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Taking this undercover assignment in Miller's Bay, Ontario, was a bad idea. Too many reminders of his own screwed-up youth.
Ethan Reed trailed Darryl Corbett, the son of the detention facility's founder, into the yard full of teenage boys. The mixed teams of staff and residents on the baseball field underscored the center's buddylike approach to rehabilitation, but the barbed-wire perimeter glinting in the summer sun hammered home the reality.
While Darryl itemized the characteristics that set Hope Manor apart from government-run facilities, Ethan's thoughts drifted to the reason for his secret recruitment from outside the Canadian border town's tight-knit police force. Whoever was luring residents into becoming drug pushers had inside connections. Inside the manor. And inside the police force.
At first glance the youths looked like average kids in their saggy pants and oversize T-shirts, minus iPods dangling from their ears and ball caps askew on their heads. But Ethan didn't miss the hand signals gang members flashed when they thought no one was watching, or the scars on their faces from fighting, or the burns on their skin from initiations.
The facility forbade wearing gang colors, but restrained rivalry was evident in their defiant swaggers and icy stare downs. They tried to look tough, but most of them were cowards who saw nothing wrong with three guys swarming a lone stray, like a pack of wolves circling their dinner.
A foul ball bounced in front of Darryl, who tossed it to the kid on the pitcher's mound. "Basically, you're expected to engage the residents in whatever activities interest them. If you're any good at coaxing them to open up to you and talk out their problems, all the better."
Ethan grunted. He'd better be good at getting the boys to talk, because whoever was recruiting these kids had neglected to mention short life expectancy in the job description.
An engine's roar ricocheted off the brick building. Then a screamurgent, terrified and femalepierced the air.
Ethan's attention snapped to the perimeter, but a wall of pine trees blocked his view.
"That sounded like Kim," Darryl said. "My sister."
Ethan sprinted for the gate and yanked on the lock. "You got a key?"
"No!" Darryl raced for the building.
Ethan pictured the maze of locked corridors between them and the front exit and dug his fingers into the chain link. "I'll meet you out front." He bolted up the fifteen-foot fence, crushed the slanted barbed wire in his fist and vaulted over the top. Pine needles scratched his arms and face on the way down. He crashed through the trees, cresting the hill in three seconds flat. Not quickly enough to ID the vehicle squealing away. But soon enough to glimpse the blip of its single brake light rounding the corner. A few strides further, he spotted a woman wearing shorts and a sky-blue jogging tank crumpled in the ditch. Her muddied running shoe lay inches from a tire track carved in the dirt.
He skidded down the grassy embankment still slick from last night's storm. A hit-and-run outside his newest undercover gig. Coincidence?
Not if Chief Hanson was right and there was a dirty cop taking bribes to sabotage the investigation. A cop that had somehow found out about Ethan's mission.
Hitting level ground, Ethan broke into a sprint and grabbed for his phone.
Argh! He didn't have it. A security risk, Darryl had said. A resident might swipe it. Ethan's gaze shot to the driveway. Where was Darryl? They needed to call an ambulance.
Long chestnut hair hid the woman's face, and the image of another jogger slammed into his thoughts. Fifteen years later and he could still picture her broken body. Blocking out the memory, he dropped to his knees at the victim's side.
She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, in remarkable shape, but breathing way too fast and shallow.
"Miss, can you hear me?"
She didn't respond. Didn't move.
And the sight of her motionless bodytoo much like Joy'shad a stranglehold on his gut. "Miss," he repeated, more urgently this time. "Can you hear me?"
She fixed him with a startled gazeluminous, rich green and so undeniably alive it kick-started his heart and sent it hurtling into overdrive.
Kim Corbett squeezed her eyes shut and reopened them, but the dark-haired stranger with the shaky voice didn't evaporate. His muscular build blotted out the sun, washing him in a halo of light. Kim blinked again, this time noting the rapid rise and fall of the man's chest, the bunched neck muscles that signaled a readiness to explode into action and, most surprising of all, the look of terror in his dark eyes.
She averted her gaze, swallowed the coppery taste coating her mouth. Ditch water seeped through her shirt and her ankle screamed, but she didn't feel too bad. Although, given this guy's worried scrutiny, she must look a mess. She swiped at her mud-streaked hair. "Who are you?"
"Ethan Reed, Hope Manor's new youth-care worker," he said, and the unexpected hitch in his rumbly voice sent a tingle racing up her spine.
Darryl staggered into her peripheral vision. "You okay?" he asked between gulps of air.
Embarrassed by the fuss she'd caused, she struggled to push onto her elbows.
"Don't move." The manEthanclamped his hands at the base of her skull, rendering her immobile.
"What are you doing?" she shrieked.
"You could have a spinal injury."
"My shift starts in ten minutes. I need to punch in."
"You need to stay still until the paramedics get here."
"Paramedics?" Kim tried to squirm free of Ethan's hold. If he called for paramedics, the police wouldn't be far behind. They'd ask her if she'd recognized the car, the driver. And if they figured out that an ex-resident almost ran her down, it would be the final nail in Hope Manor's coffin.
She couldn't let that happen. Not after Dad had poured his life into this place. "I don't need a paramedic," she protested, but the more she wriggled, the firmer Ethan held her, his hands astonishingly gentle for being so strong.
"Trust me," he said with a gravity that made her stop struggling. "You can never be too careful. What were you doing out here, anyway?"
"I always jog to work when the weather's nice."
The color drained from Darryl's face. "Your neck's bleeding."
"It is?" She reached up to find the source, and Ethan caught her pinky between his first two fingers.
"No," he said, halting her probing with a quick squeeze of his fingers. "It's my hand."
Ignoring the jolt of his touch, she tugged back her hand. "You're bleeding?" she squeaked, and tried again to sit up.
"It's nothing," he said, continuing to brace her neck with that infernally stubborn grip.
"Nothing?" Darryl gaped at Ethan with something akin to awe. "It's a wonder the barbed wire didn't tear your arms to shreds. You're crazy, man. I don't know how you climbed that fence. Everyone's gonna try it now."
Kim gaped. "You climbed the fence?"
Ethan actually blushed, but his eyes never left her face. "Darryl, did you tell someone to call 9-1-1?"
"The car didn't touch me," Kim said, quickly. "I dove clear when I saw it coming. I'm okay, really."
She'd be even better if they'd just forget the whole thing.
"Humor me until the paramedics get here, okay?"
She took a deep breath, hoping the scent of fresh-mown hay would calm her rattled nerves, but only succeeded in drawing in the musky scent of the man cradling her neck.
His thumb traced the scar along her jaw. And a tiny frown tugged at his lips.
It didn't help that his chocolate-brown eyes radiated protective concern. It was enough to make a girl forget the ache in her ankle, to forget the fear that had flung her into a ditch, even to forget that she was much too busy saving Hope Manor to let her heart flutter over some ruggedly good-looking guy with a surplus of knightlike qualities.
Except, she couldn't forget. The upsurge in drug-related incidents around Miller's Bay had only fueled the lobbying efforts of the people determined to shut down the center.
Instead of running in to call an ambulance, Darryl hunkered down beside her. "Did you see who did this to you?"
"It all happened so fast." She shrank from the memory of the white sports car barreling across the asphalt. No matter how the incident had looked, Blake wouldn't have targeted her deliberately. Never. Why would he want to hurt her?
No reason. None at all.
"You must've seen something," Darryl pressed. "The kind of car? Color?"
Kim glanced nervously at Ethan. "Um, white, I think." She pursed her lips and gave her brother a silent don't-ask-any-more-questions glare, followed by a surreptitious head tilt toward the manor. She grappled to find the newspaper she'd been carrying. One look at the headline and Darryl would guess why she couldn't say anything in front of Ethan.
"I know you're scared," Ethan soothed, apparently misreading her jerky movements, "but every detail you can remember will help the police find this guy. Did you see if the driver was male or female?"
"Male," she said reluctantly. "But I'm sure he didn't see me. He was probably fiddling with his radio. He wouldn't have expected to pass a pedestrian on these back roads."
"You're defending him? He sent you flying into a ditch and didn't even stop to make sure you were okay."
Her cheeks heated at the intensity of Ethan's disapproval. "I'm sure if he'd realized, he would've stopped. No need to make a big deal about this." The slightest negative publicity at this point would destroy any hope of convincing the province to reverse its funding decision.
Ethan's eyes sparked. "What about next time?"
"Yes. The next time this maniac races down the street, he could send a helpless kid flying into the ditch." Something indefinable flickered across Ethan's face. "And that kid may not be as lucky."
Kim's mouth went dry. Too stunned to respond, she could only stare at him. Was she endangering others by protecting Blake?
Surely not. Whereas the manor's closure might.
Ethan's tone gentled. "What are you afraid of, Kim?"
The low, intimate pitch of his voice trembled through her, warm and soothing, entreating her to trust him. But too much was at stake. She couldn't let him involve the police.
"I'm not afraid. I just overreacted. I told you, I probably scared the driver more than myself." She twisted sideways, forcing Ethan to loosen his hold. Stones dug into her palms as she scrambled to her feet. Her ankle faltered under her weight, but she stood firm. "I'm fine. See?" She bit the words out through clenched teeth.
"Nevertheless," he said, all traces of warmth gone, "we'll call the police. You may not have seen anything, but I did."