Though a childhood spent in foster care had hardened Collin, Mia would reveal the caring man she knew was inside. After all, breaking through his gruff exterior would fulfill a boy's Christmas wish and maybe even her own.
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Twenty-three years later, Oklahoma City
Sweat burned his eyes, but Collin Grace didn't move. He couldn't. One wrong flinch and somebody died.
Totally focused on the life-and-death scenario playing out on the ground below, he hardly noticed the sun scalding the back of his neck or the sweat soaking through his protective vest.
The Tac-team leader's voice came through the earphone inside his Fritz helmet. "Hostage freed. Suspect in custody. Get down here for debrief."
Collin relaxed and lowered the .308 caliber marksman rifle, a SWAT sniper's best friend, and rose from his prone position on top of the River Street Savings and Loan. Below him, the rest of the team exited a training house and headed toward Sergeant Gerrara.
Frequent training was essential and Collin welcomed every drill. Theirs wasn't a full-time SWAT unit, so they had to stay sharp for those times when the callout would come and they'd have to act. Normally a patrol cop, he'd spent all morning on the firing range, requalifying with every weapon known to mankind. He was good. Real good, with the steadiest hands anyone on the force had ever seen. A fact that made him proud.
"You headed for the gym after this?" His buddy, fellow police officer and teammate, Maurice Johnson shared his propensity for exercise. Stay in shape, stay alive. Most special tactics cops agreed.
Collin peeled his helmet off and swiped a hand over his sweating brow. "Yeah. You?"
"For a few reps. I told Shanita I'd be home early. Bible study at our place tonight." Maurice sliced a sneaky grin in Collin's direction. Sweat dripped from his high ebony cheeks and rolled down a neck the size of a linebacker's. "Wanna come?"
Collin returned the grin with a shake of his head. Maurice wouldn't give up. He extended the same invitation every Thursday.
Collin liked Maurice and his family, but he couldn't see a loner like himself spouting Bible verses and singing in a choir. It puzzled him, too, that a cop as tough and smart as Maurice would feel the need for God. To Collin's way of thinking there was only one person he trusted enough to lean on. And that was himself.
"Phone call for you, Grace," Sergeant Gerrara hollered. "Probably some cutie after your money."
The other cops hooted as Collin shot Maurice an exasperated look and took off in a trot. He received plenty of teasing about his single status. Some of the guys tried to fix him up, but when a woman started pushing him or trying to get inside his head, she was history. He didn't need the grief.
The heavy tactics gear rattled and bounced against his body as he grabbed the cell phone from Sergeant Gerrara's over-size fist, trading it for his rifle.
"Sergeant Collin Grace?" A feminine voice, light and sweet, hummed against his ear.
"Yeah." He shoved his helmet under one arm and stepped away from the gaggle of cops who listened in unabashedly. "Who's this?"
"Mia Carano. I'm with the Cleveland County Department of Child Welfare."
A cord of tension stretched through Collin's chest. Adrenaline, just now receding from the training scenario, ratcheted up a notch. Child welfare, a department he both loathed and longed to hear from. Could it finally be news?
He struggled to keep his voice cool and detached. "Is this about my brothers?"
Envisioning her puzzled frown, Collin realized she had no idea he'd spent years trying to find Ian and Drew. The spurt of energy drained out of him. "Never mind. What can I do for you, Ms. Carano?"
"Do you recall the young boy you picked up last week behind the pawn shop?"
"The runaway?" He could still picture the kid.
"Angry, scared, but too proud to admit it?"
"Yes. Mitchell Perez. He's eleven. Going on thirty." The kid hadn't looked a day over nine. Skinny. Black hair too long and hanging in his eyes. A pack of cigarettes crushed and crammed down in his jeans' pocket. He'd reminded Collin too much of Drew.
"You still got him? Or did he go home?"
"Home for now, but he's giving his mother fits." From what the kid had told him, she deserved fits.
"He'll run again."
"I know. That's why I'm calling you."
Around him the debrief was breaking up. He lifted a hand to the departing team.
"Nothing I can do until he runs."
He leaned an elbow against somebody's black pickup truck and watched cars pull up to a stop sign adjacent to the parking lot. Across the street, shoppers came and went in a strip mall. Normal, common occurrences in the city on a peaceful, sunny afternoon. Ever alert, he filed them away, only half listening to the caller. "This isn't my first encounter with Mitch. He's a troubled boy, but his mother said you impressed him. He talks about you. Wants to be a cop."
Collin felt a con coming on. Social workers were good at that. He stayed quiet, let her ramble on in that sugary voice.
"He has no father. No male role model." Big surprise. He switched the phone to the other ear.
"I thought you might be willing to spend some time with the boy. Perhaps through CAPS, our child advocate program. It's sort of like Big Brothers only through the court system."
He was already a big brother and he'd done a sorry job of that. Some of the other officers did that sort of outreach, but not him.
"I don't think so."
"At least give me a chance to talk with you about it. I have some other ideas if CAPS doesn't appeal."
He was sure she did. Her type always had ideas. "This isn't my kind of thing. Call the precinct. They might know somebody."
"Tell you what," she said as if he hadn't just turned her down. "Meet me at Chick's Place in fifteen minutes. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."
She didn't give up easy. She even knew the cops' favorite hamburger joint.
He didn't know why, but he said, "Make it forty-five minutes and a hamburger, onions fried."
She laughed and the sound was light, musical.
He liked it. It was her occupation that turned him off.
"I'll even throw in some cheese fries," she added.
"Be still my heart." He couldn't believe he'd said that. Regardless of her sweet voice, he didn't know this woman and didn't particularly want to.
"I'll sit in the first booth so you'll recognize me."
"What if it's occupied?"
"I'll buy them a burger, too." She laughed again. The sound ran over him like fresh summer rain. "See you in forty-five minutes."
The phone went dead and Collin stared down at it, puzzled that a woman—a social worker, no less— had conned him into meeting her for what was, no doubt, even more of a con.
Well, he had news for Mia Carano with the sweet voice. Collin Grace didn't con easy. Regardless of what she wanted, the answer was already no.
Mia recognized him the minute he walked in the door. No matter that the hamburger café was littered with uniformed police officers hunched over burgers or mega-size soft drinks. Collin Grace stood out in a crowd. Brown eyes full of caution swept the room once, as if calculating escape routes, before coming to rest on her. She prided herself on being able to read people. Sergeant Grace didn't trust a soul in the place.
"There he is," the middle-aged officer across from her said, nodding toward the entrance. "That's Amazin' Grace."
Mia fixed her attention on the lean, buff policeman coming her way. With spiked dark hair, slashing eyebrows and a permanent five o'clock shadow, he was good-looking in a hard, manly kind of way. His fatigue pants and fitted brown T-shirt with a Tac-team emblem over the heart looked fresh and clean as though he'd recently changed.
Officer Jess Snow pushed out of the booth he'd kindly allowed her to share. In exchange, he had regaled her with stories about the force, his grandkids, and his plan to retire next year. He'd also told her that the other policemen referred to the officer coming her way as Amazin' Grace because of his uncanny cool and precision even under the most intense conditions. "Guess I'll get moving. Sure was nice talking to you."
She smiled up at the older man. "You, too, Jess." Officer Snow gave her a wink and nodded to the newcomer as he left.
Collin returned a short, curt nod and then jacked an eyebrow at Mia. "Miss Carano?"
A bewildering flutter tickled her stomach. "Yes, but I prefer Mia."
As he slid into the booth across from her the equipment attached to his belt rattled and a faint stir of some warm, tangy aftershave pierced the scent of frying onions. She noted that he did not return the courtesy by asking her to use his given name.
She wasn't surprised. He was every bit the cool, detached cop. Years of looking at the negative side of life did that to some social workers as well. Mia was thankful she had the Lord and a very supportive family to pour out all her frustrations and sadness upon. Her work was her calling. She was right where God could best use her, and she'd long ago made up her mind not to let the dark side of life burn her out.
Sergeant Grace, on the other hand, might as well be draped in strips of yellow police tape that screamed, Caution: Restricted Area. Getting through his invisible shield wouldn't be as easy as she'd hoped.
He propped his forearms on the tabletop like a barrier between them. His left T-shirt sleeve slid upward to reveal the bottom curve of a tattoo embla-zoned with a set of initials she couldn't quite make out.
Though she didn't move or change expressions, a part of her shrank back from him. She'd never understood a man's propensity to mutilate his arms with dye and needles.
"So," he said, voice deep and smooth. "What can I do for you, Mia?"
"Don't you want your hamburger first?"
The tight line of his mouth mocked her. "A spoonful of sugar doesn't really make the medicine go down any easier."
So cynical. And he couldn't be that much older than she was. Early thirties maybe. "You might actually enjoy what I have in mind."
"I doubt it." He raised a hand to signal the waitress. "What would you like?" he asked.
She motioned to her Coke. "This is fine. I'm not hungry."