THE man was a pig, and it wasn’t just me who thought so. Rosa Martinez, who lived on the other side of the Petersons, agreed with me. In fact, all the women who lived on our cul-de-sac were of the same mind. Oliver Peterson, whose wife had just caught him cheating on her—again —was filth. It wasn’t the fact that they already had two children; it was the fact that she was currently pregnant with a third.
Sam, the love of my life, my partner, husband, and the guy who was parenting two small people with me, just shook his head the night before and kissed me breathless after telling me for the nine-hundredth time to please not get involved. Leave the neighbors alone; this was not Housewives of Wherever, we were not on reality TV. I had explained over the McDonald’s that the man had brought home instead of having me cook—which, after the last time, we had both agreed would never happen again—that I was involved because I was her friend.
“No,” he told me as we put the kids down. “You use that word so loosely. She’s an acquaintance, Jory, she’s not a friend.”
“She’s my neighbor, Sam, and her man’s a dog, and if she needs my help with whatever, I’m gonna give it to her.”
“I’m not saying not to be nice to her, but just don’t stick your nose in their business.”
I ignored him.
I gave him the most indignant look I could manage. “So I’m what, nosy now? I’m the busybody neighbor?”
He threw up his hands in defeat.
I gave him a superior grunt because I thought he was on his way out of the bedroom to check the house, make sure all the doors were locked, make sure the stove burners were all off, but then I realized he hadn’t moved. “What?”
“You’re very cute.”
I squinted at him. “Thirty-five-year-old men are not cute.”
“You’ll always be the twenty-two-year-old club kid I saw for the first time lying in the street with a beagle on top of him.”
“I thought George was a Jack Russell.”
“Nope.” He came toward me. “Beagle.”
“Go away.” I smiled at him, trying to shoo him out of the room. “Go make sure the zombie horde can’t get us.”
But instead of leaving, he grabbed me and slammed me up against the wall in our room. With his hot mouth nibbling up the side of my neck, his hands frantically disrobing me, and his hard groin pressed to my ass, my mind went completely blank. There was no way to concentrate when I had 220 pounds of hard-muscled man focused on getting me in bed.
But the next day, as I staggered around my kitchen—I never had been and never would be a morning person—and saw my neighbors on their front porch, Christie Peterson smiling tentatively, her husband scowling, I just wanted to go over and punch him out. I had an idea what I must have looked like: robe on, T-shirt and pajama bottoms under that, bunny slippers looking all bright-eyed and happy, I resembled the nosy neighbor in every sense.
A throat cleared behind me.
“Don’t you have to go to work?” I asked pointedly. It was Wednesday, not Saturday.
The warm rumbling chuckle was next. “You think maybe now since you’ve got one kid in preschool and the other in first grade that you should start thinking about going back to working from your office?”
Obviously my sanity was in question, because I was still working from home. I hoped the look I gave him when I turned and squinted conveyed my displeasure.
He snorted out a laugh.
I all-out scowled at the supervisory Deputy US Marshal standing beside me at the kitchen sink. We had both been looking at the Petersons. “Why would you say that?”
He pressed his beautiful lips together in a hard line so he wouldn’t smile.
“Spit it out.”
He cleared his throat. “I just think that perhaps you being home during the day is giving you cabin fever, and maybe you need to get back out in the real world and talk to the grown-ups.”
I huffed out an exasperated breath. “Sam, just because I don’t go to the office doesn’t mean I’m starved for adult contact. I talk to Dylan every day, I talk to Fallon every day. They’re my business partners, they need me, and they keep me involved with what’s going on at the office.”
“I send out more e-mails than both of them combined!”
“I’m sure you do,” he said, sliding his hand around the back of my neck, then squeezing gently, massaging, and easing me closer. “I just think that maybe getting out of this house during the day would do you some good.”
I batted his hand away, whirling on him. “I go to the store, to the park, drop kids off at school, pick them up… when do I not see people?”
He grunted, rolled his eyes, and put his coffee cup down in the sink before his dark smoky-blue eyes flicked to mine.
“No,” I almost squeaked, turning to run.
So not fast enough.
You would think that a big man could not move like that, with so much speed, but Sam Kage’s athleticism and strength were never to be underestimated. At forty-six, he was just as powerful as he’d been when I first met him, and I finally understood the whole getting better with age thing. The man looked the best he ever had, and he lived well in his skin, so content, so happy both personally and professionally.
I was so proud of him and told him so often. He was an amazing father, a wonderful husband, a great son, and the kind of friend anyone would be happy to claim. I was biased because I loved him, but still, I saw people look at him and knew the truth. Four years after beginning his new job as a marshal, he was now the supervisor of the Chicago field office, overseeing five other deputies and three clerks. I had thought once he moved up, he’d become a sheriff, but apparently all they did was add the “supervisory” in there. A sheriff was a totally different thing. It made no sense from a Western standpoint. In every movie I had ever seen, the deputy got moved up to sheriff. As usual, Sam had just shaken his head at me.
As I ducked around the island in the middle of the kitchen, I thought for half a second that I would get away from him, but as he grabbed, yanked, and pinned me against the refrigerator, I realized how wrong I had been.
“All I meant to imply,” he began, tilting my head up with a hand on my chin, “was that since you have a six-year-old and a four-year-old now, you can do a half day at the office instead of working full-time from home. It might be nice after you drop them off to pick up a fancy cup of coffee and go to your office and actually see Dylan and Fallon and talk to them face to face.”
I was really far too interested in his mouth to listen to him. He had the kind of lips made for kissing, plump and dark, and when he smiled, there was this curve in the corner that could break your heart. Not that the rest of his rugged features were without appeal. His dark smoky blue-gray eyes with the deep laugh lines at the corners, his long straight nose, the hard square jaw, and the thick copper-gold eyebrows were a treat too. And his voice, over the phone or in person, deep and husky, edged with a growl, could send rippling heat through my entire body. But the man’s mouth, the shape of it, the feel of it… really, I was a fan.
“Are you listening to me?”
I lifted up from my height of five nine to his of six four, and he bent down at the same time. Our lips met and parted, and his tongue slid deep to taste me.
The sounds from the peanut gallery—choking and retching—and the tug on my robe instantly drained the heat from the encounter. Sam snorted out a laugh as he broke the kiss, both of us eyeing the short people standing close to us.
“That’s disgusting,” Kola assured me with a glare that a six-year-old shouldn’t have had, full of judgment and revulsion.
“Why?” I asked snidely.
“Your mouth has germs,” he informed me haughtily. “That’s why you told Hannah not to lick Chilly.”
“No, I told her not to lick Chilly because the cat doesn’t like to be licked by her.”
“He licks his body.”
“He does,” Hannah, our four-year-old, agreed with a nod. “Kola’s right.”
“But he doesn’t want you to do it,” I assured my daughter, directing my comment to her.
“How do you know?” Kola questioned.
“Yeah,” Hannah Banana chimed in again, always her big brother’s backup. “How do you know?”
I had to think.
Kola waited, squinting at me.
Hannah was waiting as well, one of her perfectly shaped dark brows arching. It was new. She had the same way of looking at me that her father did, like I was an idiot.
“Do not lick the cat! Nobody licks the cat!” Sam ordered when the silence stretched for too long.
I started laughing; only my husband would have to make such rules.
He looked down at his son, Mykola Thomas Kage, six years old going on forty, who was full of questions and opinions.
We had adopted him when he was three, from an agency in the Netherlands. When we had made the final trip to bring him home, he had seen us from the window of the orphanage director’s office and run to the door to meet us. We had been there two weeks and he already called Sam Daddy, which Sam was madly in love with hearing. But though Kola had been taught the American word meaning father, it was not his, not the one he had grown up hearing and had been waiting to use for someone who belonged to him. So he had tried out the one he knew on me.
So simple a word but it meant so much.
I had heard it in the streets when we visited, along with the more formal, vader, and seen kids run to their fathers using it. Not the papa I knew, not what Sam’s father was called by his grandchildren, but instead just pa. When Kola called to me, I answered to it, and his face, the way it lit up, the absolute blinding joy, had been a gift.
Sam was Daddy, and Daddy represented Kola’s new life and his new family in the United States, and I was the comfort of the old. I was Pa, and he had named me.
Of course it didn’t matter to me what name he settled on. He could have called me Jory for all I cared; he was my kid, and that was all I gave a damn about. He was legally and completely mine and Sam’s, and that was what mattered. And we were good, the three of us, until the first agency we had contacted back when we’d started the whole adoption process called to tell us that there was a little girl from Montevideo ready for adoption. I had forgotten about them because they had never come through, but that turned out not to be the case. You heard from them when it was time, and it finally was.
I was surprised, Sam unsure, until the professional but not personable and definitely not warm gentleman slid the picture across the desk for us. He needed to know if we wanted the little girl in the photograph.
Yes, we wanted the angel very much.
Our family went from three to four with the coming of the little sister that Kola wanted nothing to do with until we were all home under one roof. He resented all of us going to the airport to pick her up, hated her crying in the car, and was really annoyed that Sam was carrying her instead of him. He was starting to fret, it was all over his face—until Sam knelt and picked him up too. Kids are so funny. As soon as Kola figured out that Hannah was planning on sharing us with him, that she wasn’t there to take his spot, that nothing was changing in the love department, just some tweaking in the time area, he decided he liked her. And now, with him at six and her at four, their bond was noticeable.
They fought like cats and dogs… but only sometimes. She cried, he moped, they chased each other and roughhoused, but nine times out of ten, I found her in his room in the morning. When we were out, he held her hand, he fixed things when she couldn’t, and he was supremely patient when she was trying to impart some tidbit of information. I was like, Spit it out, kid, but Kola just nodded and waited until some incident about a bug on a flower was all communicated in excruciating detail.
He brushed her off if she fell down, made her remember her mittens and hat, and could be counted on to translate her wishes to others if Sam and I were absent. Dylan Greer, my best friend, was really surprised because she was certain that, sometimes, Hannah Banana—or B, as we all called her—spoke in tongues. But Kola would just say that she wanted milk or a crayon or a flashlight. And he was never wrong. He was an excellent big brother, and she adored him.
Hannah Regina Kage—her middle name after Sam’s mother—had the most adorable little button nose on the planet. I would lean in to kiss her sometimes and nibble on her nose instead. It made her squeal with delight. Putting her toes in my mouth was also cause for raucous laughter. Even at a year old, she had a good laugh. It was not timid or soft. She was small, but how she expressed herself was big. People heard the deep, throaty sound and were enchanted. I had been under her spell at first glance.
In our neighborhood in River Park, sometimes people still looked at us when we were out walking. And most questioned Kola when they got close, since with his deep-set cobalt-blue eyes, sharp European features, and dark-brown hair, he didn’t look like either me or Sam. But Hannah, who was half-Uruguayan, was obviously adopted. What was funny, though, was that people sometimes questioned whether Gentry—born with my brother Dane’s charcoal eyes instead of my sister-in-law Aja’s honey-brown ones—actually belonged to his own mother. I always wondered why people cared. If your kid was blue and you were orange, who gave a crap as long as you loved and cherished the blue kid? People still surprised me.
Hannah was looking up at me like I was the village idiot.
“If Kola can’t lick Chilly, you can’t lick Daddy.”
I had a terrible image of giving Sam a blow job just then, and he probably knew it, which was why he grabbed me and covered my mouth with his hand. “Will you two go finish your breakfast, please?”
They left then, but not without casting looks back.
Sam moved his hand but bent and kissed me. I received it happily, and of course, there was more retching.
“Kola Kage!” I admonished him even as I laughed. “Will you knock that off?”
“Ewww,” Hannah squeaked out.
When I looked over at them, Kola was mixing his oatmeal with butter and brown sugar, making it burp with his spoon.
“Just eat it,” I told him.
“I’m making it edible.”
Edible. Damn kid and his damn vocabulary.
“Leave the Petersons alone,” Sam sighed, long-suffering as he was.
“I am.” I bit my bottom lip.
“Jory…,” he cautioned me.
I tried for innocent.
“Daddy,” Kola said, back beside us, looking up at Sam.
“Don’t lick the cat,” Sam reiterated, bending down to one knee as his son stepped into his arms and put his hands on his face. “All right?”
“Okay.” Kola nodded.
“Okay,” Sam sighed, pulling Kola close, hugging him tight for a minute.
“I dunno.” Sam yawned, leaning back so father and son could look at each other. “Where’d you hear it?”
“Pa told Auntie Dyl that Jake’s parents won’t let him come play at my house ’cause they’re homonic.”
Sam nodded. “That’s homophobic, and that means that Jake’s parents don’t want him to come over because you have two fathers.”
Kola squinted at Sam. “Why?”
“Some people just don’t like it.”
“Well, I think that some people are afraid of what it means.”
He shook his head. “What does it mean?”
“That if you can have two fathers, maybe things are changing.”
His scowl made his little eyebrows furrow. It was adorable. “I don’t understand.”
“I think you will when you’re older, buddy.”
“Yes it is,” Sam agreed, hugging him again. “But I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay.” He hugged Sam back tight, both arms wrapped around his neck. “Stuart and his mom are coming with me and Pa and Hannah and Uncle Evan and Bryce and Seth and Auntie Dyl and Mica and Mabel and Tess and her dad to the movies next Saturday, so Jake’s the one who’s missing out.”
“Who’s coming again?” Sam teased him.
“Stuart and his mom are coming with—”
“Stop,” I cut Kola off. “Your father heard you the first time.”
Sam grunted and looked up at me. “How come I didn’t get invited to the movies?”
“First”—I smiled at him—“the Chipmunks give you hives, and secondly, won’t you be fishing with Pat and Chaz that Saturday?”
“What Saturday are we talking about?”
“We’re leaving tomorrow for Phoenix, for the reunion, and we’ll come home Sunday.”
“Yes, I know this.”
“Okay, so then I’m talking about not this coming Saturday, since we’ll be out of town, but the one after that.”
“Oh, so that’s right, then.” He smiled brightly. “I’ll be fishing. Sorry I won’t make the movie, babe.”
“Liar,” I said flatly.
But it was going to be fun. I was going with my two kids, my buddy Evan was bringing his sons Bryce and Seth, and Dylan was schlepping her two kids: her son, Mica, who was her oldest, and Mabel, her daughter, who was the same age as Kola. It was unfortunate that they had made another Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, but all the kids were dying to see it, so we were making a day of it. I was still waiting to hear from Aja to see if she was coming along as well. I knew that Robert and Gentry were just as interested in helium-fueled rodents as the rest of our kids, but Aja wasn’t, and she could use a day off.
Aja, who had been in the public school realm when she first married my brother, as first a principal and then assistant superintendent of schools, had found herself unable to enact change at that level. Aja could not amend policy or allocate funds, but instead of growing bitter about what she saw happening around her—the apathy and deliberate ignorance—she decided to do something about it. In her present position as the associate dean of education at De Paul University, training and inspiring the next generation of teachers, she was preparing bright minds for the real world as well as toughening skins. She armed them and motivated them and made sure they knew she would always be a resource for them even after they graduated. All that plus parenting two children, being a wife, attending a myriad of social functions with her husband, and the result was a worn-out Aja Harcourt. I wanted to help lessen her load.
As I was driving back home after dropping off Kola and Hannah—they both went to the same Montessori school close to Oak Park—I called Aja from the car and offered to take her two short people off her hands instead of having her join us. I was immediately called a saint.
“Jory, I need some me and Dane time.”
“How ’bout I pick Robbie and Gen up next Friday after school and keep them until Sunday morning? We’ll all go to brunch and you can have them back. But that gives you Friday night and all day Saturday. Whaddya say?”
I thought she was going to cry, she was so thankful.
“So is that a yes?”
“Ohmygod, yes, that’s a yes!”
“You’re starting to sound like me.”
“Thank you, baby.”
“What is family for?”
“But you’re the only one I trust.”
“That’s not true.” I smiled into the phone as I turned from the side street I was on into traffic on Harlem Avenue, heading for home. I went maybe ten feet before I and everyone else on the street came to a grinding halt.
“Yes, but since Carmen got her dream job globetrotting around the world and my folks fled to Florida and Alex to Delaware, you and Sam are the only family I’ve got here.”
“You have a lot of other girlfriends,” I told her as I tried to see what the problem was around the SUV in front of me.
“I know, but I would check in with the others, I don’t need to check with you and Sam. He’ll kill anyone that comes near my kids, and you worry more than I do.”
“I don’t worry.”
She snorted out a laugh over the phone.
“That was very undignified,” I said as I leaned back in the driver’s seat of the sleek black minivan I utterly adored. Everyone else I knew had SUVs that were, I was certain, helping to destroy the environment. My minivan was not part of Satan’s master plan, and I loved my car that proclaimed me married with children as well as safety conscious. I was looking forward to Kola starting soccer in the spring so the picture of domestic bliss would be complete. I had a sweater all picked out.
“You bring it out of me,” Aja cackled.
“Whatever, I’ll call you when I get back from the reunion on Sunday.”
She started snickering.
“Family reunion.” She was laughing now. “Oh the horror!”
“It’ll be fine,” I told her as I noticed a man striding by my window. It was weird that he was walking down the middle of the street and not on the sidewalk, but since we were in gridlock, he was in no danger of getting run over. “Hey, your kids like Mountain Dew and Oreos, right?”
“They’re staying with you for two days. Feed them whatever you want.”
I was laughing when I hung up, but when the SUV in front of me suddenly reversed, crashing into my front bumper, I yelled and laid on my horn. But the car didn’t stop—it kept grinding metal, and I realized that he, or she, was trying to get enough of an angle to go up onto the curb to the right.
I took a picture of the license plate with my phone, thanked God that my kids weren’t with me, and was about to call the police to report the accident when I saw the passenger door of the SUV open. What was confusing was that the small woman who scrambled out had keys in her hand. It was like she had been driving but had not wanted to get out of the driver’s side door. When she flung open the back door, a little rocket seat was visible: she had a toddler.
I got out fast and went around the back of my van—even as the guy in the car behind me honked, leaned out, and told me to get back behind the fucking wheel—and darted to her side.
She whirled on me with a can of pepper spray in hand.
“Wait! I’m here to help.”
Her eyes were huge as she looked at me, shoved the can into my chest, and told me to look out for the guy so she could get her son out of the car. She had been too frightened to even open her door.
“I don’t know, some psycho. I think he killed the man in the car in front of me,” she cried. “I think he has a gun or—oh God!”
Turning, I saw a man advancing on us. “Move your fucking cars!”
“Get inside!” I ordered her. “Lock it!”
She climbed into the backseat around her kid, and I heard the locks behind me as the man advanced on me fast.
He had a lug wrench, not a gun, and since I could run if I needed to, I went from terrified to annoyed very quickly. “What the hell are you doing?” I barked at him. “You’re scaring the crap out of this lady!”
“Move your cars! This whole street is just full of fucking cars!”
He wasn’t even looking at me; I doubt he could have told me where he was or what he was doing. Maybe the road rage had made him snap; perhaps something else. I didn’t know and I didn’t care—he was carrying around an automotive tool like a weapon. That was really my only concern. The lady in the SUV was freaked because her kid was in the car and this guy was acting crazy. If my kids were with me, I would have had the same reaction.
“Stop,” I ordered him. “Don’t come any closer.”
He kept coming, and he raised the wrench like maybe he was thinking of braining me with it. I aimed the nozzle of the pepper spray and made sure to get his face.
His scream was loud and wounded, but he didn’t drop the tool.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
It was the guy who had yelled at me earlier, whose car was in gridlock behind mine.
“You just attacked this guy?” he roared right before he hit me.
I went down hard, hitting the van as I bounced off it, but from my angle, I could see the guy I had sprayed coming at him.
Kicking hard, I knocked the guy who had just hit me off balance, and he tumbled to the ground beside me.
“What the fuck are you—”
“Look out!” I yelled as the guy with the lug wrench came after us.
“Oh shit,” he screamed, scrambling back away from me, moving to run.
“Drop the weapon!”
“Get on the ground!”
Normally, policemen—even though I’m married to an ex one—are not my favorite people. As a rule, they catch me doing crap I shouldn’t be but somehow miss everyone else talking on their cell phones, running red lights, and speeding.
But right at that moment, as I saw the uniforms, noted the drawn guns, and heard the orders being roared out, I was comforted.
The guy dropped the lug wrench and went to his knees.
“All the way down, face on the pavement!”
“You saved my life,” the guy who hit me said.
But something slammed the back of my head, and everything went dark.
MY HUSBAND, my brother, family, and friends would say that yes, Jory Harcourt is a trouble magnet, but I think it’s more coincidence than anything else when fate decides to screw with me. Especially this time: I was going home from dropping off my kids, a trip I made Monday through Friday, normally without incident. How was I to know that I would end up in the crosshairs of accidental crazy?
“A what?” the policeman who was taking my statement at the hospital asked.
“Trouble magnet,” I told him as I sighed deeply.
“How did you get knocked out?” he asked me.
“I guess the lady I told to stay in her SUV, she opened the door really fast and I was sitting right beside her car and… you know.”
He nodded. “I see.”
“That’s why vans are better, the doors slide,” I educated him.
His smile was patronizing.
“Jory!” His yell bounced off the walls, and I winced.
The officer looked startled. “Who was—”
“Scooch back,” I ordered, and took a breath to get the required amount of air into my lungs. “In here!”
The curtain was flung open moments later and there was Sam, jaw clenched, muscles cording in his neck, eyes dark and full of too many things to soothe at once.
Sam turned to the officer.
“Oh, no, marshal.” He tried to smile at my glowering man.
Sam’s attention returned to me, and I smiled as I lifted my arms for him.
Moving fast, Sam closed the short distance between us and hauled me forward and crushed me against him.
It was not gentle; the entire movement was jarring and hard.
I loved it.
“Scared me,” he said as he clutched me tight.
I knew I had, which was the reason for the grab. I leaned into him, nuzzled my face into the crook of his neck, and slid my arms under the suit jacket and over the crisp dress shirt. He smelled good, a faint trace of cologne, fabric softener, and warm male. I whimpered softly in the back of my throat.
“Those calls take years off my life, you know?”
“The Jory’s in the hospital calls.”
I nodded, and there was a rumble of a grunt before he leaned back and looked down into my face. His eyes clocked me, checking, making sure I was whole and safe.
“I’m fine,” I said as he lifted his hand and knotted it into my hair, tilting my head back as he examined my right eye and my cheek.
“Yeah, you don’t look fine,” he said, and his voice was low and menacing. “Who did this?”
“There was a guy behind me, and he didn’t understand why I sprayed the man with the lug wrench, and he—”
“Stop,” he cut me off, dropping his hand from my hair as he turned his head to the policeman. “Talk.”
I could tell from his change of tone that he wasn’t waiting on me, but apparently the officer could not. “Hello?” Sam snapped icily.
“Oh-oh,” the guy stammered and then recounted to Sam the events of the morning.
“So the lady in the SUV knocked him out when she opened the door?” He was trying to make sure he understood everything.
“She’s really sorry about it. She told me that your partner there saved her life.”
That didn’t make it any better, at least for Sam.
“My van is—”
“We’ll take care of the van and get you a rental until it’s fixed. Just don’t worry about it.”
“No, I know,” I snapped at him. Sometimes—a lot of the time—Sam treated me like an invalid. It was happening more and more lately, like I needed to be taken care of, same as the kids, because I couldn’t think for myself or reason things out. “I just wanted to know where my vehicle was towed to… Officer.”
I had turned to the man in unifor