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The kid was back. Again.
Putting himself in danger. Again.
Bracing against the gusty March wind on The Point, Scott Walsh squinted at the blond-haired boy. He was ten, maybe eleven. The perfect age to be tempted by all the heavy equipment on the Northern California headland. Twenty-five years ago, that could have been him. He, too, would have found the allure hard to resist.
But empathy didn't equate to tolerance.
He flexed the fingers of his left hand and glanced down at the scars crisscrossing the back, the shiny white lines and limited mobility a constant reminder that when it came to safety, he couldn't afford to be Mr. Nice Guy.
Lips clamped together, he switched his focus back to the boy. The kid had been smart, waiting until the crew called it quits for the weekend before venturing out here. He'd also managed to elude the off-hours security guard, though that wouldn't have been difficult. The long-retired Humboldt County deputy was more show than substance, his presence intended to deter rather than enforce.
The boy's back was to him as he examined the bucket on one of the giant excavators, then proceeded to check out the crawler treads that were as tall as he was. Last time he'd spotted the kid, Scott had yelled at him from across the construction site. The youngster had taken off before he got close.
He wouldn't make that mistake again.
Scott wove through the obstacle course of equipment, trenches and lumber, where all of the foundation work for the upscale inn had been completed on scheduleas promised. Meeting deadlines was a sticking point with him and a hallmark of Walsh Construction. It was also one of the reasons Mattson Properties had chosen his firm to tackle the high-profile project. Not a day passed that he didn't give thanks for this opportunityand the much-needed income it was providing.
The wind in the needled branches of the spruce and hemlock trees, along with the muted crash of surf on the rocks below the towering headland, masked his footsteps as he approached the excavator. He'd like nothing better than to grab the boy by the scruff of his neck and haul him back to his negligent parents. But touching him wouldn't be smart. The parents could sue him for assault if they were ticked off. He'd have to settle for getting in the kid's face and putting the fear of the Almighty into him.
Not until his shadow fell over him did the boy realize he had company. By the time he spun around, Scott was only two feet away.
The youngster's panicked gaze darted left, then right. He whipped his head around to look behind him, but the excavator treads cut off that avenue of escape.
Scott invaded his space, placing his hands on the treads on either side of the boy's head to pin him in. Long enough, he hoped, to get his message across.
"I thought I told you two days ago to stay out of here."
The boy stared up at him in silence, eyes wide, face colorless.
"Construction sites are dangerous. And so is this stuff." Scott banged a hand against the metal body of the excavator above the kid's head.
The boy flinched and folded his body into a protective tuck.
Then he started to shake.
Scott frowned. He'd dealt with plenty of curious kids on job sites in Eureka, and most had been defiant. As a result, he'd ramped up his tough-guy stance over the past four years. But this wasn't a big city like Eureka, where gangs and drugs caused problems. The only gang in tiny Starfish Bay was probably the group of seniors who met every Wednesday morning at the Mercantile's coffee nook to OD on caffeine.
A twinge of remorse tugging at his conscience, he softened his tone a fraction, eased back a few inches and planted his fists on his hips. "What's your name?"
The boy might be scared, but he was thinking clearly enough to see his opening. Instead of responding, he lunged past Scott and tore off for the woods, legs pumping, dirt flying.
Scott stayed where he was as he cupped his hands around his mouth. "If I see you around here again, I'm going to call the county sheriff!"
The boy cast a terrified look over his shoulder and kept running. Thirty seconds later, he disappeared behind the sheltering branches of the coniferous trees that separated the headland from the town.
Scott waited a full minute, then pulled his keys from his pocket and set off for his SUV. He'd flag Al down on his way out and alert the guard to be on the lookout for trespassers. But he had a feeling he'd seen the last of the blond-haired interloper.
the image of the boy's frightened face nipped at his conscience. Maybe he'd gone a little overboard with his intimidation tactics.
He stopped beside his SUV, transferred his keys to his left hand so he could open the doorand watched them slip to the ground before his fingers could close over them.
Expelling a frustrated breath, he bent to retrieve them. And as the dipping sun illuminated the shiny white spiderweb of lines on his hand, his lips settled into a resolute line.
He didn't like scaring kidsbut if fear kept the boy safe, Scott could live with the guilt.
"Did something unpleasant happen at school today?"
Cindy Peterson cut a bite of the Orchid Cafe's famous pot roast and speared it with her fork, struggling to keep her tone conversational as she addressed her son. His reticence, his subdued manner, the way he was picking at his foodit was all a flashback to a year ago, reminding her of the weeks of grief counseling, her sleepless nights of worry, his slipping grades. But they were past that, weren't they? Please, God, let us be past that!
She watched Jarrod poke at the mashed potatoes he usually inhaled. "You're very quiet tonight." He shrugged.
Okay. Time to regroup. Think this through with her head instead of her heart.
Jarrod had had two big tests this week. It was possible he was just tired. She certainly was. The Humboldt County Historical Society worked with a lean staff at the best of times; losing one person had had a ripple effect on everyone. Cindy hadn't liked staying late every night for the past three weeks or leaving Jarrod alone for an extra couple of hours after school, but what could she do? She needed this joband right now, it needed her more than usual.
Perhaps she was overreacting. It may simply have been a long week for both of them.
"Would you like to watch a video tonight? I could make some chocolate chip cookies, too." She forced herself to lift the fork to her mouth and chew the piece of pot roast that had grown cold. "I guess."
Bad sign. A video and cookies always elicited enthusiasm.
The wad of meat got stuck in her throat, and she reached for her glass of water to wash it down. Took a long swallow. Inhaled a calming breath.
"Jarrod." She waited until he lifted his chin. "Why don't you tell me what's going on?"
He wrinkled his brow. Indecision clouded his eyes, but he remained silent.
"Did you have another run-in with Mark?" The class bully had chosen her son as a target a few months ago, further upsetting him for weeks. The little tyrant might be on the warpath again.
"No." He gave his potatoes another listless poke. Let out a long sigh. Slanted a look at her. "It's no big deal, really. I know I promised to stay inside after school, but I got tired of being cooped up." His grip tightened on his fork, and he licked his lips. "So tonight and Wednesday I went out to
He stopped abruptly. Stared over her shoulder toward the cafe entrance. Paled.
Swiveling in her seat, Cindy checked out the small foyer. A tall man in dirt-smudged jeans and work boots stood inside the entrance, a snug T-shirt outlining his broad shoulders and impressive biceps as he surveyed the crowded cafe.
Behind her, a fork clattered to the floor. Her son dived for it as she turned.
When he lingered below the table, she furrowed her brow and leaned sideways to check on him. "Jarrod? What's going
As the male voice spoke, a pair of well-broken-in work boots appeared in her field of vision.
Cindy righted herself and found the man from the foyer standing beside their table. His glowering scowl suggested he had a temper to go with his dark auburn hair.
But why would a stranger be angry with her?
The man shot a quick look at her left hand, adorned only by a slender gold band. "I assume the boy hiding under the table is your son?"
His accusatory tone stiffened Cindy's spine, and she straightened in her seat. "He's not hiding. Jarrod, sit back in your chair. We'll get you another fork."
Her son slowly emerged from below the table, avoiding eye contact with her. That evasive maneuver, plus the telltale flush on his cheeks, set off warning bells in her head.
"What don't I know here?" She focused on Jarrod, but the stranger spoke.
"I caught him trespassing on The Point twice this week. I warned him the first time. Today, I threatened to notify the sheriff. But a mother will do for now. Keep him away from the construction site. I don't want any accidents on this job. Got it?"
Warmth crept over Cindy's cheeks as her own anger spiked. "You don't have to be rude about it."
He flicked a glance toward the bulging briefcase on the seat beside her. "I do when parents don't take responsibility for their kid's safety."
His jab at her parenting skills stung.
But it also produced a twinge of guilt. She hadn't been as diligent as usual in the past couple of weeks, thanks to her job. And she didn't want her son wandering around a dangerous construction site any more than this man did. Whoever he was.
"It won't happen again."
"Here you go, Jarrod. I saw you drop yours from across the room." Genevieve Durham came bustling over, waving a clean fork. She set it beside Jarrod's plate and beamed at the new arrival, patting a stray wisp of white hair back into place. "Hello, Scott. Having dinner?"
"I was, but I think I'll head home instead. It's been a long week. And not all of it pleasant." He shot Cindy and Jarrod a narrow-eyed look.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I understand things are moving along on schedule at the inn, though. That's a positive."
Genevieve and her sister, Lillian, could charm a smile out of almost anyone with their perennial upbeat attitudes. Cindy wasn't surprised they'd made a rousing success of the Orchid. But the charm didn't work on this man.
"Yeah." His lips remained flat.
If Genevieve was aware of his bad temper, her sunny demeanor gave no indication of it. "Well, you drive safe and have a nice weekend."
"Thanks. I'll try."
Without even glancing again toward mother and son, the man departed.
Genevieve adjusted her glasses, propped her hands on her ample hips and inspected the plates on the table. "You two haven't made much progress on my pot roast tonight. Did I forget to put in a spice? Are the potatoes undercooked?"
"No. It's wonderful, as usual." Cindy wadded her napkin in her lap. "But we both had a busy week. I think we're just tired."
"Busy, busy, busy. The story of modern life." The older woman huffed out a breath. "That nice young man is forever on the run, too." She gestured over her shoulder, toward the door where Scott had disappeared. "Eats so fast he hardly warms a chairbut I guess overseeing a job like Inn at The Point is a big responsibility."
"Is he the foreman?" Cindy took a sip of water, keeping one eye on Jarrod. His guilty flush told her he was dreading their upcoming one-on-one conversation.
"Among other things. He's eaten breakfast or dinner here a few times, but he doesn't talk a lot about himself. I do know he owns Walsh Construction. A few of the guys on his crew stop in for breakfast on occasion, and from what I've overheard, he almost lives on the job site. And he's very conscientious and safetyoriented." Genevieve checked out their plates again. "Would you like some take-out cartons?"
"That would be great. Thanks."
"Coming right up."
As Genevieve moved away, Cindy pushed her plate aside, rested her forearms on the table and folded her hands as she regarded her son. "You want to tell me your side of this?"
"I was starting to tell you when he showed up." He shot her a defensive look.
"Okay. Go ahead and finish."
"I got done with my homework early on Wednesday and tonight. I know you told me to stay inside, but I'm tired of being alone in the house every night. It's boring. I didn't think anyone would care if I went down to The Point to look at the trucks and stuff. Nobody's there after four, except the guard, and I didn't hurt anything. I don't know why he got so mad."
The mere thought of her son wandering around among all that huge equipment sent a shiver through her. "He got mad because you were trespassingand because a construction site can be dangerous."
Jarrod broke off a piece of the roll and crumbled it on his plate. "It's not dangerous if you're careful. And I didn't touch anything."
"A place like that can be dangerous even if you're careful. You're lucky Mr. Walsh didn't follow through on his threat and call the sheriff."
Her son bowed his head. "Yeah. I guess. I won't go back anymore."
Cindy could tell he meant it. Now. But if he got bored againor adventure beckonedthe temptation might be too strong to resist.
"Maybe I need to think about aftercare again until school is out."
"Aw, Mom." He shot her a stricken look. "I'm gonna be twelve in two months! I'm too old for a babysitter! I won't go back. Honest. I don't like that guy, anyway. He's mean."
Yes, he was. But Cindy kept that opinion to herself as she pinned her son with her strictest, cut-no-slack look. "Is that a promise, Jarrod?"
"Okay. I trust you to keep it. But you did break our rules by going in the first place. You know there are consequences for that. What do you think would be a fair punishment?"
"No TV for three days?" His expression was hopeful.
"Nice try. Let's make it a week because you broke the rules twice."