I FACED A moral dilemma.
Take it…don’t take it…take it…don’t take it?
The soft cotton of the purple sweatshirt in my hand tempted me sorely. It wasn’t covered with holes or stains, but perfectly intact, like nothing I’d worn since I was five years old. I could even rub the hoodie on my cheek, and the threads wouldn’t scratch my skin like the nasty gray hand-me-down pullover I wore today.
Only the price tag stood between this perfect sweatshirt and me.
I searched the Friday afternoon crowd at Camden Market. The place brimmed with people. Everyone was busy scanning clothes, jewelry, shiny little knickknacks, or small toys. The stand-owner had her back to me as she talked to a customer. If I wanted to nick the sweatshirt, then it had to be now or never.
“What are you waiting for, Montiniere?” Debby purred in my ear. “Take it or leave it. But make it fast, because I just had my hand in her till.” Her blonde brows waggled.
Debby Westwood was not my friend. At least, not in the sense of Hey girl, let’s have a pajama party and tell each other our weirdest secrets. I used to hang out with her. Debby’s the-entire-world-can-kiss-my-arse attitude totally impressed me. She’d become my idol from the moment she rammed into me on Earls Court a few months ago. If I remembered it right, she’d been on the run from the fuzz for the theft of a pair of crocodile stilettos. Jeez, I should have known consorting with a criminal would only get me into shit.
Debby wasn’t a resident of London’s youth center like me but spent her life on the streets. As for me, my warden, Miss Mulligan, allowed outings from the Westminster Children’s Home only on Tuesdays and Fridays. And I was lucky, because anyone under the age of seventeen wasn’t granted even that.
Praise my seventeenth birthday! I’d been ecstatic when I no longer had to attend group excursions. London was way more fun alone. No teachers, no rules, no nothing.
Just me. And this pretty purple sweatshirt.
My fist tightened around the fabric. Thump-thump-thump. The sound of my heartbeat boomed in my ear, faster and faster as I got closer to taking what I wanted. I knew it was wrong. My throat went dry. I had difficulty swallowing.
Suddenly, my backpack was unzipped, and the sound raised the small hairs on my arms.
“What are you doing?” I hissed as I swung around to face Debby.
She flashed a mischievous grin. “Helping you.” Covering me from the view of the stand-owner, she stuffed the sweatshirt halfway into my bag. “Look at you. Your rags even scare the dogs away. You’re lucky I spend time with you.”
I glanced down at my ripped jeans and tattered boots. Heat flooded my face. Even though Debby didn’t have a permanent roof over her head, she dressed like the queen of Oxford Street. If her slacks or shirts got dirty, she discarded them and stole new, brand-name ones. Simple as that.
When I first met her, it hadn’t taken the girl long to convince me that there was more than enough stuff for everyone. Debby’s Shoplifting 101 philosophy: The exaggerated prices people paid for high heels and leather jackets made good on the few pieces we nicked from time to time.
Like this sweatshirt.
I kept my eyes on the freaky-looking stand-owner, dressed in striped tights and a straw hat, and waited another heartbeat before I shoved the sweatshirt all the way into my backpack. She must have heard my heart pounding, because she turned around at that moment.
After staring for a second, she glanced down at my backpack. “What in the world—”
My gaze snapped to my bag. Crap! A sleeve peeked out.
An instant later, she pulled a whistle on a chain from underneath her collar, and her cheeks bloated like two tomatoes on a vine, setting London’s entire South End on alarm.
“Go! Go! Go!” I pushed Debby forward as I dashed away from the clothes stand.
“Thief! Stop!” The shrill voice echoed down the street followed by another alarming whistle. Heads turned our way. From the corner of my eye, I spotted two men in uniform stepping away from a kiosk and scanning the crowd. They were searching for us. My adrenaline kicked in, tensing each of my muscles like an over-stretched rubber band.
“This way!” Debby tugged on my backpack, almost tipping me sideways. She pulled me behind another stand with yellowed books and silver cutlery. There were more stands ahead. Shoppers turned annoyed eyes on us as we pushed through the crowd.
“Jona.” Debby was breathing hard. “We need to split up. They can’t catch us both. You go left, and I’ll keep straight.”
I turned to the left. A bloody dead end.
“You want me to play bait for the cops? Are you nuts? They’ll get me!”
“You’re not eighteen yet. They can’t nail you for anything.” Her hand curled around my upper arm. She shoved me forward as she scanned for the policemen. “Your teacher will save your arse. She does every time.”
“No! She threatened to let me rot in prison if I ever stole again.”
“Don’t be such a wimp.” Debby’s shoulder collided with mine, shoving me sharply to the side. My lungs stopped sucking in air. Mouth open, I pivoted to face Debby. Her evil grin was the last thing I saw as she vanished into the crowd.
“The brats ran this way,” a gravelly voice reached me.
I peeked over my shoulder. Bloody hell! The cops were fast on my heels. Their blue caps bobbed out from the crowd and moved steadily forward. I was an easy target for them.
Debby had gone straight on, so I angled to the right. There had to be a way out of this open market. The pounding in my ears shut out the murmur of the shoppers. My gaze darted over the crowd. Bobbing heads moved like waves. Dammit! Which way would get me out of here?
I stopped, trying to catch my breath, then I pivoted. There was no thinning of the crowd, but the blue police caps came on, angling my way at a speed that should have been impossible in the packed market.
Beads of sweat dotted my face and the back of my neck. Miss Mulligan would kill me if I got involved with the police again.
I used my hand as a shield against the gleaming afternoon sun. A dowdy overweight man with a green hat shoved me aside. I lost my balance and nearly knocked over a toddler sucking on a lollipop with huge brown eyes gaping up at me. Instead, I collided with an old lady whose shrill cry not only pained my ears but also gave me away.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I muttered, noticing her hunched back and the scarf wrapped about her gray hair. Her glasses sat askew across her nose, and one of her crutches had dropped to the ground. I bent to pick it up for her.
“Are you all right? I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I ducked my head and adjusted the glasses with shaking fingers. My feet were already bouncing in the direction of escape.
“Get off, you nasty child!” The lady dropped the crutch to swat my hands away from her face. “Don’t any of you kids have eyes in your useless heads?”
That got me moving. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled away, doing my best to dodge the oncoming pedestrians. A heavy boot with rubber treads landed on my fingers. I bit my tongue to keep from screaming. Maybe crawling wasn’t the best way to move through a crowd as thick as Miss Weatherby’s vanilla pudding. I jumped to my feet.
“Move!” The same gravelly voice I’d heard earlier parted the crowd like the Red Sea.
“Riley, I got her!” called a very angry bobby.
The man leaped forward, lunging for my arm. I spun on my heel, ready to dash away to safety, but instead I bounced right into the solid, uniform-clad chest of my captor’s partner. He was smaller, and stout, but his grip on my shoulder was iron.
Ice-cold fear settled in my veins. “Let go!” I kicked his shin and wrenched free from his grip.
The man yelped and hobbled on his good leg. People surrounded us like this was a stupid carnival, only they all had the same judging look in their eyes. They’d caged me in. My stomach slid to my feet. No chance of escape.
Oh dear Lord, I was in deep shit.
The tall officer ripped my raggedy backpack from my shoulders before he shoved me to the pavement. He dug his knee into my spine.
Brilliant. Just the position I wanted to be in.
I thought my shoulders would pop out of their sockets when he wrenched my hands behind me. Cold metal closed around my wrists. The ominous click of the cuffs resonated in my ears, sending a red haze of hysteria through my head. Oh please, not again.
Debby’s first rule when caught shoplifting: Deny everything.
Swallowing hard, I gathered what was left of my courage. “Leave me alone!” The words were muffled with my cheek grinding painfully against the pavement. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”
My long hair caught in the officer’s hand as he yanked me up. I groaned. This was going to end nastily. I needed a Plan B. Fast.
“Of course you didn’t do anything, kid.” The officer named Riley laughed harshly as he rummaged through my backpack. “Let me guess, you’re a kleptomaniac, and you have a medical certificate for legal pilfering in London?”
Making fun of me?
Debby had also taught me not to show fear in those moments. And she’d taught me well. I stuck out my chin. These jerks wouldn’t get the best of me. “Take off the cuffs and I’ll fucking klepto your balls!”
“Watch your tongue, missy. You’re in no position to threaten a police officer.” Riley gave me a hard stare. “Is this your backpack?”
I glowered back. “Nope. Never seen it before.”
“Ah, that’s funny. Because here is an identification card from the Westminster Children’s Home, which coincidentally holds your picture.” He held up the ID and flashed an ugly grin. If he’d moved his hand an inch closer, he could have shoved the small yellow card up my nose.
“I lost my wallet last week. Seems like someone found it.” I fought to keep my expression neutral.
“Of course. And that person forced this bag on you then. Oh, and the sales lady stuffed this”—he pulled out the purple sweatshirt and dangled it in front of me—“into the backpack as you walked by her shop, right?”
I stared him straight in the eye and cocked a brow. “Shit happens.”
The tall man behind me grabbed my shoulder and shook me. “That’s enough. You’re coming with us.”
I cast a sneer over my shoulder as he pushed me forward. “How could I ever resist when you beg so nicely, Officer?”
The muscle in his jaw ticked, but he restrained from speaking. His grip on my arm tightened as he led me out of the market. Shaken, I walked alongside the officers with my gaze on the ground to avoid the curious stares of pedestrians. Their stares tormented me more than the steel cuffs cutting into my wrists.
When we reached their patrol car, I lifted my eyes. Across the street, Debby-the-bitch-Westwood lurked in the doorway of a dirty gray house with a snide gleam in her eyes. I stopped short, my anger heating my blood, then I jerked my arm free from the officer and marched forward. “I hope you’re happy now!”
But Debby disappeared even before the bobby grabbed me again and pulled me back to the car. “This one’s mental,” he whispered to Riley.
Bearing down on my molars until my jaw hurt, I scowled at the two men.
The taller officer shoved me into the backseat and slammed the door shut. My body shook as the truth of my dire situation washed over me.
The officers climbed into the front seat. My gaze hardened once more as Riley inched the car into London’s traffic.
The tall one curled his lips as he looked at me through the cage partition. “I always wonder what drives kids like you to steal. Doesn’t the system provide you with all the luxury you need?”
I gathered my saliva to make a good spit at him. But that wouldn’t exactly help my situation, so I struggled to swallow my anger along with the phlegm. He wasn’t the only one in London who rated homeless children as lower than dirt.
“I get a kick out of riding in police cars,” I replied, my tone dripping saccharin sweetness. “It’s always the highlight of my week.” The steel around my wrists dug uncomfortably into my back. I shifted a few times, ending up propped against the door with my legs pulled to my chest and my dirty boots resting on the worn-out beige cushions of the backseat. The heat of early August had warmed the cabin like a sauna. In the stuffy air, tickles of sweat rolled down the valley between my breasts.
At a traffic light, my gaze drifted upon a bus and skated over a black woman inside it. She carried a baby, trying to cool the kid down with puffs of her breath. A sigh escaped me. She would never let her child down or send him off to an orphanage to fend for himself. Her child would grow up in a cozy home, with a loving mother, far away from the kind of mess I was stuck in. Always falling into a pile of crap. I cleared my throat to stop it from constricting.
Riley pulled up in front of a narrow, familiar brick building. Seconds later, he opened the car door for me. I decided my butt had grown roots as I scowled at his blotchy face. It seemed the heat troubled him even more than me.
“What? Does the Skillful Dodger need an invitation to get out of the car?”
“What? Is Mr. Donut actually referring to Dickens?” I pulled a wry face then scooted over to climb out. “You better read the book again, moron.”
With the damn cuffs on, getting out was a bitch. I bumped my head against the doorframe. Pain exploded in my skull, followed by a shower of stars dancing behind my eyelids.
Just another bright spot in my crappy day.
“That serves you right,” Riley snorted between hiccups of laughter.
“Lord, let him choke on his giggles,” I mumbled with my gaze raised skyward. With my wrists crossed in the small of my back, I tugged up my hand-me-down jeans that always sat loosely on my hips.
The taller officer marched into the building, holding the door open like a gentleman. If only I’d had my hands free to open the door on my own and then slam it in his goddamn face.
Riley fought to keep up with my quick stride, but I beat him to the stairs.
“Don’t worry, I can find the way myself.” I climbed the steps to the first floor where the main office was located. Unfortunately, I had to wait for one of the oafs to open the door.
As Riley and his partner arrived on the first floor, my exaggerated sigh drew their attention. One flight of stairs had Riley gasping like a puppy.
The tall cop planted a hand on my shoulder. “No need to hurry, lass. You’ll meet justice soon enough.”
I shrugged his hand off. “I’ve got news for you, Riley and Riley’s partner. I’m only seventeen. That means I’m not old enough to face legal punishment for a minor crime like…borrowing a sweatshirt.” I gave them a wide grin, which didn’t come as easily as I had hoped as Miss Mulligan’s warning rang in my head.
“Borrow?” Riley puffed. There was amusement in his tone, but his angry face confirmed I would be walking out of here—without cuffs. I turned my face away and exhaled, relieved.
Riley twisted the doorknob then walked into the office first. Shoulders squared and back straight, I followed him into the room with the high, arched ceiling. The sun shining through the narrow, tall windows blinded my eyes for a second, while the stench of sweat and the smell of police dogs hit my nose.
A handful of cops lingered behind wide desks, sipping from coffee mugs and chatting to each other. No one glanced at us, so I avoided the German shepherd sprawled out on the floor and strode down the aisle between two straight lines of desks, directly to reception.
Hip against the counter, I gazed down at the black-haired guy with designer stubble. His bright eyes stood out against the dark blue of his uniform.
“Hi, Quinn. How you doing? Sorry, I’d shake your hand, but I’m afraid that right now—” I twisted and raised one shoulder, displaying my shackled wrists. “I’m slightly indisposed.”
Quinn rubbed his hands over his suntanned face. The moan came through muffled and somewhat choked. “Shit, Jona! Tell me you were part of a sick party gag and now you’re here to get trick cuffs removed.” He peeked through the slits between his fingers.
A sheepish smile crept to my face. “You might want to take a second guess.”
He lowered his hands and folded them on the desk. “Why can’t you keep your butt out of trouble? Kids your age are supposed to hang out in parks, not at police stations.”
Quinn was a nice guy. Big eyes, styled hair, and a muscular body, I guessed he was no more than ten years older than me. Once, I had asked him for his real age, but he just told me he was “old enough to know better.”
Unlike my relationship with Debby, I did consider Quinn a real friend, even though he worked for the police. And not just because he’d once made a stop at McDonald’s to buy me a sandwich when he’d volunteered to take me back to the orphanage after his shift. He was someone who saw me, the teenager, and not the criminal.
During the one year we had known each other, he had never passed on a chance to try to talk sense into my rebellious head. And today was no different. His nostrils flared as he heaved a hopeless sigh. “What did you do this time?”
Riley punched his fist on the countertop, the purple sweatshirt clenched between his chunky fingers. “Jim Dawkins here went fishing at Camden Market.”
I rolled my eyes. “Jack. It’s Jack Dawkins. Someone should smack a copy of Oliver Twist over your head.” I’d have volunteered if I had a book within reach that was thick enough to leave a dent in this bonehead. And, of course, if currently I hadn’t been cuffed. I cast Quinn a meaningful glance. “Why are you surrounding yourself with idiots?”
Riley started forward with fire in his eyes, but Quinn held him back by his arm. “Thanks for bringing her in, but I better deal with her now.”
The stout officer snarled but finally trudged away, throwing off steam that would make Thomas the Tank Engine proud.
Once Riley and his partner disappeared, Quinn regarded me with wry sympathy. “You know, Abe will have your head for this.” He paused as I gulped.
Stealing a Nintendo from Stanton Electronics eleven months ago had gotten me the first chance to see a courtroom from the inside and make the acquaintance of Judge Abraham C. Smith. I liked to call the balding judge a special friend, even though a plague had become his choice description for me.
Minor offenses had cultivated our friendship extraordinaire ever since. Although Miss Mulligan continuously saved my butt, the last time I’d seen Abe, he had sworn he would lock me away for the next five hundred years if I showed up in his office again. I had half-expected steam to come out of his ears. He’d sent me out of his office with a glare as sharp as Superman’s laser vision. I wasn’t too keen on meeting him again anytime soon.
Quinn stood up and placed his palm on my shoulder. Unlike the other officer’s hand, I allowed Quinn’s to stay. “Let’s fill out the forms, kiddo, and then we’ll call Miss Mulligan. I can’t get off right now, so your warden needs to come here and pick you up.”
My stomach dropped. I could picture the freckled beanpole freaking out when she heard I was at the police station—again. My eighteenth birthday was only seven weeks away. Six weeks and five days to be exact. She wouldn’t make her threat real and turn me over to the law so close to my release from the orphanage. Would she?
A couple of hours later, Miss Mulligan led me through the wide double doors of the institution. My eyes were focused on the gray linoleum floor, but the whispers and contemptuous stares of the others in the hall didn’t escape me.
“Go to your room,” Miss Mulligan ordered. The effort it took for her to control her temper reflected on her red face. “I’ll make a call to Judge Smith now and deal with you later.”
Calling Abe? Thank goodness; she was on my side after all. I knew her tactics from the past. First, she would call the court and try to reason with the officials, promising to make up for the damage, or in this particular case, the stolen sweatshirt. Then she’d take me to a hearing where I would show my good will and act very, very sorry. In the end, I might get away with being locked in my room for a couple of weeks and probably no TV.
That evening, the warden came to my room on the third floor to inform me the dreaded audience with my friend Abe was set for the next Tuesday—and to tell me she would be the happiest person in the world the day that I turned eighteen and left the orphanage for good.
There was no reason not to believe her.
The four days between my capture and the meeting at court I spent in my sparsely furnished room with dirty white walls. Curled up on the worn metal cot, I stuck my nose deep in a book, my feet shoved under the thin blanket. The lamp placed on the stool that served as my nightstand had a weak bulb that hardly provided enough light to decipher the letters on the pages at night, but that didn’t stop me.
I read the story of Peter Pan and how he taught Wendy to fly above a sleeping London. Bloody hell, I should have left my window open and begged for someone like him to come through and carry me out in his arms. But then again, with my problem of vertigo, I wouldn’t have made it past the windowsill.
On Tuesday morning, I dressed in the best pair of black jeans I owned, fixed the hole over the right knee with a safety pin, and scrubbed my scuffed boots. A dark gray hoodie with ragged cuffs that ended two inches above my wrists had to do on top.
Miss Mulligan, dressed in an abominable pink suit, escorted me in a taxi to the courthouse. I was to meet Abe in the smaller, almost private office behind the big hall, where minor cases were handled.
As we strolled down the hallway, the distinct scent of lavender and cherry blossom floated in the air. The smell set off an ice-cold trickle at my nape, waking memories of painful days long ago. I knew only one person who used to wear this particular perfume.
I stopped dead and whirled around. Miss Mulligan sent me a puzzled glance. Breathing deep, I inspected the hallway up and down, but the one person I searched for was nowhere in sight.
A long breath wheezed from my lungs. I must have been mistaken.
In front of Judge Smith’s office, a guard stood watch. He let us in when we showed him my nice and official invitation. He frowned at my hands shoved deep into my pockets, but I ignored him and followed Miss Mulligan through the door.
Wide windows on two walls brightened the beige-carpeted office. A small number of people gathered on one side of the room close to the door; some sat next to the judge’s big desk. I caught a glimpse of Quinn’s encouraging eyes and felt a cloud of calm settle in my chest for a moment. Then my gaze zeroed in on Abe.
He looked up from a stack of papers as soon as I crossed the threshold. His disapproving eyes sent shivers down my back, but even as my warden slowed her pace, I walked straight up to him.
“Never show weakness or fear.” Debby’s advice rang in my ears.
“Jona Montiniere.” Abe adjusted his small round spectacles and gave me a quick once over.
Squaring my shoulders, I lifted my chin and displayed my best let’s-talk-shop grin. “Hello, Abe. Is business doing well?”
The judge ground his teeth. “You keep me busy enough,” he grumbled through his beard.
I always wondered how it happened that men lost the luxury of hair on their heads, while stubble still sprouted wildly on their faces. This was not the best moment to bring up the prickly topic, though. Not with Abe already gathering momentum.
He scanned his papers again, shoving the glasses farther up his nose. “This is the twenty-third time in less than one year that I have you standing here.”
At the word twenty-third an awed whistle came from the seats. I cut a quick glance to Quinn, who cocked a brow.
“Is there anything you can say in your defense?” the judge demanded.
I pouted, Quinn only shrugged.
Next to him sat Riley, who stuffed the last bite of a doughnut with pink icing into his mouth. It brought a grin to my lips, and I turned back to Abe.
“I’m a kleptomaniac and have a medical certificate for legal pilfering in London.”
Riley coughed, slamming a hand to his chest, but it was the deep chuckle from the back of the room that drew my full attention. First, I only glanced over my shoulder. But glistening sunlight blinded me, and I pivoted around sharply.
For an immeasurable moment, nothing but bright white fog absorbed and swallowed everything within reach. Awestruck, I didn’t even squint. Then a tall figure emerged from this glowing mist. A long, white cloak floated around the person’s legs while the sleeves, long and wide, covered the masculine hands almost completely. Fathomless blue eyes appeared next, followed by a smile that could have melted glaciers in the Arctic.
It had to be a reflection of light streaming through the south window. An illusion caused by today’s stress and tension. But it didn’t disappear.
Every single pair of eyes in the room locked onto me with confused stares. Their gawks prickled my skin all over. Only the illuminated person lowered his gaze. He retreated a couple of steps to the shadowed line along the back wall. Instantly, the fog around him disappeared, and I could make out the fine features of a young man. A casual pair of blue jeans and a black leather jacket replaced what I was sure had been a white cloak.
Obviously, they had to add Delusional to my medical certificate.
His clean-shaven face revealed a strong jaw topped by a sensual mouth. When the corners slightly lifted, my heart banged against my ribcage, fluttering like a sparrow caught in a cage. Strands of tousled golden hair fell over his forehead, reminding me of warm honey. Even with the mystic light gone, the guy who remained was godlike.
Bloody hell, what had brought a god to my hearing? It was a freaking sweatshirt!
As he arched one delicate eyebrow, I snapped my mouth shut before drool could drip from the corners. Heat rushed through my veins and filled my face.
“Miss Montiniere, will you please pay attention?” Abe’s words sounded far away.
Those sapphire eyes held me captive. I never wanted to leave this personal prison of ours.
Slowly, a bony arm looped around the god’s bent elbow.
Cherry blossoms? Why did the room suddenly smell of lavender and this distinctive note of spring in bloom? The mix of floral scents pulled me back to the present. How long since I had smelled it the last time? That must have been something close to five years. I let my gaze trace the skinny arm and wander farther up.
Horrorstruck, I gaped at the face of the one person I never wanted to see again.
JUDGE ABE’S SQUARE office, with all the people shoved inside, started to spin around me. I felt like someone had stuffed me into a too-small box and was pushing the top closed against my head.
“Who let that bitch in?” Muscles quivering, I glowered at Charlene Montiniere.
“Watch your tongue, Miss Montiniere,” the judge warned. “This is a court of law.”
“The fuck I will,” I spat. My eyes staked her. “This woman dumped me at an orphanage when I was a kid. She never even looked back.” Fear tightened my throat. How was the hag going to ruin my life this time?
Charlene gaped at me. The skin sagged into bags beneath her sunken eyes. Her matted red-orange tresses had once been the exact match to my own long auburn hair. She wore a stark shade of red lipstick that clashed with her pale, bony face. In short, she looked like she’d been through hell.
Good, I hoped the bitch had suffered just as much as I had. She could crawl back into whatever rat hole she’d emerged from. And she’d better not even think about saying anything to me. She’d lost that right when I was five.
My hatred-filled glare silenced her. One of her shaky hands rose slowly, as if she wanted to touch me from the eight-foot distance that stretched between us.
“Drop dead, Charlene,” I growled.
“Jona Montiniere, I insist on you behaving in an appropriate manner, so we can continue this hearing,” Abe Smith roared. “I understand your mistrust against your mother, but once you listen to the reasons, you might change your mind.”
No way in hell.
The alarm signal in my head was flashing bright red. Another minute in the same room with my mother would have been an eternity too long. I spun around to face the old man behind his monstrous desk and gave him a mocking military salute. “Goodbye, Abe. I’m outta here.”
The roar to call me to order was futile. Consequences? Not my concern. I strode toward the door, my only goal fresh air and a good deal of distance between me and that bitch.
People shouted my name, some addressing me as Miss Montiniere, some using only my first name as if we were friends.
“Kiddo, don’t be ridiculous. Stay where you are!” I heard Quinn call out.
His desperation wouldn’t stop me from leaving. But a set of chunky arms around my waist could. Riley was the first to capture me. The delight of victory shone in his eyes as he pressed my back against the wall. “You’re not going anywhere, little miss, apart from jail.”
Don’t panic. Hysteria never got me anywhere, and there was a very real place I needed to get right now. Out of here.
Fists clenched, my nails bit into my palms. “Take your bloody paws off me!”
The high-pitched squeak Riley gave nearly shattered my eardrums when I bit into the hand he’d clasped on my left shoulder. The donut residue I could taste on it made my stomach roll.
He jerked his arm back. “Damn brat, you’re gonna pay for this!”
Over his shoulder, I spotted both Quinn and Riley’s partner rushing toward me, but the stumbling Riley bounced into Quinn, and my only friend at the police station staggered sideways. He caught his balance by grabbing Miss Mulligan’s arm. The warden squealed something hysterical and slapped his hands away.
With all the confusion in the room, I saw my chance of escape. However, my freedom was short lived. The moment I started for the exit, Riley’s tall partner caught my wrist and swung me around. The momentum tossed me against the edge of a small, dark brown desk in the back corner of the room.
In self-defense, I leaned back on the desk and pulled my legs to my chest as the policeman came for me. My hard kick hit his chest, and the soles of my boots popped a wheeze out of the cop. The deputy careened backward, doubled over. When he caught his breath, he cursed in a tongue that would have made Debby Westwood, the uncrowned queen of swearing, go green with envy.
I shoved away from the desk, but my chance of flight was gone as the door flung open and two guards stormed in. Whether it was Riley’s screams, Miss Mulligan’s screeches, or a secret button under Abe’s desk that alerted the guards, I never knew. But they had my shoulders pinned to the floor before my next breath. All air escaped from my lungs. A flash of pain soared through my upper body.
“No!” two men in the room shouted at once. One of them was Quinn. His voice was edged with sheer horror. In that moment, I was grateful he didn’t just abandon me like so many others had.
Who the other worried guy was, I couldn’t tell.
One guard pulled handcuffs from his belt. He fastened them around my wrists in front of me. Neither my kicking nor shrieking could prevent the awful click when the locks snapped into place.
“Get off her, you idiots. She’s only a kid.” Quinn elbowed his way through to me. “Are you all right, kiddo?”
The pain in my chest and back eased. I could finally draw in air. “Wow, what a fight.” It didn’t feel like anything was seriously injured or broken, so I pressed my lips together and gave Quinn a halfhearted nod. “I’m fine.”
I had to be. No weakness. Ever.
He wrapped his fingers around my upper arms, pulling me to a wobbly stand. “In God’s name, Jona,” he whispered. “I beg you, behave.”
A deep growl preceded my answer. “As you wish, sir.” What other choice did I have with the cuffs on?
From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of my mother’s companion. The fair-haired god studied me with narrowed eyes. Trying to figure me out? That made me very uncomfortable.
With a gentle tug, Quinn led me up to Abe’s desk. I turned my head to hold the blond stranger’s stare for another moment. His arm was wrapped in a supporting way around my mother’s shoulders. A god in his early twenties with Charlene? Where in the world would a bony bitch like her find a lover so close to my age—and that gorgeous to boot?
The murmurs in the room ebbed with Abe’s thundering. My head snapped toward him. Nerves steeling for what was to follow, I quickly rebuilt my mental wall of protection.
He had risen from his chair and braced himself on the desk, glaring at me over the rims of his spectacles. “This time, you stepped over the line. Contempt of court. Assaulting an officer.”
“What? They assaulted me first!” My shout echoed in the room, no less angry than his. “Riley here should be sued for child abuse.”
“Enough!” Abe roared. “Shut your mouth and sit down.”
“Sit down?” My dramatic glance behind me was enough to point out there was nothing but the floor to sit on.
Abe rubbed his temples. “For heaven’s sake, someone fetch a chair for the girl.”
One of the guards hurried to shove a chair into the back of my knees, and I plopped down on the uncomfortable wooden seat. Quinn stood beside me, arms folded over his chest like the bouncer of a night club. Ooh, my personal pit bull. This eased at least some of my fear. I could lift my chin again. The move always ignited the pig-rude manners I’d gleaned from Debby.
The judge calmed himself with a few heavy breaths and sat down, too. His black robe with its puffy sleeves made him look more like a watchful owl than a person of authority. When he lowered his gaze to the papers in front of him, I took the chance to poke Quinn’s thigh with my elbow.
“What?” he hissed.
Hands lifted, I displayed the torturing shackles and grinned sweetly. “Remove these?”
Quinn cut a glance to the exit then studied me for a second, his brows furrowing into a line. “I don’t think so.”
Huh? And I thought he was my friend. My you-evil-bastard scowl only coaxed out his grin, and he tousled my hair.
When Judge Abe cleared his throat, all eyes returned to him. “Miss Montiniere, I’ve followed your criminal progress for nearly a year now. As I was informed, you will be released from the Westminster Children’s Home in less than seven weeks.” He pulled his glasses off his nose and placed them carefully on the stack of papers. “This gives rise to serious concern. With a criminal past like yours, I don’t doubt for a second that you’ll be out on a robbing tour of London as soon as you turn eighteen.”
Criminal past? Hello? “I only nick from the rich to give it to the poor.” In this particular case, the poor was me. “Shouldn’t a person in your position exercise his office without prejudice?” I had hardly spoken the words when Quinn’s fingers dug painfully into my shoulder.
The judge let my statement go by unnoticed. He only drew a deep, slow breath. “To prevent the worst, I should let you stay under house arrest in the orphanage and delay an official accusation for your latest theft until you turn eighteen. In that case, I would have full authority to send you to prison.”
He paused to smile, and I wished the watchdog at my side would unshackle my hands so I could scratch the judge’s glassy eyes out. “But as it is, I’m pleased to welcome your mother into this room today. We had an unofficial meeting this morning, and I’m glad—”
I jumped from my seat, cutting his sentence short. “You were the traitor who called her to this meeting?” A siren went off in my head, tuning out common sense.
“Sit, Jona,” Quinn barked through clenched teeth. His palm on my shoulder pushed down hard. I whined, but gave in to his strength.
“And I’m glad,” Abe continued, as if no one had interrupted him in the first place. “She told me about relatives of yours in France, who offered to give you a home and a place to stay for as long as you wish. Your aunt and her husband own vineyards there, and you will do charity hours on the grounds every day until you come of age.”
The judge had gone nuts. This was the only reasonable explanation for such nonsense coming out of his mouth. “You’re going to ship me off to the continent? Like a slave? You can’t do that! It’s illegal.” It had to be. Right?
Abe quirked one brow, dismissing my assumption. “Since serious health issues made your mother dependent on other people’s help, she currently lives with her sister in France. We see this as a great opportunity for you to get to know your biological family and maybe tighten the bonds anew.”
“How can something be tightened that didn’t exist in the first place?” I muttered. Nothing existed in this life that could form or tighten anything between me and my mother. Let alone a bond. No contact with that bitch and her pet, thanks. And where the hell did this said aunt come from? I’d never heard of any relatives in Britain, France, or anywhere else.
If I’d jumped up to protest again, Quinn would only have pushed me back into my seat. Instead, I raised my right arm, like a good little girl, to draw the judge’s attention. Annoyingly, with the cuffs on, my left hand lifted, too.
“Please, take me to prison instead.” My request came out dry and emotionless. Dead earnest.
From above, Quinn glared daggers at me. I cut a glance at him, but then studied Abe’s old eyes again, awaiting his final adjudication with an empty pit in my stomach growing fast.
“I do believe you graduated from high school last spring?”
Not knowing what Abe’s question could have to do with my punishment, I nodded. My marks in math had been lousy, but at least I did it.
“And currently you aren’t taking any summer classes in Miss Mulligan’s Children’s Home?”
“Then you are going to live with your family.” The bang of his little wooden hammer on the small round plate sealed the matter. “Now get out of my courtroom and don’t come back.”
I was so screwed.
When they started making plans over my head, and voices mixed to a painful blur, Quinn let me wait outside the room. I had to promise not to run off or pick a fight with another officer before he would even open the door for me. I restrained myself from giving him the finger and slipped out.
Elbows propped on my bent knees, I sat on the floor in the hallway with my back resting against the windowed wall. The chain of the cuffs rattled mockingly. With them on, I wouldn’t get far on an escape for fresh air. I might as well surrender to my horrendous fate.
Utterly miserable and confused about my new future, and no less annoyed by the glances of passing officials, my head dipped back, my gaze focusing on the blank ceiling. Out of habit, when I was by myself—and stuck knee-deep in shit—I started humming a song I didn’t know the name of. It always had a strangely soothing effect on me. Odds were I had made up the melody myself over the years. But I’d hummed, whistled or tapped the rhythm with my fingers so often that the tune wouldn’t get out of my head.
The door opening opposite me didn’t disrupt my low singing. But when my mother’s blond friend came out and leaned one shoulder casually against the column in the middle of the hallway, the hum died in my throat.
“Hi,” he said with a compassionate look that made me once again wish the traitor, Quinn, had taken off those damn handcuffs so I wouldn’t look like such a complete idiot.
Lips pressed together, my fingers waggled in a feeble greeting. The mere sight of this man sent a quiver of excitement to my stomach.
“That was quite an interesting…situation in there.”
With an evil grin, I hoped to send the message Mind your own crap, buddy. Out loud, I said sweetly, “Glad you enjoyed the show.”
“I didn’t really.” He wrinkled his nose. “Getting involved with Laurel and Hardy in there wasn’t your best idea. Even a smart girl like you might get hurt in a fight with those two.”
Yeah, sure. My eyes narrowed to slits. But his words warmed my heart in an unfamiliar way.
The young man nodded his chin at my tied hands. “They look a little uncomfortable.”
And they bloody well were, but I shrugged it off like it was nothing unusual. “The latest fashion. You heard the judge, I wear them quite often.”
A teasing smile that spiked my blood pressure played around his lips. “Shall we take them off?” he said.
He had to be kidding. “Unless you’ve got teeth like a hacksaw, I don’t see how that would work.”
He crossed the hall to me, pulling a key-ring from his pocket. He squatted, leveled his eyes with mine, and shook the keys in front of my face. The friendly jingle of metal filled the high hallway.
My mouth fell open. “Whom did you get those from?”
“You stole them from Quinn?” I pulled my hands out of his reach.
“Of course not.” The blond god gave me a pointed look. “I asked for them.”
Why would this guy ask my officer friend to release me? Frowning, I concentrated on the safety pin in my jeans. “Quinn wouldn’t free me when I asked him to.”
His intense blue eyes locked with mine. “I had to solemnly swear to keep an eye on you. Now hold still.” Cool fingers curled around my wrist to steady my hand while he unlocked the first cuff. Sparks tingled on my skin, my hand trembled slightly.
Why would he give his word to an officer, just to free me? Why even care? He’d do well to stay behind that door, holding my horrible mother’s hand instead of setting mine free. With a click, the other cuff came off. I flexed my hands and rubbed my burning wrists. The shackles had left bright red lines on my skin.
“Better?” He tilted his head and arched one beautiful brow.
My head bobbed, but I found no breath to answer.
“Okay then.” He used my knees to push himself up and stretched to his full height.
He probably expected my gratitude following his selflessness. My gaze focused on the ripped hems of his jeans, my lips remained sealed.
When he turned on his heel and marched off to the left, I glanced up. “And now you’re going where?” The words shot out before I could stop myself.
“Bathroom break.” His arched brows dared me to object.
My lower lip threatened to pop from between my teeth as I chewed on it. Don’t speak! “But you’re supposed to keep an eye on me.”
After studying me for a couple of seconds, his expression softened even more. “You’re not going to get me into trouble.”
A balloon of warmth exploded in my chest. I let him take another stride away from me. Two. Three. Four. “How can you be so sure?” Shut the hell up, Jona. “According to everything you know about me, I’ll probably be gone when you get back.”
A shrug of one shoulder and his beguiling smile struck me silent. “I trust you.” A moment later he disappeared around the corner.
My chin hit my chest.
Trust me, my arse! He must be nuts if he thought I could be trusted. With a snort, I rose from the linoleum floor and strode toward the exit. But I bounced into a solid wall of bad conscience.
“Dammit.” I kicked the real wall to my right. The rubber sole of my boot left a black mark on the white surface. I shouldn’t even have had to think about it, so why in the world did I hesitate? And for a stranger?
The exit had never looked better, and yet invisible shackles prevented any further step in its direction. Breathing became increasingly harder, and anger burned like a flame through me. I didn’t understand this stranger’s hold over me. I shouldn’t have wasted another thought on him. After all, I hadn’t asked him to remove the handcuffs.
But he took them off anyway. And he trusted me.
A growl rumbled out of my throat. I shot an angry glance heavenward and raked my clawed fingers through my hair. With a helpless sigh, I returned to the spot where he’d found me. Standing with my back against the column and arms crossed tightly over my chest, I awaited his return.
Only seconds later, footfalls announced his approach in the hall behind my back. The steps slowed, and a hardly audible sigh of dismay drifted around the column to me. I grinned to myself, savoring this sweet, however short moment of victory. Then I shoved away from the post.
Relief washed over his face at the sight of me, the corners of his mouth tilting up. “It’s good to see you again.”
And it’s pretty good to look at your beautiful face, too. But I steeled my expression and ground my teeth. I spun on my heel and trudged back toward Abe’s office, intending to hire Quinn as my bodyguard to keep this goddamn Good Samaritan at arm’s length.
“Damn you to hell,” I muttered as I went.
He laughed behind me. “Oh joy.”
I zipped my backpack shut over my three t-shirts, my only other pair of trousers, and the few precious books I owned. The sun was setting over the low rooftops outside my window. This would be my last night in an institution I had called home for over twelve years.
Bloody old Abe should have sent me to prison. Could hardly be worse than the orphanage. But, to banish me from the country and condemn me to live in the same house as my mother was unspeakable cruelty.
“It’s not even two months,” Quinn had said after the hearing. “You’re a tough girl, you’ll survive.”
Actually, he was the only person I was going to miss.
A knock rattled the door. That would be him. The judge and Miss Mulligan had thought it a good idea that I spend an evening with my mother and her lover before attempting a journey to a foreign country with them. Charlene had beamed while her friend covered his smirk with a cough. Quinn accompanying me tonight was the one condition on which I had agreed to go.
I pulled the door open and stared. For at least three whole seconds. Quinn in casual wear. Without his uniform, he looked even younger, and his dark gray t-shirt and bleached jeans fit him perfectly.
My black zip-up sweatshirt and ripped jeans suddenly didn’t seem like such a nice thing to wear anymore. Maybe I shouldn’t have removed the safety pin from the hole in the knee.
Quinn offered me his elbow. “Are you ready, kiddo?”
“Ready to face the dragon and get roasted? Never. Let’s go.” I looped my arm through his and pulled the door closed behind me.
“It can’t be all bad.”
“You have no idea.”
Downstairs, Quinn held the door open for me and led me to his black BMW parked around the block. We both climbed in, and he pulled away from the curb. After a while of staring silently out the window, my train of thought broke with Quinn’s not-so-subtle cough. I tilted my head his way.
He briefly glanced at me then faced forward again. “You know, I was quite surprised to see your mother today. Didn’t you say she died in a car crash when you were little?”
“If only.” Arms folded over my chest, I concentrated on the car in front of us, wishing Quinn would crash into it at the next intersection. That would give us an excuse not to show up.
We passed the intersection without incident. Damn Quinn for being a safe driver.
I needed to come up with a strategy. Fast. Before we arrived at the pub and there was no way for me to escape confronting Charlene. When the uncomfortable buzz in my stomach increased, I cleared my throat and gave Quinn a sweet smile.
His eyes darted back and forth between me and the windshield. “What is it, Jona?”
I leveraged my best sad puppy look. “Is there a chance you don’t know the way and we end up in the city watching a film instead of meeting them?”
He laughed. “Shit, no. Abe would have my arse for kidnapping you.”
Okay, that was a major fail. Plan B. “Do you like me, Quinn?”
Head tilted, he placed his palm on my forearm, squeezing slightly while he steered the car with one hand for a moment. “Sure, I do.”
“Would you marry me?”
“What?” The car jerked a bit, because he jerked his hand back so fast it bumped against the steering wheel.
“If you married me, no one could force me to go back to this morally corrupt woman they call my mother.” I lifted my chin. “I would be an independent adult then.” Sort of.
“Oh, is that it?” A relaxed chuckle rocked his chest while he steered the car around Kings Cross. “Well, I’m afraid Bethany wouldn’t like that.”
I frowned, running my fingers up and down the smooth seatbelt across my chest. “Who’s Bethany?”
“I didn’t know you had a girlfriend.”
He beamed. “It’s a brand new thing.”
It was nice to see my only friend happy about having a woman. But it was a shame that she spoiled my brilliant plan B.
Lips pouted, I craved his attention again.
His eyebrow arched. “What are you thinking about now?” The question sounded damn close to a warning. Amazing thing, his intuition, when it came to me.
“You and Beth could adopt me.” Sickly sweet innocence dripped from my voice.
Quinn waited a second before he covered my hand with his. “You’re too old to be adopted, sweetie.”
“Yeah. And Bethany wouldn’t be happy with a brat like me, would she?”
His fingers closed around mine. “I’ve never seen you like that; you know this.”
My gaze dropped to our joined hands. “Yeah, I know. Guess that’s why I like you so much. You’re the only one who ever cared.”
This was the first time in years I’d had an open conversation with anyone. Honesty usually stood locked somewhere deep down in the dungeons of my heart. But with Quinn being close like a brother, that door cracked open. If only a little.
“Soon you’ll have an entire family to care for you. And that boy seemed really worried today as well.”
“I don’t see what’s positive about living with a dragon and her child-lover.”
Because he needed to shift gears, Quinn withdrew his hand. “Oh, he’s not her lover.”
“How do you know?”
“I had a chat with him. Apparently, he’s some sort of caretaker. Very nice guy.”
If Quinn said so, I had no reason not to believe it. But the sudden rush of happiness I felt when he spoke of the guy was a riddle to me.
“Don’t worry,” he added with a grin. “I only told him good things about you.”
As if there was anything good to say about me. That would include my name, and…yeah, that was about it. But speaking of names. “Did he tell you his name?”
I waited. Nothing. “And?”
Quinn smirked. “Are you interested in the lad?”
I poked my elbow into his ribs, which made him laugh out loud.
“Careful, kiddo. I’m driving.”
“I’m not interested in him,” I snapped. “I’d just like to know who I’ll have to deal with for the next six weeks.”
“Ah, right. Must be exciting to meet relatives in France. What’s your aunt’s name, anyway?”
“No idea. I’ve never met her. And who cares?”
“Gotcha! I thought you would like to know anyone you’ll have to deal with.” He chuckled, and I didn’t like it. “You know the guy’s only a few years older than you. If you’re nice to him, who knows, maybe he’ll want to marry you in the end.”
Quinn deserved a slap for his teasing. Scowling at him, I ground my teeth. “Did he tell you that he left me alone in the hallway today after he freed me from the handcuffs?”
Quinn frowned at the red light stopping us for a moment. “Did he? Really?”
“Yes, he went to the bathroom. So what does that tell us about him?”
“That he trusted you?”
“No!” Interesting that Quinn came up with the same words as the blond guy. “It only shows how irresponsible he is. Leaving a criminal alone.”
“And what an evil criminal you are.”
Damn him for the playful glint in his eyes.
Two minutes later, my heart sank to my gut as Quinn parked the car in front of a pub called Antonio’s and cut the engine. A few deep breaths couldn’t ease my tension. Quinn studied my face for a moment then opened his mouth.
I cut him off, pointing my finger at his face. “If you’re going to say, Just grin and bear it! I’ll punch your nose.”
His laugh echoed inside the cabin. He ruffled my hair and brushed my cheek. “Keep the fight up, tiger. I know you can do this.” Then he climbed out of the car.
Finger at the ready, I waited to push the button to lock the doors from the inside as soon as he slammed the door shut. Damn, I shouldn’t have declined when Debby offered to show me how to short-circuit a car.
The car door still open, Quinn looked back at me. “Are you coming?”
“Yeah, don’t worry, policeman. I’m hot on your heels.”
He waited until I was out of the BMW before he shut his door. The man knew me too damn well. He pushed a button on his key. The turn signals flashed twice while the car doors locked automatically. I waited for him to circle the car then hung on to his arm.
“Did you bring your gun?” I whispered with my head turned to his shoulder as pedestrians walked by.
“What do you need a gun for?”
“You never know. They come in handy at times. Have you ever shot a dragon?”
“Jona.” His growl came with a playful bump of his hip against mine.
I tripped over my Martens’ untied laces and stumbled. When Quinn grabbed me, giggles erupted from my chest.
“By the way,” he said under his breath. “His name is Julian.”
“Julian.” The name rolled off my tongue.
I glanced up from my laces to the pub entrance and found myself staring into the angelic blue eyes of a French god.
DAMN! I HAD to say Julian’s name at entirely the wrong moment, didn’t I? The hem of my hoodie caught in my death grip as I bit my wayward tongue.
Even in the dimly lit street, I must have glowed like an overripe strawberry with the heat shooting across my face. Quinn got the full blast of my scowl for steering me into this embarrassing situation. I’ll eat my hat if Julian doesn’t guess we were talking about him. It surely lifted his ego above London’s roofs.
He stood right beside my mother and slung his leather jacket over his shoulder, hooking it with one finger. The white shirt he wore accentuated his deep blue eyes. He stared at me with a knowing smile. A crooked one. Way too beautiful.
I mentally slapped myself. What was wrong with me? So far a smile had never made me lose control and forget myself. Actually, I was usually quite immune to any boy’s charm.
After Quinn had shaken hands with the dragon, he nudged me in the back and held his hand out to Julian. “Jules. How’re you doing?”
Jules? Did I miss something?
Julian knocked his hand into Quinn’s. Memories of his cool fingers around my wrist mocked me from the back of my mind. Suddenly, all I could think of was to hold out my hand to this stranger and beg for the pleasure of his touch. His fingers, long and masculine, seemed like they could coax a soft purr of surrender from even the most terrifying of lions.
Bloody hell, what was I thinking?
Hand stretched toward me, Julian tilted his head. “Hi, Jona. Everything all right?”
Not given to sympathize with the enemy, I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my torn jeans. “Save your pleasantries. Just because you freed me this morning doesn’t make us friends.”
He leaned a little closer. “Still pissed you couldn’t bring yourself to run off because of me?” he whispered.
Pardon? I fisted my hands to my hips and took a step backward. “I’ll have you know that I didn’t leave the court for Quinn’s sake. He trusted you with watching me. And you…failed. I wouldn’t cause my friend trouble because of your carelessness.”
Those warm blue eyes leveled with mine. Damn, they kicked me off my train of thought.
“At least you care for someone.”
Hands clapped behind us, Quinn’s voice carried to my ears, but his words made no sense to me. Julian’s intense stare held me captured. His gorgeous eyes knew no barrier. They penetrated my steeled core until I felt naked before him, with all the dark bits of my soul spread out for him to see.
I so hated it.
Neither of us broke the stare. Then slowly, on his left cheek, a sweet dimple appeared. A lopsided grin followed. “What do you say, shall we go in?”
I watched his lips part as he spoke and soaked in the chime of his voice. But it took a moment for me to understand. We were alone. Quinn and the dragon had already gone inside. Lips pressed together, I tore my gaze from him and stalked through the door of the restaurant. A low chuckle drifted to me as he followed on my heels. The fiend knew he had distracted me.
The smell of spicy food and beer hung thick in the low vault-like pub. One foot placed on the iron bar under the counter, Quinn was talking to the waiter. My mother flanked his left side, her elbow resting on the countertop, and I caught the first real glimpse of her this evening.
A claw fixed her limp hair at the back of her head, the faded red contrasting with the black of her silk blouse. A mud brown skirt that didn’t quite reach her knees enhanced her narrow hips, and high heels brought the top of her head level with Quinn’s eyes. Her left foot slipped out of its shoe at the heel, suggesting she felt anything but comfortable in them. So who the hell was she trying to impress?
Shaking my head, I joined Quinn on his right. He leaned slightly my way. “Glad you made it in. For a moment there, I thought you wouldn’t be coming.”
“Oh, and miss out on all the fun? How could I?” I rolled my eyes, but the bartender was the only one who noticed it, and the corners of his mouth twitched.
I moved my gaze to Quinn. “Why are we standing here?”
“Waiting to get a table.”
I pivoted and glanced around. “Why, there’s a nice table over there. We can take that one.”
Quinn followed the direction of my pointed finger then gave me a hard stare. “That’s a table for twelve. I’m sure we can get something more private.”
“You want privacy?” My intentionally loud tone caught my mother’s and Julian’s attention. “I’d say we better get rid of the annoying company then.”
The off-duty officer slipped his hand under my hair and placed warm fingers on my neck. His squeeze was none too gentle. “You’re too sweet today, little witch,” he said through a wide grin and gritted teeth.
“I’m doing my best.”
“I don’t doubt it for a second.”
A waiter came from the back of the pub and led us to a niche with a small table. Square. Quinn and my mother lowered at opposite sides. Julian went around the table, giving me a suggestive glance over the candle-lit top before he eased down. This left me to sit between my mother and Quinn.
Just great. I coughed innocently and shoved my chair toward Quinn’s side as far as possible.
He waited until I had made myself comfortable, then he leaned in with a puzzled frown. “Maybe you’d like to sit on my lap?”
Yeah, too funny.
My mother’s continued silence didn’t bother me, but her focused way of watching me got my goat. Her profile loomed in the corner of my eye at all times. Disgusted, I propped one elbow on the table, my chin cupped in my hand. A perfect girly grin displayed on my face in spite of the annoyance that hung its noose around my neck. I turned toward Quinn to avoid the dragon’s stare.
“So, you two are really close friends, right?” That was Julian’s attempt to break the ice.
I would have much rather reached out to break my mother’s neck.
Quinn bobbed his head, but I was equally quick with a reply. “He’s my lover.” I jerked my chin in Charlene’s direction. “She yours?”
My mother sucked in a sharp breath and clapped her hands to her mouth. Very amusing. Not quite so funny was the kick against my shin coming from Quinn’s end.
“Ah, fuck.” My startled laugh tore my unholy curse to shreds.
Julian was the only one who seemed utterly untroubled by my assumption. He folded his arms on the table, slowly leaning most of the weight of his upper body on his elbows. His hard gaze pinned me. “You’d never believe just how close we are.”
Holy crap, why did everything he said sound like the alluring purr of a leopard?
I opened my mouth for a snappy retort, but nothing whatsoever came out. For the first time in years, I was dumbstruck.
The waiter coming for our order was my rescue. The dragon asked for water. That fit, maybe she could extinguish the fire in her throat with it. Julian took a glass of O.J., and Quinn ordered alcohol-free beer.
“And what’ll it be for you, miss?”
I lifted my gaze to the man dressed in a white shirt and black pants. “Hm, I think I’ll take a tequila for starters. Better make it a double. The night is long. There’s still a lot to endure.”
The cutlery on the table shook when Quinn kicked my shin under the long cloth again. I yelped and cussed.
He ordered a glass of Coke on my behalf, and the waiter hurried off, shaking his head.
“Are you all right?” Julian sounded worried.
“Perfectly fine,” I said through gritted teeth, casting Quinn a sideways scowl. And here I’d thought he was my friend. He probably couldn’t wait until I had to leave the country.
When everyone was set with their drinks, Quinn leaned forward, addressing my mother. “So, France, it is—where exactly are you going to take our little princess?” Even through the sarcasm, his soft tone held a hint of regret, and he cut a brief glance my way.
My heart warmed. I could be sure he’d miss me as much as I was going to miss him.
“My sister lives in Provence. A place called Fontvieille.”
I’d heard the word Provence before, but the last bit was a cryptic lull to me. Anyway, Charlene’s rambling didn’t interest me at all. The folding of my napkin into a neat fan distracted me easily enough. Squeezed in the middle, it looked like a pleated bow. And when folded, it was the perfect resemblance of a white cloak reflecting the light from above. Such as I had seen in the courtroom this morning.
The memory made me suck in a lungful of air. I swallowed. My gaze wandered across the table and over the edge to where Julian was leaning back in his chair with his fingers laced over his stomach. My eyes traced the line of buttons on his white shirt up to the collar. His strong jaw line came into view, followed by the sensual shape of his upper lip. Before I knew it, I was staring into his midnight-blue eyes.
And he stared straight back at me.
A jolt of surprise straightened my spine, but he remained in his relaxed position, not moving a muscle. Was he reading me? The unnerving tension between us grew quickly, though he didn’t seem affected at all.
“…The wine they produce earns them enough to fund a high standard of life,” my mother’s ramblings drifted to me. “My sister and her husband don’t have children, though they would have loved to have a baby. They’re delighted by the idea of having their niece in the house for a while.”
Quinn folded his hands on the table. “I was wondering, Miss Montiniere—”
“Oh, but please, call me Charlene.” She gave him a quick smile.
“Yes, Quinn, please. You must call her Charlene.” Sugar dusted my voice. “A fitting name for a merciless dragon, don’t you think?”
Pain shot through my right leg. If Quinn kept kicking me like this, my shin would be all shades of green and blue before the evening was over. This time I returned the kick, but missed his leg by an inch. My boot only scraped his jeans. “I can’t believe how annoying the rats are in this restaurant.”
“And I really can’t believe that you left all your manners back home,” he replied, like me, speaking through clenched teeth.
“I beg you, Quinn, don’t be mad at my daughter. I deserve her wrath and distrust.” My mother’s gaze moved to mine. “Don’t I, Jona?”
Sick to my stomach, I glowered at her. “I’d rather you didn’t speak to me at all, Charlene.”
Her glossed lips thinned to a line, and the corners subtly pointed south. She couldn’t honestly have expected I’d call her Mom after she messed up my childhood so royally?
The dim bulbs in the restaurant dipped her bony face in a mystic light. For an instant, I thought a ghost of the past stared at me through her deep brown eyes, the only color about her face that had remained as intense as I remembered it over the years. Distracted by her longing stare, I almost failed to notice the forward movement of her hand. Just before it could land on mine, I jerked my arm back and tucked both hands in my lap. The tablecloth hid them from her touch.
She reached for her glass of water, traced the brim with her slim finger, and then took a sip. “I’ll be honest with you. There won’t be an endless chance for us to talk. I’m ill. Seriously ill. It’s cancer. With no hope for a cure. Julian sa—” She cleared her throat, stroking the stem of her glass. “The doctors don’t even give me until the end of the year.”
“Alas, this is the first good news of the evening,” I exclaimed.
From across the table, strong legs circled around my crossed ankles, lifting my legs off the ground. The quick move dragged me lower into my chair, and I clasped the table with a startled hold. Quinn’s subsequent kick missed my shin.
“That one was predictable,” Julian said, his eyes as dark as shards of obsidian. He lowered my feet to the floor, then withdrew his legs, and left me wondering whether he was referring to the kick from my friend or my cold retort.
Everyone fell silent. Shooting a glance at Quinn, I realized my mother’s illness wasn’t a surprise to him. She must have talked to him this morning in the courthouse after my spectacular failure at fleeing her presence. Probably twirling him around her little finger with his pity for the helpless. And he totally fell for it. Stupid policeman.
Her days were numbered, so what? All the better, I’d say.
“You see, Jona.” With her mentioning my name, my mother drew my eyes away from Quinn. “I don’t want to leave without taking the chance of making up for the hard life you’ve had.”
“You want my forgiveness?” That was ridiculous. A tight laugh escaped me.
“I beg you to accept your aunt’s offer to live in her house. She can provide you with all the decent comforts of life that I never could. She’ll see to you having a good start in your adult future.” Her lower lip trembled. “And for me, I only wish you could forgive my weakness in the past.”
“Then I’m afraid you’ll go down with your only wish denied.” A growl of menace made it up my throat. “I’ll do as the judge ordered and spend the remaining six weeks till my birthday in shackles on the vineyards of an aunt I don’t know. Not quite the time to form a suitable future. As soon as the punishment is over, I’ll return to London and make my living here. Without you. As I’ve done during the past twelve years.”
“With the police fast on your heels and Abe Smith holding a cell free for you?”
It wasn’t so much Quinn’s bantering that bothered me at this moment as it was Julian’s low chuckle when his eyes met mine.
“I’m not a half-wit as you all seem to think.” I squared my shoulders, clenching the table cloth in my fists. “And if it means I’ll have to wash dishes in a pub like this ten hours a day to fund my future, then I dare say it’s the lesser evil compared to the hell I’m going to be sent to tomorrow.”
Tears stung my eyes. Finally coming after being suppressed for half a lifetime, they couldn’t simply be blinked away. My abrupt rise from the table knocked the chair backward, and it landed on the floor with the piercing sound of wood clattering to stone tiles. If the dragon and her friend decided to finish their drinks of victory-over-Jona, I needn’t be part of their celebration.
I made a dash for the exit. The curious faces that followed me from every table in the room lanced my heart.
Cool air outside slapped me in the face. The door slowly closed behind me.
Run, my mind screamed. But where would I go? The brave speech inside was nothing but a betrayal to myself. Hardly able to do the math of a senior high school student, I didn’t think London had much to offer me. No one would hire me for a real job just because I was able to recite Jane Austen by heart.
The sleeves of my hoodie soaked up my tears before they could roll down my cheeks. The solid wall at my back provided mild comfort. I tilted my head back and studied the night sky. It couldn’t possibly be my destiny to end up in one of Abe’s iron-curtained cells one day.
The door of the pub opened, and out stepped a tall figure. Through the mist of moisture pooling in my eyes, it took me a second to recognize Quinn.
“Oh, there you are,” he said softly, as he leaned against the wall the same way I did. “I almost feared I’d have to spend the night on the streets searching for you.”
After a few blinks, my gaze moved to his face and back to the sky. “There’s no place for me to go. No one wants to have me.”
He took my hand. “I just met someone who does. And I’ve heard of a handful more people who’d be delighted to welcome you to their home. Kiddo, look past your pride for once and see the great chance they’re offering.”
“Why are you so willing to shove me down the lion’s gorge? You heard all her false words,” I spat. “The only thing this woman wants is peace for her soul before she kicks the bucket.”
“And is that really such a bad thing?”
I jerked my hand out of his. “Damnit, Quinn, whose side are you on?”
“Yours, Jona. Can’t you see?” Without warning he pulled me into an embrace that knocked the air out of my lungs. “I’ve hoped for a twist like this ever since you first strode up to my desk at the office and planted your butt on my stack of case files. You were the cheekiest brat I’d ever come across, but I saw the hurt in your frightened eyes when you tried to mock us both with your snappy talk.”
He brushed strands of my hair out of my face. “Why don’t you give your mother and her family a chance to meet the great girl I know must be hiding somewhere deep in there?” The hint of a grin appeared on his lips while his finger stabbed the spot between my collarbones.
If there was any great bit of me, then I would make a double effort not to let my goddamn mother get within reach of it. “Want to know why I told everyone my mother died in a car crash?” I sniffed.
Quinn’s eyes held mine as he nodded.
“Because I was too ashamed for them to know the truth. That she abandoned me for the sake of her violent lover who whacked the shit out of me anew every night. She gave me away. She chose her sick boyfriend over her own child.” My throat constricted as the words wrenched out. “I couldn’t bear people’s disdainful glances any longer. Their whispered taunts behind cupped hands about what a miserable daughter I must have been that my own mother refused to keep me.” With the back of my hand, I wiped my nose and twisted away from Quinn’s hold. A moth circled around the beam of light from the streetlamp. I watched it land on the bulb then flutter away. “So I invented her honorable death.”
Strong arms closed around my shoulders and turned me back. Quinn pressed me to his chest. “I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t.” The cotton of his t-shirt muffled my words. “Your disgust would have been the least bearable of all.”
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