Sands of Time

The Heart Falls Heroes, Book 2

K. D. Friedrich

 

Prologue

Summer’s end 2008

Jade Santiago kept her head low as she snuck in through the back door of her family’s sprawling ranch. She had learned at an early age to remain inconspicuous. Better to blend into the background than risk her father’s inquisition—an inquest that usually ended in pain.

Tears clung to her red, swollen eyes. Her heart was broken.

Exhaustion had set in days earlier, caused by a severe lack of sleep and intense anxiety. A shiver shook her when she turned to close the door without a sound. Outside, the summer air was hot and sticky, but inside…as cold as ice.

In a few moments, she’d be safe in her room. The best sound in the world was the lock on her bedroom door sliding into place. Not that it would keep her father out, but it gave her some time to prep herself for the next round of discipline.

Out of nowhere, rough fingers snagged her ponytail, yanking her head back with a sudden jolt. Pain shot along the nerves in her neck, across her scalp, and over her shoulders. She stumbled, falling to her knees on the hard tiles of the kitchen floor.

“I found it in your room.”

The stink of liquor surrounded her father like a toxic cloud, thick and suffocating. He must have had another bad day on patrol, because he hadn’t even bothered to change out of his policeman’s uniform before he hit the bottle.

Bad sign. Liquor made him worse. Much worse. He was no prince without it, but add a few shots of rum to his nasty personality and he became the devil’s sidekick.

When her gaze found the small white slip with the pharmacy emblem fisted in his free hand, her heart sank deep into her chest.

“I…I don’t know, Father,” she lied. I thought I got rid of all of that stuff. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

The slap came hard and fast. Stars swam in her vision, followed by an eerie ringing in her ears that echoed in her brain like a bad horror score. For a short man, her father had thick, bulky hands, and a fist large enough to shadow her entire face. Blood pooled in her mouth. She forced herself to swallow the putrid, coppery liquid, fearing he’d punish her more for spitting the mess out on the floor. She gagged but held back the need to vomit. He’d kill her if she threw up all over his perfect kitchen.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed her mother slinking into the room. She pulled out a chair at the table and took a seat. No expression decorated the woman’s features. Her mother’s face held bruises and a small cut by her lip, remnants of the last round of discipline she’d suffered. Her eyes were dead. Void of emotion or concern. Not even fear entered them anymore. Her father had destroyed her mother's spirit long ago.

“It’s proof that you’re nothing but a whore.”

Her father’s voice rattled her soul. Whore, slut, fat, ugly, stupid bitch…she’d heard them all. They shouldn’t hurt anymore. Yet they did.

He slapped her twice more, sharp, quick hits meant to instill fear and make her talk. She refused to show her dread, although her soul trembled.

Jade threw her mother a pleading glance. She received no acknowledgement. The petite woman kept her eyes glued to her hands. Her mom sat there in silence. Why Jade thought today would be any different, she didn’t know. Perhaps it was the foolish sliver of hope resting deep inside her, or the utter fear threatening to consume her.

She demanded answers from whatever God watched over the rest of the world. Why does my father hate me so much? Instead of the sharp sting of her father’s fist, just once, she wanted the warm comfort of his arms. She wanted his acceptance. She wanted his love.

He pulled her close. “Got nothing to say, girly?”

Not waiting for her answer, her father dragged her out of the kitchen by her hair, down the hall, and into her bedroom.

She started to struggle. The thought of what he might do terrified her. Her fate was now tied to another. What if he hit her in the stomach? What if he forced her to lose the baby?

He yanked the collar of her shirt, tearing the seam. He brought her face an inch from his own. His breath hit her, polluted from the rum he had drunk. “Now I know why you’ve been wearing all these damn clothes. You’ve been hiding your shame, hiding your whoring ways.”

“Father, please,” she begged, not for herself, but for the child growing in her womb. She didn’t know why she bothered. Pleading for his mercy was a comical notion, considering the man lacked a heart.

“Too late to beg, girly. The damage is done. Now you pay the price.”

He ripped the tattered shirt over her head, his blunt nails scratching over the scabs on her back. Scabs she'd received from the last time she had to pay the price for her existence. Pain shot up her spine, forcing an agonized roar to explode from her lips. Tears formed in her eyes, although she tried to hold them back. She hated for him to see her cry, but her skin burned. His last session of discipline hadn’t healed, and the skin over her spine remained raw. He glared at the small swell forming on her tummy. Standing there in her bra, she cradled her hands over her stomach.

“You’re getting rid of it. I should rip the bastard out myself.”

“No,” she screamed, shaking her head.

“You’re a disgrace. A filthy, fat whore.”

She had never stood up to him, but this wasn’t just about her. “This baby is mine. I won’t let you hurt it. I won’t.”

He caught her around the throat. His grip tightened enough to block her airway. “You don’t command me, girly. I command you.” He dragged her farther into her room, shoving her toward the bed. Part of the mattress slid off the box spring when she crashed into it.

Her entire body trembled. A weak, evil smile started to lift the left side of his lips the second he stared down at her. She swore the man thrived on her fear and pain.

Well, screw him. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Without offering him the slightest whimper, she assumed the position, kneeling in front of her bed, placing her elbows on the mattress, and locked her hands together as if to pray.

“Tell me the bastard’s name,” he shouted.

She shook her head. She’d rather die than tell him. John Sands might have moved on to better things, but she still cared for him. She should have known he’d lose interest in her. He was two years older and set to graduate. Why in the world would he want to be stuck to a fat nobody like her? Regardless of the truth, he was the one boy to show her affection, the one person to bring joy to her sorry little life. It might have been just one night, but in those precious hours, she’d felt loved. She’d rather suffer the beating of a lifetime than betray their special moment.

If her father found out John had fathered her child, he’d do everything in his power to destroy him. Being a policeman with ties to town government made him a powerful enemy.

She cared about John too much to let that happen.

The faint rustle of her father’s fat belt buckle alerted her of what was to come. He did the task slow, no doubt savoring the moment. A good beating had a way of making him downright giddy.

Soon, the swooshing of thick leather sliding through the loops of his pants filled the stillness. Over the years, he had made enhancements to his weapon. He'd sanded the sides, making them sharper, and weaved a metal-linked chain into the center. Oh, the strap was unique and painful as all hell.

“Tell me his name and I’ll make it quick!”

“I don’t know,” she lied. “I met him at a party.” She wouldn’t throw John into the pit of her father’s wrath.

Swoosh. Crack.

The first strike burned like fire over her still-healing skin. She licked her lip. Blood coated her tongue.

“You’re nothing but a slut. You know that. You gave a stranger your innocence.”

What innocence? You beat it out of me years ago.

The hits came one after another. For what felt like hours, she took his punishment, withstood his verbal bashing, and did so in silence, refusing to give him the satisfaction of her cries. He growled one last time before stumbling toward the door. Breathless, he left the room without another insult.

She crawled onto her bed, blood dripping down her ribs, her skin ravaged and raw. With her last ounce of strength, she pulled herself up on the mattress, closed her red, swollen eyes, and prayed for mercy. If not for the child nestled in her womb, she’d beg for death.

The pain ravaging her body distorted her mind, while her spirit lay buried beneath a mountain of despair. She had no idea how much time passed or whether she’d survive the next round of discipline.

No one checked on her.

No one cared.

She succumbed to exhaustion and pain sometime later.

Early the next night, the door suddenly creaked open to her room. A ray of light crept over her mattress. She squinted from the unexpected illumination. Too sore to turn her head away from the brightness, she lay there, praying it wasn’t her father who entered.

The sudden scrape of wood over wood and then several bangs assured her someone was going through her dresser drawers. Maybe he’d decided to throw her out. The thought was both a blessing and a nightmare.

A shadow hurried around her room. The crumpling of canvas and the shuffling of feet over her wood floor echoed in her ears.

Out of nowhere, a cold, rough hand slid under her arm. “Can you stand?” her mother asked calmly.

“Yes,” she managed to croak, her throat dry and gritty like sandpaper.

With her mother’s help, she managed to pull herself out of her bed. Each shift made her wince, radiating pain across her back. Her mother helped her dress in a pair of sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt. Lifting her arms sent burning waves across her back.

Wincing, she glanced at her mother’s face. “What’s going on?”

Her mother didn’t answer. Instead, she stepped away to finish stuffing clothes in a big duffle. She zipped it shut and then flung the bag over her shoulder.

“Put your arm around my neck.” Her mother helped her to the hallway. “Hurry, there isn’t much time. Your father had an emergency at work, but I don’t think he’ll be gone long.” Her mother helped her put on a jacket and her shoes.

Reaching inside herself, Jade found the strength to keep up with her mother’s pace. “Where are we going?”

She received no answer. They rushed out the door into the humid night, and an eerie silence greeted them. Up above, a bright white moon hovered in the clear black sky, staring down at them with a knowing presence.

Her mother helped her into the passenger seat of their car. Jade cried out as a sharp pain shot along her spine.

“Easy does it, Jade.”

Her door shut. The back door opened and the sound of the bulky duffle bag hitting the seat echoed throughout the car. Jade was so tired. All she wanted to do was sleep for like a thousand years. Her head fell back against the head rest as her mom ran around to the driver’s side, hopped in, started the car, and pulled out of the driveway.

The silence was deafening.

“I’m not getting rid of my baby,” Jade said. Being sixteen and pregnant hadn’t been her original plan, but from the moment she found out about the child, she wanted her little miracle. She wanted this piece of John to live, to thrive.

Her mother kept her eyes on the road. “I’m taking you to the train. Aunt Ellen is expecting you at Grand Central Station tomorrow morning.” She shoved a wad of cash in Jade’s lap, along with a piece of loose-leaf paper. “There’s enough there for a ticket and some extra to help you get settled. Ellen’s number and address are on the paper. Take the train I wrote on that sheet. Ellen said it will get you there by morning.”

“Where did you get all this money, Mom?”

“Don’t you mind that…Ellen knows how your dad…well, let’s just say she knows his temper. She grew up with him. She’ll take good care of you and the baby.”

Stillness settled within the car once again.

“Mom,” Jade said. “You know what he’ll do if he finds out you helped me.” Jade winced when she looked at her mother.

She turned and offered Jade a dead stare before returning her eyes to the road. “As far as he’ll know, you ran away. The truth will leave with you.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out a bottle of pills. “Here, it’s acetaminophen. I looked it up. They say it’s safe for the baby if taken as the bottle says. You’re hurting.”

“When he finds out I’m with Aunt Ellen, he’ll come for me.”

Her mother shook her head. “Ellen will protect you. There’s a reason he never goes to see your Aunt Ellen. She has a gun, and she’s not afraid to use it.” There was no humor in her voice.

They pulled up to the station. Her mother helped her out of the car. A whimper escaped with each move. Jade's mother pulled out the duffle bag that held her clothes and walked with her until they reached the front doors.

“Come with me, Mom. Don’t go back there.”

“He’s my husband. I swore before God to honor him.” She sighed. “I’ve made my choices, dear. Now you got to make yours.” Her mother kissed her forehead. “Now go.”

“Thank you,” said Jade.

“Go on.” Her mother’s eyes flooded with tears. “Be safe.”

Her mother spun and hurried toward the car. She never offered Jade another word. She never glanced back. She jumped in the car, pulled away from the curb, and disappeared into traffic.

Chapter 1

Present

“You’re doing great, kids,” John Sands shouted.

He jogged along the sidelines of the basketball court, clapping and grinning. Sneakers thudded and screeched against the dull maple wood floor. Droplets of perspiration trickled down John’s temple, his shirt sticking to his back. He glanced up with a frown. Over his head, the hum of the fans vibrated through the air ducts running along the ceiling. Yet the aged unit on the community center’s roof did little to keep the gym at an even temperature. Either it was too hot or too cold.

“I’m open,” hollered a chubby kid with scruffy blond hair.

John dropped his gaze. The boys passed the ball left and then right, just like he'd taught them. He was so damn proud. Their moves were still clumsy and they held the ball more than dribbled it, but they tried. Plus, the game kept them out of trouble. Nothing else mattered.

A slight whiff of sweat and the fresh aroma of citrus floor cleaner filled John’s nostrils as a stampede of kids, ages six and up, blew past him again.

His eyes widened. “Take the shot, Billy! Take it!”

Billy jumped higher than any plump kid with short legs John had ever seen, but came up short. The ball hit the rim and bounced back toward the court. Billy scowled and stomped his foot.

“Good try, Billy.” John clapped for the boy’s effort. The praise seemed to offer the child assurance. He brushed off his grimace and rejoined his teammates.

His boss, the head of the Heart Falls Police Department, Chief Richard Santiago, or Dick, as they affectionately called him, had thought forcing John to babysit a bunch of ankle biters on his days off was cruel and unusual punishment. John had to admit he'd thought the same thing at first, but a few weeks of coaching the youth basketball team turned his opinion around one hundred percent.

The kids were a lot like him growing up. He and his best friend, Pete Cross, had gotten into their fair share of trouble. The only difference was they both had John’s father Carl, a positive male role model, to look up to, and these kids had none.

He refused to let the chief know he looked forward to his weekly reprimand. A tyrant by nature, Santiago would force him to scrub the precinct’s locker rooms, or worse, the toilets, if he found out how much he enjoyed coaching these kids. He cringed at the thought.

“You’re so great with him,” said the pretty little redhead beside him. She stood close enough that her heavy flowery perfume had begun to make him dizzy.

Billy’s mom, aka the little redhead, had just suffered a devastating divorce, or so she’d claimed, last week. From what John had observed, she seemed to be handling the tragic event just fine. She had no problem offering him a shoulder rub followed by her number. He took her contact information and accepted her massage. It wasn’t like him to disappoint a woman, in particular one so eager.

“Thanks, sweetheart. They’re all a great bunch of kids.” He wasn’t just saying that; he really meant it.

A couple of feet away, Kevin Barnes, a fellow officer with the Heart Falls Police Department, did a fist pump when his team sunk another basket. “Good shot, Tom. Keep up your defense, Chris.” He glanced up at John and then to the woman to John’s left and flashed a thumbs up.

John shook his head at his friend’s smirk.

All of a sudden, the officer’s interest shifted to the right, sparking John’s curiosity enough to make him follow Barnes’ line of sight. His heart skipped a beat.

Jade Santiago stood in the doorway. He hadn’t seen her since his barroom brawl had landed him in the emergency room at Heart Falls General Hospital a couple of weeks back. To be honest, he didn’t expect to see the pretty nurse again. Her reception had been less than positive.

This day just got a hell of a lot better.

Her large indigo-colored eyes offered a stark contrast to her warm, tan skin. John had never noticed eyes her exact color on anyone. Bluer than any summer sky and brighter than any gemstone he’d ever seen. They drew a man in deep, made him want things he never knew he wanted, things he had no right to claim.

“Did you give any thought to my offer for Saturday night, John?” The redhead placed a hand on his shoulder. He dropped his gaze to her fingers, kneading his muscle.

He smiled down at her. “Sorry, sweetheart, but I’m going to take a rain check on dinner. Some other time, maybe. I have a lot of stuff going on this weekend.”

“Sure…okay,” said Billy’s mom. “Call me when you’re free. You got my number.”

John stepped away, putting some space between them. “Absolutely,” he lied, hoping to spare her feelings. He didn’t want to be rude, but from the second he'd watched Jade enter the gym, no one else existed.

The redhead must have taken the hint, because she marched back over to the bleachers to sit with the other moms.

Jade wore a pale green nurse’s uniform that clung to her hourglass figure. Today, she’d let some of her long, thick curls, as black as onyx, cascade over her large breasts, while the rest of her unruly strands were pulled back off her face and tied with a thick hair tie. The neckline stopped just shy of her cleavage, hiding all that luscious soft skin from his view. Her lanyard hung around her neck, the ID card nestled against her chest. Her full lips were touched with a hint of pink lip gloss, a light shade used to enhance, not cover. She stood a good fifteen feet away, and he was still able to notice how her long, thick eyelashes brushed her cheek when she blinked.

Jesus, she looked good enough to eat. He wiped a hand over his face, surprised the mere sight of her had made him tent his shorts. Fate had put her in his path when she ended up as his best friend’s nurse after their scuffle at the local bar. She’d offered her number to John’s sister Cara, in case they had any concerns or questions about Pete’s recovery. He’d swiped the phone number from Cara and tried calling Jade for a date, but she’d never responded to his attempts, a fact that caused a terrible wound to his pride.

Women loved him, for Christ’s sake.

“You look like a hungry wolf who just spotted your pretty little red riding hood,” Barnes observed.

John had been so immersed in the sight of her he hadn’t noticed the fellow cop come up beside him or that the kids had taken a break. John frowned. Pretty? Beautiful is more like it.

“Not your usual type,” Barnes added.

John spun on him. “What do you mean?”

“You tend to tilt toward the skinny chicks with big tits like Billy’s mom over there. Who, I must add, I’m surprised you haven’t boned yet.”

“The key word is yet.”

“Oh, so you plan on tapping the enthusiastic redhead.”

John remained tight lipped.

“Because, from the way you’re staring at the senorita, I’d say you’re hungry for something a little more…spicy.” Barnes leered at Jade.

John didn’t like Barnes’ interest. In fact, the longer he eyed Jade, the more John wanted to punch him in the face. “What the hell you looking at?”

“Just admiring the view. Hey, isn’t she a tad robust for your tastes anyway? Not that I’m complaining. I like a woman with meat on her bones. You know…more cushion for the pushing.” He made a slight twerking move that made John shake his head.

Barnes had a point; thick women weren’t his usual treat, but there was something about Jade that made him want to change his mind.

John’s gaze traveled over her abundant curves. She was petite and delicate, but held an innate strength that was reflected in the way she carried herself. Her narrow waist flared out into wide hips and an ass a man could hold onto while he took her hard. He understood the sexy concept, because he had taken her, six years ago, on a blanket in a field of wildflowers down by Willard Path.

He couldn’t recall any other girl he’d slept with in high school, but Jade he remembered.

She heaved a pained sigh, her body deflating as if she was about to perform a despised task. Her eyes darted around the gym while her fingers fidgeted with the ID badge hanging around her neck. She reminded him of a guitar string tuned too tight. Any second, he expected her to snap and strike the closest thing to her. His years as a cop had taught him many things, and reading body language was one of them. Jade appeared beyond anxious. John based many decisions on his instincts, and, right now, they were screaming at him to walk over and put her at ease.

Two things were guaranteed to settle a female’s nerves. Massage oil and a good long orgasm. He was in if she was. He’d love to get his hands on her full body again. The thought had his cock pounding against his zipper to open up. Not a pleasant sensation at all. With a groan, he shifted.

What am I, fucking fourteen? My damn dick has a mind of its own. Yeah, and all it was thinking about was getting inside his spicy nurse across the way.

He was about to walk over and put an end to his sudden discomfort by asking her out when a tiny head peeked out from behind her outer thigh, deflating his sudden desire. The boy barely reached the top of her hip. With his chin tucked to his chest and a wild mop of sandy hair shooting out from his head, he lifted his eyes enough for John to see big, round glasses that almost swallowed his face. He had the same unique blue eyes as Jade.

“She looks like she needs a hand with something,” said Barnes with a grin. “Perhaps I should offer my assistance. I am a servant of the community.”

John grabbed his shoulder. “You know who that is, don’t you?”

Barnes shrugged.

“Her name is Jade Santiago.”

Barnes swallowed. “Santiago…as in Chief Santiago?”

“One and the same.” John’s gaze landed back on Jade to find her staring at him with wide, terrified eyes. Talk about a deer in the headlights. “I better handle this one.”

Barnes made a face of utter fear. He held up his hands. “I think you’re right. I wouldn’t touch that girl with a freaking telephone pole.”

John chuckled. He always did like to walk on the wild side. He started toward Jade and the ankle biter clinging to her side.

*

Jade had hoped John wouldn’t be the one coaching the team. She’d ignored his phone calls after seeing him and his friend at the hospital. She knew where he hung out and avoided those places as well. She did everything possible to stay away from him, but all her efforts were for nothing. In the end, her father had bullied her into seeing the one man he didn’t even know he should hate, the one man her father wanted to destroy above all others…the man who had gotten her pregnant.

Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Wrong.

She didn’t need to see John to bring those passionate memories back to vivid life. The memory of his twinkling eyes and killer smile were carved into her brain. She shouldn’t be surprised. John Sands had a way about him that left many girls panting and wanting more. He was the one man her mind and body refused to forget. Time might have forced her desire into hibernation, but nothing had the power to eradicate how much he made her burn. One glance and the fire started all over again.

He was all she thought about now. Funny how her biggest threat was her greatest obsession.

Jade hadn’t been able to keep from rolling her eyes when she’d seen the woman hanging all over John. Men were all predictable and disappointing. The redheaded poster girl for what guys wanted was the exact kind of woman she imagined John desired—thin, pretty, flirty, and no doubt, easy. Everything Jade wasn’t. He hadn’t changed much at all. Still the lover boy. Still the charmer. Still out of her league. Not that it mattered. She needed to stay far away from him anyway.

“M-Mom, I d-d-don’t want t-to p-play.” Her son’s stuttering worsened when he was stressed.

She stroked his head. “I know, sweetheart, but why don’t you give it a shot? You might like basketball. It looks like they’re having fun out there.” She didn’t want to be here either, not one bit.

With his lip sticking out, JT shook his head. “No it d-doesn’t. It’s s-stinky in here. I’m hot. I w-w-wanna g-go home.”

Jade sighed.

When her father ordered her to get her weak-ass son into sports, she had almost told him to go fuck himself. She would have, if the bastard’s eyes hadn’t held such contempt. Hard to believe they were the same eyes she’d looked into a few months earlier. Back then, they were soft. Regretful eyes filled with promises of change, family, and new beginnings. Goddamned liar. The man hadn’t changed at all. He’d just become a better actor.

Two days ago, her father had shoved the youth league notice in her face. “It’s not football, but I doubt that sorry son of yours is cut out for it anyway. Sign him up for this. Get his useless ass out of the house. He’s turning into a lazy lump. They’ll take him. They take anyone.”

She didn’t bother to ask her father who was coaching the youth league. She already knew he had assigned John to run the organization for troubled kids as punishment for his off-duty brawl. John had mentioned his penance at the hospital. But she did try to get out of it. After several attempts, her father’s suspicious nature began to question her reluctance. Close to forty years on the force made her father one untrusting, mean bastard. According to him, you were guilty until proven innocent. In her case, she would be forever guilty.

In the end, she had no choice. To avoid raising her father’s suspicions, JT would have to join the center’s activities. Because if her father ever found out the real reason she didn’t want to visit the center, there’d be hell to pay.

She glanced up for a second to catch John smiling at her. The other coach had joined him. Laughing and smiling, they seemed to be having a great time. She lowered her gaze when she suddenly realized she was once again staring at John. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed him turn to his friend, say something that made the guy chuckle, and then he did the unexpected. John started to walk in her direction. Heat flooded her body, centering on her cheeks. Her stomach flopped around like a fish desperate for water. She pressed her hand to her gut, trying to calm the tension.

Oh my God, he’s coming over here.

Dressed in a pair of white basketball shorts and shirt, John strutted toward her, his tall, lean body a tad thicker than she remembered. The boy she had loved was all grown up now. Time had turned him into a full-blooded-all-American-piece-of-sweet-ass man candy. Though she was ashamed to admit it, she was starved for a taste. She wanted to touch and stroke and…

“Mom,” whined JT.

“Hush now,” Jade said. Heat spread over her cheeks again.

JT stuck his lip out farther and crossed his arms over his chest. Jade sighed at her son’s disapproval before turning her eyes back to the male closing in on her. The need to escape collided with her desire to yank John into her arms, making her head spin.

Back in high school, his hair had been a mess of soft, caramel-colored strands. Not at all like the neat and tidy style cut into his hair today. He looked different, but older, wiser and not any less sexy. He kept a shadow of a beard and mustache, a rebellious edge that made her body ache in spots long forgotten.

Those eyes.

She’d lost herself in them the night he took her virginity. They were a green much like the fields of grass surrounding them that warm summer evening. She swore she scented the sweetness of wildflowers as he drew closer. Ridiculous, considering they were standing in an old, hot gym surrounded by sweaty kids. Still, the fresh aroma of that night surrounded her.

She noticed the strong angles of his jaw tighten with each step. He appeared determined, yet he still managed to display an easygoing confidence she admired. His full lips lifted into a smile that lit the entire gymnasium. Even sunshine wouldn’t brighten the room more. The slight grin made her stand taller. It made her feel stronger. With his gaze locked on her, she felt…safe.

This isn’t right.

She should leave, spin her and her son right around and run away, but before she gathered the strength to flee, he towered over her.

Jade gazed up and up into John’s hazel eyes. He stood a tad over six foot. Compared to her five-foot-four frame, he was a giant, but she didn’t feel intimidated, even though a man his size had the strength to knock her down and destroy whatever power she possessed. She felt secure around him, safer than she had with anyone, ever.

“If it isn’t my pretty nurse from Heart Falls General,” he said with an intimate drawl in his voice.

She strangled the bottom of her shirt with her fingers. JT hid behind her. He held onto her leg, digging his little nails deep into her outer thigh.

Her voice remained trapped beneath thick layers of guilt, shock, and desire. He unhinged her, yet imprisoned her at the same time.

“Hello, John,” she managed to say. An angry tone hadn’t been her intention, but she went with it.

“Aww, darling, you wound me with your coldness.” He moved closer. “When there is such warmth in your eyes.”

“Do women usually fall for those cheesy lines?” Her gaze travelled over to the redhead who had hung all over him a few moments earlier. “I guess they do.” She shoved her amusement behind a wall of annoyance. Down, girl. He must not know he gets to you.

“Oh, they don’t fall. They dive right in.”

Now he was getting plain corny. She bit her lip to keep from smiling. “Can we end this right now? I’m through playing around.”

John lowered his focus to her hip. “He seems…apprehensive,” he said as he eyed JT with curiosity as well as pity.

JT clung to her.

“For crying out loud, JT, get out from behind me.” She offered John a nervous smile. “This is my son. Umm…he’s shy around strangers.” She yanked, prying JT’s fingers free of her leg. “Say hello to Mr. Sands.”

JT managed to squeak out a hello.

“My players are about six years old and up. What is he, four?”

Jade scowled. “My son will be fine, don’t worry.”

Tilting his head, John frowned. “The other kids out there are almost twice his size. I don’t want to see the kid get hurt.”

“Look, this isn’t my idea. Chief Santiago put his foot down in the matter, and I think you know how demanding he can be.”

John nodded. “Yeah, I know…” He smiled at JT. “Okay, go on out there, kid. Show them what you got.”

“M-Mom,” JT cried.

John crouched beside him. “Hey, little guy. Don’t let them worry you. Those kids out there are all talk and no bite.”

“B-but they’re b-bigger.”

John leaned in closer to Jade and JT as if telling them a secret. “But something tells me you’re smarter. Brains over brawn, my man. Beats them every time.” John stood. “Go on out there. Show them you got what it takes, kid.”

“Ye-ye-yes, s-sir,” JT stuttered. He didn’t appear too confident, but JT shuffled toward the group of boys anyway, taking a position in the back of the line of kids shooting free throws.

Jade stood there with her eyes glued to her son. JT glanced up at her. She smiled and offered him a quick, reassuring wave, while her heart did tiny summersaults in her chest.

John moved closer. “He seems like a good kid.” His sudden closeness, like a stinging whip, knocked her back into reality.

She was sure to rot in hell for her lies. Her father was right. She was a conniving little bitch. She needed to find a way out of this arrangement her father had forced them into. John was better off without them.

“Does he stutter all the time?”

John’s voice held tenderness and concern, the same kindness he’d expressed when he'd held her all those years ago.

She frowned. “Yes, but when he’s nervous or upset, it’s more pronounced. It’s become worse since I moved back here. New school and making new friends has been hard on him.”

“What are the doctors doing for him?”

“Mainly speech therapy. He’s been working with an in-school therapist and one outside session a week.” She looked back at her son again. “I wish he could go for more, but he didn’t qualify for anything else under the state, and private group therapy costs a fortune.”

She wished she were able to give him the best doctors out there. With her father’s constant complaining and ridicule, JT had begun stuttering all the time. She had to get him away from her father. A few more weeks of saving money and she’d be ready to get her own place. Until then, they’d both lay low and stay out of her father’s way. JT tossed the ball at the hoop, but he missed by a foot.

John turned to her. “What about his father? Is he helping you out?”

Her heart sank at John’s questions. A flash of nausea slammed into her stomach. She wrapped her arm around her waist, using all her strength to stay standing. She didn’t dare look him in the eye as she stumbled through her lie. “It’s…his father…is…it’s very complicated.”

“He’s a major asshole, huh?” John flashed a quick, reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll look out for him. I promise.”

Jade closed her eyes. She had never hated herself more than this moment.

Over the years, she had spent countless nights imagining John saying those words to her. Hearing them now seemed surreal. Tears threatened to spill over her lashes, but she fought them back. Discipline at the hands of her father made her an expert at hiding her emotions.

She opened her eyes and nodded. “Thanks. I’d appreciate that.”

John shifted his eyes back to JT, as if making him the same promise in silence. He had no idea the boy throwing the ball at the basket was his son, and he never would. If he found out, then so would her father, putting him on an inescapable path of destruction. He would ruin John’s career, hurt his family, and do whatever necessary to make John suffer for embarrassing him by getting his daughter pregnant.

In the center of her chest, a knot twisted into a tight ball of jagged spikes, tearing, ripping apart whatever heart she had left. She wanted to fall to her knees and scream at the top of her lungs how sorry she was that she’d lied to him and wrap her arms around John tight. Confess to him that they’d created a life—a beautiful, smart, special boy with a heart of gold and John’s incredible smile.

No…John must never know.

The truth would be his annihilation. To this day, her father continued to threaten the nameless boy who had defiled her. Hatred and vengeance had festered in the man’s heart for years. She shivered. He’ll lose his mind if he finds out. He’ll hurt John in the worst way, and I’m too weak to protect him.

A hand touched her shoulder. “You okay in there? You sort of spaced out.”

She stepped away from his tenderness. “I’m fine.”

Damn her father for bullying her into this ridiculous basketball thing. Years away from the man, and all it took was a few months for him to gain complete control over her life. Now JT was caught in the middle.

She was a fool to think her father had changed.

After her mother died from cancer last year, her father exhibited a side Jade had never witnessed before. The caring kind of father she’d wished for while growing up.

She should have recognized the act, seen his true character hidden behind the same painted smile he flashed for the press. She should have remembered his punishments. The beatings that left her back bruised and riddled in bloody welts from his leather belt. She still had scars all over her body from his so-called discipline. He hadn’t hit her since her return home, but it was only a matter of time before he lost control.

She still had not fully grieved her mother’s death when her aunt took a turn and passed away. Swimming in bills and facing eviction, she was far too vulnerable to turn down her father’s offer of a home and family. Now she wondered if the local shelter in her old Brooklyn neighborhood would have been the better choice. Her father had duped her into thinking he wanted a relationship with his daughter and grandchild. Instead, he wanted a maid, someone to cook and clean. An obedient slave to listen to his rants, a soul to take the brunt of his anger. Now she was helpless. Locked into a situation that would take months to break free from, but so help her God, they would escape. All she needed was time to save up enough money for an apartment.

“So, you interested?”

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“Drifted off again, huh? I asked you if you wanted to get some coffee.”

“M-Mommy, I want to g-g-go home.”

Jade turned to find JT behind her, tugging at her pants. Beside him stood another boy, not much bigger.

John crouched beside JT. “What’s wrong, little guy?”

“Brandon is making fun of him because sometimes he talks funny,” said the other boy.

John frowned. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Jade. “Come on, guys, let’s chat with Brandon.”

When it came to her son, Jade didn’t want to just stand on the sidelines. She followed John toward the group of boys.

Brandon happened to be a foot taller than JT, a brute of a child perhaps birthed by a grizzly bear.

“Hey, I didn’t do anything,” Brandon spat out under John’s scrutiny.

“Relax, I’m not punishing you. Everyone, fall in. Come on, let’s show some enthusiasm.”

The kids rushed over to form a circle around John. Becoming a cop had given John a stronger air of authority. She found the change…exciting.

John crouched down so he was at the same level as the children around him. “I’m going to do what we did at the police academy, when we had two guys who liked to bully each other around. You are all going to pair up. Look at the guy to your right. He is your partner from now on. You don’t knock him down. Ever.” His eyes landed on Brandon. Brandon dropped his gaze. “You don’t hurt him. If he falls, you pick him up. If he has a problem, you become the solution. You count on each other from now on. If one of you can’t understand the meaning of working together, all of you will be punished. No exceptions. Everyone understand?” A few kids rolled their eyes. John stood now, his hands on his hips. “I said, do you understand?” His voice became louder, more direct.

“Yes, sir,” shouted a chorus of unhappy boys.

“JT and Brandon, you are my first set of partners.”

Jade glanced at John, unsure of his method.

He leaned close to her. The scent of mint and something sweet swirled beneath her nose. “Trust me,” he said. “It will work like a charm.” The feel of him so close made her toes curl and her spine straighten.

“Hey, I don’t want to be a partner with this loser.”

Never had Jade wanted to spank a child. She’d grown up with abuse and didn’t condone it, but this boy made her hand itch.

“Now that is a shame.” John sighed, his disappointment obvious. He glanced up at the boys. “Brandon doesn’t agree with my choice of partners, everyone. Let’s see if four laps around the gym for the group will change his opinion. Now. Let’s go.” Groans and dirty looks were shot at Brandon. “Maybe by the time you’re all finished, Brandon will have a change of heart.” John clapped. “Hustle, guys. Let’s go.”

They all started to jog, leaving Brandon by himself at the end of the line. JT, on the other hand, had a couple boys cheering him on.

John crossed his arms over his chest. His coaching partner slid up beside him. “You’re pulling a Phil and Ed on them, aren’t you?” John’s lips lifted into a smug grin. The other coach glanced at her. “How are you doing, sweetheart?”

John elbowed him. “This is Barnes. He’s a fellow officer.”

“What’s a Phil and Ed?” Jade wondered.

John turned to her. “You see, we had these two guys at the academy, Phillip and Edward. They hated each other. Our instructor forced them to be partners. They had to do everything together. Eat, work, exercise—they even took their evening shit at the same time. By the end of our training, they were best friends, which was a good thing, because they ended up being partners the next town over.” John glanced at the boys as they trotted past. “See, it’s working like a charm. Nothing worse than being shunned, and right now, I’d say those boys are pretty pissed at Chip.” John snickered. Barnes joined him.

“Chip? I thought his name is Brandon?” asked Jade.

“It is, but Barnes and I have a private nickname for him. We call him Chip, because he’s got a huge chip on his shoulder.”

Barnes interrupted. “I read his file. Brandon had a pretty bad home life. His father liked to take out his problems on him. His dad’s serving time now, and his mom’s in rehab. He’s in a good foster home, but Brandon is still having trouble settling in, making friends, and he’s sort of withdrawn.”

Jade glanced at Brandon, and an image of herself many years ago popped into her head. She’d never bullied others, but she was a loner. She had no true friends. If it hadn’t been for her aunt helping her cope, she might have taken a much different path. She hoped this boy found the same love and support she had, but the odds weren’t good.

Feeling deflated, she turned to John. “I’m going to sit over there on the bleachers. Please don’t follow me.”

She’d sounded like a bitch. Judging by John’s frown and Barnes’ surprised face, they thought the same thing. Better to turn him off now than destroy him later. He was better off without her. He was better off staying in the dark. She walked away without further explanation.

* * * *

Once again, John’s gaze landed on Jade. The kids raced past him up and down the court, Billy’s mom attempted to perform another massage, and still his gaze remained locked on her.

Her cold attitude didn’t deter him. Hell, no. Her dismissal made him want to fight harder.

“Still sniffing around the chief’s daughter?” Barnes stood beside him with a clipboard in his hand. His gaze remained on the players dribbling the ball down the court. “You got a death wish, buddy.” He checked off something on his papers.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, right, then you wouldn’t mind if I asked her out for some—”

John spun, nailing his so-called friend with a lethal glare.

Barnes held up his hands with a smirk. “Don’t know what I’m talking about, huh?”

“You’re an asshole, Barnes.”

“Yep, I sure am. Don’t worry. I’m not interested in your girl over there. I’d prefer to retain my nuts. Mess around with her and you’re looking to get castrated.”

“I’m not looking to mess around with anyone.” With her, one night would never be enough.

His friend shook his head. “You’re so dead.”

Barnes continued to grin as he tucked his clipboard under his arm and jogged back over to the boys. John glanced at Jade again. He stretched his neck back and forth, yet the tension remained. I am so dead.

What was it about this woman that made him pant like a desperate puppy?

Whenever he’d seen her, she’d worn scrubs and little makeup. He hadn’t yet seen her with those beautiful dark locks down. Either she tied her hair up in a messy bun or pulled some of the curls back with a clip. Petite and curvy, she barely reached the top of his chest and her plush figure offered him more than a handful and yet he wanted her more than his next breath.

He scratched his head, picking her apart in his mind like a scientist who’d just discovered a new species, trying to figure out why he wanted her so damn much and why she didn’t want him. Jade seemed unaffected by his charm. He wondered whether she liked him at all. Then there were times, brief moments, when he caught longing in her eyes. The same desire he'd witnessed that night, years ago, when he was deep inside her, touching her hot skin and capturing her moans with his mouth.

The woman was a complete mystery to him.

Well, shit, I always did love a good mystery.

When he’d spotted her at that beer bash back in high school, her shy smile had called to his protective instincts. The adoration he witnessed in her eyes back then was different from the cheerleaders and party girls who flirted with him. When he spoke, those nameless chicks would shake their heads with vacant grins, offering him nothing but a one-sided conversation. Jade, on the other hand, had clung to his every word and presented a few of her own. She didn’t worry about what he thought. She blurted out whatever she wanted. While their mirth always sounded rehearsed, Jade’s laughter had been true, rich, and contagious. She didn’t want the bad boy or Mr. Popularity. She wanted him, plain and simple.

Intrigued by her genuine attention, he took her to the field that night. For the first time in his life, he found a girl who seemed real, a girl like his mom. He’d never taken anyone there before. The field was his place.

He was just a little kid, missing his mother, when he discovered the quiet area. His mom had always loved wildflowers. In her memory, he planted seeds for her there, scattering them around in no particular pattern. When he missed her, which was often, he’d go to his little space and talk to her. No one else knew about the wide patch of grass and flowers hidden deep in the field behind the elementary school. Not even his best friend, Pete. But Jade knew.

He wasn’t sure why he'd felt the need to share his place with her at the time. Taking her to the lookout where he took all the other girls seemed…wrong. He was glad he went with his heart. The night they spent together, surrounded by colorful blooms, was the best night of his life. When dawn broke through the trees, ending their perfect evening, she had insisted on walking home, refusing his offer of a ride. When he asked for her number, she had made up some excuse about not being allowed to date, but took his instead, promising to find a way to call him. He never heard from her. He had hoped to see her again at one of the parties over the summer, but it wasn’t until weeks later that he noticed her at the pool hall. The second his gaze landed on her, she bolted in the opposite direction, right out the door, and out of his life.

He asked his circle of friends about her, but no one knew where she went. All he was able to find out was that she'd dropped out and left town. Rumors flew, of course. He ignored the gossip. All he wanted was the truth. Unfortunately, the only one he’d trust with it had vanished without a trace.

He shook his head. Nostalgia wasn’t his usual emotion. You’re talking like you were in love with the girl or something. Come on, John, she was a chick you banged back in high school. Get over it. He glanced at her, still sitting on the bleachers, to find her staring at him again. She dropped her gaze. He let a smile play at his lips. There is no way in hell I’m going to get over it.

He wanted her, scrubs and all.

Jade didn’t fit into the perfect image or follow the crowds like a robot, and he realized in that moment he didn’t want her to. She was an original. She was special.

He wondered what had changed since their night in the field to make her lose that spark. He had to find out. Connections were hard to come by in this world. With Jade Santiago, he had found something rare, and he intended to keep her in his life.

He continued to give her some space as the game continued. He grinned at her a couple times more. Her reaction was the same each time. She’d drop her gaze and her cheeks would turn a beautiful shade of warm pink.

The second practice over, John hurried to the locker room to change, grabbed his coat, and rushed back to the gym. Yes, she’s still there! She tried making an escape out the side exit with JT.

“Jade,” he shouted. She ignored him. Big surprise.

He jogged after her out the door. His plan was to convince her to join him for dinner. He noticed her short, shapely legs start to move faster the closer he got to her. He chuckled, watching her hustle. She looked so damn cute.

“Jade,” John hollered again. Either she’d lost her hearing or she was ignoring him. The kid glanced back at him and stumbled a little as his mom continued to pull him along.

Stubborn ass woman. John burrowed into his jacket. The sun started to dip lower in the sky, adding a chill to the air. Fall was here, whether the calendar agreed or not. He was here too, whether Jade liked it or not, and he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Jade, hey, will you wait up?” he called out. She didn’t slow down.

When she reached the curb, her eyes began to dart up and down the street, as if expecting trouble to race toward her at any moment. JT kicked at a pile of leaves on the sidewalk. He didn’t appear anxious, but sad.

John stepped up beside her. She kept her eyes focused down the street. As if she doesn’t see me.

“Waiting for someone…maybe your boyfriend?”

JT wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “M-Mom d-doesn’t have a b-boyfriend, M-Mr. S-Sands. Grandpa’s g-getting us.”

Jade’s shoulders fell.

“Call me John, kid.”

Jade still had not acknowledged his presence.

“You really don’t like me, do you?” The icy breeze made him shiver.

JT glanced between his mom and John. No doubt, the kid was wondering why his mom overlooked John’s presence. John winked at the child. JT giggled.

Jade closed her eyes, sighed, and turned to him. “Listen, John, my life is complicated, okay? I have no time for making friends or anything else.”

“Well, according to my pal here, you don’t have a boyfriend. So that’s one less complication. Maybe I can come by your place and—”

“No. I live with my father and he doesn’t like me bringing people into his house.”

Okay, now that’s a potential complication. “You live with the chief?”

A second later, a white Cadillac pulled up. The passenger window rolled down. Jade’s spine straightened. John noticed her hand shake when she reached for the handle. JT hopped in the back.

“You sniffing around my daughter, Sands?” asked Chief Santiago.

“No, sir, just making sure she’s safe,” said John. When the chief frowned and returned his attention to the road, John threw Jade a wink.

“Goodbye, Officer Sands,” she said, her tone formal and tense. She flashed the tiniest hint of a smile as the car lurched forward.

Not goodbye, he thought as he stared into her enormous cobalt eyes. “I’ll see you soon.”

*

Jade reached for the radio. The silence in the car was deafening. All of a sudden, her father’s hand shot out and wrapped around her wrist like a vice.

“Are you seeing that boy, Sands?”

“What? No, of course not.” His fat fingers grew tighter. She winced.

After several tense moments, he shoved her hand away. “Better not. You don’t need anyone else putting another kid in your belly. You can barely take care of this one. He’d just use you and throw you away anyway, like the other bastard who got you pregnant.” Her father shrugged. “What am I worried about? Men like Sands don’t mess around with fat women.”

“My m-m-mom’s not fat.”

“Shut up. I don’t want to hear your damn stuttering. You sound like a fool.”

“Don’t talk to him like that,” Jade snapped without thinking.

Her father shoved his fist in her face, missing her nose by an inch. “Who you think you’re talking to? You’ll show me damn respect.”

Fighting her tears, Jade said, “I’m sorry, Father.” She dropped her gaze to her hands placed in her lap. Her body shook. “There’s nothing going on with Officer Sands. He was just—”

“I know what he was doing, and you’ll stay clear of him.”

Jade nodded. She turned toward the passing landscape, a silent scream trapped inside her head.