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I should have expected it, Cort Morente thought as he tried to avoid being caught up in the jostling, noisy mob on their way to the buses and waiting cars. This is what you get when you decide to start the rest of your so-called life on a Monday.
It was quitting time at Luna Hermosa Middle School and it looked to Cort as though every kid in the place was trying to get out the doors at once. Every kid except the skinny eleven-year-old boy who'd left him standing here in the midst of all this chaos looking stupid. And he didn't have a hope of finding him in this crowd.
"Don't say I didn't warn you." Alex Trejos, the middleschool principal, walked up to where Cort stood. Cort had known Alex since they'd gone to junior high here and he knew from Alex's smirk that he was enjoying himself way too much at Cort's expense. "I told you Tommy was skittish."
Cort cursed under his breath. "Yeah, but you didn't warn me he also kicks like a mule. If this is your idea of therapy, I think I'll go back to sitting alone in my apartment and feeling sorry for myself."
The only reason he was here was because he'd been doing largely that for longer than he cared to admit. And he didn't like what he was turning intobrooding, withdrawn, uncharacteristically short of patience and long on frustration. He was supposed to have been easing back into normal life after nearly two months in the hospital and then another nine months of intense physical therapy. The problem was he'd lost what had passed as normal life for him after one of the suspects in a drug case he'd been working on took offense at being investigated and decided to let Cort know it by attempting to make him part of the pavement. In the collision between Cort and the pickup truck, the truck had won. The doctors had told him he was lucky to be alive. Instead, it was his career with the sheriff's department that had died.
They'd put his right arm and shoulder back together, but the nerve damage was permanent, along with, it seemed, the headaches that at times laid him flat for hours. He'd never again be fit enough for any job at the sheriff's department other than riding a desk and he knew he wouldn't last a week at that before boredom drove him crazy. So for the last several months, he'd been dutifully going through the motions of therapy, recovering while his life fell down around him and he tried not to think about having to start the whole game over with a completely new set of rules.
When Alex called to ask him for a favor, he'd reluctantly agreed, not because he particularly wanted to do it but because it was doing something. He wasn't used to sitting around. Most of his ten years with the sheriff's department had been as part of the special-narcotics task force. He'd worked undercover a good amount of the time and had gotten addicted to the adrenaline-spiked cocktail made up of lack of sleep, regular infusions of caffeine and living on the edge. The withdrawal had been hell.
He suspected Alex knew that and had asked him to talk to Tommy Lujan more as a distraction than because he thought Cort was the best person for the job.
Tommy had problems of his own. Abandoned by his mother when he was two, no idea who his father was, living for years with an abusive uncle who was now in prison for the foreseeable future, then bounced around foster homes from which he was always running away. The kid had never been in any real trouble but Alex was worried that unless someone could reach Tommy, befriend him, it was only a matter of time before things got worse.
Cort hadn't been confident about his ability to become any kind of mentor to Tommy. The only kids he was used to talking to were of the high-school dealer variety and his nephewswho at two and a half and eight months were still largely into monologues instead of dialoguesnone of which had prepared him for an actual conversation with a kid. He'd planned to take Alex's advice and just talk to the kid. But the instant Tommy saw him the boy looked like he'd been confronted by the devil and bolted. When Cort made a grab for him, the kid had kicked him in the shin and had run out of Alex's office before either of them could stop him.
"I suppose you think this is funny?" he grumbled as Alex's smirk threatened to become a grin.
"Well, I gotta say, seeing big, bad Cort Morente outwitted by an eleven-year-old is pretty entertaining. And you have to admit, it's given you something else to think about." Alex turned serious. "I'm worried about Tommy, though. Despite everything, he's a good kid. I hate to think he's run off again. He doesn't have anywhere to go."
"So you don't have any idea where Tommy might hang out?" Maybe if he could find the kid, he could salvage something from what had so far proven to be a wasted day.
"No, but Laurel would." Seeing Cort's unspoken question, Alex said, "Laurel Tanner. Tommy's resource teacher. She works with the kids who need academic help and she knows him better than anyone. He likes her and if Tommy were going to confide in anyone, it would be Laurel."
Cort glanced around him. Most of the kids had left and the building looked empty. "Is she here?"
"Probably," Alex said over his shoulder as he started back inside. "Let me warn her about you first. She's new here and she's one of the best teachers I have. I don't want her running away, too."
Cort started to follow him when Alex pulled up short and looked toward the parking lot. "Wait, there she is. She must be coaching at the community center today. Hey, Laurel!"
Alex waved at a woman poised beside a battered-looking compact car, her hand on the open rear driver's-side door, apparently frozen in the motion of either retrieving or stowing something in the backseat.
At Alex's call she looked up and directly at Cort. In the seconds they stood watching each other, Cort had a brief impression of a tall, slender woman, pale honey-colored hair gilded by the late afternoon sun. Her expression reminded him of Tommy's just before the boy had run.
He started forward. She suddenly moved, waving quickly in his and Alex's direction then hurriedly getting in her car and driving off.
Frowning a little, Alex said, "I guess she thought I was just saying goodbye."
"Not likely," Cort muttered under his breath, instinctively knowing she, too, had taken off the moment she laid eyes on him. "Didn't you say she was doing some kind of coaching at the community center today?"
"Girls' basketball. But you just can't go chasing after her. Hey, Cort!"
But Cort was already halfway to where he'd parked his motorcycle, pulling on his gloves as he went. This time he was going to find out just what it was about him today that had everyone running in the opposite direction.
Laurel Tanner looked at the frightened boy hunched over in the seat behind her, his face propped on skinny fists, and decided both of them were in a lot of trouble.
She'd been stunned to find Tommy hiding in the backseat of her car. She never locked it, figuring the chances of it getting stolen were slim since on a good day she had trouble starting it. But she never imagined one of her students would take advantage of that to use her backseat for a refuge.
Even more unnerving was the reason Tommy was hiding in the first place.
"You aren't gonna tell him where I am, are you?" Tommy asked for the umpteenth time since she'd found him cowering in her car and he'd begged her to help him escape from the man she'd seen with Alex. On a wild impulse she was starting to regret, now that she'd actually taken the time to think, she'd taken him and run.
Tommy had balked at going to the community center, but Laurel insisted. He couldn't hide in her car forever and she needed a place where she could talk to him without worrying about who might be listening. Her basketball class didn't start until four and she knew the center, particularly the snack-bar area where she was taking him, would be relatively empty for at least a half an hour. Even better, the snack bar overlooked the parking lot so Laurel could keep an eye on new arrivals.
"I'm not going to tell anyone," Laurel reassured him. The last thing Tommy had to worry about was her telling that man or anyone else that she'd helped him escape from school. She didn't even want to imagine the repercussions. "But you need to tell me why you ran away."
"I told you, because of him." Now seated in the backseat, Tommy began shredding the edge of a paper napkin. "He has something to do with my uncle's business." Tommy had been removed from his uncle's house nearly two years ago when his uncle was sent to jail. Laurel didn't know the whole story but whatever had happened to Tommy had left scars.
"Do you know him?" When Tommy answered with a sharp shake of his head, Laurel asked gently, "Then how do you know he has something to do with your uncle?"
"You saw him. He looks like all the guys that used to come to my uncle's house. My uncle must have sent him."
Laurel didn't blame Tommy for being afraid of him. The man she'd glimpsed with Alex at school was big and intimidating, the all black he wore did nothing to soften her first impression. For the seconds they'd locked gazes, she'd felt as if he could see right through her and knew even before she did that she was going to run with Tommy.
She hesitated over what was potentially a taboo subject with the boy before saying, "I thought your uncle was in jail."
She could see Tommy looking at her in the rearview mirror. The expression in his dark eyes was a mix of fear and impatience. His hands clenched tightly as if he were trying to hold himself together. "He is. But that don't mean anything. I'll bet he could do stuff from jail."
Laurel knew she had to tread cautiously or Tommy would shut down. "What kind of stuff?"
"Just things. Lots of things. I don't want to talk about him." He looked away from her again, his mouth drawn in a hard line, retreating into himself.
"Okay, you don't have to." Later at the community center she plotted how she might get Tommy to trust her again. To give herself time to think, she fished some change out of her purse and bought Tommy a soda from a vending machine. He accepted it wordlessly and they sat in silence as Laurel tried to decide what to do next.
She could be in serious trouble for running with Tommy, but she'd acted impulsively, out of an instinct to protect him. She didn't know what to think of his story now. Surely Alex wouldn't have allowed the kind of man Tommy feared into school, let alone let him talk to Tommy.
But Tommy was obviously frightened of the man and equally afraid of his uncle and what he imagined the man could still do to him.
This wasn't the first time Laurel wanted to reach out and do something to help Tommy. Since she'd come to Luna Hermosa two months before to accept the post as the middleschool resource teacher, she'd connected with the thin, quiet boy who spent most of his time alone. Maybe it was because of that, because both of them, by choice or circumstance, were isolated, unconnected to anyone else. And maybe part of it was because involving herself in someone's else's problems was becoming a habit, one of the things she did, like teaching basketball or spending hours running or hiking, to avoid going home where she was alone except for her ghosts and memories.
"Tommy, I'm sure Mr. Trejos wouldn't let anyone that meant to hurt you into school. And why would your uncle send someone like that to find you?"
Tommy looked up at her, an almost adult seriousness on him." He averted his eyes. "He told me he'd come back for me one day."
He looked so utterly lost that Laurel started to reach across the table to touch him, to assure him his uncle, no matter what he'd threatened, couldn't hurt him anymore. But at that moment a slight sound caught her attention and Laurel turned to look over her shoulder just as Tommy's glance shot up.
The man from the school was there.
Laurel fleetingly gave herself a mental kick for letting her focus on Tommy cause her to miss the man's arrival.
Tommy didn't take time to think. He immediately jerked up and out of his chair and scrambled for the door. The man made a move as if to step in Tommy's path, but Laurel moved faster. Putting herself between Tommy and his pursuer, she grabbed handfuls of the man's leather jacket just above the elbow, preventing him from chasing after the boy.
He made a frustrated noise that sounded suspiciously like a curse and grasped her shoulders as if he intended to put her aside to go after Tommy. When it became clear Tommy's head start made that impossible, he fixed her with a dark glare that made it obvious he wasn't too happy having her practically in his arms and in his way.
An odd nervous quiver plucked at Laurel's insides. Fear. It had to be fear. He was the man chasing Tommy, he was holding her and he looked dangerous. So she called it fear, even though she suspected any other woman would say it was because he looked like the star of a wicked fantasy. One that involved black leather, slow heat and a wild ride.
But she told herself it was the way he looked at her now, slowly assessing, as if committing every detail of her, inside and out, to memory. That and he made her feel small, almost petite. At five feet eight inches that rarely happened to her. This man, though, had to be over six foot and from his build, spent a good portion of his time working out.
This close she could see his eyes were a deep brown, almost black. But they gave her no clue what he was thinking when he looked at her, though she doubted she inspired any fantasies for him. She'd changed before leaving school into baggy gray sweats, her hair hastily pulled into a ponytail, with only the barest trace of makeup on her face.
She noticed his scent of leather and wind, so close now as he held her between his hands, seemingly distracted for a moment by his study of her. Her skin prickled with a sudden awareness immediately followed by a flash of irritation. What was wrong with her? She'd never felt this way around a man, so unsettled, uneasy. She didn't understand it when she should be thinking of him as an adversary, if not the enemy. And she definitely didn't like it.
She wanted peace and she wasn't going to find it with dark, wicked-looking strangers who could start her pulse thrumming and her nerves quivering with just a look and a touch.
Realizing she was making herself a willing captive by still clutching his jacket, Laurel let go at the same time he dropped his hands. She took a few steps back then stopped, not at all sure she wanted to confront him. Yet she was certain he wasn't about to let her run away again.
He eyed her up and down. "My guess is you're Laurel Tanner," he said wryly, bringing a flush to her face.
She could hardly deny it since Alex must have told him who she was. "Yes, I am." Laurel stopped herself from looking away from that steady gaze. She refused to back down even though he didn't have to say a word to be daunting. All in all, the situation couldn't get a whole lot worse so before she could tell herself it was a bad idea, she blurted out, "Why are you chasing Tommy?"