Calli Giovanni wasn't looking for a hero, especially one who could expose her darkest secrets. But Luke Northrup—dedicated police officer, and even more dedicated single father—wanted to play the role anyway. And she was finding it harder and harder not to let him.
A chance encounter at a wedding awakened feelings for her long-ago fiancé—feelings Emily Berthoff had thought buried. And she knew Kevin MacIntyre felt exactly the same way. Yet how could they set aside years of bitterness and regret to find each other again?
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Calli Giovanni walked through the stained-glass doors praying that she would someday experience the peace of forgiveness.
Why can't I let it go? "You can't get discouraged," her cousin Hanna said, following her through the doors. "Don't expect healing to happen all at once. It isn't easy. Like tonight's speaker said, it's one miserable step at a time. For tonight, go home. Stop patrolling."
"I can't, Hanna. I would think you'd understand. He was my kid brother. I want justice served. I can't let it go."
"I do understand, Calandre. More than you think." Hanna took Calli by the shoulders. "Who can't you forgive, Calli? The killer? Or yourself, for not seeing Mike slip out of the house?"
Calli turned and stared into her cousin's moist eyes. "Neither." Her own tears dried up years ago. All that was left was this numbness. She was an emotional zombie. "Don't you see what this is doing to you?" Hanna asked.
"It's not worth it. You don't laugh. You don't cry. You barely exist." Hanna paused, then unlocked her car door. "Go home. It's time for you to stop."
Calli never finished her college degree. Her brother had been killed at the beginning of her last semester. She'd set new priorities. Priorities that cost her dearly. Her family, her fiancé, her happiness. All in hopes of finding answers. "That's easier said than done."
Hanna hugged Calli. "You can do it. Just don't give in. Sorry I have to rush off, but I'm expecting a call at nine-thirty. Take care." Her petite cousin slid into her sports car and waved.
"That's my problem, Han. I don't ever give up. I don't know how." Calli took off her down-filled coat and tossed it into the passenger's seat, her voice a whisper into the darkness. She watched Hanna drive away without a care in the world. "It's cost me everyone I loved, and I still can't let it go."
Her mother, father, older brother and even her sister were like distant relatives. They had put the past behind them and moved on. Recovered. Only she was stuck trying to erase the shadows lurking in her mind. Fighting the unknown in a city of dark corners and unlit alleys. Doing the only thing she could to avenge her brother's death.
Thinking of Mike, she closed the door and reached under her seat. Calli pulled out a zippered bag and stared at it, considering giving up on this thankless mission. She zipped the pouch open and emptied the contents into her lap. "Just one patrol before I head home. Maybe tonight's my lucky night." She tugged the long blond wig over her own hair and covered her lips with tropical punch-colored lipstick. Horn-rimmed glasses completed the disguise. Good grief, I even look like Aunt Calandre.
It was a quiet night in Palmer, Colorado. Calli spent over an hour cruising without anything to report. Feeling a sudden chill, she reached for the heat control, only to find it was already set on high and pumping hot air into the small compartment. Calm down, Cal. There's not even any action.
As she continued down the alleys and streets lined with dilapidated buildings, Calli prayed. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me."
She perused the business district, then paused to consider what she was doing before turning toward the city's core. It was a neighborhood within a neighborhood. A place where nothing was sacred. Not property, not values and especially not human life.
The only thing flourishing here was the Eastsiders, a gang that preyed on the weak and helpless.
Maybe they would provide her with some clues. After all, that was the gang her brother had allegedly been joining when the "initiation" went too far.
Adrenaline pulsed through her veins as she turned into the parking lot of a dimly lit apartment complex. Her breathing became shallow and ragged. Why do I keep doing this? Is it even worth it anymore?
A shiver raced up her spine and Calli quickly glanced left, then right. The rays of the streetlight reflected off of the glistening ground. She dialed "911 send" on her cellular phone just as three figures bolted from the icy parking lot toward the apartments, dodging cars and jumping wobbly handrails. "Gotcha."
One threw a small crowbar at her, hitting the front fender. "911 Emergency."
"Columbia Boulevard and 15th Street." Calli swallowed, trying to smooth her raspy voice as it scratched through the wires. "The Willows Apartments. There's broken glass everywhere."
One teenager slipped and fell to the ground. Calli skidded to a stop inches from him. He got up and looked at her, his dark eyes filled with fear. He glanced behind him, then stumbled ahead to where his cohorts had disappeared.
"Ma'am, are you there?" the 911 operator repeated. Calli's heart pounded faster and she dragged in another breath. Shadows wrapped their arms around her. Street-lights flickered. Vines covered apartment windows like victorian lace curtains. Calli shivered. Where'd they go?
"Are you okay?"
"Fine. I'm fine. Three kids..." Calli pressed on the accelerator. She searched beyond the tinted glass for any movement as she drove slowly toward the exit to conclude the loop. She wanted desperately to leave before the officers arrived, armed with endless questions and expectations.
"They're wearing dark clothing, bulky coats." She paused, hoping to recall more. "One wore a starter jacket...and a bandanna. A blue bandanna." She turned the last corner before the exit. "They weren't very tall. Around sixteen, maybe younger."
The woman stopped her and repeated the information, then asked for more details.
Calli knew the more she could remember, the better the chance that justice would be served. "One had bleached blond hair, the other two had dark hair. I think one's hurt."
Sirens wailed in the distance, then abruptly stopped.
They'd be here any minute. Time to go. Calli thought of the gang's leader with a wretched sense of pleasure. Another bust. She may not be able to find the proof she needed to put the gang's leader away, but she could make Tiger's "work" more difficult.
She stepped on the gas pedal but it was too late. A white police car fishtailed as it rounded the curve. It slid on the ice and headed toward her.
Calli pumped the brakes. Time stopped, and the terror seemed to continue in slow motion. It was no use. Her tires couldn't grip.
She pressed the brakes again. Harder. Still nothing. Finally she slammed her foot to the floorboard and gripped the steering wheel, directing her skid away from the police cruiser.
Her four-wheel drive slammed into the curb and jerked to a stop. Seconds later, the officer pulled closer and rolled down his window. The set of his strong, square jaw personified authority. She couldn't look away from the deep-set eyes and rugged features that expressed sincere concern.
Trembling, Calli opened her window. The dark-haired officer leaned out of his car. "Are you okay?"
She nodded stiffly, and they drove on, into the parking lot. Pull yourself together, Cal. Get going. She shifted into first and stepped on the gas.
The truck didn't budge.
Depressing the clutch, Calli turned the key. "Come on, start." Without allowing the engine to settle into an even idle, she pulled away.
"That was too close for comfort. I've got to get out of here. Where's the phone?" She found it in the far corner of the floorboard and shut it off, then turned south on Columbia Boulevard. A few minutes later, flashing lights beckoned in her rearview mirror as backup turned into the apartment complex. "They're all yours, guys. I've done as much as I can."
Calli's heart raced in an unsteady rhythm as the motor purred down the street. Four miles later, she pulled into the parking lot of Teodoro's, the Quonset hut-turned restaurant she frequented. She clicked off the ignition and leaned her head against the seat. Darn it, Calli. You're pushing too hard. You've got to stop.
Tugging the bristly hair from her head, she stuffed the blond wig into the bag and let out a deep breath. She gazed into the rearview mirror, removed the glasses and studied herself disapprovingly. After wiping the gauche color from her lips, she applied ointment to help remove the remaining tint. The near-accident replayed in her mind as she yanked a brush through the matted mess of black curls. She had hung around too long, almost long enough to meet the cops in person. That was one complication she didn't need.
Stuffing the sundries and the makeup bag into her purse, she slammed the truck door, then walked to the restaurant entrance. Calli took a deep breath and tugged the glass-and-iron door open, anxious to meet friendly faces.
"May I help you?" the young woman asked. Calli didn't even consult the menu. "Barbaccoa with black beans instead of pintos, and a large diet cola." She watched as rice and beans were piled onto the tortilla, then salsa and shredded beef. Last was the cheese and sour cream.
Teodoro's owner, "Teddy" Chavez, greeted her with a smile. "Your usual, eh, Calli? What are you doing out this late?"
She let his friendly wink soothe her nerves. A member of her neighborhood watch group, he knew very well what kept her out this late. Yet he always shared her silent celebration at making it through another night safely. She glanced at the staff, and went along with the conversation. "Couldn't wait for one of your burritos. Just thinking of them keeps me awake at night."
"That's no good. Ah, well, eat and enjoy." He turned to his employees and rattled off directions to them while Calli crossed the room and seated herself in the plywood chair. She rested her head in her hands and begged her heart to slow down.
Eating alone beneath the dangling halogen light bulb was much too comfortable. She sliced the giant burrito into two halves and set one aside for tomorrow's lunch. Her kid brother had always teased her about eating when she was upset. If he could only see her now. Listening to alternative music in a dingy restaurant, trying to forget the good-looking cop who'd nearly run her over.
Calli pulled the journal from her purse and turned to today's date.
January 22, 11:05 p.m.
She documented her evening's patrolling events, descriptions and response time of the local law enforcement on the blank pages.
Calli had started journaling in her early teens, as a way to deal with the loneliness of frequent moves, foreign languages and the other drawbacks of being an army brat. But in recent years the pages were filled with fewer emotions, and more details.
She thought through the events of the day, then wrote.
Has no one ever realized the guilt I feel? Surely they have. Over and again, Mom and Dad tell me it wasn't my fault—that Mike had snuck out before, that nothing anyone had tried had helped him. Why can't I move on?
It was not my fault. But maybe if someone had called the cops, maybe he'd be alive today.
She closed her eyes and whispered, "As in David's day, I see violence and strife in our streets, on city walls. Be my shelter and my strength, Father."
How can I stop now? Community involvement is making a difference. The neighborhood's crime rate has dropped. I have to keep trying.
The media tries to convince us that gangs are losing their appeal. They say gang members are frightened off by friends getting hurt and others sent to prisons. Yet, every week, I still see them out there, luring innocent kids into believing that they've found a place to belong. Tempting them with the promise of easy money. Trapping them into a life without hope.
Calli recalled the look in the youth's eyes as he stared at her. Fear, raw and exposed, spoke to her.
What was that kid looking back for? A way out, or someone they left behind?
Police sirens jolted her back to the present. The cruiser sped past the front of the restaurant. The officer she'd nearly collided with reappeared in her mind. His concerned gaze lingered there, like an unwelcome guest. Reflections of light glimmered over his handsome face. She shook her head. He's just another cop. They all have that look.
Thankful that she took the time to don her disguise, Calli wondered if they would place her as the caller. Did they get her license number? Hopefully she'd gotten away before they had the chance.
How can I give up now? There has to be a way to help kids like that.
The pen stopped.