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Authors: Jill Sorenson

Against the Wall

BOOK: Against the Wall
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Against the Wall
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Loveswept Ebook Original

Copyright © 2016 by Jill Sorenson

Excerpt from
Off the Rails
copyright © 2016 by Jill Sorenson

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

L
OVESWEPT
is a registered trademark and the
L
OVESWEPT
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Off the Rails
by Jill Sorenson. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

eBook ISBN 9781101965139

Cover design: Caroline Teagle

Cover photograph: © Artem_Furman/iStock

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Chapter 1
Eric

I didn't want a party.

I've been out three months, living in the court-mandated halfway house in Chino Hills. I did thirty months of hard time and I'll be on parole for another thirteen—if I stay out of trouble.

Easier said than done.

Today is my first day back in Chula Vista, the border town where I was born. It's the only place I've ever called home. The only place I've ever
been,
besides Mexico. And prison. I'm still down for my barrio, Castle Park. I can hold my head high on these streets. I'll probably die on these streets.

I told April not to make a big deal out of my homecoming, but I can see the decorations as soon as Jenny opens the door. Pink fucking balloons, like my prison release is a baby shower. I gave birth to a violent criminal record. Congrats!

Jenny is my niece, the daughter of my dead brother, Raul. She's eight years old and cute as hell. I've only seen her a few times since I got locked up. April brought her to visit on my twenty-third birthday, about nine months ago. My eyes feel funny when I look at her.

She doesn't hug me or say a word. She just smiles shyly, revealing a gummy gap between her front teeth. It reminds me of Chucho, one of my cellmates. He had missing teeth and a goofy smile that lit up his tattooed face.

“I'm looking for a little girl named Jenny,” I say. “She's about this tall.” I hold my palm at my side, indicating a shorter kid.

“I'm Jenny,” she says, giggling.

“You can't be! You're too big.”

She steps aside to let me in. I set my backpack by the door. I took the bus from Chino Hills to the Chula Vista transit station and walked the last six blocks to the house. April is standing a few feet away next to her husband. She's already crying.

Jee-sus.

How am I supposed to hold it together when she's falling apart? I clear my throat and focus on Jenny again. She's wearing a green dress. Her dark, shiny hair has pink ribbons in it. She's the spitting image of her mother. Pretty and sweet, untainted by my brother's bad blood.

I crouch down and remove a hastily wrapped present from my backpack. “I'm sorry I missed your birthday.”

Birthdays, plural. I'd missed three of them.

It's just one of those
balero
cup toys, the kind with the ball on a string, but Jenny acts like it's the best gift ever. Her delighted expression makes my eyes burn again. I have to take a deep breath to recover.

“What do you say?” April prompts.

“Thank you,” Jenny says, a dimple appearing in her cheek.

I straighten to greet April next. Her face is rounder, her body lush in a new way. She's wearing a flowery top that clings to her breasts but hangs like a drape over her middle. When she steps forward to embrace me, her stomach bumps into mine.

“You've gained some weight,” I say in Spanish, a kinder language for pointing out such things.

She releases me with a laugh, wiping the tears from her eyes. Then she rests a hand on the gentle slope of her belly. She's always been beautiful. Her pregnancy accentuates her best qualities, giving her softer features and fuller breasts.

Noah steps forward and slides his arm around her. His big hand covers hers, protective. He's noticed my appraisal of his wife's new curves, but he's too pleased with the proof of his virility to glare at me.

He's okay, for a cop.

Officer Young spoke on my behalf at the sentencing hearing. If he hadn't, the judge might have slapped me with ten years, the maximum for manslaughter. Instead I got the minimum, minus six months.

I'm lucky to be out. Lucky to be alive.

“Looks like you've been busy,” I say to Noah. I shake his hand and pat him on the back, as if he's accomplished this feat on his own. He laughs and April rolls her eyes at us. I'm grinning from ear to ear, happy for them both.

“We're due in August,” April says.

“Boy or a girl?”

“We don't know. We want it to be a surprise.”

A surprise. Like this party. In addition to pink balloons, the living room is decorated with pale blue streamers and a handmade sign that says
WELCOME HOME, ERIC
. But this isn't my home, and it never will be. It's Noah's home, and April's and Jenny's.

And…Meghan's.

I realize that I'm searching the background for her. My smile slips and my chest tightens with unease.

Meghan won't be happy to see me. The last time I saw her, when she'd visited the jail where I was processed, I said a lot of nasty things to her. I said she was an easy lay, that I'd had better, that I didn't care about her.

Lies.

Noah doesn't seem mad at me for disrespecting his little sister, so I'm assuming she didn't share the details of our breakup. Or maybe he's so high on baby-making with his hot wife that he can't be brought down. They look great together, like a perfect family from a TV show. Except that April and Jenny are of Mexican heritage, same as me.

I feel a mild sort of resentment over the situation: Tall, handsome white guy—a gang unit cop, no less—swoops in and snaps up one of the nicest, most beautiful girls from the hood. Then I remember that I fucked his sister. And probably broke her heart, if only for a few brief weeks during an already tumultuous time.

“Meghan's not here yet,” April says, as if she can read my thoughts.

I shrug it off. “I said I didn't want a party.”

“This isn't a party. It's just us.”

Noah exchanges a glance with April and takes Jenny into the kitchen. It's awkward, being on his turf. I don't belong here. I belong in Castle Park, the down-and-out neighborhood where I used to live with my grandma. Now she's in Mexico with the rest of my family, and I have nowhere else to go. Nowhere safe, that is. I'm supposed to stay in a stable environment, and I can't leave San Diego. It's one of the conditions of my parole.

“Let's get you settled,” April says brightly.

I grab my backpack and follow her. On the phone she told me I could sleep in the den. It looks sort of like an office with a small bed in the corner. I spot a vintage desk and an old-school record player I recognize as Meghan's.

I'm struck by memories of the last day I spent with her. She had a room upstairs back then. When we first met, it was just Meghan and Noah living here. She put on some music and I laid her down on her bed. I took everything she had to offer and then some. I can't even bring myself to regret it. That memory, more than any other, has sustained me on lonely nights in my cell. I've jerked off to a thousand variations of it.

I know that Meghan moved out a few months ago, but I imagine her lingering presence. The smell of her hair on the pillows.

“This was Meghan's room?” I say, my voice hoarse.

April opens the closet, which is half-full of girl clothes. “I can ask her to move her stuff.”

“No,” I say. I don't need the space; everything I own fits inside a backpack.

“Are you sure?”

I sit on the bed, nodding. This arrangement is temporary, anyway. “Which room are you going to use for the nursery?”

April waves her hand in the air. “I want the crib in my room. You can stay here as long as you like.”

I wonder if Noah is on board with this. He can't be thrilled about having an ex-con under the same roof with his pregnant wife and stepdaughter. He got promoted to the homicide division, but money might be tight. I should cut out as soon as possible. I'm not a charity case, and even though Meghan's not here, it doesn't feel right to inhabit her space.

It feels…dangerous. Tempting.

I'll never forget the look on her face when I told her I didn't want her. She stared at me with soft blue eyes and trembling lips, pale from shock. Hardest fucking lie I ever told—and I'm an accomplished liar. But I couldn't let her waste three years on me. I couldn't let myself wish for something that far beyond my reach. I had to be cruel to be kind.

At least, that was how I justified my actions three years ago. Looking back, maybe I just wanted to be a dick. Getting locked up has that effect. It touches every raw nerve and stirs every violent tendency. It stokes prejudices and festers resentments. The only acceptable outlet for male prisoners is rage.

“When you're ready, come out to the backyard. Noah's grilling some carne asada.”

My stomach rumbles loud enough for her to hear. Smiling, she slips out the door and down the hall. She looks happy. That's the difference in her, along with her rounded belly and fuller curves. She's not exhausted anymore. Noah takes care of her. Or she takes care of him.

They take care of each other.

April hooked up with Noah around the same time I started seeing Meghan. He interviewed her about the murder of one of her coworkers, a waitress at Club Suave. Cops aren't supposed to date anyone involved in their investigations, but apparently he couldn't resist. They fell in love before I went to prison and got married shortly after.

Noah has been good to April and Jenny. Much better than Raul was. Even so, my urge to leave grows stronger. I don't want to cause problems or be a burden to anyone. I've never been part of a nice family. I don't know how to act civilized anymore.

This isn't my scene.

I glance around, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans. There's a nightstand by the bed. I open the first drawer and peer inside. Unlike the closet, it's empty. I close it in mild disappointment. I'm not sure what I expected to find in there. Some random girl stuff, like makeup and perfume.

I remove the clothes from my backpack and toss them into the empty drawer. I have three shirts, an extra pair of pants, and some basketball shorts. Then I bring out my prized possession: my portfolio.

I like art. I can draw almost anything from memory. My favorite medium is spray paint on a fresh concrete wall, but in prison the materials are limited. Most of my drawings are ink on lined paper.

I also do ink on skin. It's how I survived in the joint.

I was only twenty when I went in. I'm about five foot ten, not the biggest guy on the block. I've got muscles and I'm strong, but I'll never be huge. I have a lean build and features they call handsome. To say that I needed protection is an understatement. Despite my unlucky size and face, I had three things going for me when I went in. First, I was down for CVL, my local clique. The Chula Vista Locos pay dues to the Mexican Mafia, also known as La Eme. So I was already connected to a powerful prison gang.

The second advantage I had was my best friend, Junior. We both got locked up at the same time and sent to the same prison. It's not unusual for San Diego criminals to do sentences in Chino or San Quentin—they're the two largest correctional facilities in the state. Junior wasn't in my cellblock, but we saw each other in the yard. He became a captain for La Eme. If anyone fucked with me, Junior made them pay.

The third advantage was my talent for art. I can hold my own in a fight, but I didn't want to earn my keep that way. I didn't want to be anyone's bitch, either. Instead of offering those services, I sold drawings and tattoos. I was the best in my block.

Tattooing has been the only bright spot in my life. Without my art, and my best friend, I'd probably be dead.

I leave my portfolio on the surface of the desk and wander down the hall. April is in the kitchen, chopping cilantro. Jenny's playing with her toy in the living room. I wash my hands and continue outside, where Noah is grilling carne asada. The smell of it makes my nose twitch and my mouth water. I can tell the meat is ready to come off, but Noah turns the thin strips over and leaves them on.

I pick up a clean platter. “Do you need any help?”

“I'm good,” he says.

Carne asada is easy to overcook, but I know better than to comment. White or Mexican, you don't get between a man and his grill.

“April's pregnant,” Noah says. “I want it well done.”

I don't say anything.

He grumbles and takes half the meat off. “Give April that tray and grab another one.”

Grinning, I deliver the carne asada indoors.

“Is he overcooking it?” she asks.

I just shrug. Guy code. She transfers the meat to a cutting board and hands me the platter. I go back outside. Noah moves the remaining carne asada to the edge of the grill, letting it rest in a cooler spot. He's wearing a navy blue T-shirt that says
CVPD
on the pocket. His dark blond hair is cut short. He's bigger than me, but he'd have trouble in prison. Too handsome.

“How was it?” he asks, meaning Chino.

“It was bad.”

“You want to talk about it?”

Hell no. I shake my head and say, “I have group on Tuesdays.” I won't talk there, either. It will be a chore to sit still and listen.

Noah stares at me for a moment, assessing. He's not a hardass or a touchy-feely type. He doesn't press.

“I appreciate you taking me in,” I say stiffly. “I'm sorry about…”
Meghan.

His blue eyes darken. “Just don't do it again.”

I nod my agreement and vow not to break it. My word is my bond. “I'll look for a job tomorrow.”

“That reminds me. I got you an interview.”

“Where at?”

“Fine Ink. It's a tattoo shop.”

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

I can't believe it. Never in my wildest dreams did I figure I could get a job doing something I
like
.

“The owner is a friend of mine, and he needs someone to do general labor. It's not a guarantee, but he's willing to meet with you.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow at noon. Can you make it?”

“Hell yeah, I can make it.”

“Don't fuck up.”

“I won't,” I say, unoffended. Noah is a straight talker. “Thank you.”

He takes the rest of the meat off the grill and we go back inside. I'm feeling pretty good. Things are going better than I expected. Then I see who's in the kitchen and my heart sinks like a stone in my chest.

BOOK: Against the Wall
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