Life was good, Kyle thought as he picked up the next report. He studied the name on the folder, then searched through the file cabinet until he found where it went and slid it in place. He continued to whistle tunelessly as he worked on the filing. He could feel the sun shining through the office window and onto his back. It was another beautiful day in Glenwood. The last bright moments of summer before-
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Travis grumbled as he came into the room. “You’re whistling, for God’s sake.”
Kyle grinned at his older brother. “You look like hell.”
“I feel like hell. Mandy ate something bad yesterday and I was up all night with her. What are you so cheerful about?”
Kyle closed the top drawer and pulled open the second one. “Just life, big brother.”
“That’s disgusting.” Travis squinted at him. “You’re doing the filing?”
“Dottie had a doctor’s appointment.”
“You hate the filing.”
Kyle shrugged. “It’s not so bad.”
Travis stared at him for a second, then shook his head. “You’re not a well man,” he muttered as he left the main office.
Kyle didn’t bother pointing out he’d never felt better. His life was perfect. He reached for the next report and chuckled. Okay, it could be a little more perfect if he and Sandy could find some privacy and make love. Since the kids had come home from camp the previous week, they’d all spent time together. He was crazy about her children, but there were times when he wanted school to start so they would go to bed early and leave Sandy and him with enough of the evening left to have some adult fun. Still, he wasn’t complaining. Sandy hadn’t shut him down and he’d thought she might.
He walked to the front window and stared out at the park across from the sheriff’s department. All the way to the park to pick up the children from camp, he’d been terrified that she was going to tell him it was over. But she hadn’t. After collecting the kids, they’d gone out to dinner and heard all about their time away. Everyone had had fun. Even Lindsay made a couple of friends. That night, he’d left Sandy and her children at their house and made the solitary walk back to his own place. For the first time in three nights, he’d slept alone in his bed. He’d used her pillow so he could smell her sweet scent and pretend she was with him.
He knew now that was what he wanted. He’d thought long and hard about it, and he’d decided to risk it all. He loved Sandy and he wanted to marry her. All he was waiting for was the right moment to tell her how he felt.
He wasn’t sure if he was going to propose right off. She might need a little convincing. After all, on the surface, he was as bad or worse than Thomas. But he’d learned the truth about himself. He didn’t just skate by on his good looks. There was more to him on the inside. He was willing to be there for Sandy and her children, no matter what it cost him personally. He returned to the file cabinet and started whistling again.
The phone rang. Not the main business line which would be picked up at the front of the station, but the private line businesses often used if there was a problem but it wasn’t urgent.
“Glenwood Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “Deputy Haynes speaking.”
“Kyle, it’s Wilson Porter, from the Ragged Elephant. I’ve got a problem.”
Kyle grimaced. The Ragged Elephant was a trendy boutique at the mall. Teenagers loved the exciting new fashions, but the store had more than its share of trouble. “Let me guess. Shoplifters checking out the new fall line.”
“You got it. I’m holding the kids in my office. They’re pretty young and scared, but I’m not going to let them off.”
“I understand. I’ll be right there.”
He hung up, then reached for his cap. As he walked down the hallway, he called out to Travis. “Shoplifters at the Ragged Elephant. I’ll radio you and let you know how many I’m bringing in.”
Travis followed him into the hallway and nodded, “I really want school to start,” he said. “The teenagers are getting restless.”
Kyle pushed open the door and glanced back. “Ten more days.”
“How would you know?”
Kyle grinned. “I’ve been counting ’em myself.”
He didn’t bother waiting for a reply. Instead, he walked to his patrol car and headed for the mall.
Twenty minutes later, he took the escalator to the second floor and turned toward the boutique. Several teenagers were standing in groups on the sides of the walkway. The young boys gave him challenging looks, but the girls smiled and said hello. He nodded at all of them. Today, nothing was going to interfere with his good mood. He loved Sandy-all was right with the world.
He entered the store. Wilson Porter hurried to greet him. “Kyle, I’m really glad you’re here.” The short overweight forty-year-old who managed the boutique motioned toward the back of the store. “They’re crying. I hate it when they cry.”
“They usually do,” Kyle reminded him.
“I know.” Wilson sighed. “Why can’t they put things on layaway? But no. They have to try and steal them. Don’t they know everything is tagged electronically? Do they think I’m stupid?”
“They don’t think.” Kyle pushed open a door marked Private and entered the back storage room. There was a short corridor to the left. He turned there and walked to Wilson’s office. He waited while the manager unlocked the door. Kyle stepped inside.
Three girls sat around the small room. Two looked up at him. He didn’t recognize them. They must be summer kids. Glenwood didn’t get a lot of tourists, but there were a few families who came up from the city and rented houses in the woods. These girls were young, maybe thirteen. Two were blond, one with short straight hair, the other with long curly hair to her waist. Both had obviously been crying. The third, the one who hadn’t looked at him yet, had brown hair.
“Who wants to tell me what happened?” he asked.
As he spoke, the third girl raised her head. Kyle stared at her in disbelief. “Lindsay?”
Her face was wet with tears, her eyes red. She flinched when he said her name. “Wh-what are you doing here?” she asked, her voice shaking.
“I got a call about some shoplifters.”
The tears flowed faster. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean it. Please don’t tell my mom.”
“Your mom is the least of your problems,” Kyle said, stunned by what he was seeing and hearing. “What were you thinking of? This isn’t a game, Lindsay.”
She seemed to fold in on herself. She pulled her knees up to her chest and dropped her forehead to her knees. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
“You know this guy?” the short-haired blonde asked. Lindsay nodded miserably. “Cool.” She looked at Kyle. “We didn’t mean anything by this. Can’t you talk to him and explain that?” She jerked her head toward Wilson.
Wilson glared at her. “Didn’t mean anything? Honey, I’ve had my eye on you all summer. I know you took those dragon earrings a couple of weeks ago.” He went into the hallway and returned with a shopping bag full of clothing. “This is what they were trying to steal. All this? Can you believe it? Not only do they think I’m stupid, they’re greedy, too.” He glared at the girls, then turned to Kyle. “I want to press charges. Against all of them.”
“But it was an accident,” Lindsay said for the third time. “I swear.”
Kyle stared at the young girl in front of him. She was no longer the vamp in training who had trailed him the first month she’d been in Glenwood. She was a frightened child who didn’t understand the consequences of what she’d done. But she was about to learn in a big way.
He leaned toward her. “You were the one carrying the bag, Lindsay. How was it an accident?”
“I didn’t know they’d stolen the stuff,” she said.
He waited. She fidgeted on the straight-backed chair he’d pulled up beside his desk. When the girls had realized he meant to bring them to the station, they’d all lost control. He’d had to hustle three hysterical crying pre-teens through the mall to the patrol car. The two blondes hadn’t said much, but Lindsay kept apologizing. He’d called Travis with the details. As soon as they’d arrived at the station, he’d separated the girls. Travis and one of the other deputies were taking care of the two blondes, while Kyle had brought Lindsay with him.
He still didn’t know what he was going to do with her. The part of him that cared about her, the part of him that understood how easy it was to get mixed up in trouble, wanted to ease her way. He thought about talking to Wilson. He could get the store manager to drop the charges. The other two girls were from out of town. They would be leaving soon and taking their trouble with them. Lindsay wasn’t a bad kid. He could make Wilson understand.
But he wasn’t going to. Not only because it was wrong to use his influence, but because it wouldn’t help Lindsay. That was the hell of it. If she learned a hard lesson this early, she wouldn’t make the same mistake again. If he let her off, then she would start to expect other people to always be cleaning up her messes. So he didn’t speak to Wilson or tell Lindsay it was going to be okay. Instead, he glared at her, waiting for her to tell him the truth.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she asked, still crying. Her long brown hair hung limply over her shoulders. She pushed it away from her face. She was pale under her tan.
“Treating me this way? I didn’t do anything.”
“You carried a bag of stolen clothing out of a store. That’s called shoplifting, and it’s against the law.”
“But I didn’t kn-know. I thought they’d paid for it.”
He didn’t say anything.
She sobbed for several more minutes. He pushed a box of tissue close to the edge of the desk and then clutched the arms of his chair. He wanted to go to her and comfort her. He wanted to pull her into his arms and promise he would fix it all. He wanted to know that she would understand why he was doing this. That it was for her own good.
He hadn’t thought doing the right thing would hurt so much. He hated watching Lindsay cry. Each tear, each sob was like a dagger in his heart. He’d come to care about Lindsay. He wanted to spare her the pain, but he knew doing that would only make it worse in the long run.
“Did you see either girl pay for the clothing?” he asked when she’d quieted some.
“No, but-” She looked at him. “I-I just didn’t think they would have taken the things without paying for them. They gave me the bag and told me to start walking. What was I supposed to do? They’re my friends. The first friends I’ve made here.” She wiped her eyes. “I was sc-scared, and I didn’t want to say anything. Then that buzzer went off and that little man came after us. He was screaming that we were thieves, then he grabbed me.” She covered her face with her hands. “I was so humiliated. It was awful. I’m really sorry.” She looked up at him. “I swear I’ll never do anything like that again. Please don’t tell my mom, Kyle. She’ll kill me.”
Lindsay wasn’t the only one Sandy was going to want to kill. Her daughter’s partners in crime had been girls she’d met at camp. The camp he’d encouraged the children to attend so that he could have some private time with their mother. Sandy was going to blame him for this whole damn thing. He didn’t know how or why, but he could feel it in his bones. Things had been going too well between them. He wasn’t looking forward to calling her.
“It’s not just your mother, Lindsay. Mr. Porter is going to press charges. You’re a juvenile and that will help. You have a clean record and people who will vouch for your character.” He was willing to let her be charged, but he had every intention of speaking for her at the hearing.
She blanched. “I’m going to prison?” Her eyes filled with tears. “Kyle? That’s not true, is it?”
“You won’t have to go to a detention facility. You’ll be released into your mother’s custody.”
“Custody? Like I’m a criminal? But I didn’t do anything.”
“You carried stolen clothing out of a store.”
“But I didn’t take it. It wasn’t mine. I didn’t even like the stuff they picked out.” She sprang to her feet and started pacing the office. “Kyle, please, you’ve got to help me. I really didn’t do anything. I didn’t want to help them. I didn’t even want to be there. I thought they were my friends. I haven’t had any friends since we moved here. Everything is so horrible. I hate this.” She stood in front of him and twisted her hands around and around. “Please help me. You’ve got to. Please?”
He couldn’t resist her plea. He rose to his feet and hugged her. Her slender body was trembling. “I’m sorry, Lindsay,” he said, smoothing her hair. “This is pretty ugly. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to face the consequences of what happened. Your friends got you into trouble, and you’re going to have to pay the price for that. You knew it was wrong to take the clothes, but you did it, anyway.”
She pushed away from him. “You’re not going to do anything, are you?” she asked, her voice getting loud. “Why?”
“Because you have to learn. I know this is hard. It’s damn hard for me, too.”
“I don’t care about you,” she said. “You’re not the one in trouble.” He tried to touch her shoulder, but she jerked away from him. “Get away from me.” She sank into the chair. “Get away.”
He stared at her for a long time, then left the room. Conflicting emotions swelled inside of him. All he wanted was to do the right thing. Nothing else mattered. His heart told him to talk to Wilson and get the charges dropped. His head told him that was a mistake. With a flash of insight, he realized he was facing the double-edged sword of being a parent. Lindsay might not be his child, but he cared about her. The compassionate side of him wanted to make it easy for her. The logical side reminded him that she had to learn eventually and the lesson would be a lot less painful coming this early.
He walked into an empty office and stared at the phone. Putting Lindsay in custody was the second hardest thing he’d ever had to do. The hardest would be calling Sandy and telling her what had happened.
Sandy pushed open the glass doors and entered the sheriff’s station. She was shaking-from concern and rage. How could Lindsay have gotten involved in something like this? How could she have shown such poor judgment? And how could she, as Lindsay’s mother, have had no clue what was going on in her daughter’s life?
She paused in the foyer and saw several people waiting. A couple, about her age, maybe a few years older, glanced up at her, then away. She wondered if they were one of the other girl’s parents. Before she could go over and ask, a door opened and she saw Kyle. He motioned her to come with him.
“How are you holding up?” he asked when she got closer to him.
She tried to smile, then settled on a shrug. “Okay, I guess. I’m sorry it took me so long to get here. I had to drop Nichole and Blake at Elizabeth’s.” She followed Kyle down a long corridor to an empty office. When he’d shut the door behind them, she sank into the chair in front of the worn wooden desk.
“How did this happen?” she asked, then shook her head. “I’m sorry. You can’t answer that, can you? I had no clue what she was up to. Are these the same girls she met at camp?”
Kyle hesitated before answering, then he nodded. “According to Lindsay, yes. She met them there, and apparently they’ve been hanging out together since they got back.”
Sandy let her purse slip to the floor. “I blame myself. I shouldn’t have sent her to camp. She didn’t want to go. I thought-“
She clamped her mouth shut. She didn’t want to say what she’d been thinking. That sending the kids away had been purely selfish. That she was the worst mother in the world. She could tell herself she’d sent the kids to camp so they could have some fun and make friends, but the truth was much uglier than that. She’d sent her kids to camp so she could have some private time with Kyle. She’d wanted to have sex, so she’d sacrificed her children’s well-being.
“It’s all my fault,” she said.
“Bull.” Kyle pulled the chair from behind the desk and moved it so it was in front of her. Then he sat down. “You didn’t tell Lindsay to steal anything. She’s a smart kid. She knows better. She got caught up in the moment. She didn’t think, and now she has to face the consequences of what she did.”
Sandy shook her head. “That’s really easy for you to say. Lindsay isn’t your child. Of course I know I didn’t tell her to steal anything. That doesn’t mean it’s not my fault. Of course I had something to do with this. I just have to figure out what. Did I ignore her? Should I have investigated her friends better?”
“You’re making yourself crazy over this. It’s not that complicated.”
“I met one of the girl’s mothers,” she said, more to herself than him. “I guess I should have met both mothers. Or not let Lindsay go with them. But I can’t keep her locked up forever.”
What had happened? Was it the move? Was this a late reaction to Thomas’s death? She tried to fight off the ugly feeling that the root of the problem was her own selfishness. If she hadn’t wanted to be with Kyle so much-
“You’re not looking at this clearly,” Kyle said. “Why does it have to be your fault? Why can’t Lindsay have just made a mistake?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said impatiently.
“I might not be her father, but I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time with her this summer, and I think I’ve learned a few things. When I walked into that store and saw her sitting there, I felt like I-“
Sandy glared at him. “What did you say?” she asked, interrupting. She couldn’t have heard him correctly. “When you went into the store? You were there?”
“I took the call.”
She stood up. Kyle rose also. His expression hardened, then became unreadable, as if he sensed what was coming. Sandy felt her temper starting to rise. She tried to control it, but the rage pushed through.
“You arrested my daughter? How could you?”
“It’s my job,” he said coldly. All warmth disappeared from his brown eyes.
“Your job? Was it also your job to convince me to send her away so you could seduce me?” It wasn’t a fair question, but she was past caring.
“One has nothing to do with the other. I arrested Lindsay because she’d broken the law, and also because I believe it’s important for her to know that her actions have a price. You’re the one who’s so big on people being responsible. I would think you would be happy.”
“Happy?” She curled her hands into fists and continued glaring at him. “Happy that you’ve destroyed her life? I know that you’ve hurt her and she may never get over this.”
“Don’t blame her actions on me. She’d old enough to know what she was doing.”
“She’s just a child.”
“I agree she’s not an adult. That’s why I want to help her.”
“You call this helping?” she asked scornfully. “We don’t need your kind of help, Deputy Haynes.” She turned away from him and walked over to the door. After pulling it open, she stared at the wall. “Please tell your superior that I want someone else assigned to the case. I don’t want to have to deal with you anymore.”
“Sandy, don’t do this.” He moved close and touched her arm. She pulled free of him. She wasn’t going to listen to any more from him.
“Do I need to make the request in writing?” she asked.
“How much of this is about Lindsay and how much of it is you running scared?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. Finally, he left the room and she was alone.
She had five minutes in which to try to pull herself together. It wasn’t enough. When the door opened and Travis walked in, she thought she was going to start crying.
She could feel the blush climbing her cheeks. “Hi,” she said, praying her voice would keep steady. “So this is the downside of living in a small town. Everybody knows everybody else’s business.”
Travis crossed the room and put his arm around her. “I know it’s hard for you, but everything is going to be okay.”
“If you knew how much I want to believe you.” She blinked to hold back the tears. “Now that I’m going to have a convicted felon in the family, I hope we can all still be friends. I should probably warn you, I left Blake and Nichole with your wife.”
Travis smiled. “Of course we’re still friends. And shoplifting isn’t a felony.”
“Great.” She allowed him to lead her to her chair. She sat down. “Now what happens?”
He took the seat Kyle had used. Sandy looked at him. Travis looked enough like his brother that if she squinted a little, she could pretend they were the same man. She wanted to apologize for what she’d said earlier and she suspected it would be easier to say the words to Travis. Of course, he wouldn’t know what she was talking about.
“First,” he said, “the other parents have already collected their children. Both girls are from out of town. The families will be leaving as soon as this is cleared up, so you don’t have to worry about Lindsay hanging out with them anymore.”
“That’s a relief.”
“We’re going to keep this quiet, so Lindsay won’t start school with a reputation.”
He leaned back in his chair. “This was tough on Kyle. He really cares about your kids.” And you.
He didn’t say the last part, but she heard it. “I don’t want to talk about him right now.”
“All right. Let’s talk about your daughter.”
Sandy started to stand up. Travis grabbed her hand and pulled her back into the chair. “Hear me out,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of kids. After a while, you start to get a feel for them. Lindsay’s one of the good ones. She got a big scare today. It’s going to stay with her a long time.”
“What are you saying?”
“That it’s probably not going to be a problem again. I don’t usually tell parents not to punish their kids, but I’m going to make an exception. She’s a frightened little girl, and you might want to consider just listening instead of acting.”
Sandy shook her head. What was it with these men? Why were they always telling other people how to raise their kids? It seemed to her that their family wasn’t anything to brag about. “I’ll give it some thought,” she said, standing. “Is she free to go?”
“Sure.” He rose and walked to the door. “It’s none of my business, but Kyle’s hurting pretty bad. Maybe you could talk to him before you leave.”
“You’re right. It’s none of your business.” She started to walk past him into the hallway, then paused. “You can give him a message for me, though. Tell him I want him to stay away from me and away from my kids. And this time, I mean it.”
“None of this is his fault,” Travis told her.
“Then whose fault is it?”
“Why does it have to be anyone’s? Sometimes these things just happen.”
“Maybe,” she said, knowing he was talking about the shoplifting and she was talking about a relationship that would never work. “But it’s not going to happen again.”