DEA informant Sean Holigan never imagined he'd return to Copper Lake and revisit the ghosts of his past. But bad memories aren't the only thing waiting for him. With their mother in jail, Sean's nieces are in the care of their foster mother, Sophy Marchand. Years and miles haven't erased Sean's high school memories of the young, studious Sophy, but she certainly has grown up. Beautiful and benevolent, Sophy represents a life, and love, Sean longs forand one of three lives he must protect. Targeted by ruthless killers, Sophy and the girls depend on Sean almost as badly as he depends on them.
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A stiff breeze blew in off the harbor, carrying with it the smells of salt and fish and pollution, along with a chilly hint of fall on its way. Sean Holigan stood in the shadows of two buildings, face to the water, and toyed with the cigarette he held. Though he hadn't had a smoke in six and a half months, the temptation to light it was there, the desire no less than it had been 195 days before.
But the flare of the lighter, the glowing end of the cigarette and the acrid blue-gray smoke would be like a neon sign pointing straight at him. Not the best idea, since the last place anyone expected him to be at 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday was on the docks. If his boss or their buddies found him there, it was a sure bet he would pay the price for it. He just didn't know how big a price that would be.
Maybe, probably, death.
Fog swirled around the two massive warehouses that shielded him and turned the cargo containers stacked between them and the water into islands of dull metal. The damp seeped into his jacket and misted across his skin. It darkened the thin paper of the cigarette wrapper and increased the stiffness in the middle three fingers of his left hand. Ever since he'd gotten them caught between an engine and a car frame three years ago, those fingers had developed an aversion to cold and damp.
He'd been waiting more than ten minutes without bothering to check his watch when he sensed rather than heard someone approaching. Like him, Alexandra Baker was always early to these meetings. Unlike him, she completed a thorough check of the area before appearing before him, tonight from around a corner, like a magician's illusion.
She wore dark clothing, dark shoes, a dark hood covering her white-blond hair and casting her pale face in darkness. She could stand absolutely still on a night like this and blend completely into the background. The way she moved and walked and talked was unnaturally quiet, still. Illusion was a good description of her. Since she'd first approached him three months ago, she seemed about as real as a dream.
A bad dream.
"Why do you tempt yourself?" she asked, her voice quiet but not soft, her question personal but lacking curiosity.
He glanced at the cigarette, shrugged and slid it into his jacket pocket. "Why do you get me up in the middle of the night?"
"Because I know Kolinski's tucked safely in bed."
Craig Kolinski. His boss. His best bud for thirteen years. The man responsible for Sean's relatively comfortable life. The man he was betraying every time he spoke to Baker.
"He's going to ask you to look into something for him tomorrow," she went on. "It'll mean going out of town for a while. You'll agree."
Sean didn't ask how she knew Craig's plans. He figured his boss had more bugs than a Volkswagen plant, thanks to the Drug Enforcement Administration: his house, his cars, his office above the garage, probably even the garage bays themselves. Sean hoped whoever listened to all those hours of tapes got a headache from the constant whine of pneumatic tools.
"Where out of town?"
If it were anyone else, he would have said Baker hesitated, but since she was the calm, collected ice queen, he would call it a pause instead. "Georgia."
A chill passed through him that had nothing to do with the temperature. He'd grown up in Georgia and had left the first chance he'd gotten, swearing he would never return. Nothing, not the family he'd left there, not even the father who'd died there eight years ago, had lured him back.
"Where in Georgia?"
Ice queen or not, this time she flat-out hesitated. She and the DEA knew damn near everything about him, including where he was from, why he'd left and why he'd go hundreds of miles out of his way to avoid the place. They knew Georgia wasn't an acceptable answer. They'd already demanded too much from him and he'd given it, but this
"Copper Lake," she said with the first hint of emotion he'd ever heard from her, as if her frozen little heart knew what a huge requestorderthis was. But it was just a hint. Emotion didn't rule Alexandra Baker. She didn't sympathize, never felt regret, never let feelings get in the way. She was committed 100 percent to her job, and by God, she would do what she had to do.
Which meant everyone around her would do what they had to do.
"No." He never thought of the place if he could avoid it, never considered it home. Home was a place where a person belonged, where he fit in, where people wanted him around. Copper Lake was a nightmare that had taken eighteen years to escape.
Baker didn't say anything.
"I didn't have much of a choice in ratting out Craig." There were limits to what he could overlook, and his boss had stomped all over them. "But I'm not doing this. I'm not going back to Copper Lake."
"Kolinski will ask you to go, and you will. You don't have a choice this time, either."
The calm disinterest in her voice, as if the idea that she wouldn't get her way had never occurred to her, got under his skin. He shoved his hand through his hair, dislodging water. "The hell I don't. I've told you everything I know about Craig's business and his personal life. But there's no freaking way in hell that I'm going to"
"It's about Maggie."
That sucked the air from his lungs. He hadn't heard his little sister's name in more years than he wanted to count. He tried not to think about her, either, in a situation worse all those years ago than his own. She'd cried when he left and begged him to take her with him, and, bastard that he was, he'd promised to send for her just as soon as he got settled.
Did it make any difference that part of him had wanted to take her with him and give her a better life? That he hadn't known he would land in prison, just like every Holigan man before him?
No, no difference. Because from the time he was twelve years old, he'd intended to leave everything behind, including Maggie. He'd wanted a life with no responsibilities but himself. He'd wanted to escape the curse of his family, and how could he have done that dragging his baby sister along?
"What about Maggie?" His voice was rough, harsh, in the night air.
"Did you know she's involved romantically with one of Kolinski's people?" She didn't pause long enough for him to answer. She already knew the answer. "She lived with the guy before his most recent arrest. They trust him to keep his mouth shut about the business. They don't trust her. You know what happens to people they don't trust."
He'd seen it for himself once. Imagining his sister in that position, terrified, on her knees, begging for her life Bile rose in his throat, and for one moment he thought he was going to puke right there in front of Baker. Nothing like showing weakness to someone who was as cold-blooded and single-minded as Craig was.
"He'll call you into the garage today and tell you to go to Copper Lake. To keep an eye on Maggie. To determine whether she can hurt him. He'll use your information to figure out the best way to deal with her."
"Am I supposed to believe you'll use it to keep her safe?"
Baker nodded, the action practically lost in the folds of the oversize hood.
How the hell had Maggie caught the attention of one of Craig's dealers in the first place? And why in hell had that dealer been in Copper Lake long enough to even meet her?
Leverage, maybe. Sean had been loud in his opposition to Craig's first expansion of the business, to the point that he'd almost walked away from the garage he'd worked his ass off to help save from bankruptcy. Craig had made a few concessions, keeping what he laughingly called his parts supply service separate from the garage and keeping the next expansion to himself.
And maybe sending someone to Copper Lake to find something to hold over Sean if it became necessary.
He shook his head slowly. "I won't do it." But even as he heard his own words, he recognized them for the lie they were. Maggie was the only person in the world who could make him return to the town he'd run away from.
"We'll be in touch with you once you get there." More sure of him than he was of himself, Baker tugged the hood forward another inch, then melted into the darkness. He didn't hear her footsteps as she retreated, couldn't even sense her presence. She stepped around the corner and was gone.
He let his head fall back until it connected with the warehouse wall with a solid thunk. How the hell had he come to this? Was this the payoff for betraying a friend? For abandoning his family as if they'd never existed?
He snorted derisively. Craig was a friend, yeahone who'd made a fortune in stolen vehicles and drugs. What felt like a betrayal to Sean was really just the regular action any normal person would take. If Craig had dragged Maggie into this to control Sean, that was a betrayal.
Sweet damnation, all he'd wanted was a regular life: a job that didn't make him want to shoot himself; enough money to pay his bills and have a little fun on the side; a place to live that wasn't falling down around him. He hadn't wanted any attachments to people, places or things. Drinking buddies, not friends. Hookups, not girlfriends. No obligations, no emotional connections, no having to think of anyone besides himself.
And he'd had that for a lot of years. Until three months ago, when he'd stopped by the garage late one night to pick up the cell phone he'd left behind and walked in on Craig shooting a man in the back of the head.
Everything had gone to hell after that.
Tomorrow he was going to another kind of hell, better known as Copper Lake. He would hate every damn second of it, but he would go and do whatever was necessary to protect Maggie. He'd let her down once before.
He wouldn't do it again.
* * *
For Sophy Marchand's entire life, Sunday morning had meant church, and though she'd missed the past two Sundays, she vowed that stopped today. She stood in the guest room of her second-floor apartment, one hand on her hip, watching the two little girls snuggling together in one of the twin-size beds, eyes closed, lips parted, looking angelic in sleep.
Except they weren't asleep, and God bless them, there was absolutely nothing angelic about them.
"Dahlia, Daisy, this is the last warning. Get up now, or we'll be late to church."
One of themDahlia, she thoughtmade a sound that was more snort than snore, but neither moved. No lashes fluttering, no eyes shifting beneath their lids, no twitch of their mouths.
You are the most incompetent foster mother in the history of the world, Sophy chastised herself, but that didn't stop her from lifting her free hand, fingers wrapped around vivid yellow plastic, and squirting both girls in the face with cool water. It was a trick her grandmother had used when trying to rouse five recalcitrant boys to do their chores, and it proved effective.
Daisy, the younger, slighter child, shrieked and dived under the covers, while Dahlia, older by a year, sprang upright and fixed a mutinous glower on Sophy. She refused to swipe the fine mist from her face but instead folded her thin arms over her chest. "You could've just woke us up."
"I woke you up. Three times." Sophie set the spray bottle on the table just outside the bedroom door, then went to the closet. "You've got just enough time to brush your teeth, comb your hair and get dressed. Hustle, now."
Dahlia grumbled as she pushed back the blanket, exposing Daisy to the sunlight that filtered through the sheer curtains at the windows. Her black hair in a tangle, Daisy scrubbed her fists over her eyes. "What about breakfast? I'm hungry."
"You could have had breakfast if you'd gotten up the first three times I was in here. Now there's no time." Of course, there were protein bars waiting on the counter beside Sophy's purse. She would never send them off without something to eat, though they didn't know that yet. Before they'd come to stay with her nearly three weeks ago, their previous experience hadn't included anything like consistency, stability or being a priority for anyone, not even their mother.
The thought sent an all-too-personal pang through Sophy. She knew how it felt to have a father who didn't want you and a mother who couldn't take care of you, and she wouldn't wish it on anyone.
She pulled a hanger holding a pastel dress from each side of the closet. Daisy's was white with her favorite cartoon characters, while Dahlia's was simple, a pale green shift with a forest-green ribbon that served as a belt and a three-quarter-sleeved sweater in the same shade.
Daisy's natural response on seeing her dress was a smile of pleasure, but after an elbow poke from Dahlia, she wiped it away and scrunched her face into a frown that matched her sister's. "We have to wear that?" Dahlia asked.
"Yes, you do." Sophy hung each dress on hooks on the closet door, then gestured toward the bathroom. "Teeth, hair, dress. Go."
As they stomped across the hall and into the bathroom, her phone rang from the kitchen counter. Her heels made soft taps on the aged wood floor as she strode to the phone, picking it up on the fourth ring.
"Are you skipping church again today, or did you decide to catch the later service?" her mother asked without a greeting.
"Uh, no, Mom, we're just running a little behind."
"How are the children doing?" Caution seeped through Rae Marchand's voice. It underlaid everything she and Dad had said to Sophy from the moment she'd told them she was becoming a foster parent and that her first kids would be the five- and six-year-old Holigan girls.
"They're getting ready now. They've never been to church before, so they're not eager for the experience. They've been dragging their feet."
I want to give back, Mom, she'd told her. Someone fostered me when I needed it, and you and Dad adopted me. I just want to pay that along.
Rae had choked up. You've got a good heart, and I love you for that. But Maggie Holigan's kids? Honey, that's like going to buy your first kitten and coming home with a Siberian tiger. Jill Montgomery told me they're the hardest kids she's ever had to place. No one wants them.
That was why Sophy wanted them: no one else did.
"Will you be over for dinner?" Dinner at her parents' house was another Sunday tradition. Her older sister, Reba, and her family always came, toofour kids who adored their aunt Sophy. Maybe they would be a good influence on Dahlia and Daisy. "I plan to, but it depends on how things go at church." Whether the girls tried to escape, went on a rampage, maybe burned down the sanctuary. They could well be the first kids ever kicked out of Sunday school in Copper Lake and banned from returning. Even the Lord's patience had limits.
Matching stomps sounded in the hallwayamazing how much noise two skinny little girls could createand Sophy's fingers tightened. "Here they come, Mom. I'll let you know about dinner."
As she laid the phone down, she watched Daisy and Dahlia enter the room. As far as she could see, they'd done as she'd instructed. Their teeth had been brushed, if the toothpaste stains on Daisy's chin were to be trusted. Their hair was combed with zigzag parts and bangs wetted and pasted flat against their foreheads. Their dresses were on, though Dahlia's belt hung untied from two slender loops and her sweater was askew. They even wore shoesratty sneakers Dahlia had brought with her and bright yellow flip-flops Daisy had fallen in love with when they went shopping.
The best advice Sophy had been given so far: pick her battles carefully. She wasn't going to argue about shoes.