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Woman of the Year. She was being honored as Woman of the Year.
As she sat on the dais and heard the words of praise and admiration filling the church auditorium, Vanessa shook her head. Sure, she'd been warned about it beforehandthat all the fuss might make her feel exposed, vulnerable, raw, embarrassed, all of which it didbut what they hadn't said was that this small ceremony would make her feel like an impostor. Hearing herself spoken about as though she were one step removed from Mother Teresa, well, it just didn't sit well with her. Vanessa didn't feel that special, far from it in fact. She'd done what she'd done in order to survive. Period.
" and we at A Single Voice agree," the speaker was saying, "that Vanessa Garner's life is a success story, an inspiration to us all.A child of poverty and abuse,Vanessa lived on the mean streets of Los Angeles from her early teens, doing whatever she had to do to stay alive ."
Nervously Vanessa shuffled the index cards in her hand. Soon it would be her turn to get up there with her thank-you speech, and she just wanted it to be over.
" Vanessa's mother married four times. Two of her stepfathers were abusive. She ran away from home to escape. She was fourteen at the time ."
Sure, she'd run away, and not only from the man who had taken her virginity in a violent act of rape and told her he'd be back for more. She'd also run away from the mother whose alcoholic haze prevented her from hearing her daughter's cries for help. She'd run away from the fear and the despair and the sense of hopelessness that permeated her home and found a world even morefearful, one filled with so much despair that more than once she'd considered taking her own life.
Do not go there, she told herself, back to the memories and the pain. She'd gotten past it. This was now, not then.
To distract herself, Vanessa glanced sideways at the others on the dais, and she got smiles of warm encouragement back from city councilman Marvin Kahn, Reverend William Jones and her friend and lawyer, Shannon Coyle. But the last one, the cop, he didn't smile at all.
He was a big guy, dwarfing the bridge chair he sat on. Wearing his dress blues, arms crossed over his broad chest, his face an unsmiling stone mask, he didn't look at all happy to be here. He had close-cropped brown hair miracles, Katy had come out of it unharmed, but Vanessa still had occasional ringing in her ears as a reminder of his vicious attack.
And now he was here. Her heart thudded loudly in her chest. Why had he come?
He caught her looking at him, smiled in that smooth, self confident, cock-of-the-walk way Ray had. Then he took a seat in the rear of the auditorium, crossed his arms over his chest and sat back to enjoy the show.
Her heart rate sped up some more; she was finding it difficult to breathe. Was she about to have a panic attack? She hadn't had one in years, and it took all her strength to concentrate on slowing her breathing. Please no, she prayed silently. Not here. Not in front of her kids, Aunt Lupe. Not in front of everyone. Not on this very special day.
Jackson Rutherford, Detective First Class, wished he were wearing his aviator shades today because then he might be able to grab himself a little shut-eye during this thing. However, no shades. This might be Los Angeles, but even so, a cop in sunglasses was not the "look" the department preferred. He stifled a yawn. Damn, he was tired. Too many beers at the ball game last night, not enough sleep. He probably looked like hell, not that he cared.
He was grumpy and that was a fact. Didn't want to be here.
Bored, his gaze scanned the audience and stopped when he caught the entrance of a man in the rear of the auditorium. Jackson tried not to be obvious as he checked him out. The newcomer seemed familiar. Slick, tough, good-lookingalmost pretty. Clothes a little too sharp, a little too show-offy, even though obviously expensive. Gold chain around his neck, a flashy gold watch on his wrist. A man on the other side of the law in some way, he was pretty sure.
Jackson didn't know if the sense of familiarity he was experiencing was about the type in general or specific to this man in particular. Had his mug shot been posted on the station bulletin board? He couldn't be sure, but if it had, it was something to do with drugs. Which happened to be Jackson's area of expertise.
The late arriver was leveling a steady stare at today's honoree. Vanessa something. Jackson hadn't paid much attention to the name when his partner, Sal, had begged him to fill in for him, last minute, so he could rush his expectant wife to the hospital. Jackson wasn't real nuts about doing community relations, especially when he'd planned to sleep in this morning, but he couldn't say no to his partner, now, could he? Which meant he'd had about ten minutes to shower, dress, and get his butt over here, so he'd missed a couple of details, like names.
He shifted his attention over to the woman being honored. She wasn't looking at the guy at the back of the room, not at the moment, but he was pretty sure she'd been doing just that. She seemed really tense. Could be stage fright, could be something else. He noted the clenched jaw, a slight flaring of the nostrils. Her chest, under the conservative suit jacket and blouse she wore, was heaving up and down pretty rapidly. Panic? Fear? Both?
Or maybe she was excited. By the entrance of the new guy in the back? Maybe he was her dealer, and maybe she was looking to get high as soon as this little ceremony was over. Maybe she wasn't as pure, as recovered, as honorable as the lady giving the speech was making her out to be.
Which would be a shame, Jackson thought. A damned shame. Beautiful woman like that. He'd noticed her the minute he'd hurried into the church auditorium right before the ceremony and someone had made quick introductions. Hell, you couldn't miss her. Some women radiated sensuality like gardenias gave off perfume. She was one of those. Even her speaking voice, smoky, throaty, the kind that you wanted whispering to you in bed, was a turn-on.
" so by the time we at A Single Voice heard about her six years ago," continued the lady at the microphone, "Vanessa was the twenty-five-year-old homeless mother of three children and a recovering addict. With all that history, with all that pressure, others might have gone back to the streets, but not Vanessa. Others might have given up their children, but not Vanessa. Others might have given up on living, but not Vanessa. No, Vanessa wanted to learn, wanted to be self-supporting, wanted more for her children, and that fierce will to succeed led her to seek help, to find good child care, to work a full-time job while going back to school "
Pretty amazing stuff, Jackson had to admit. If it was all true. Which it probably was, as he'd been told that award recipients from A Single Voice were vetted pretty thoroughly. Trying not to be obvious, once again he looked sideways to check her out.
Vanessa something was racially mixed, but hard to pin down. Some Eurasian, for sure.With a little Latina and just a smidgeon of African-American thrown in? Whatever it was, it worked. Skin a pale-gold color, blue-green eyes that tilted up at the ends and straight, jet-black hair pulled severely off her face and gathered at the nape of her neck in a tortoiseshell barrette. High, rounded cheekbones, a small nose with a flattened bridge, full lips, a long, graceful neck. More exotic than beautiful, she was dressed in a modest gray suit and white blouse, pearl studs in her ears, two-inch heels, nothing that would attract attention.
But it was like throwing a net over a peacock to try to hide its colors. Couldn't be done. The woman was sensual down to the bone, discharging invisible pheromones into the air like an automatic BB gun.
"A born courtesan type," as his mama would say, sniffing through her nose with disdain.
Jackson had to smile. Wouldn't Mama hate it if she knew what he was thinking? Lillian Beauregard Rutherford, proud member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, would not like her only son being attracted to anyone not pure white and upper crust, preferably born below the Mason-Dixon line. Jackson and Lillian didn't agree on this little matter, nor on many others, such as what he should be doing with his life, which was one of the reasons he'd put twenty-five hundred miles between them by coming west all those years ago.
But still, his mama's voice was in his head, and it popped up at the damnedest times. * * * " and that fierce will is why today Vanessa is the manager of a business with over twenty employees, the loving mother of three beautiful children who attend school and have friends and a home and food on the table every night of their young lives. That fierce will is why she is this year's recipient of A Single Voice's Woman of the Year Award. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in honoring Vanessa Garner!"
She didn't know how she got through the next fifteen minutes. As though from a distance, she heard the warm applause, managed to stand, smile at the audience, took in the cheers and "You go, Mom!" from Thomas, and walked over to the podium. She thanked the speaker, thanked all the members of A Single Voice, then gave her short, carefully rehearsed speech.
As she did, one big chunk of her brain couldn't stop focusing on Ray. He was like a flashing neon sign in a starless sky. Why was he here? She hadn't heard from him since before Katy was born.Why now'What did he want?
After the ceremony, when she'd been congratulated and hugged and kissed, after she'd sent the kids off to the car with Aunt Lupe and told them she needed to go to the rest room and would join them in five minutes, after she'd washed her hands and applied new lipstick, she found out just what Ray wanted.
He was waiting for her in the narrow, deserted hallway outside the ladies' room, and the moment she exited the door, he grabbed her, clamped a hand over her mouth and dragged her into a small storage room off the hall. Shutting the door behind them, he flicked on the single overhead bulb. Music stands and janitorial supplies were crammed all together, leaving barely any space for her and Ray.
She struggled to get free, her voice muffled behind his hand, but he was strong.
"Hush, chica," he said in that rich, deeply hypnotic voice of his. "I'm not going to hurt you, so you don't have to scream or nothing. Okay?"
She nodded. "I'm going to take my hand away. But you need to promise not to scream. Deal?"
When she nodded again, he removed his hand. Trying to catch her breath, she stared at him wordlessly. He was still beautiful, with those large, melancholy brown eyes, caramel skin and black hair. The face of a poet, she'd thought in the beginning. The soul of a cruel devil, she'd known by the end. The only changes the years had brought were a few lines radiating from the corners of his eyes and a small soul patch beneath his bottom lip.
"What do you want, Ray?"
"What's this?" He grinned, his perfect white teeth shining like alabaster. "No 'Good to see you, Ray'? No hugs for your long-lost friend? It took me a long time to find you, you know."
She crossed her arms over her chest so he couldn't see that her hands were shaking. "Why did you?"
He stared at her for a moment longer, a look of speculation in his too-beautiful eyes. "You've grown up, 'Nessa."
"About time, I think. I'll be thirty-one in a couple of months." "And still looking good enough to eat." He licked his sensual lips, lips that used to drive her crazy when she was younger and a lot stupider. Back when she'd had no idea there were options, a different kind of life than the one she was living.
"Not interested," she said flatly, pleased at how calm she sounded. "Again, what do you want?"
For a brief moment there was a flash of displeasure in his expression; it was the same look that used to precipitate one of his rages, rages that left her battered and bruised and wanting to die because there was no way out.
He didn't have that kind of power over her anymore, she reminded herself. She was long past feeling and acting like a victim. "Touch me and I will scream, Ray," she said, keeping her voice firm and steady, even though she was quaking inside. "There are a lot of people around."
He blinked, seemed taken aback. He wasn't used to her fighting him, wasn't used to Vanessa with claws. He grabbed her by the wrist, twisted her arm behind her back. "Don't push me, chica," he growled in her ear.
It hurt. She fought, twisted, tried to pull away. Tears of pain filled her eyes. There were no windows in the dusty storage room. The door was closed. No one would hear her if she screamed. Or if they did it might be too late. She shouldn't have baited him. She was a fool, a stupid fool.
Gasping with pain, she said, "I'm sorry, Ray," even though she hated hearing the words coming out of her mouth.
"You better be," he snarled, twisting one more time for good measure before dropping his hold on her.
She rubbed at her bruised wrist. "Just tell me, okay?" she sniffled. "What do you want?"
He shrugged easily. "It's simple. I want my kid." "Excuse me?" "What do you call her? Katy? She's half mine. I want her."
"What do you mean, you want her? You wantwhat? To see her? To visit her?"
"No. I want her to live with me. With us. With me and my wife."
"Yeah. I got married. Last year."
"Congratulations," Vanessa said automatically, then stifled a nervous laugh at how ludicrous that was. What she was thinking was The poor woman. Had he beaten her yet? and a faint beard shadow, and from what she could tell, his biceps were huge. He was here on behalf of the local police precinct, and was a detective, if she remembered correctly. They'd been introduced briefly beforehand, and the minute she'd heard his faintly Southern accent, she'd known all she needed to know.
Way too much testosterone, she'd thought then and still thought. Probably enjoyed taunting street junkies. He sure wasn't the clean-cut, Junior Chamber of Commerce type that police departments usually had representing them at community relations events.
" as is all too common with children on the streets," the speaker went on, "Vanessa got involved with drugs. It was a struggle to support herself and, later, her children. No one helped her, no one took care of her, no one parented her."
Vanessa shot a look at her kids, sitting there in the front row on either side of a beaming Aunt Lupe. A lot of what they were hearing today was sanitized, of course, but she'd told them about her past with drugs, mostly as a warning to them. Now she wondered how they were reacting to hearing about it in public. One by one she met their gazes with a smile for each: fourteenyear-old Shane, twelve-year-old Thomas and the baby, Katy, age six. They smiled backeven Shane, her oldest, who didn't smile much at all these days.
She felt her heart filling with that special mother joy. They were the reason she was alive, they were her reason to keep on living, the reason she was here today. Just looking at them made her feel better, made her nervousness ease up.
Absently her gaze panned the rest of the audience: not a large group, and no press, thank God.A Single Voicethe multiracial group of successful, wealthy women who genuinely cared about giving help to other women, those who were disadvantaged and decidedly not wealthypreferred to do their work outside the spotlight.
"She tried to break her addiction many times over the years, but always fell short of success. Until that last time, over six years ago "
Getting closer to speech time, Vanessa thought, clutching her index cards again, as her gaze swept over the rest of the audience: a few friends, some associates from work and two rows of sullen teenage girls from the Youth Authority, who were supposed to hear her story and be inspired by the tale of someone just like them who'd found a way out of the violence and poverty they'd all grown up with.
Would it have an effect? Vanessa wondered. Maybe, maybe not.
A sudden movement in the back of the room made her shift her eyes in that direction.A man had just walked in. There was something about him that looked
She froze. No. Oh, please God, no.
But God must have been occupied elsewhere because her first impression was correct. A shiver of fear zipped up and down her spine at the sight of Romeo "Ray" Ortiz, drop-dead handsome, street smart and deadly. In a way, the catalyst for her presence here today, painful as that catalyst had been.
Three months before Katy's birth, Ray had beat Vanessa to within an inch of her life. Miracle of