The Roads Home

The Roads Home

by Linda Barrett

When a broken arm forces Dr. Eric Mitchell to hire temporary help, the veterinarian who arrives on his doorstep takes him by surprise.

Physically, Alison Truesdale seems too fragile. Emotionally, her smile never quite reaches her eyes—especially around his son. The boy, Eric soon discovers, reminds her of a past she can't outrun.

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When a broken arm forces Dr. Eric Mitchell to hire temporary help, the veterinarian who arrives on his doorstep takes him by surprise.

Physically, Alison Truesdale seems too fragile. Emotionally, her smile never quite reaches her eyes—especially around his son. The boy, Eric soon discovers, reminds her of a past she can't outrun.

By the time he finds a runaway hiding in his barn, Eric has started to accept the unexpected, because the teen has shown him the way to Alison's heart, and helped him to see that his house full of strangers could make a perfect home.

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Harlequin Heartwarming Series
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Monday, April Eighteenth
Forest Hills, Queens

She packed Billy's picture last. The one with him wearing his dirty Little League uniform. He'd scored the winning run a moment earlier, and she'd been there, camera in hand. Her boy…

Alison bit her lip and slammed the suitcase shut. With trembling fingers, she groped for the locks, snapped them into place.

Okay. She could do this. She could leave her home, which wasn't a home anymore but a hideout. She could leave this bedroom where she'd slept alone for the past two years. She could leave the bed where William had cradled her in his arms, where she'd given love and received it for fourteen years from a man who'd known he belonged right next to her.

She had no choice but to keep going.

Survival sure was overrated.

A soft whine near her ankles caught her attention, and she scooped Shadow into her arms. "We're almost ready, girl," she whispered to the black, curly-haired schnoodle. Billy's dog. Billy's shadow. Now hers.

She put the dog back down and hoisted the suitcase to the floor, scanning the room with a critical eye. Tenants would be moving in the next day, tenants who understood that Billy's room was off-limits. She rechecked each dresser drawer, as well as the master closet. Nothing. She'd sent William's clothes to Goodwill and hers to her parents' place in Massachusetts.

As she clasped the handle of the suitcase and stepped toward the door, her eyes fell once more on the king-size bed. She blinked quickly and hurried from the room, down the flight of stairs, Shadow at her heels. Outside on the front steps, she slammed the door behind them.

Bayside, Queens

Fifteen-year-old Danielle O'Connor pointed out the street sign to her two new friends.

"Jupiter Place," she said. "We're here, and we've got a job to do."

"At your old house," said Raven, shading her eyes and peering down the long city block.

"That's exactly right," said Dani softly.

The sun shone brightly, and Dani needed to feel its warmth on her face. She'd woven her hair into one long braid, which hung down her back. April in the city smelled clean, hinted of promise…a promise of something. She didn't know exactly what, but she liked the tang in the air. Especially combined with the familiar rush of adrenaline coursing through her.

"Nice spreads and big ole oaks," drawled Houston. "A good hood."

Dani glanced at the boy. A skinny kid from Maine with a craving for Texas. "All the houses look alike…" she said "…and the oaks have been here forever, but your accent's getting better, cowboy. Keep practicing. And keep your mind on what we're doing. Hear me?"

Maybe it was time to go off on her own again. After two years on the streets, she'd learned that life was easier just taking care of herself. But sometimes she liked the company. Last year, she'd returned to her old street alone and had achieved great success. Yet her satisfaction had been short-lived because no one had been there to see the shambles she'd made of her father's house.

He'd deserved it and a lot more. "An alcoholic. A crazy cop," the neighbors had called him. "No wonder they threw him off the force." Dani had heard the whispers, had seen the empty bottles. And she'd been bruised enough throughout her childhood. Maybe if her mother had been alive… She stroked the gold four-leaf clover she wore around her neck.

"We're going to walk slowly down the block. Just three kids killing time. And when we get to his house, we make sure it's empty before we go in." She paused and stared at Raven. Dani didn't know her real name. "Better take off the do-rag, Raven. We don't want attention."

"You worry way too much, Irish." But the girl pulled off her headgear.

"I don't worry, Raven. I plan."

She'd had to learn to plan—about the time her breasts had begun to grow and her hips had widened…and John O'Connor had… She swallowed hard. Revenge was really very sweet no matter what some people said.

She scanned both sides of the street. Jupiter Place was quiet at two in the afternoon. The younger kids were still in school; the older kids probably had other activities. Like track team. Dani glanced down at her running shoes. They fit just right—not too snug, not too loose—exactly as her coach had taught her.

Take it right the first time. Her next shopping trip would include longer jeans. She had grown a couple of inches, and her boobs had sort of flattened out, which was fine with her. But her pants were too short.

"The house we want is on the other side of the street, almost at the corner," she said. "Let's just sort of meander."

Raven rolled her eyes. "I don't care about the rag, but we don't need no hundred-dollar words around here, girl. What's me-and-her?"

"That's just her way," said Houston.

"Makes her feel mighty fine to know those big words."

"Makes her feel mighty high. Higher up on us is what."

Next time, Dani thought, she'd definitely come alone. "How about, I'll get you something special when I go shopping again. Maybe.earrings?"

Raven's eyes shone as Dani knew they would. The girl was easy to figure out. And cheap pierced earrings were easy to lift.

Dani checked out all the cars parked along the curb as they covered the length of the street, then the common driveway behind the row of attached brick houses. John O'Connor's car wasn't anywhere. She smiled.

"He can't afford a new one, so we're okay. I'm going in through the back. Raven, come with me and stand at the door, and Houston…you keep a low profile out here in front. I won't be long."

She let herself in with her key and stopped short in the kitchen. Spotless. No way would her father do women's work. A cleaning service? She doubted it. Moving silently through the room to the hallway, she climbed the stairs to the second floor, hoping to retrieve anything that belonged to her—clothing, books, anything at all—but paused outside the master bedroom. Perfume. She peeked in. Sure enough, on the dresser was a mirrored tray with girl stuff, like her mom had once had. I feel sorry for you, lady.

Then she spotted the gun. The one he'd bought after his retirement. "Once a cop, always a cop," he'd said. It was in a holster over the back of a chair. So careless…so inviting. Dani grabbed the gun belt and rushed back to the kitchen, took a paper napkin and lifted the weapon out. She put it carefully into the freezer. Then she lay the empty belt across the kitchen table. He'd go crazy when he saw the gun was missing. How long would it take him until he searched the freezer? Oh, yes. This was good. Very, very good.

She stuffed the napkin into her pocket, then opened the refrigerator and stared at some leftover roast beef. It looked delicious. She reached for it, then paused. Better not leave concrete evidence that someone had been in the house. When he eventually found the gun, he'd think he 'd put it in the freezer while he was drunk. It didn't get sweeter than this.

She left the house exactly as she'd found it—with the one exception—and greeted her friends with a light heart. "Let's go," she said, leading the others back down the street. She'd been inside less than three minutes.

"You should'a taken the gun, Irish." Raven rolled her eyes as if Dani was the stupidest human on earth.

Dani shrugged. The girl had no appreciation for subtleties. "Why? We can't pawn it."

"Yes, we can."

"It's got a serial number, Raven. All guns do. I don't want trouble and neither do you."

"We can get the ID filed off. And besides, your old man would never report it missing. A cop losing a gun? His friends would laugh at him."

"I can always lift an extra wallet, Raven. But I really, really like the thought of driving him crazy."

Raven turned to Houston. "Look at her face. Her eyes. She got a crazy mean streak, just like us. She ain't no better'n us."

"Never said I was," replied Dani. They'd arrived at the subway station and descended, ready to go back to the city. "It's you who keeps saying that." Maybe it was time to get new friends. Except she liked these two—most of the time. And most of the time, the kids she ran with dropped her. And then she'd be on her own again. Starting over.

Houston interrupted. "Raven, darlin'. She's not getting everything her way."

"What you mean?"

"Well, she won't be there to see her old man's face, now will she? And that's what she'd really like."

Houston had nailed it. But Dani resented his having to appease Raven. The whole day had been like that with the other girl. Her behavior was getting on Dani's nerves.

The train pulled in. Seats were easy to find on a Monday afternoon, and Dani leaned back. Raven sat next to her with Houston on the other side. The would-be cowboy was busy studying the other commuters. A habit they all had of studying their surroundings.

A minute after the train started, however, Dani felt Raven leaning against her, sound asleep. She shook her off, but Raven's head landed back on Dani's shoulder, heavier than before, and her whole body followed as though Dani were a mattress.

She looked across Raven at Houston. "I got a bad feeling something's going on with Raven. Stand up in front of her for a minute."

"Dang it, Irish. She's only tired."

His defensiveness turned Dani's bad feeling into a hard knot. "Either get to your feet, or I'm outta here."

With a big sigh, Houston slowly complied. As soon as he'd blocked them from view of the other passengers, Dani rolled up Raven's sleeve and examined the inside of her arm. She glanced at Houston. "When did she start?"


"We're going to bring her to a rehab center," said Dani. "I can't take care of another one…not even one more." She pressed her lips together and blinked hard. "Remember Raine? She died while I held her on the sidewalk! And Lucy—I couldn't get her to a hospital in time."

Houston shook his head. "Before I knew you, darlin'. But a rehab center isn't right for our Raven. She'll hightail it straight out of there."

"She'll die if she doesn't go," said Dani. "At some point. Right now, she still has a chance." She paused. "Listen…there's a place on Tenth Avenue we can spend the night. A warehouse with a guard who looks the other way. His name is Eddie, and he says I remind him of his granddaughter. Raven'll be more alert in the morning. We'll talk to her then."

"I'm hungry."

Food! Was food all that boy could think about? "How about a Big Mac? I've got enough for us and the watchman."

He nodded. "Good plan."

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