In Hope's Shadow
(Two Daughters #2)
Harlequin Superromance (Oct., 2015)
Where does she belong?
Now that the "real" daughter of her adoptive parents has returned, Eve Lawson can't help feeling edged out. It's a familiar isolation she sees all too often in her social work caseload. And her unstoppable attraction to divorced cop Ben Kemper only complicates things further.
They're on opposite sides of a murder case, but their connection is still stronger than their doubts and fears. Eve is too close to the sexy single dad to walk away without a shattered heart. It's up to Ben to take a risk of his own and show Eve a family and love that will never let her go: his.
Eve Lawson wondered whether her fellow social service caseworkers ever met with one of their kids on the sidewalk outside a foster home. Especially on a bitterly cold February day.
They'd probably all agree with her that you did whatever was necessary. And the truth was, Joel had looked relieved when she asked him to walk her out to her car.
Hoping her shivers weren't obvious, Eve wrapped her fleece scarf more snugly around her neck and leaned against the fender of her car, feeling the chill of the metal penetrating even through her wool peacoat.
However alone they were out here, she was un-settlingly aware that they were being watched.
"So what's going on, Joel?" she asked.
She had been Joel Kekoa's caseworker for the past three years. He'd been fourteen years old when they'd first met, sullen, hulking and clumsy. The first thing she'd had to do was move him to a new foster home at the request of the previous foster parents, which left him feeling rejected again. Something she understood too well. The one bright spot she'd been able to see then had been his performance in school.
The move had been positive, though. He and the new foster father, Rod Carter, had bonded right away. Joel had seemingly grown into his extra-large body not long after, starring as an offensive guard on the football team these past two years. Eve had gone to a few games to cheer him on. Several major colleges had recruited him, and on signing day he'd committed to the University of Oregon because of their nationally ranked football program. Seventeen now, he was a senior in high school with a solid GPA. In fact, until this morning's call, she'd felt good enough about Joel to let him slip to the bottom of her list of priorities, which meant she'd done little but check in with him by phone occasionally.
The dynamics in the home had recently changed when Carter married a woman who also had a teenage son. Eve had just met mother and son for the first time, and her antennae were quivering.
Honestly, seeing the boy, Gavin Shaffer, watching them now from the picture window in the living room gave her the creeps. He wasn't making any effort to be surreptitious, just stood there looking relaxed, faintly amused, possibly smug. Eve had disliked him on sight, rare for a woman who worked with many troubled children and believed they could overcome the odds.
When she first arrived, she had also seen the drapes twitch in the window of the house next door and was uneasily aware that a couple-inch gap had opened when she and Joel walked to the car. The apparently curmudgeonly next-door neighbor, Clement Rowe, was also keeping his eye on them.
Her inner child wanted to stick out her tongue at them both.
Head hanging, Joel shifted from foot to foot at her question. Having not grabbed a coat on his way out the door, he had to be even more miserable than she was, but he didn't show it. His one concession to a temperature in the thirties was to shove his hands in his jeans pockets.
"Things are kinda tense right now," he said finally. "I guess you could tell that, huh?"
"I'm disconcerted that Rod couldn't be here," she said, sliding away from directly answering.
Joel scowled. "He says I have to listen to Lynne 'cause she's my foster mom now."
"How does she feel about that?"
"She doesn't like me." The sullenness Eve remembered from years past imbued his voice. "She's mostly nice in front of Rod. You know. She's got this supersweet smile while she gets a dig in."
Having just seen the woman in action, Eve couldn't help thinking he'd nailed the description. Eve hadn't liked Lynne Carter nee Shaffer or her son.
"What about Gavin?" she asked, almost reluctantly.
"I don't know." Head down, he toed a crack in the sidewalk. "We're not, like, friends, but he's been okay."
"Is he a good student?"
"Yeah, better than me. I can tell he thinks he's smarter."
Eve fixed the boy in front of her with a stern look. "I really doubt if he is. You've had to overcome some obstacles."
He shrugged, maybe in acknowledgment, maybe just because he didn't want to argue. Joel's biological father hadn't been abusive so much as neglectful. He had been known to leave his young son alone for days at a time, moved them frequently and not always bothered enrolling him in school. When he was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to ten years in the Monroe Correctional Institute, Joel had been placed in foster care and enrolled in the Stimson School District. Then twelve, he had tested years behind his age group. The gains he'd made since were extraordinary.
But she let it go right now. "Does he do sports?"
"He's on the wrestling team," Joel mumbled. "Plus, I guess he's into drama. She says he always gets the leading roles."
Gavin had had to transfer from Cascade High School in Everett to Stimson when his mother remarried. To be fair, Eve reflected, it had to have been tough to have to move to a new district in his junior year.
All she could think to say was, "I see." Ugh. Truthfully, she didn't see much of anything yet. She suspected Lynne did not want to parent this hulking young man who didn't look anything like her own, gilded boy. As sweetly as she'd tried to speak, there'd been an edge in her voice when she was addressing Joel. Eve hadn't liked hearing it. She also didn't like seeing that Joel had regressed some. He seemed to be avoiding meeting her eyes. His sulkiness told her he no longer felt secure, which was dangerous in a boy who'd known so little real security.
But none of this had anything to do with the phone call that had brought her out here this morning.
"Okay," she said on a sigh. "Tell me about Mr. Rowe."
"He hates kids." Joel grimaced. "Actually, I think he hates everyone. But he doesn't have anything to do with most grown-ups. Some of the kids who live on the block have accidently kicked balls into his yard, stuff like that. He comes out screaming if you set one foot onto his property." He sneered. "Like the sole of my shoe is going to poison his grass."
Clement Rowe's lawn was undeniably superior to his neighbors'. It bore more than a passing resemblance to a putting green at an upscale golf course. Along with kids, Mr. Rowe must particularly hate the neighbor a couple of houses down whose winter-brown lawn was tufted with dandelions.
"Tuesday I was walking with some other guys," Joel continued. "We were kind of pushing each other, you know, just having fun, and I stumbled into old man Rowe's flower bed. He roared out, so I stared him in the eye and cut right across his yard to get to my front door. It was like, in your face."
Eve suspected she might have done the same at his age. She nodded.
"So, he comes over last night, really mad. Somebody had smashed some of his rosebushes."
Her gaze strayed to the torn, stunted canes of hybrid tea roses. All were evenly spaced in a row and appeared to have been recently pruned, which seemed a little early. February was the month to do it in the Northwest, sure, but this was only the twelfth, and the weather had been bitterly cold until a couple of days ago. Well, the pruning job wasn't the point, not now. Eve had no idea whether these roses could be salvaged.
"He said it had to be me. And Lynne, she just started telling him she was so sorry and that there'd be consequences for me without even asking me whether I had anything to do with it!" His voice had risen in outrage. "And I didn't! I swear, Ms. Lawson. He's a jerk, but it's like, why would I care that much?"
Eve searched his angry dark eyes and thought she saw sincerity. She could also see that he was braced in anticipation of her disbelief.
Would he have lashed out at the mean old man who regularly yelled at him? Eve didn't want to think so; she'd have sworn Joel was more mature than that. But she also knew that maturity had been erected on a newly poured foundation that could have been damaged by the recent, drastic changes in his home life.
Still, she nodded. "Okay, Joel. Just stay away from Mr. Rowe's property. Cross the street if you need to go by."
His shoulders relaxed. "You believe me?"
Throw the dice. Somebody had to believe in him. "I do. You're a good kid." She smiled crookedly. "That's why I neglect you."
His broad face lit with a grin. "You mean, if I screw up you'd come see me more often?"
"Yes, but please don't. I'm running from morning to night already."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't me who called you." All too quickly, he was back to smoldering.
"It's okay. I've been intending to drop by to meet Rod's new wife and her son anyway." She hesitated. "I'm a lot more concerned about your relationship with them than I am with Mr. Rowe's grumblings."
He shrugged. She glanced toward Clement Rowe's house and this time saw fingers pulling the drapes back and a shadow in the opening.
Shivering again, Eve told herself she just didn't like winter. No ghost had brushed by; she hadn't just spoken what sounded way too much like famous last words.
Ben Kemper sighed and leaned back, causing his chair to squeak. "Thank you, I don't mind waiting on hold."
Actually, he did, but he'd become resigned. Nobody had told him before his promotion to detective that he would spend more time poring over his computer or on hold—and often both at the same time—than he would out in the field. The chills and thrills of police work were few and far between these days.
The hours, though, those still sucked. The lengthy and erratic hours he worked explained why he was now a divorced man who counted his blessings when he was permitted to have his six-year-old daughter two days out of every fourteen.
Not a minute later, the cell phone lying on his desk rang. The name appearing on the screen was his ex-wife's. As always, he couldn't help feeling a spurt of hope. He missed Nicole every day.
Juggling phones, he answered. "Nic."
"You got a sec?" Nicole asked.
"I'm on hold. I'll have to call you back if someone comes on."
"You can't hang up on whoever it is and call back?"
"It's important, and I've already been waiting for a while."
"What, I'm not entitled to two minutes of your concentration?" she snapped.
Irritation rose to poison the hope. "I am at work," he pointed out.
"Like you aren't always."
He closed his eyes. "Can we not do this?"
Silence. Finally, "I know you're supposed to have Rachel tomorrow, but something has come up and we need to change weekends."
Of course it had. He'd decided last time that he wasn't taking this shit anymore.
"I've already made plans," he said with a semblance of calm. "This is my weekend, Nicole. You have her the majority of the time. You need to schedule anything that includes Rachel on your days."
"We agreed we'd be flexible—"
"You've abused my willingness too many times. Please have Rachel ready when I pick her up at five tomorrow." He stabbed his phone to end the call, anger burning beneath his breastbone.
His phone immediately buzzed. Nicole. This time, Ben muted it.
The detective who sat directly in front of him in the bull pen swiveled his chair to look at Ben. Seth Chandler was near Ben's age of thirty-three. Both worked cases individually, but often partnered. Even when they weren't conducting an investigation together, they bounced ideas off each other. In the past year, they'd moved toward real friendship. In fact, Seth had invited Ben to bring his daughter to dinner tomorrow night. Seth's fiancée, Bailey, was arriving for a long weekend. Seth was champing at the bit for her to get her degree in May and move up here from Southern California. They were hanging in there with a long-distance relationship, but Ben imagined it was tough.
Had to beat having no relationship, though, he thought grumpily.
A woman's voice in his ear pulled his attention back to the moment.
"Uh-huh," he said, writing fast. He recited back the address and two phone numbers she had just given him as well as a string of dates for insurance claims, then thanked her and hung up. Seth had wandered away to refill his coffee cup, but returned just then.
"That your ex who called?" he asked.
"Unfortunately," Ben growled.
"Wanted to change your weekend again?"
"That was the idea. Funny how 'change' always ends up with me losing a weekend with Rachel."
"It sounded like she backed down this time."
"I didn't give her a chance to do anything else. It's a great weekend for me to have Rachel. I'm not tied up with anything big, so I can concentrate on her. I'm taking her sledding on Saturday. Nic hates to get cold, so she never does anything like that with Rachel." He hesitated. "You sure you don't mind me bringing her tomorrow night? If she'll be the only kid…" As far as he knew, the only other guests were Bailey's parents.
Seth smiled. "Hey, she'll get all the attention." His phone rang and he started to turn around, but then looked over his shoulder. "Forgot to tell you Eve will be there, too. You know, Bailey's sister."
Adoptive sister. Without knowing Bailey well and having never met Eve, Ben had heard enough from Seth to know how complicated a relationship the two women had. Bailey—whose birth name was Hope Lawson—had been abducted as a little girl, sexually molested and eventually abandoned by the man who'd taken her. By then she'd forgotten her name and where she came from and went into foster care in California. Seth liked to take up a cold case now and then, and had pursued finding pretty, blonde Hope Lawson, expecting improved DNA technology and databases that allowed law enforcement agencies to communicate better might help him bring the little girl's body home for her parents to bury. Instead, Hope had walked into the sheriff's department one day, stunning Seth, her grieving parents—and the woman her parents had adopted several years after her disappearance.
Seth had once told Ben privately that the first words out of Eve's mouth had been, "The real daughter returns." Probably said sardonically. And who could blame her for feeling that way? However much the Lawsons loved the girl they adopted, she had to have grown up conscious of the shadow cast by their beloved missing daughter.