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Across the large parking lot, Lisa Morgan spied her son in the center of a group of four middle schoolers at the side of the gymnasium, a pool of light illuminating the dark surrounding Andy. Fear lined her twelve-year-old's face as he straightened his shoulders, thrust out his chest and held his arms stiff at his sides.
Lisa increased her pace to a jog. She didn't want to overreact or her son would be upset that she embarrassed him. But something was wrong.
Joey, a child who had gone to school with her son for several years, grabbed Andy's arm. He wrenched free and started for the front of the gym. Another boy, on Andy's basketball team, blocked his escape. Suddenly Joey and three teammates closed in on her son, fists flying while one kid pinned Andy's arms against him.
Heart pounding, Lisa screamed for them to stop in the midst of the shouting that erupted from the boys who attacked Andy and threw him to the ground. She flat-out ran toward them.
From the front of the building a tall man dressed in warm-ups saw her then glanced to the side. Nearer to the scuffle, he shot forward, snatching one boy off Andy while saying, "Joey, Tyler, Brent, Sam, knock it off."
The kid who'd held her son down on the ground fled past her. She wanted to grab the adolescent and force him to stay, but her son needed her.
Only five more yards.
The sight of blood streaming down Andy's face twisted her stomach. Nausea rose rapidly. Swallowing the sickening sensation, she came to a halt near the man who had managed to pry the three boys from Andy.
"You all stand over there." He told the remaining boys and pointed to a spot near the double doors into the gym. "And don't move."
The forcefulness in his voice brought shivers to Lisa as she knelt to examine Andy's injuries—a cut lip, a bleeding nose. Although anger hardened his features, tears glistened in his eyes. The sight broke her heart. Andy had always been the pacifist, not the warrior.
Her vision blurred as she took out a tissue to wipe the blood from his face. "Are you hurt?"
Andy knuckled the moisture away and sat up. "I'm fine, Mom. Just a little disagreement." He averted his gaze and pressed his lips together.
"Just a little disagreement?" Lisa frowned at the lie that had come from her son. "I thought I'd taught you better than that. What's going on?"
Andy remained silent, staring at the ground.
Lord, doesn't he know by now that I won't let him down again? I made a promise to him. I won't break it.
"Andrew Morgan, I need an answer. Your shirt is torn, your lip is swelling as we speak, your nose might be broken and you might have a black eye if the redness is any indication."
While keeping track of the three boys by the gym doors, the tall man squatted next to Lisa. "What happened here, Andy?"
Lisa had been grateful the stranger had intervened as quickly as he had, but she would handle her family's problems. It was her responsibility and she wouldn't shirk that again. "I can take care of this. Thanks for helping." She turned back to her son, waiting for some kind of explanation.
"Nothing's going on," Andy muttered, scrambled to his feet and scurried back from her.
She started to rise when a hand on her arm stopped her. She went rigid at the touch and flinched away. Swinging her gaze to the stranger, she drew in a calming breath to keep from lashing out at the man. He'd only been trying to help.
"Let me see what I can find out," the stranger said.
"That's okay. I'll take care of it." Her voice held an edge of anger, not really directed at the man but the boys who had hurt her son.
His hand fell away, and she hurriedly pushed to her feet, rounding on the man who had also risen. He moved to the side to block her view of the three assailants. She needed answers from them, and the stranger purposely stood between her and the boys who had attacked her son.
"And just who are you?" She glared at the man who had to be over six and a half feet tall. His muscular arms and trim body spoke of someone who worked out and stayed in shape. No wonder he had easily plucked the three boys off Andy.
"I'm the new assistant basketball coach, David Russell. And you must be Andy's mother." He offered his hand to shake.
She ignored him and stepped to the side, needing some answers only the boys could supply.
He mimicked her move. "I felt some tension earlier while the team was practicing. That's why I followed them from the gym."
"I protect my own." She could remember suffering several beatings because she wouldn't let anyone hurt her son until the day Andy had stepped between her and her boyfriend's fist. Now it was her turn to do the same, and this take-charge man wasn't going to stand in her way of finding out why those boys attacked her child.
"I respect that, Mrs. Morgan, but they'll clam up if you charge at them with all the accusations I see on your face."
"Ms. Morgan," she said because that was all she could think to say in the wake of his words.
"Let me see what I can discover. Go ahead and take Andy home."
She opened her mouth to tell the man no, but the distress in her son's eyes, the blood still coursing down his face silenced her words. "Can I take Andy into the gym and have him wash up first?"
She approached her son. "Let's go inside and get you cleaned up. Your coach is gonna talk to the boys."
"Mom, don't let him arrest them." Andy clutched her arm, a frantic ring to his words.
"Arrest them?" Lisa slanted a look toward Mr. Russell who had the three lined up near the door while he spoke to them in a voice too low for her to hear anything. The expressions on the boys' faces ranged from insolent to angry to fearful.
"He's a cop."
"He is?" For just a second the urge to run swamped her. No! I'm not that person anymore. I have nothing to hide. The Lord is on my side.
"Yeah," Andy mumbled.
The stern look on the man's face demanded the kids' full attention, which he got. "He isn't gonna arrest them. He wants to know why they jumped you." She swung her gaze back to her son. "And so do I."
Andy narrowed his eyes on her. "I can take care of this. Leave it alone, Mom."
She clasped his upper arms, her heart breaking anew at the bloody sight of him. Definitely a black eye. "It's okay to ask for help."
He wrenched from her hold. "Not from my mother." Stomping toward the gym, he kept his focus straight ahead, never once glancing toward his three teammates and Mr. Russell.
Not from my mother. The words echoed through her mind, underscoring the quickly deteriorating relationship she and Andy had lately—ever since he'd started middle school this year. A band about her chest constricted her breathing. She fought for control and to keep her composure.
With a deep sigh, Lisa followed him into the building and waited outside the boys' restroom. Her willpower stretched to its limit, she managed to remain in the lobby instead of marching into the bathroom to help Andy clean up. Leaning back against the wall, she folded her arms over her chest and tried to calm her frazzled nerves after the long day at work and now this. Her son was in trouble, and he was pushing her away. Before the start of school, she and Andy had been close, but that was all changing and she didn't know how to stop it.
Mr. Russell entered the foyer of the gym and locked his gaze with hers. He strode toward her. The hard chiseled planes of his face formed a scowl and a muscle in his jaw line twitched. Even the crystalline blue of his eyes had darkened to a storm.
"He's cleaning up." She jerked her thumb toward the restroom. "What did they say?"
"Not much. But I'll keep trying to find out."
"Why was practice over early?" If she had been a few minutes earlier, she could have prevented the fight—even if she'd had to throw herself bodily between Andy and the other boys. No one was going to hurt her son ever again.
"Coach Parsons had to leave. He let them go after they ran some laps. This was only my second practice. I'll make sure that doesn't happen again."
She pushed off the wall. "But we don't really know what happened other than some boys jumped my child. You said there was something going on during practice. What?"
"More whispering and jostling than usual. A few glares exchanged."
The door to the restroom opened, and Andy slinked out into the foyer. He kept his gaze averted, hanging his head.
"Andy," Coach Russell planted himself in front of the boy so he couldn't escape, "We can't help you if you don't tell us what's going on."
His usage of the word we surprised Lisa. She should protest the man's interference, but if Andy would tell him, she would welcome that. Now that she was thinking more calmly, she realized her initial reaction to the man had been wrong, had stemmed from her desire to make sure she met all her son's needs.
"It's nothing. I stepped on Joey's foot in practice when we both jumped up for the ball. He got angry. That's all." Andy never lifted his head but stared at the floor near his feet.
The coach snagged her attention, and she saw the doubt in his gaze. Her son was lying.
The man shook his head, massaging his nape. "I can help you if you let me. When you're ready to tell me what's really going on, I'll listen."
Andy trudged toward the exit and stopped at the double doors, but he didn't look back.
Disappointment glinted in Mr. Russell's blue eyes. "I figured he wouldn't say anything, but I was hoping he might." He shifted toward her. "I'll keep on top of this now that I know something is going on, Ms. Morgan."
"Lisa, please. Even at my job coworkers use my first name."
He again extended his hand to her. "David."
She fit her hand in his, not surprised by the firm clasp. "I'm sorry about the earlier response to your assistance."
He shrugged. "Not something I haven't encountered before. In the heat of a situation people often let intense emotions color how they response to even someone trying to help."
"I understand you're a police officer." Wariness laced her voice. Although she tried to mask her automatic response to anyone connected to the police, she could tell she hadn't succeeded by the look that flared into his gaze. She'd work on that because her problems years ago weren't because of the police.
"Yeah, twelve years on the force."
"Here in Cimarron City?"
"No, Dallas until I transferred here three months ago."
The sound of the door opening drew Lisa's attention toward the exit. Andy headed outside. "I'd better go in case one of the boys is still hanging around."
"I waited until they all got into their parents' car before coming inside."
She started across the lobby. "There was one who ran away."
"True, and I'll speak with Sam tomorrow. Good night, Ms.— Lisa."
The November night surrounded her in a chilling darkness when she left the gym. She called to her son to wait, but he kept walking toward her white Chevy. She jogged toward the parking lot and arrived as Andy slipped into the car's front seat.
Lord, I'm gonna need lots of patience. I don't understand what's going on with my son. I want my upbeat child back.
Lisa settled herself behind the steering wheel, started to switch the vehicle on but halted in mid-motion. Angling toward him, she fixed her gaze on him and tried to read his expression in the dim light from the security lamp as she said, "It's just you and me now. What's going on? Are those boys bullying you? I've heard some of the teens I work with talk about bullies at school."
Andy scrunched his mouth into a tight line. "I make good grades and Joey doesn't. It's really nothing. He'll move on to someone else soon. He gets bored easily."
"Bored! Andy, I'll talk with the principal. He can do something about Joey if he's bothering you at school."
He rounded on her. "Don't you dare! This is between me and Joey. If you step in, it will be ten times worse."
"But what if—"
"Mom, I made a hundred on a test today, and he didn't pass. The class laughed at him. He took it out on me."
"What's the other three guys' reason for participating?"
Andy shrugged. "Those are Joey's only friends, if you call them even that."
"Why didn't you say anything to Coach about this?"
"He's a cop. I don't want him stepping in. I don't trust the police. They'll say whatever they have to to trip someone up."
"Andy? Where's that attitude coming from?"
"You know." He folded his arms over his chest and stared straight ahead, the jut of his lower jaw accentuating his view. "I don't see how you can trust them either. They were the ones responsible for taking me away from you when I was eight."
"Honey, it wasn't that simple. I'd done some things—"
"Let's go home. I have a lot of homework."
Andy never wanted to talk about the past. Every time she tried to, he'd change the subject, which only made her feel worse. She had so much to make up for. "I think we need to talk about your feelings—"
"Mom, I'm tired and I want to change out of this bloody shirt." He gestured at the white T-shirt he wore under his jacket.
Splotches of red blemished the snowy color. A memory popped into her mind of another time when she'd been staring down at her own shirt and seen the same thing. She shuddered, shoving the past away. Maybe her son had the right idea—if you didn't think or talk about what happened four years ago—for that matter before that—it didn' t exist. If only it were that easy.
Finally Lisa turned the key in the ignition, still stunned by her son's feelings regarding the police. When he wasn't so angry, she would try to discuss again what had happened four years ago when he'd been put into foster care and had lived at Stone's Refuge, a place where foster children stayed when there weren't enough people to take them into their homes. It had been no one's fault but hers. Taking drugs had made her dependent on a man who'd abused her and had tried to do the same with Andy.
That will never happen again. But the damage to her and Andy had been done, and she couldn't forgive herself for that.