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A Sheltering Love
By Terri Reed
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Terri Reed
All right reserved.
Here comes trouble.
Maybe some kids were beyond her help.
Claire Wilcox eyed the two teenage boys sauntering across the grassy park toward the shaded spot where she and fifteen-year-old Mindy were talking. Claire's gaze zeroed in on the taller, dark-haired boy with scraggly, shoulder-length hair and a thin face. The early April sunlight splintered off the earring dangling in his left ear. In his hands he carried a golden retriever puppy.
Behind the two boys, in sharp contrast, the purity of the majestic snowcapped peak of Mount Hood rose in the distance like a sentry, standing watch over Oregon's Willamette Valley.
She'd seen the dark-haired boy around town.
Some locals blamed last month's vandalism at the downtown theater on this kid. She didn't know his story, but she would soon if the opening of the teen shelter went as planned this coming July.
"Hey, Johnny, catch." The dark-haired boy suddenly tossed the puppy to his blond companion, who awkwardly caught the small dog.
Claire's heart pitched. She stalked forward, her hands clenched at her sides. "Hey! Don't do that!"
Johnny shoved the dog back into the hands of the taller kid.
"Do this?" He tossed the small dog back to his companion.
The puppy yelped and Johnny caught the little fluff ball, then held it at arm's length by the scruff of the neck. The kid's gray sweatshirt and faded jeans were dirty, as if he'd rolled or slept on the ground. His gaze darted away from Claire, his face flushing guiltily.
"Tyler, stop it," Mindy wailed as she moved to the side of the taller kid.
So this was Tyler.
Claire scrutinized the dark-haired boy in his red T-shirt with some rock band's logo on the front and ripped, dirty jeans. Mindy had said he was nice. He didn't look nice. He looked downright nasty. The kind of guy she would have fallen for at Mindy's age. The kind that would give any parent a heart attack.
Not her. She knew better. Everyone deserved a chance.
Claire understood the pain of the rebellious teens she was trying to help. She understood -- had experienced the wounds of childhood. Wounds inflicted by those she should have been able to trust.
Teens like Mindy and Tyler stood on the cusp of adulthood, where the choices they made would affect the rest of their lives. By the grace of God, Aunt Denise had stepped in and helped Claire when she'd been at the point of no return. Not every teen was as fortunate.
If only Claire could get through to kids like these. Earning the right to be heard, to be trusted, would take time. Once The Zone officially opened, she hoped to make a difference in their lives. Give them a place to belong, to come to when it became too rough at home.
A safe haven.
But her only concern right now was for the animal.
She flexed her hands and willed herself to stay calm. With as much control as she could muster, she said, "Give me the puppy."
Tyler snorted and grabbed the puppy back from his friend. "You ain't the boss of me, lady."
"No, I'm not. You're the boss of you. But I don't think you're cruel, either, Tyler. Just let the pup go." Though she'd gentled her tone, anxiety wavered in her voice.
Tyler flipped his unwashed hair over his shoulder as his eyes narrowed. Claire met his challenging gaze dead-on. He wanted attention, wanted someone to trust, somebody to care. Well, she'd show him she cared and that she wasn't afraid or intimidated by him.
Most people in Pineridge would just as soon lock up these kinds of teens. The "throwaways." But Claire had different ideas. They needed help and understanding. And she could give that to them.
Tyler dropped his gaze first, affirming to Claire that he just needed some guidance, some boundaries. But when he lifted his gaze back to hers, she sucked in a breath at the malicious intent in his gray eyes.
"You want the dog?" His mouth curled up in a sneer. "Then you catch the dog."
Tyler flung the puppy upward. Fear clamped a steely hand around Claire's heart. The dog yelped again, its legs flailing in the air. She lurched forward, her arms outstretched, her hands ready to catch the dog. But she was too far away. Her feet stumbled on a rut in the grass. Her pulse pounded. The teens' snickering echoed in her ears.
Dear Lord, help!
A shadow crossed her peripheral vision. The air swirled with a rush of heat as a dark shape overtook her, passed her. She skidded to a halt.
He deftly caught the small pup and cradled the trembling dog against his black leather-clad chest. His big hands gently soothed the puppy with long strokes down its back.
The man was tall, well over six feet, wearing black leather down to his heavy boots. The ebony hair curling at the edge of his collar needed a trim and a few days growth of beard shadowed his square jaw. Tiny brackets edged his mouth and weathered little creases outlined his eyes.
But it was those dark orbs that sent her pulse into shock.
Though he stared down Tyler, she saw the hard glint of rage shining from the fathomless depths of his black eyes.
Tall, dark and dangerous. Nothing but trouble there.
Claire resisted the urge to back away. She'd learned long ago that she was susceptible to the kind of guy that sent good girls scrambling for cover. Claire wasn't a good girl; she'd done some horrible things in the past. Things she was ashamed of. But she'd turned her life around and wasn't about to backslide.
Tyler scowled. "Hey, mister, that's mine."
"Not anymore." Anger punctuated the stranger's words. His accent wasn't from the Pacific Northwest.
Excerpted from A Sheltering Love by Terri Reed Copyright © 2005 by Terri Reed. Excerpted by permission.
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