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Darcy stepped onto the small patio of Mama's Place and stood in the shadows for a moment, watching. The dark could hide many things.
The restaurant was closed, and the waitresses and cooks were doing their final cleanup. As she began to pick up the table settings, the night air was fragrant with the sharp scent of chrysanthemums and the first hint of wood burning in fireplaces. She could take a deep breath for the moment.
But she had to be alert, as well.
She slid another ketchup bottle and four more sets of cutlery onto the large tray, and found a tip stuck beneath the salt shaker. Four singles. She made a mental note to give it to Phyllis.
"How are you doing out here, Darce?"
Nathan. "I'm good," she answered without bothering to turn around. No matter how many times she told him she didn't need help, Nathan would do what he did every nighthe'd put the chairs on top of the tables, fold and put away the umbrellas. The restaurant owner didn't want his waitresses lifting the heavy, awkward furnishings.
"It was a good night," he said with satisfaction.
"I got a lot of compliments on Marco's specials."
"My brother's pretty amazing."
"You sound surprised." Darcy smiled. "He's all grown up now, and he's a fabulous chef."
"I have to stop thinking of him as that irritating fifteen-year-old." Nathan grunted as he lifted an umbrella from its base. "Too bad you don't have any siblings, Darcy. You don't know what you missed."
She laughed. "I have siblings, Nate. You and Marco. My favorite brothers."
Nathan grinned as he set the umbrella inside the door. "And you're my second favorite sister. First, sometimes, when Frankie's a pain in the ass."
Darcy suppressed a tiny stab of envy. The Devereux siblings were a close-knit group. Their love for one another was obvious.
Maybe, if she'd had a sibling, things would have been different. Maybe she wouldn't have been so desperate for a family that she allowed Tim to talk her into marriage.
"How's Patrick?" she asked casually. The fourth Devereux was an FBI agent in Detroit. She'd met him only once, but the feelings he'd roused hadn't been sisterly. He'd come to Chicago several weeks ago for Frankie's engagement party, but instead of paying attention to his sister, he'd watched Darcy all evening. Her skin still prickled when she thought about his blue eyes focused on her like a spotlight.
She would take a few days off when he came back for Frankie's wedding.
FBI attention. She shuddered. Her worst nightmare.
No. Her second worst nightmare.
"He's good," Nathan said, struggling with the corner umbrella. "Too busy to visit."
Thank God. She helped free the base of the umbrella for him.
As she stood, a car drove past, slowing when it reached the restaurant. For a moment, the headlights illuminated her. Then the vehicle sped up, and Darcy watched its taillights disappear. Illinois license plate. Probably checking to see if Mama's place was open.
At eleven o'clock, the street was almost deserted in this small business district nestled in a residential neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. That's why Darcy had settled here. Big city, small-town feel. The restaurant was on the corner of a busy street close to the train tracks. The last commuter train of the evening had already been through, and now only the occasional car passed by. In Wildwood, this time of night, the darkness hid her well.
A low roar grew louder as another car accelerated down the street. She turned to help Nathan carry the umbrella inside but he dropped it and shouted, "Darcy! Move!"
She stared at him, puzzled, then he shoved her toward the open door. As she went flying into the restaurant she heard a sickening thud.
Scrambling to her feet, she saw that the flimsy fence around the seating area was crushed, and Nathan lay beneath an overturned table. His left leg was bent at an unnatural angle and blood pooled beneath it. As she ran to him, a dark car swerved back onto the street and drove off, the sound of its engine swallowed by the night.
Mama's Place had reopened three days ago. It had been closed for two days. On the first, everyone had been at the hospital with Nathan. The second day, they'd cleaned up the patio and figured out how to manage without him for six weeks or longer.
Now it seemed as if everyone in Wildwood wanted to eat at Mama's. There was an hour-long wait for a table tonight, and Darcy had called two extra waitresses in to work.
Glancing at Theresa Smith, sitting at her usual table at the window, Darcy seated a couple, then hurried to the kitchen to pick up the order for the four top in the corner. No way was she going to hurry Theresa along. The woman needed the respite that her evenings at Mama's provided.
No one seemed in a particular rush tonight, anyway. All the customers wanted to know what had happened to Nate, and she had the answers down pat.
"The police think it was a drunk driver."
"Nathan will be in the hospital for a while, but he's going to be fine."
"Broke his left leg in three places and his left arm in two."
"No, the police haven't caught the driver yet."
She knew everyone was worried about Nathan. The Devereux roots ran deep in Wildwoodthe siblings had been born there, and the restaurant was a neighborhood institution. Of course people wanted to know what had happened.
But every time someone asked about the accident, it ratcheted up her guilt a little more. If Nathan hadn't stopped to push her out of the way, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. He wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed, rods and bolts sticking out of his leg and arm, immobilized by a complicated, traction-like device above his bed.
The fear was even more insidious. What if the driver of that car hadn't been a random drunk? What if he'd known exactly what he was doing? What if he'd hit the wrong person?
He would be back.
Her instincts were screaming for her to run. To pack her meager belongings and leave chicago far behind. She had to ignore them.
Nathan had been injured trying to protect her. She couldn't abandon his family when they needed her help.
Not to mention Theresa Smith. Darcy could help the woman, if only Theresa would give her a chance.
Darcy stopped by her table. "How are you doing, Theresa?" she asked quietly.
"I'm fine." The middle-aged woman, her dark hair carefully coifed, didn't look at Darcy. Instead, she sipped her martini and continued to gaze out the window.
Darcy saw the healing bruise, half-hidden beneath the cuff of Theresa's blouse.
Anger burning, she glanced toward the bar. The man who always accompanied Theresa sat on a stool, a glass of amber liquid in front of him as he watched a baseball game on television.
"Let me know if you need anything," she said, touching the woman's shoulder lightly.
"I will." She finally looked at Darcy and her carefully blank expression relaxed a little. "Thank you."
"Anytime. You know that, right? You memorized my phone number?"
Her nod was a barely perceptible movement.
Theresa came to Mama's two or three times a week, had two martinis, picked at the food she ordered. The same beefy guy escorted her every night. When she'd asked Theresa if it was her husband, she had shaken her head. "My protection. My husband is very concerned about my safety."
Theresa never used a credit card, and it had taken her six months to tell Darcy her last name. Judging by her reluctance to meet Darcy's eyes when she did it, it was probably false, anyway.
A few weeks ago, Darcy had followed her into the restroom. Knowing the signs well, she had asked the older woman if she was being abused. Theresa had shaken her head. But her eyes glittered with tears as she'd locked herself in a stall.
Darcy couldn't abandon her.
The waitresses and Marco had been struggling to keep Mama's Place going since the accident. Patrick and Frankie had been at the hospital with Nathan. In a few days, when he was more stable, Frankie was going to take over managing the restaurant.
At least it wouldn't be Patrick. Having him around all the time would be too stressful. Too distracting. She hadn't forgotten the way he'd watched her at Frankie's engagement party.
Hadn't forgotten the way she'd watched him back. Or the awareness of him that she had felt all night.
When Frankie took over, she'd need Darcy's help. She had no choice but to stay.
If the driver of that car had been a random drunk, she was as safe as she'd been before.
If not, she'd just have to be more careful. More watchful. One of the things she liked about Wildwood was that everyone knew their neighbors. If a stranger was looking for Darcy, she'd hear about it.
A very thin safety net, but it was all she had.
The next afternoon, in the quiet before the restaurant opened at five, Darcy closed her eyes as she tasted Marco's butternut-squash ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. "Your brother is not paying you enough money, dude."
Marco grinned and bumped fists with her. "I think I'm in love. Marry me, Darce."
"Let me think." She took another bite and the flavors exploded on her tongue. "Food like this? I'd marry you in a second." She pointed her fork at him. "Oh, wait. I can get this food by coming to work every day. Never mind."
"You're breaking my heart."
"That's life." She swabbed the last ravioli through the sauce and sighed as she finished it. "I hope you made plenty. We're going to run out of this."
Phyllis and Ashley agreed. The fourth waitress, carol, squinched her face. "People like regular ravioli," she said. Everyone sitting around the large table in the corner shrugged. Carol never liked any of Marco's specials. She never liked much of anything. All of them had learned to ignore her.
The waitresses usually arrived an hour early to set up, then taste Marco's daily specials. It had been six days since Nathan's accident, and Carol's complaints meant things were getting back to normal.
Nathan was the only one missing.
"What's the update?" Phyllis asked.
"He's good." Marco dished out small plates of the seafood pasta. "Antsy as hell, though. Asking about the restaurant, insisting he needs to come home. They think it will be a few more days. He'll be in bed for a while, then in a wheelchair, but Patrick and Frankie are going to take turns staying with him. Home health care will fill in the gaps."
"Patrick doesn't have to get back to Detroit?" Darcy asked, keeping her voice casual.
"He took a leave of absence, so he'll be around for a while." Marco tasted the pasta. "Said he needed to be here for us."
The shrimp in Darcy's mouth was suddenly tasteless. So was Marco's spicy sauce. "I thought he only had a few days. How long is 'a while'?"
"As long as we need him, he said." Marco ate a scallop. "My guess? Not that long. He'll go into withdrawal if he's not catching bad guys."
"Sounds like he takes his job pretty seriously."
"That's Paddy. Serious to the bone. Mr. Black and White."
"He doesn't sound like a lot of fun," Phyllis said with a wink. The waitress was closer to fifty than forty, with bright red hair and a perpetual smile. She definitely enjoyed life.
"Hey, Paddy can be a lot of fun," Marco said. He winked back at Phyllis. "As long as you're not a criminal."
Her hand trembling, Darcy picked up her dirty dishes and carried them into the kitchen. As she deposited them by the dishwasher, the back door opened and a tall figure with dark hair walked in.
Her heart raced and her hands got clammy. Avoiding his gaze, she headed toward the dining room. "Darcy?" Patrick called. "Hold on a minute."
As he got closer, his bright blue eyes scanned her, as if he were committing her face to memory. "I'm Patrick. We met at Frankie's engagement party."
"Right. Hi, Patrick." She wiped her hands on her apron. "How's Nathan doing today?"
"Cranky. Always a good sign."
She managed to smile, although her face felt as if it would crack. "It is."
His gaze lingered on her short, layered hair, and she smoothed it back self-consciously. Were her blond roots showing? "Let's go in the other room where it isn't so noisy," he said. "I need to talk to you."
She froze for a moment as he held the swinging door open, then forced her legs to move. Her heart racing, her palms sweating, she wondered what he wanted. Why he wanted to talk to her.
"Hey, Marco," Patrick said with a wave as he followed her.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and offered her one. When she shook her head, he led the way to a table in the corner opposite the one where the other waitresses and Marco still sat.
"Nathan told me you're organized and smart, and you pay attention to everything. I'm throwing myself on your mercy, because I'm going to need your help."
"With what?" The end of the red-checked tablecloth lay on her lap, and she pleated it with fingers that shook.
"Running Mama's Place. I worked here years ago, but I was just a kid. All I had to do was clear tables and wash dishes. I didn't have to actually think about the business."
"You're running the restaurant?" Darcy swallowed. "Marco said Frankie was doing it."
"She offered, but Frankie has her plate full right now. She's expanding her teen center, some kid she knows is about to have a baby, and she and Cal are planning their wedding." He shook his head. "Those two could be a commercial for the Lifetime channel, and I don't have the stomach to watch it."
"How romantic." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Darcy closed her fist around the tablecloth. Had she really said that?
She was too used to joking around with Nathan and Marco.