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Authors: Melinda Leigh

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BOOK: She Can Scream
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“Brooke Davenport. I called 911.” Hobbling, Brooke followed the policeman far enough away from Maddie so she wouldn’t hear in case she regained consciousness.

“I’m Officer Kent.” He shined his light on Brooke’s face. “Are you all right, ma’am? Do you need medical attention?”

Brooke shielded her eyes, and the cop lowered the light. She
ran her tongue over a swollen lump on her lower lip. “I’m OK.” Brooke lowered her voice. “Did you catch him?”

“No, ma’am, but we’re looking.” He pulled out a notebook. “What else can you tell me about him?”

“Not much.” She detailed the encounter from the scream to the present. “I didn’t get that close. He ran. He wasn’t excessively tall or short. Build appeared average. He ran like he was in decent shape, but he seemed… a little bulky.”

“I’ll walk you back to the parking lot.” He started toward the trail.

Brooke turned to follow him, but as her adrenaline faded, the throb in her knee crescendoed.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” The cop gave her leg a doubtful look.

“Just banged my knee. It’ll be fine.” But as they stopped next to her car, her knee gave out. Officer Kent caught her by the elbow.

He opened her car door and eased her to the seat. The overhead light gave her a clear view of the cop. He was blond and just shy of forty, with sharp eyes that dominated otherwise regular features. “You better have that looked at. Can I call somebody for you, ma’am?”

“No, thank you.” Brooke perched sideways. Her jeans were torn and her knee skinned. Two years ago, before her divorce, she could’ve said yes. Scratch that. Even when they’d been married, her ex had rarely been around when she needed him. But now the only person she could call was her younger brother, Wade. Tonight, Wade was moving his stuff into her house to get ready for his deployment with the Army Reserve. And at the house with Brooke’s fourteen-year-old son, Chris, was exactly where she wanted her brother to stay. Her fifteen-year-old daughter
was at a high school field hockey team fundraiser. Haley was supposed to get a ride home from a friend, but the idea, which had been totally normal this morning, now made Brooke uneasy.

“Hang tight,” Officer Kent said. “I’ll get a paramedic over here.”

Brooke opened her mouth to argue. But with her right knee in its current red-hot condition, she doubted she could drive. Without her jacket, a shiver swept through her. Chris had left a hoodie in the backseat, and Brooke gratefully tugged it over her head. She grabbed a bottle of water from the cup holder in the door, but her hands were trembling too hard to twist off the cap. She gave up and watched the scene unfold. An ambulance pulled into the drive, followed by two more marked police cars. A news van drove up. That was fast.

She did not want to be part of tonight’s breaking news story. While she scanned the growing crowd for the officer who’d taken her statement, Brooke pulled out her phone and texted Chris to let him know she’d be late. The details would have to wait.

What happened tonight was not something she could tell him over the phone.

Where was the cop? Oh, no. A female reporter tottered across the asphalt toward Brooke’s car. Using the car door, she pulled herself to her feet, grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, and hobbled toward the swarm of emergency personnel. Her vehicle chirped as she locked it with the fob. There was no way she wanted her photo on the news, not when the police hadn’t found Maddie’s assailant. Brooke had to face facts. Without an accurate description, catching him didn’t seem likely. Once he’d left the area and changed clothes, he could be anyone.

And she was the one who’d stopped him.

With a sweep of headlights across grass, Luke turned at the metal mailbox and nosed his BMW onto the rutted drive. Ahead of his car, the dented black pickup driven by his friend, Wade Peterson, stalled. Luke braked. Wade’s engine sputtered and then caught. The tires spun, spewing dirt onto Luke’s silver sedan. A piece of gravel dinged off the hood.

Luke let the truck pull farther ahead. The drive curved around the big yellow farmhouse that Wade had grown up in. Luke parked next to the oversized detached garage that had once been a dairy barn. Wade didn’t live here anymore, but he used the outbuilding as a base for his house-painting business. Luke got out and sucked in two lungfuls of damp meadow. Fresh air was one thing New York City was sadly lacking.

Wade backed the truck up to one of the two overhead doors and jumped down from the cab. He winced at the dirt showered on Luke’s sedan. “Sorry about that. The truck needs a new transmission. Hope I didn’t scratch your car.”

“It’s just a little dirt.” Luke flicked a pea-size clump of soil from his windshield. “I’m not sure why I even bought it. I’m not home enough to drive it much.” He stared at the old house. Memories stirred in his gut: girls, pizza, video games, first cars. Until high school, Luke had grown up in a posh suburb of Philadelphia, but he’d spent a few weeks every summer with his grandparents. After his parents had died, he’d come to live with his grandmother in Westbury. He and Wade had run the gauntlet of teen years together. “Just your sister lives here now?”

“And her kids. Brooke bought the place from my parents when they retired and decided to see the country by RV.” Wade
opened one of the overhead garage doors. “Speaking of leaving, when are you going back to work?”

“I report to the New York office next week.” Luke followed his friend to the back of the truck. “Then I’m off to Argentina.”

Wade climbed into the back, his boots clanking on the metal bed. Inside, furniture and boxes were packed like a 3-D puzzle. He squeezed between a cherry dresser and a headboard. He slid the dresser forward until the end protruded a few feet from the pickup bed. “Bet your grandmother is happy to see you.”

“She is. I haven’t been around much these last few years.” Guilt nagged at Luke. He wanted to believe he was in Westbury to check up on his grandmother and see his best friend. But Luke’s visit was just an excuse to get away from New York. There were way too many skyscrapers in the city for him to relax.

Luke steadied the heavy piece while Wade jumped to the ground. They lifted in unison. Luke’s muscles strained, and the scarred skin on his back burned as it stretched.

“You OK?”

“Fine.” Luke smoothed the grimace from his face.

They shuffled toward the open door.

“Are you sure you’re ready to go back to work? You look like you could use some more R and R.”

Three months ago in the Philippines, a terrorist bomb had blown a giant hole in a Manila high-rise one floor above Luke’s meeting. He’d been pitching a comprehensive network security overhaul when the bomb had gone off. Six people had died and twenty more had been seriously injured, including Luke. “The doctor gave me the all clear.” But his physical recovery wasn’t the issue.

“Yeah, but are you really ready?” Wade tilted his head in the direction he wanted Luke to back up.

Luke glanced over his shoulder. The path was clear. “I need to get back to work.” Face his demons and all that shit. Sleeping fourteen hours a day wasn’t doing anything for his mental state. “I’m ready.”

Wade raised an eyebrow in silent question.

“I’m here moving furniture for you, aren’t I?”

“You are.” Wade grinned. “Damn, I wish I didn’t have to leave in the morning. But I’m glad you’re going to hang for a while. A vacation in Westbury will be good for you.”

“I’m sure it will.” Just thinking about sitting in an office twenty stories up made Luke’s skin itch and his stomach curl up like a scared kid.
Note to self: Most fire truck ladders don’t reach above the seventh floor.
His boots scraped across a giant rust stain on the cement. The big white Peterson’s Painting van was parked in the last bay. Supplies and equipment were stored on shelves next to it. “Where do you want this?”

“Let’s squeeze it in with the rest of my junk in case Brooke needs space while I’m in Afghanistan.”

Luke’s gut soured at the thought of the danger his friend was heading into. “Do you need anything else taken care of before you go?”

“No. This is the last of my stuff to store.” Wade shook his head. “The business is shut down. I let both my employees go.”

“That sucks.” Luke wiped clammy sweat from his forehead. They shuffled sideways and set the heavy piece down.

“One of the guys took it hard.” Wade led the way back to the truck. He climbed into the bed, and they maneuvered the headboard into the clear. “He’s been out of work before. In fact, can I give Brooke your number in case Joe bothers her this week?”

“Of course.” Seeing Brooke again wouldn’t be a hardship. He remembered the last time he’d seen her, ten years ago at the town’s Fourth of July celebration. She’d been blowing bubbles to entertain her two young children, her smile wide as the kids raced in circles popping them. Watching them, emptiness had spread through his chest. She had married someone else, though her husband’s absence had been as notable as Luke’s heartache. Luke had cut his visit short and gone back to New York the next day.

“Luke?” Wade prompted.

Luke shook the vision from his head and rubbed his sternum. How could the memory be this sharp a decade later? “What’s the guy’s name?”

“Joe Verdi. Medium build. Extra-large temper.”

“Great combo.”

“Always.” Wade said. “Just to round things out, he’s a heavy drinker.”

“Wonderful.” Luke grabbed the end of the headboard. “Give her my cell number.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, can I help, Uncle Wade?” A skinny teenage boy slouched behind the pickup. An unbuttoned plaid shirt hung over his T-shirt.

“Sure.” Wade motioned between Luke and the kid. “Chris, do you remember my friend, Luke Holloway?”

Holy shit.
That
was Brooke’s son? Luke still pictured him as a preschooler strung out on fireworks and cotton candy. The kid was adult-size. How the hell did that happen?

“Not really, but, hi.” Like Wade, Chris was all dark brown hair and serious eyes. The teen wore his locks shaggy, while his uncle went with a buzz short enough to show scalp in the right light.

“Grab whatever you can lift, Chris.” Wade hefted his end of the headboard, prompting Luke to do the same. Chris grabbed a box. With the kid’s help, the unloading went faster than planned.

“You want these in the house?” Chris picked up a corrugated box marked
CLOTHES
.

“That’d be great. Thanks, Chris.” Wade pulled his wallet from his back pocket and took out a couple of bills. “And you can order a couple of pizzas.”

“Sweet. I’m starving, and Mom texted that she’d be late.” The teen snagged the money and headed for the house.

Wade secured the back of the truck. “So, are you excited to get back to that jet-set life?”

“I guess.” Luke dug a toe into the long grass. He looked out over the quiet yard. In the distance, foothills rolled purple into the darkness, the lights of civilization sparsely spaced. It was never dark or quiet in Manhattan.

“You guess? Most people would kill for your job. You lived in six different countries last year. Not bad for someone who almost got thrown out of school for hacking into the university’s computer system.”

“Not one of my finer moments. Now I use my powers for good.” Luke faked a grin. He should be excited to get back to his job as a network security analyst, but just thinking of moving locations every four to six weeks made him tired. He imagined driving across the bridge, parking in a cement box, and riding an elevator high into a glass tower. He tried to stop there, but his brain conjured visions of the world exploding, of being stranded twenty stories up with no way of getting down except for running down a smoke-filled stairwell, of people screaming and bleeding and dying.

Of being on fire.

Pain burned a path across his back, and his heart sprinted into double-time.

“I understand why you’re anxious to get back to the city. Westbury doesn’t exactly have a roaring nightlife.” Wade grinned. “But damn, it’s been nice having you around this weekend. Come on. I stashed a six-pack in Brooke’s fridge earlier today.” Wade gestured toward the house. “I told you my sister’s single again, right?”

“Twice.” Luke stopped. “What’s your point?”

“No point.” The innocence in Wade’s voice was overdone. “Just sayin’ she’s available, that’s all.”

“Are you trying to set me up with Brooke?”

“What if I was? What’s so shocking about it?” Wade faced him. “You could do a lot worse than my sister.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. Brooke’s terrific.” Luke stammered, the argument rolling downhill faster than he could backpedal. “But I’m leaving town soon. She wouldn’t be interested in me. I’m never around.” Not to mention he was less stable than March ice on a pond, ready to crack at the slightest change in pressure.

“That’s your choice.”

“Yeah, it is.” Luke
needed
to get back to work and get his life back on track. As soon as he got through a project or two, he’d be fine. This was no different than climbing back on a horse after a bad spill. All he needed was confidence.

“I just wish she wasn’t alone. She takes care of two kids, teaches, coaches track, and devotes her few free hours to those self-defense classes.”

BOOK: She Can Scream
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