Calder Stonewall stared at the woman and little boy who were huddled against the wall of the adjacent building. He’d actually walked right past them when he’d gotten to the scene. He hadn’t even looked twice, all his attention on the dead body lying on the ground halfway down the alley.
But now he couldn’t take his eyes off of the pair. For the first time in his life, Calder was more concerned about something other than preserving and taking in a scene. All he could think about was getting to Hope and her son, Billy, before they disappeared into thin air.
He’d spent the last couple months doing everything possible to find them. He’d found out about them from Blythe, who was engaged to his firefighter friend, Squirrel. Blythe had spoken so much about the other woman that she’d lit a fire under his butt to find her. Hope Drayden was homeless—at least, she had been the last time Blythe had seen her.
Calder would bet any amount of money the pair in front of him was Hope and her son. If they were, then it made sense why he hadn’t been able to find them. He’d been looking on the wrong side of the city. The shelters Blythe had assumed Hope would most likely show up at had been dead ends. He hadn’t branched out to looking in this area because the only nearby place for the homeless was a men’s shelter.
“I’m going to go question the woman,” the SAPD officer said to Calder, bringing his attention back to his surroundings. “If necessary, I’ll take her to the station and question her further if her statement sounds hinky.”
“No,” Calder protested immediately. “I’ll talk to her. I need you to stay here and make sure no one gets near the DB. Don’t touch him and don’t put a sheet over him until the CSIs get here.”
“I know the protocol,” the officer mumbled.
Calder knew the man wasn’t happy to be put on dead-body guard duty, but after hearing Blythe talk about how Hope was essentially on the run from her abusive ex—who just happened to be a police officer—he had a hunch she’d feel more comfortable talking to him rather than the cop assigned to the scene.
Calder wasn’t wearing a uniform; instead, he had on a pair of black jeans, a striped shirt, and he’d thrown on a dark blazer as he’d walked out of the house. Even though it was late, Calder always liked to look professional. His badge was also clipped onto his belt, just in case someone questioned who he was.
Without another thought for the ticked-off officer, Calder walked slowly toward who he knew had to be Hope and Billy. She had her son’s face tucked into her side, obviously shielding him from the sight of the body. Her polyester dress was light blue, with a white square in front, made to look like an apron tied around her waist. It had red piping around the collar and the sleeves. It wasn’t especially attractive, although it somehow seemed flattering on her.
She was slender—too slender. She was shivering in the night air. It wasn’t exactly cold, it was Texas after all, but between the shock of what she’d seen and the knee-length dress, she was probably chilled.
Her red hair was coming out of the ponytail she’d put it in at some point that day. Wisps of hair hung around her face, and the dark circles under her eyes stood out clearly in the street light at the end of the alley. As he got closer, he could see her eyes were a dark green that made him think of the pine trees that surrounded his house.
“Hope Drayden?” Calder asked as he approached. “Are you okay?”
She looked startled for a second, then tightened her arms around Billy and asked, “How do you know my name?”
Calder swore under his breath. Dammit. There he went, saying the exact wrong thing. He’d been trying to put her at ease, not spook her.
He stopped several feet away, not wanting to crowd her, and said, “I’ve been looking for you.”
When she flinched and actually took a step away from him toward the street, Calder knew he’d screwed up again. He spoke fast to try to do damage control.
“Your friend Blythe has been worried about you. She got into an altercation the last time she came downtown to search for you, and her fiancé managed to get her out safely. But he doesn’t want her coming down here again, for obvious reasons, so I’ve been keeping my eye out for you. It’s not safe. There are gangs, ruffians, and homeless people who wouldn’t hesitate to rob you…and more.” Calder took a breath, wanting to impress upon Hope how dangerous the streets were, while not coming out and saying in front of her son that she could be raped.
“I know exactly how dangerous it is down here,” Hope said quietly, with a hint of steel in her voice.
Calder noticed an ambulance pull up next to the curb, as well as a couple more cop cars. It was getting more and more crowded, and he wanted to get Hope and Billy farther away from the DB so they didn’t have to watch the detectives and crime scene techs do their thing.
He shrugged out of his sports coat and held it out to her. “Right. Of course you do. My apologies. You look cold. Take my jacket.”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” he said, and winced at how it sounded. “I just mean, you’re cold. Please, take my jacket.
Pressing her lips together, Hope took it. Probably to shut him up more than anything else, but he couldn’t help but feel pleased when she wrapped it around her shoulders. She didn’t put her arms through the sleeves, but hopefully it still provided her a little bit of warmth.
“Come on,” he said quietly, holding out his hand, indicating the sidewalk outside of the alley. “While the boys take care of that, I need to talk to you.”
“That?” Hope asked.
“That is Willie Waters. He was seventy-two years old and a Vietnam veteran. He was awarded a Silver Star after the war. He had four children, eight grandkids, and two great-grandkids. He was married forty-one years to the love of his life and after she died of a heart attack, he had no will to go on. He eventually lost his house and ended up here on the streets. He sometimes watched after Billy while I looked for work, and he was one of the kindest, most gentle people I’ve ever known. I don’t know why someone shot him, but if they’d simply asked him for whatever they wanted, he would’ve given it to them. He didn’t give a crap about material possessions and frequently gave away things that would’ve made his life much better.”
Calder lowered his head and stared at the filthy ground. He very rarely thought about the bodies he worked with on a daily basis as people. It hurt too much to think about their loved ones left behind. When he’d first started as an ME, he’d gone out of his way to befriend and comfort the families of the deceased, but after a while, it took too much of a toll on him.
Not only that, but he’d said the wrong thing to her…again. It really didn’t surprise him, but for the first time in a really long time, he wanted to give a woman a good impression instead of sticking his foot in his mouth. Wanted her to look at him with something other than disdain.
At forty years old, Calder had pretty much written off ever finding a woman to share his life with. He was too old. Too set in his ways. Too…odd.
From a young age, he’d always managed to say the wrong thing to girls. He never meant anything bad, but it frequently seemed to come out that way.
Like the time he told a date that her clothes were baggy…he’d meant to compliment her on losing weight, but of course, the girl took offense and that was the end of that date.
Then there was the time in college he’d told a woman he was attracted to that he’d been following her when she walked home from class…he’d meant that, since it was dark and he was worried about her, he wanted to make sure she got back to her dorm all right. She decided he was a weird stalker and threatened to get a restraining order against him.
The examples could go on and on. Calder got along with his friends’ wives and girlfriends okay, because they knew him. Knew how he was. Also, he didn’t seem to say as many odd things to them…maybe because he wasn’t attracted to any of those women.
“You’re right,” he told the ground. “I was out of line. I apologize. Can you tell me what happened?” Calder forced himself to look at her again.
Her brows drew down in confusion but she quickly recovered. “I was walking home after my shift. Billy and I passed the alley and he saw something. I was going to walk by, but he insisted that someone was back there and was hurt and needed help. We went into the alley and found Willie. I could tell he was already…gone. We hurried out and went to the little convenience store on the corner to call the police.”
Calder nodded and looked behind him. He could see the crime scene techs taking pictures and putting down the little yellow cards with numbers on them, cataloging evidence. He turned back to Hope and Billy and immediately crouched down until he was eye-to-eye with the little boy.
“Good job, Billy,” Calder said softly. “You did the right thing.”
The little boy shifted his head so he could see Calder, but didn’t speak.
“You could’ve ignored what you thought you saw, kept going. But you didn’t. You got your mom to stop. That’s amazing. What did you see that made you realize someone needed help?”
He waited patiently for the little boy to answer his question, but it was Hope who replied for him.
“He doesn’t talk.”
Calder stayed on the ground but looked up. “What?”
“Billy doesn’t talk. Ever since…there was an incident a bit ago. He hasn’t said a word since then. I took him to the free clinic, but they said there was nothing wrong with his vocal cords. They wanted to do more intensive testing, but I refused.” She ran a hand over her son’s red hair and said, “When he feels comfortable enough to talk again, he will. I’m not going to make him.” The last was said with a bit of force, as if daring him to do anything that would further emotionally scar her son.
Looking back at Billy, Calder saw the little boy hadn’t taken his eyes from him. “Well, I’m sure glad you saw whatever it was that you did so we could come and find your friend Willie.”
After a second, Billy lifted his hand and pointed.
Calder turned his head to see what the little boy was pointing at and saw a paper bag lying next to the wall, with an unopened bottle of water nearby. Calder’s eyes swept from the entrance of the alley, to Willie’s unmoving body, to the paper bag once more.
His mind immediately whirled with possibilities. There was a store around the corner. Willie could’ve bought himself a bottle of water then walked this way. Someone could’ve seen him and thought he had alcohol. The water bottle would look the same as alcohol inside the brown bag. If he was held up, and if what Hope said was true, he probably gave up the water easily. But whoever held him up had shot him anyway, maybe out of frustration that the bag contained water instead of booze, before fleeing the area.
It was possible the bag and the water had nothing to do with Willie’s murder, but Calder had learned over the years that generally the simpler scenarios were usually more likely to be closer to the truth than convoluted and complicated ones.
He whistled at one of the crime scene guys and indicated the bag and bottle with his head. He knew the team would’ve seen it sooner or later, but figured he might as well bring their attention to it now.
Calder turned back to the little boy. “Good job, Billy. I’m impressed. Not everyone would’ve noticed something as small as that. That could end up being just what we need to figure out what happened, and to hopefully find the people, or persons, who hurt your friend.”
Billy didn’t say anything, but his lips twitched in a small smile.
“In fact,” Calder said, “I think you’ve more than earned this.” He reached down and unclipped his medical examiner’s badge from his belt and held it out. It was made of silver metal and was in the shape of a star. He had some fake badges back in the trunk of his car that he usually gave to children when he gave talks about his job, or in situations like this, but he wanted to do something special for this little boy. He wanted to do something to remove the look of pain and distrust from Billy’s face.
Billy looked from Calder to the star sitting in the palm of his hand.
“Mister, look—” Hope began, but Calder interrupted her.
“Go on, Billy. Take it. I have another. You earned this tonight. It’s not a police badge, because I’m not a police officer. I’m more of a scientist, really. But I think the cops felt bad that us medical examiners didn’t have a nice fancy badge like they did, so they designed this for us to wear. See?” He didn’t move closer but held the badge up so Billy could see it easier.
It wasn’t exactly true that he wasn’t an officer. He’d gone through the police academy to make him a better ME. He had training and experience with pathology, toxicology, as well as having his paramedic certification. He’d taken classes on human behavior and psychology to help him understand the why’s of a crime scene better, and over the years, he’d learned a lot from simply listening to and being around police officers.
His job required him to investigate all unnatural or unexpected deaths in the county, or cases where a doctor couldn’t certify a cause of death. He was called in on accidents, suicides, homicides, and undetermined deaths to figure out the cause and manner of how people died.
Most people thought his job was morbid and weird, but Calder loved it. Loved solving the puzzle of how a person died. Enjoyed giving families some answers.
Unfortunately, it was those why’s that were harder to determine, and those were what kept him up at night.
Billy bit his lip and looked up at his mother uncertainly.
Hope sighed and tried one more time to reject the gift. “It really is too much…uh…I didn’t catch your name.”
“Shoot. Sorry. I’m Calder. Calder Stonewall. One of five medical examiners in Bexar County. Friend of Blythe’s. Totally harmless, run-of-the-mill, forty-year-old guy who only wants to make sure the woman I’ve been searching for is safe, and to show her son that not everyone who carries a badge is a bad guy.”
She stared at him for a long moment before looking back down at Billy. “It’s okay, son.”
Billy reacted so quickly, Calder hardly even saw him moving. He snatched the badge from his hand and was looking down at it with curiosity, turning it over to see that it didn’t have a pin on the back, but rather a clip so it could be attached to a belt or a waistband and worn that way.
“What do you say?” Hope asked her son.
Billy looked up at Calder and nodded at him.
Smiling, Calder said, “You’re welcome.” Moving slowly, so he didn’t startle mother or son, he stood, making sure to keep his distance.
“Can we go?” Hope asked. “It’s late and I have to work early in the morning.”
Calder nodded immediately. “I’ll need your contact information in case we have any more questions.”
She bit her lip and looked behind herself nervously. “Oh, well…”
“I swear that while I often say things that are odd, I’m a good guy. I just don’t seem to have the gene that allows me not to mess up casual conversations. I don’t mean anything by it. The state of Texas trusts me…don’t you think you can too?”
Calder winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Jesus, he was an idiot. He reached into his pocket even as he was shaking his head. He pulled out a business card and a folded piece of paper he’d been carrying around for months, just in case.
“That’s my business card,” he said, holding it out for her. “It has my office number and my cell written on the back. Call me. Anytime—for anything. I mean it. The other is a note from Blythe. I’ve been carrying it around for when I found you.”
“How’d she know you would?” Hope asked quietly, as she took both the card and the note from him.
“She didn’t. But she was hoping,” Calder told her. “Look, I really do need to get your contact info for the report. I’ll get my butt chewed out if I don’t. But I swear, after my investigation is over, I won’t include it in my official report. I know, Hope, why you’re reluctant to share it—but he’s not going to hurt you or your son again. I swear it.”
Calder wanted to come right out and tell her that if her ex tried to get anywhere near her, he’d call on every resource he had—Cruz with the FBI, Dax with the Texas Rangers, Quint with the SAPD, Hayden in the sheriff’s department, former sniper and highway patrolman TJ, and even Conor in the game warden’s office—if it meant keeping her safe.
They may have just met tonight, but he felt as if he knew her…because of everything he’d learned about her from speaking with people on the streets who were acquainted with Hope. He’d do what he could to make sure her asshole ex, a cop from Washington state, didn’t get anywhere near her ever again.
“We’re staying at the Sun Motel on Presa Street.” Her words were soft and uncertain, but Calder heard them.
He wasn’t happy about hearing them though. The Sun Motel was notorious for drug and prostitution raids. Not only that, but he’d been called there on several occasions. It was cheap and rundown. But…it was close to the diner listed on the name tag she was wearing, and it was a roof over their heads. He couldn’t, and wouldn’t, judge her for where she lived, even if it was what she expected him to do.
“I know the place,” was all he said. Then he took a deep breath. “Can I tell Blythe that I found you?”
Hope slowly nodded.
“Her number is in the note, so you can call her, but I want you to know that you can always call me as well.”
She nodded, but Calder knew she wouldn’t. Why would she? He was a stranger to her. One who reminded her too much of what she was running from. Who she was running from.
“Great. Then you’re free to go.”
Hope nodded and took off his jacket and held it out to him. “Thanks for this.”
Taking it back reluctantly, wanting to tell her to keep it, Calder shrugged into it, liking the slight scent of her shampoo he could smell on the material, even after she’d only been wearing it a short time. It was faint, almost covered by the smell of fried food, but it was there.
“I see you work at the Alamo Diner,” Calder said inanely.
She simply stared at him.
“Right…ah…okay then. I guess I’ll see you around.” Calder stumbled over the words.
She turned to leave, towing Billy behind her as she went.
Calder waited until they were about thirty feet ahead of him, then he quietly began following. There was no way he was going to let a woman with a kid walk on the streets at this time of night and not make sure they got to where they were going safely.
The Sun Motel wasn’t far, only about five blocks. Calder stopped at the far end of the building and watched as the duo entered room ten, right in the middle of the complex. He would’ve preferred that she was next to the office, but it was probably noisier there. At least she wasn’t on the end, where the light was crappy.
Calder stood there and watched the area for five minutes before forcing himself to turn and go back to the crime scene. He hated to leave them there. Hated it. But he had no claim on Hope Drayden or her son. He’d also left the scene he was supposed to be investigating for the first time in his career. Nothing ever got between him and a case…until now. Until Hope.
New York Times Bestselling Author
Justice for Hope
Hiding from her ex is exhausting enough, but for Hope Drayden, putting her seven-year-old son through a life on the run and living on the streets has been mentally torturous. When a kind diner owner offers her a job, Hope begins to claw her way toward a new beginning for herself and Billy, one tip at a time. But since her son’s recent abduction, and with threats from her ex still fresh in her mind, she’s constantly looking over her shoulder. Then a surprising, and lucky, tip from a diner regular puts yet another target on their backs.
At the request of a friend, medical examiner Calder Stonewall has been looking for Hope and Billy for weeks. When they unexpectedly show up at the scene of a crime, his interest soon becomes personal. He’s amazed by the beautiful, brave woman and her resilient son. He’s also surprised by his growing need to take care of them both, although winning Hope’s trust won’t be easy. But when a tragedy thrusts the couple together, Calder quickly proves he’s a man Hope can rely on.
Which is a good thing…because she’ll need all his support, and love, to get through a threat they never saw coming.
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