New York Times bestselling author Karen Rose returns with a new thriller in her chilling Cincinnati series.
Michael Rowland is not your typical teenager. Deaf from birth, he's always looked out for his five-year-old brother, Joshua. When his stepfather comes after Joshua, Michael takes the child and runs. He's determined to protect his brother at all costs, even if that means making himself vulnerable to a danger he can't hear coming. And the danger intensifies when Michael witnesses a stranger kill his stepfather.
Desperate and afraid, the boys have nowhere else to go but to Joshua's soccer coach, journalist and ex-Army ranger Diesel Kennedy. When Diesel sees that Michael is injured, he takes them to see Dr. Dani Novaknot only because she's fluent in American Sign Language, but because he's drawn to her and everything she stands for. She never refuses Diesel's requestsbecause she, too, feels their connectionbut she resists him for reasons she doesn't want to confess.
When Dani and Diesel learn that Michael saw the face of his stepfather's killer, they fear for his safety. But they quickly discover that it's even worse than they feared: They may have a serial killer on their handsand all signs point to Michael as the next target.
About the Author
Karen Rose is the award-winning, #1 international bestselling author of some twenty novels, including the bestselling Baltimore and Cincinnati series. She has been translated into twenty-three languages and her books have placed on the New York Times, the Sunday Times (UK), and Germany’s der Spiegel bestseller lists.
Read an Excerpt
Saturday, March 16, 11:30 a.m.
Diesel Kennedy blew his whistle and gestured for the kids to join him on the sideline. "That's good for today, guys. Come on over."
He smiled at the ten kindergartners ambling off the field. They were all too cute in their shin guards and little cleats. Only two of the boys had any soccer competence at all. The others missed the ball, fell down, ran into one another, and generally looked like they were doing a Three Stooges routine. But they tried so hard and seemed to be having fun, which was the real win Diesel was looking for when he coached their team.
He'd been coaching for the past five years, determined that no child under his care would experience what he had growing up. He'd had no male role models and the one man in his young life, the one who should have protected him, had left him forever scarred. Diesel strove to teach good values to every child he coached, how to win and lose, how to work together. But he also taught them how to speak up for themselves. How to ask for help.
He knew the signs of abuse and, as a state mandated reporter, informed Children's Services when he suspected a child was being harmed. Over the last five years of coaching, he'd been involved in rescuing four children from abusive situations.
He wasn't saving the whole world through coaching, but he could take comfort in knowing that four little boys were safe today who might not have been. He'd continue to save one child at a time. In the meantime, he'd continue teaching sportsmanship and teamwork-beneficial to any child.
He held up a hand for them to high-five as the team gathered around him, many having to jump up to reach his palm. At six-six, he towered over the five-year-olds, making them crane their necks to meet his gaze.
"You guys did so well today. You made me very proud." Ten little faces beamed up at him. "Now, let's talk about next week. We have our first game! Are we excited?"
"Yes, Coach Diesel!" they replied.
"What happens if we win?" he asked.
"Ice cream!" they shouted.
"That's right." He lifted his brows. "What happens if we lose?"
They looked at one another, then one of the boys frowned, likely searching his memory, because Diesel had delivered this spiel before and after every practice for the past two weeks. "Ice cream?" he asked timidly.
Diesel gave him a grin, extending his fist for the boy to bump. He searched his own memory for the name of the boy with the dark hair and dark eyes, and the dent in his little chin. . . . Right. Joshua Rowland. "That's right, Joshua! Whether we win or not, we get ice cream. Winning is fun, but not the most important thing. The three most important things are what?" He held up three fingers, waiting expectantly.
"Have fun!" they shouted.
He nodded. "That's one. And two?"
"Do our best!"
"Very good. And the third?"
They looked at one another again quizzically, then back up at him for the answer.
Joshua raised his hand once more. "Be nice?"
The other boys repeated the answer, nodding fiercely, expressions abashed at not remembering.
Diesel hid his smile. They really were too cute. "Exactly. Be good sports, which means we'll be nice. If we lose, we smile. We congratulate the winners. And then after the game, we go out for ice cream. If we win, we accept their congratulations and go out for ice cream. Either way, we get ice cream. Except . . . what one thing might keep us from getting ice cream?"
"Being bad sports," they said.
"You got it." He looked over his shoulder at the parents who'd gathered to pick up their children. "Moms and dads are here. Line up, shoulder to shoulder, and wait until I call your name. Mrs. Moody will pass out your snacks. What do you say to Mrs. Moody?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Moody!" they chorused as his assistant coach got them lined up and handed out the snacks and juice boxes. Shauna Moody was a nice, motherly woman whose son had played soccer with their league all through school and was now in college and doing well. She credited the league with keeping him engaged and out of trouble, and now that he'd graduated, she wanted to give back. She showed up every week to hand out snacks and bandage boo-boos.
Diesel turned to the waiting parents with his clipboard. He made it a point to greet each adult doing pickup before allowing them to leave with a child. Over the years, he'd coached kids stuck in the middle of custody disputes, and he always wanted to be sure he recognized the person doing the picking up. The last thing he wanted was to allow a child to be taken by the wrong person. Terrible things could happen when the wrong person had access to a child.
This Diesel knew from experience.
The parent of the ninth child on his list hesitated before smiling timidly. "You're really good with them," she said, sounding surprised.
He steeled himself for what he thought might be coming, because he'd seen the censure and suspicion in this mother's eyes from the first practice. "I do my best."
And he did. No one had given him any kind of good attention when he was five years old. He wanted these kids to have a better role model than he'd had. Which, honestly, wasn't too hard to achieve. Most of the adults in his life hadn't given him very much at all.
If this mother wanted to remove her son from his team, he'd be polite. And then he'd call the first child on his waiting list, which right now was at about twenty-five names.
The parent-Mrs. Jacobsen-tilted her head as she studied him. "I owe you an apology, Mr. Kennedy. The first time we showed up with Liam for practice, I saw your tattoos and . . . well, I thought you would be . . ."
Diesel's lips curved, because it appeared the conversation wasn't going to go as he'd feared. "Mean? A thug?"
She laughed nervously. "Something like that. We try to teach our son not to judge a person by their appearance, but I'm afraid I did that with you. But you came highly recommended by my friends, so I allowed Liam to join the team. I'm so glad I did. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."
"Thank you," he said graciously. "I hope Liam enjoys himself." He looked down at the boy and gave him a wink. "He's a neat kid."
Liam beamed. "'Bye, Coach Diesel."
Diesel waved as they left, then looked down at his list with a silent sigh. One name left unchecked. One child unclaimed. He turned to find Joshua Rowland sitting on one of the folding chairs with Mrs. Moody, his little face pinched as he searched the parking lot for his mother's car.
Mrs. Brewer had been late picking up her son from every practice. Diesel had needed to call her cell phone to remind her. She always gushed that she'd been so busy and was so sorry, but Diesel got the feeling that the woman was more concerned with attracting attention to herself than with caring for her son.
He dialed her cell, got her voice mail, and left a polite message. Then he gave Joshua a bright smile. "Your mom's running a little late. Maybe you could help me put away the soccer balls while we're waiting for her."
Joshua jumped up, eager to help. So eager to please.
Diesel's heart hurt. The boy reminded him of himself. Children this eager to please were prime prey for predators.
They put the equipment in the bed of Diesel's truck, and he let Joshua shove the tailgate closed, unable to keep from smiling at the way the child dusted his hands together and gave him a satisfied nod.
But the boy's satisfaction was a facade, because he was searching the parking lot from the corner of his eye. The pinched look returned when there was still no sign of his mother.
He looked up at Diesel, tears filling his eyes. "What do I do? I don't know the way home."
Mrs. Moody, who'd been silently watching them from the sideline, came over and gave the boy a hug. "We won't make you go home by yourself, sweetheart," she said. "We can take you."
Joshua glanced at her, then back up at Diesel. "Okay. I'm sorry."
Diesel crouched down so that he was on Joshua's level. "No need to be sorry, my man. Things happen."
Joshua swallowed hard. "She's been really sad lately. She . . ." He bit his lip. "She sleeps a lot."
Diesel's jaw tightened. These were dicey situations. A parent suffering from depression wasn't necessarily unfit. He needed to tread carefully here. Joshua's mother had appeared normal when she'd dropped him off and he didn't seem to be neglected. His clothes were dirty now, but they'd been clean when he'd arrived. He looked to be well fed, and Diesel had never seen suspicious bruises on him.
"Who watches you when she sleeps, Joshua?" he asked.
Joshua brightened. "Michael does. He takes care of me."
Diesel made his lips curve, even though his trouble-meter was pinging loudly. Michael was Joshua's older brother, but the boy was only fourteen. Diesel had seen enough of these situations while investigating story leads at the Ledger, the newspaper he'd worked at for the past seven years. Too many older siblings were left to care for the younger ones. Sometimes this was necessary, like when a single parent had to work multiple jobs to keep the family fed, but Joshua Rowland's mother wasn't a single parent. She was married to a man named John Brewer, whom Diesel had never met. He assumed that Brewer hadn't adopted the boys, as they had a different last name, but that could be for any number of reasons and didn't indicate an issue in and of itself.
Brewer appeared to be financially successful. The family lived in a well-to-do part of town, where homes were huge and called "estates." Mrs. Brewer wore designer clothes and drove an expensive car. According to her parent info sheet, she didn't work one job, much less multiple.
She should have had time to take care of her children, or money to hire a nanny. If she was leaving child care to her older son, that meant something else was going on.
He forced his voice to be as gentle as he could make it, which wasn't easy. It was normally gravelly and rough, so he made sure he was smiling benignly. "What does Michael do for you?"
"Washes my clothes. Plays with me. Reads me stories at night and fixes my breakfast when I wake up. Eggs and bacon," Joshua added proudly. "Because he says I'm growing and cereal's not good enough."
"He's right," Diesel said. "I can see you growing right now."
Joshua giggled, as Diesel had hoped he would. "No, you can't."
Diesel's lips twitched. "Well, maybe not right now, but I did before. Who picks you up from school?"
"Michael does. He walks me home." Joshua's smile dimmed and he bit his lip again. "But Michael's sad, too. And I can't make him be happy."
Diesel glanced at a sympathetic Mrs. Moody before returning his attention to the forlorn little boy. "Why is Michael sad?" he asked softly.
Joshua shrugged, looking down at his feet. "Mama yells at him a lot. Especially since Uncle John left."
Oh shit. Diesel's trouble-meter started pinging again. "Uncle John?"
"Her husband." Joshua frowned. "But not my daddy. My daddy's gone. To heaven."
"Okay." Calling his stepfather "uncle" also wasn't an issue in and of itself. But all together . . . "And why did Uncle John leave?"
Another shrug. "Mama says it's Michael's fault. But Michael's good."
"I'm sure he is, honey," Diesel murmured. "Does . . ." He drew a breath. "Joshua, does your mom ever . . . hit your brother? Or you?"
The misery in Joshua's eyes was his answer.
Fuck. Diesel's heart sank even as his resolve grew. No one would hurt this child. No one had saved Diesel, but by God, he'd make sure no child that crossed his path would endure what he had.
His heart hurt for these kids, the neglected ones. The abused ones. He felt a physical pressure on his chest and realized he'd pushed the heel of his hand to his heart, reminding him that he'd been living on borrowed time for years. There were whole blocks of time when he nearly forgot that he carried a bullet in his chest, courtesy of an Al-Qaeda insurgent. A bullet hovering too close to his heart to be removed. One day it would move, piercing his heart and ending his life.
But he was used to it now, the notion that his personal clock was running down. He was going to make the most of however many years-or days-he had left. Taking care of other people's kids was his life's mission.
Joshua Rowland had just become priority one.
Saturday, March 16, 11:30 a.m.
"Mom!" Glancing at the clock on the wall, Michael shook his mother's shoulder, roughly voicing her name even though she hated to hear him speak.
It hadn't always been that way. She'd never encouraged him, but she hadn't hated him. But that was before Brewer had come into their lives. It hadn't been perfect before the bastard, but once he'd moved in with them? That was when everything had gone to hell.
She'd been erratic before meeting the man, had even been a drug user. All that had changed. And in the last year it had gotten much, much worse. She'd never hit him before Brewer, either. Now . . .
She sometimes used her fists, but usually she'd hurl whatever happened to be in her hand at the time. This morning it had been a bowl. He'd been busy cooking Joshua's breakfast and hadn't seen her coming at him.
He touched the side of his head gingerly, grimacing at the blood on his fingers. He'd cleaned it as best he could. It would stop bleeding eventually. His head would stop pounding. Eventually.
Right now, Joshua was more important.
"Mom." She should have been at the soccer field, picking up Joshua. She should have stayed there, waiting for him. But she hadn't. She'd come home, staggering inside with that glassy-eyed look that never boded well.
She'd been high, probably popping pills while in the car. And now she was passed out, a syringe on the end table. But she was breathing, so at least she wasn't dying. He had half a mind to contact the cops and have her sorry ass carted off to jail for heroin possession and child neglect, but for now his main concern was Joshua.