." Petey sighed. "So Mommy and I wents to bed. But this morning when I was eatin' cereal, the sheriff came and he said Mommy killed that mean Mr. Lyle, and they taked Mommy away. And this lady with big orange hair took me to kid jail."
Colt's head was reeling. "Kid jail?"
Petey pointed toward the door. "To that big spooky house down the street."
Ah, Magnolia Manor, the orphanage. DFAC had obviously gotten involved.
"But I runned away when they went in for lunch, cause I don't wanna stay in jail, and Mommy shouldn't be there either." He squared his little shoulders. "Jail is for bad people, and my mommy is good. She didn't kill nobody."
Colt took a moment to process the situation. "Where's your father, Petey?"
Petey looked down at his hands where they clenched the water bottle. "He was a policeman, but he got shot and he died."
Poor boy. And now his mother had been arrested.
Petey's chin quivered as he looked back up at Colt. "Will you get her out, Mr. Colt?"
Colt stood. He didn't know if the woman was innocent or guilty but he wanted more details on the matter. "Let me talk to her and we'll see."
Petey jumped off the chair. "Then let's go."
Colt knelt beside the boy. He wasn't a babysitter. Hell, he didn't know much about kids at all.
In fact, he'd screwed up bad when he'd been left in charge of his own brother .
But how could he refuse this little boy? "Petey, I'm sorry, bud, but the sheriff won't allow children in the jail. One of my friends will stay with you here while I talk to your mom. All right?"
"You won't send me back to kid jail?" Petey touched his arm, his voice pleading.
Colt winced. Petey's hands were tiny, just like the rest of him. Yet he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He'd been fifteen when he'd lost his own dad and he'd felt that weight on his shoulders. A few months later, he'd failed and lost his brother, too.
Petey was nowhere near that age. Still, he couldn't lie to the child. He would have to call Magnolia Manor sooner or later. "Let me talk to your mom and then we'll make a plan."
Petey nodded, his trusting acceptance sending a streak of guilt through Colt. Still, he went to get Derrick. Derrick could phone Brianna at the manor and smooth things over. She must be frantic.
He hurried to Gage's office, pausing at Derrick's to ask him to join them.
"What's going on?" Gage asked.
"This little boy just came into my office asking for my help. His name is Petey Stover."
Gage switched on the TV in the corner. "His mother was arrested. It's all over the news."
Colt watched as the special news story aired.
"This morning, Serena Stover, wife of former police officer Parker Stover of the Raleigh Police Department, was arrested for the murder of a man named Lyle Rice. Rice was supposedly killed at his home, but police have yet to recover the body. However, evidence quickly led the sheriff to Serena Stover's door."
The camera zeroed in on Sheriff Gray handcuffing and escorting an attractive woman with long, curly, copper-colored hair from her home. She was arguing and protesting, trying to break free to reach her little boy.
Petey was crying and kicking and shouting, determined to wrestle away from the deputy who was hauling him toward another vehicle. A woman Colt assumed to be the social worker was trying to soothe the boy, to no avail.
The camera panned back to Serena as the sheriff pushed her into the back of his squad car. Tears streaked her big eyes as she turned and watched her son beating on the window, screaming her name.
Colt's gut clenched.
"As you can see," the reporter continued, "the arrest quickly became an emotional scene. However, the sheriff feels he has sufficient evidence and motive to move forward."
The camera panned back inside to focus on the crime scene. Massive amounts of blood stained the bedroom floor, and the sheets were blood splattered, one corner dragging the floor. A crime scene tech lifted the corner to reveal more blood.
In fact, Serena's name had been spelled in blood on the wood floor.
"Police believe that Rice scribbled his killer's name in his own blood before he died," the news reporter continued. "More on this story as it develops."
"That's not good," Gage said.
"If Serena killed Rice and got rid of the body, why wouldn't she have cleaned up?" Colt asked with a frown. "Besides, she sure as hell wouldn't have left her name there for the police to finger her."
"Maybe she was in a hurry and didn't see it," Gage suggested. "The name was covered by the sheet."
Colt shrugged, questions nagging at him.
"Petey was taken to Magnolia Manor, Derrick," Colt said. "Will you let Brianna know he's here and safe?"
Derrick nodded. "She's probably frantic. I'll call her right now." Derrick stepped from the office to make the call.
Gage drummed his fingers on the desk. "This isn't our usual kind of case."
"I know," Colt said. But something about the poor kid and that emotional scene had gotten to him. "The boy is so upset, though. And his story made sense. I'd like to at least talk to the woman."
Gage hesitated, then gave a nod. "All right. But be careful. And don't make an enemy of the sheriff. So far, he's cooperated with us on other cases. I'd like to keep it that way."
Colt agreed and headed back to Petey. He'd be civil to Sheriff Gray, but if he thought the man was wrong about Serena, he wouldn't hesitate to rattle some cages.
There was no way he'd sit by and let him railroad a single mother away from her child if she was innocent.
Serena stared at the ink on her fingertips, still stunned that she had been arrested, fingerprinted and was locked in a cell.
Not that it was the first time. But she'd thought her juvenile record was sealed.
She had to get out. The first chance she had, she'd make a break for it. Then she'd find Petey and get him and run.
What kind of life would that be for him, Serena? Hiding out, always making up new names, always afraid
No, she couldn't do that to her son.
Poor little Petey. He'd been through so much the last two years. His father's murder. Their move to Sanctuary because she'd wanted a nice small town where they could both heal. And they both had started to heal.
Then her friend from work had encouraged her to start dating. A huge mistake.
Lyle Rice had been a charmer at first, then turned into a snake. When the arrogant animal had pushed Petey, she had wanted to kill him. But she hadn't, dammit.
And she couldn't run either. She'd given up that life when she'd married Parker. She'd vowed to give Petey a more stable life than she'd had
Footsteps pounded, the shadow of movement in the hall indicating the sheriff or his deputy had returned. She'd requested her phone call, but the truth was, she didn't even know the name of a good lawyer to call.
Of course, the state would give her a public defender, but she'd had one of those before and that had ended with her in a juvenile facility.
Suddenly the sheriff appeared, along with a broad-shouldered man with hair as black as coal and eyes just as black. He looked powerful, lethal even, with a strong, square jaw and arms that were as big as her legs.
Definitely an alpha guy who was accustomed to being in control. And judging from his short haircut, muscular physique, that laser-intense look and the tattoo on his arm, he was former military.
Either that or a hardened criminal.
Her stomach pitched. Surely, the sheriff wasn't going to lock him in the cell with her.
"Ms. Stover," Sheriff Gray said. "You have a visitor."
Serena crossed her arms, confused. Frightened. Wary.
Who was this man and what did he want with her? Remembering her husband's horror stories about how devious police interrogation tactics could be, she braced herself. She had to be careful.
He might be here to trap her into giving a confession.
Serena adopted a brave face. "Who are you?"
"My name is Colt Mason. I'm a detective with GAI, Guardian Angel Investigations."
Serena frowned, confused even more. "I don't understand. Why do you want to talk to me?"
"It's about your son, Petey," Colt said gruffly.
Serena's mouth went dry, the room swirled around her, and she reached for the bars to steady herself to keep from passing out. Today had been too much, and if something had happened to Petey.
The sound of the cell opening registered, the men murmuring something indiscernible in low voices. Colt gripped her arm and led her to the cot by the wall. Her legs buckled, and she sank onto it, then leaned over, the room spinning in a dizzying circle.
"It's all right. Take a deep breath, Serena," Colt said in a low voice. "Then another."
His soothing tone brought a flood of tears. Angrily she brushed at them and inhaled, determined to regain control. She had to know what had happened to her son. But when she tried to speak, nausea rose to her throat.
The sheriff returned, then Colt pressed a cold cloth against the back of her neck.
Dammit. She needed to be strong. But she'd lost Parker. She couldn't lose Petey. And that blasted woman had promised to take care of him.
Clawing for control, she jerked her head up, removed the cloth from her neck and tossed it aside. Colt Mason was staring at her with those intense black eyes again as if he was trying to see into her mind and soul. Maybe even her heart.
She wouldn't let anyone there, not ever again.
Besides, he was probably trying to judge whether she was a killer.
"Where's my son?" She clutched his shirt. "Is he hurt?"
"Petey is fine," Colt said. "He's at my office."
"What? I thought that social worker took him to a foster home."
Colt covered her hands with his and peeled her fingers loose. "She dropped him off at Magnolia Manor, but as soon as the children went inside for lunch, he bolted and ran down to GAI. Apparently you told him that some nice men there helped children."
Relief mushroomed inside Serena, and she found herself hanging on to his hands. Caution told her not to trust him, but the fact that she had used those exact words with Petey made her relax slightly.
"You have fifteen minutes," Sheriff Gray interjected.
Colt nodded to the sheriff, and he strode back to the front of the jail.
"He must be so scared," she whispered. "Are you sure he's okay?"
"I'm certain." Colt hesitated, an awkward second passing as he released her hands. "Do you feel better now?"
She nodded, searching his strong face for the truth. This man looked hard, cold, forceful, as if he'd seen the worst in humans and was trying to figure out where she stood on the pendulum, if he should be protecting her son from her. That suspicious look cut through her like a knife. "You scared me to death. When you said GAI, I thoughts"
"That he'd been kidnapped," Colt said darkly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you. Petey is in my office. One of the other agents, Derrick McKinney, is staying with him. His wife, Brianna, works at Magnolia Manor where the social worker took Petey."
"So you'll send him back there?"
"We have to follow the law, but Brianna is a great lady," Colt said. "She has a son of her own, and loves those kids. Trust me, she'll be like a second mother to him."
He obviously meant to make her feel better, but rage churned through Serena at the thought of anyone else taking care of her son.
"Petey should be with me." She scanned her bleak surroundings. Concrete floor, dingy concrete wall covered in graffiti. Scratchy, faded wool blanket on top of a cot with a mattress so thin the springs bore into her. "And I shouldn't be here. I haven't done anything wrong."
Colt's gaze scrutinized her. "Petey told me a little bit about what happened," Colt said. "But I'd like to hear your version."
Serena hesitated, doubts creeping in. "Do you have some ID?"