Excerpt: Trust in Me
Book 3: Lean On Me
15 years ago
“WHERE the hell are Joe and Annie?” Margo Morelli asked as she took a long drag on a homemade joint and passed it off to Linc.
He leaned on his Harley, feet braced on the blacktop of the deserted parking lot of The Downtown Diner and took the joint from the girl who was his world. Inhaling one last stream of smoke, he crushed the butt under his foot like his stash hadn’t cost a cool hundred. “He said they’d be here at two.”
Linc’s eyes narrowed on Margo’s neck. He slid his hand inside the collar of the leather jacket he’d bought her. She had to keep it at his place—her mother would have thrown a fit if she’d known her daughter owned it. Linc wore a matching one. “When’d I do this?” he asked of the red brush burn just below her jaw.
She moved in close, her breasts straining big-time at the tight white T-shirt she sported under her coat. “Last night.” She nuzzled his chest.
His body jerked to attention, even though they’d just screwed a couple of hours ago. “Sorry.” He sounded like a freakin’ frog.
“I’m not. I like having your mark on me.” Her voice was pure sin, and at seventeen, he fell headlong into it.
“Mmm. Maybe we should ditch this plan. Go back to my room…”
Margo shook her head, sending waves of dark auburn hair everywhere. Her hazel eyes blazed with defiance. Though Linc would never tell her, sometimes she scared the shit out of him. Her urge to rebel went way beyond even his, and that was saying something. “We’re going ahead with this.” She threw back her shoulders. “Just as soon as Joe and Annie get here.”
A giggle drifted out from the woods at the end of the parking lot, and from the trees stepped Linc’s, sister, Beth, and Danny Donovan, one of his best friends. Even in the dim light, Linc could see Beth was a mess. It didn’t take Einstein to figure out what they’d been doing.
He stiffened. “Shit.”
Margo’s laugh was sultry. “You’re such a prude sometimes, Grayson.”
“They been humpin’.”
“Well, as my mother would quote from her scripture, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Margo edged in even closer and stood between his legs. She rubbed up against him, and for a minute, he was afraid he might go off like a pimply-faced kid.
“She’s my baby sister,” Linc said.
“She’s sixteen, my age. What’d you think, she’d stay chaste?”
“I don’t have to like it.”
Margo’s expression softened, making her seem young and vulnerable. “You always look out for all of us.”
“The Outlaws was my idea. I look after what’s mine.”
“Yeah, Jesse, you do.”
Though Linc started the gang, Margo had researched famous criminals and they’d all had a blast picking out role models. He was Jesse James, the leader. Margo was Ma Barker—strong, competent and utterly ruthless.
“Hi, guys,” Danny said as he and Beth approached. His hand was draped over Beth’s shoulder and there was a shit-eating grin on his face. The kid had dark hair and eyes, like Linc, but his features were more…patrician. Came from being so rich, Linc guessed.
“Hey, Clyde.” Linc eyed his sister. Tall, pretty, with the curves of a Playboy model, Beth smiled, too. “Fix yourself up, Bonnie.” Even her makeup was smeared and her clothes askew.
Danny did it for her. He straightened her shirt and wiped the black stuff from under her eyes. He always took care of Beth; it was the only thing that kept Linc sane about their relationship. In the middle of the night, ghosts haunted Linc, accusing him of corrupting his sister, his girlfriend and his best friends. He didn’t take the onus for Annie Lang, as she was a baby compared to the rest of them—a goddamned freshman and barely fourteen. Their other friend, Joe Murphy, aka Billy the Kid, had dragged little Belle Star into the gang as an honorary member.
Speak of the devil. Joe’s Harley, huge, black and more powerful than either Danny’s or Linc’s, roared into the parking lot. As always, Joe was going too fast.
When he drew near, Linc saw that he was alone. The monster machine screeched to a halt, and Joe eased off like he wasn’t about to participate in a robbery, but instead was moseying into the town’s ice-cream social.
“Ready to party?” he asked.
“Where’s Annie?” Margo asked Joe.
Joe’s face hardened. “I took her home.” He drew out a cigarette and lit it, then fished a bottle out of his pocket and uncapped the Jim Beam. After taking a swig, he offered the liquor to the others. “She won’t be part of this.”
“Why?” Margo’s belligerent tone drew a scowl from Joe.
“I don’t want her to.” His fist curled. “She’s too fuckin’ young.”
Linc started to say something, but held his tongue at the last minute. His buddy could be violent. Linc had seen Joe take apart guys in the school yard, rip rooms to shreds and mutilate his own hand in a fit of temper. Linc also had an ugly inkling, from Joe’s frequent black eye or swollen lip, that his old man—the elder Joe Murphy—had taught his son well. But the only time Linc had brought it up, Joe had gotten madder than a caged animal. So Linc had never tried to talk to him about it again.
Hell, they all had their problems. He and Beth were orphans, supposedly cared for by grandparents who didn’t know squat about what to do with teenagers who didn’t toe the line. Danny was pressured by his hoity-toity parents to cut loose from the gang; they’d also forbidden him to pursue his one true love, race car driving, the main industry of this hick New York state town. And the girl beside Linc probably had the worst of it because what had been done to Margo had been done in the name of God and religion.
If there was a God—and, funny thing, he believed there was—Linc knew in his heart He wasn’t that kind of Supreme Being.
“We gonna do this?” Margo grumbled. “Or we gonna stand here all night and chat?”
“We’re gonna do it.” Linc straightened. “I want me the dough that’s in the safe.”
He’d sweet-talked a baby-faced waitress into coughing up the information he needed about when deposits were made, the location where the money was kept overnight and any security the diner had. They were going to blow the safe.
“Everybody ready?” Linc asked, again seized by a twinge of guilt. Though they’d stolen before, they hadn’t gone after anything so big. If they got caught, they’d be in deep shit.
Which just made it all the more fun.
The Outlaws nodded.
“Let’s go.” Linc headed to the diner, his posse following him.
A half hour later, they stalked back out, pissed as hell. What a crock the waitress had given them. There’d been no money in the safe. Just as they reached their bikes, they heard sirens and saw flashing red lights.
THE jail was a pigsty, like most of the town. Though Glen Oaks housed one of the nation’s premier stock-car tracks, for as long as Linc could remember, the town had been on a downslide. Every season it was overrun by rowdy race fans who got their rocks off by tearing the streets up, landing in this stink hole and making an even bigger mess of it. The cells smelled of day-old piss and vomit, and the only light came from a grimy window where gray dawn was just peeking through. The blankets on what passed for cots were threadbare; Linc sat on one, listening to Margo swear her head off in the cell next to the boys.
“She’s in a mood,” Danny said nonchalantly. As always, he didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
“Fucking son of a bitch.”
“She swears like that when she’s nervous.”
Joe’s head snapped up. His dark hair brushed his collar and his gray eyes were cold and flat. “Why she nervous?”
“I heard the cop say her mother’s on the way.”
Danny shook his head and Joe swore. Virginia Morelli was a loony, and she was mean, too; that made her dangerous to the sixteen-year-old she controlled.
Loud voices came from the main office. Expecting their parents or guardians, the guys glanced over at the entryway. In walked Annie Lang looking tiny and fragile in a baby-pink sweatshirt and jeans. Her long blond braid was rope thick and hung down her back. “Joey?”
“Jesus Christ.” Joe bolted up from the cot. “What are you doing here?”
Annie backed up a step at his tone. “I…I had to see you were all right.”
Joe crossed to the bars. “Get over here!”
Again, Annie hesitated. Then she took baby steps to him. When she was close, Joe reached out and snagged her wrist. She startled. “Joey!”
Linc started toward Joe, but his friend dropped Annie’s arm immediately and hooked his hand around her neck. “Aw, baby, I’m sorry. But I worry about you. You shouldn’t be here.”
Annie pouted innocently. “I should have been with you.”
She whispered something to him, then he whispered back. Linc eased away and dropped down next to Danny, watching the other two talk and inch up as near as they could get.
Danny said, “They’re all right.”
“Yeah, I know. I worry about Joe, though.”
“He’s got it tough. That old man of his…”
Linc heard another commotion from the outer office. “If you don’t do as I say, I will sue your ass.”
Danny rolled his eyes. “Oh, shit, dear old dad.”
Linc shook his head. Did Danny have any idea how lucky he was to have parents that cared? None of the rest of them had that.
He revised his assessment, though, when Carl Donovan strode into the cellblock with Angus Anderson, the night cop. Donovan always played King Shit and treated everybody else like peasants.
Annie edged away, and Joe said, “Go, honey, now.” She scurried out.
Donovan’s face was mottled red. “Daniel, what’s this all about?”
Danny stood, a cool, defiant gleam in his eyes. “I didn’t do nothin’.”
Donovan took a bead on Linc and Joe. “It’s them again. They’ve corrupted you. First the gang. Then racing.”
Linc heard a moan from the next cell. Beth. The Donovans hated her with a vengeance.
“What happened, young man?”
Facing his father cockily, Danny said no more. Donovan tried staring him down, but it didn’t work. So he went for his son’s Achilles’ heel. Striding over to the next cell, he addressed Beth. “I hope you’re proud of yourself. Now you’ve turned my son into a criminal, not just a juvenile delinquent.”
“I…I’m sorry, Mr. Donovan.”
“Don’t apologize to the asshole,” Margo spat out.
Danny had gripped the bars. “Dad, don’t. Leave her alone.”
“You’re pathetic.” Donovan swept them all with a mocking glare. “You’re hoodlums, all of you. You should be shipped off to some desert island.”
So the town doesn’t have to deal with us. Linc knew the drill.
“Well, I’ve tolerated this long enough. I’ve put the wheels in motion, Daniel, to get you out of this and away from them.” He stood before his son again. “This time, you’re not staying in town. We’re sending you to that prep school in Vermont. Maybe you’ll forget all your glory dreams about racing.” He glanced toward Beth. “And about them.”
Beth gasped. Margo swore. Donovan stood back while Angus unlocked the door and Danny exited the cell. Donovan turned on his heel and stalked out, expecting his son to follow.
Instead, Danny rushed over to the other cell. “Bethy, they can’t do this. They can’t keep us apart.”
Beth started to cry. Danny talked quietly with her.
From the office, they heard an angry growl. “Daniel? Now!”
After a few more murmured words to Beth, Danny left.
The Donovans weren’t gone five minutes when Virginia Morelli marched in with two of the Fearsome Fanatics, as he and Margo had dubbed the members of her religious commune, Holy Waters. “Mary Margaret Morelli, shame on you.” Her mother stood before the cells, tall, bulky, with frizzy hair and glazed eyes. Linc crossed to the bars so he could see and hear more.
Margo said nothing. For all her piss and vigor, her mother could shut her up with a stare.
“The good Lord is crying, I’ll tell you. Right, Sister Susan?”
“Right, Sister Virginia.” Her companion was equally as hefty and dressed in the same drab green dress which was the garb of the whole fucking commune.
Virginia Morelli took a step toward the bars. “And what’s that you have on?”
“The devil’s clothes.” Margo must still be wearing her leather jacket. “Hand it over to me.”
There was a rustling, then Linc watched her cherished coat drop into the hands of her crazed mother. Virginia tossed it off to her cohort. “Burn it, Sister Susan.”
Angus came back in. Virginia faced him. “Unlock her. Holy Waters posted bail and assumes responsibility for this sinner.”
“Well, the juvy people might have something to say about what she done,” Angus murmured. “But you can take her now.”
The jangle of keys. The scrape of steel. Margo stepped out into Linc’s vision. Her shoulders seemed slight in the T-shirt, and every single one of her pretty features were tight. “On your knees, sinner,” Virginia Morelli said. “On your knees in front of your friends.”
Margo snagged Linc’s gaze. He lurched into the bars, ready to tear them apart.
Joe came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Easy, buddy. You know you’ll only make it worse if good old Mama notices you.”
“On your knees, I said.”
With Sister Susan and Sister Teresa each pressing on a slender shoulder, Margo sank to the floor.
“Ask God’s forgiveness.”
Margo raised her chin but said nothing.
“Ask his forgiveness.”
A loud crack—flesh against flesh. Margo swayed backward like a small sapling blasted by February wind, but kept her balance.
Virginia stepped away. Sister Susan took her place. Then Sister Teresa. Smack. Smack. Still Margo was silent, but angry red welts were already forming on her face.
Angus intervened. “That’s enough.”
“Don’t worry, Sister Virginia,” one of the others said, “we’ll take her home and discipline her properly.”
“The hell you will.” Linc’s hands curled around cold, unyielding steel. He screamed at Angus, “Do something about this!”
Angus shook his head. “Should’ve thought about that before you tried to pull off a felony, Grayson.”
Like a vulture sensing meat, Virginia Morelli strode up to Linc. There was a wildness in her eyes that made him shrink back. “You will never have her.”
“Oh, yes I will. I’m going to take her away from you, far away from this town, and we’re never coming back.”
The words echoed ominously as the three “sisters” literally dragged Margo out of the jail. Rage, pure and simple, coursed through Linc, and he pounded the bars till his hands started to bleed.
Joe tried to soothe him. “There’s nothing you can do, buddy. Nothing any of us can do.” His tone was full of despair; they’d had a shit load of conversations about the future. Whereas Linc and Margo were bound and determined to escape the town, Joe saw himself literally rotting here. What made it worse was that his friend was the smartest guy Linc knew, though everybody only saw the hoodlum.
Beth was the one to knock sense into Linc. “Please, Linc, we’re in real trouble.”
And then, as if summoned by the words real trouble, Joe Murphy Senior stumbled into the jail. Crossing to Angus, he grabbed the keys, unlocked the cell door, and stepped inside. A cloud of stale whiskey and cigarettes accompanied him. Joe straightened, and for the first time, Linc spotted a glimmer of hope on his face. “You getting me out, Pa?”
“Like hell.” The man raised his fist and rammed it into Joe’s jaw. Joe staggered backward and hit the cot, then the wall, then he went down. Murphy walked out of the cell, weaving, and threw the keys to Angus. “Let him rot in here for all I care. Don’t let none of those do-gooders get him out. Ya hear?”
Even Angus looked disgusted. Murphy left, and Linc looked at Joe. His friend’s lip was split and his eyes were murderous. Linc bent down, and Joe said, “Don’t.” He seemed embarrassed. “I’m all right.”
Linc had never heard more false words.
MID–AFTERNOON, Linc and Beth and Joe were still behind bars when they heard voices in the office again. Had Linc’s grandparents finally come for them? Instead, Tony Scarpino, The Downtown Diner owner, shuffled in. Linc had seen the guy in the diner, and around town. Middle aged, with no kids, he was small and wiry and had a quick smile for everybody. Guilt, thick and ugly, assaulted Linc. He wished he could do all the bad things he routinely did and not feel so bummed about it.
“So,” Scarpino said, coming right up to Linc. “I understand you’re the leader of this little excursion.”
“Yeah, I am.” Bravado fell easily from his lips.
“Got your sister involved, too, huh?”
That stole his thunder. Linc’s shoulders sagged.
“The town don’t do much for you guys.” Scarpino threw a disgusted look at Angus. “Kids need help staying on the straight and narrow.”
Linc wanted to say they didn’t need the town…but they did; he kept seeing Margo slapped up by the commune people and Joe’s father using him as a punching bag. Somebody should do something about that. If Linc was in charge, he’d help kids like him.
“Your parents died a bit ago, didn’t they, Linc?”
Scarpino studied him. “Them grandparents of yours? Where are they?”
“Nobody called them?”
“Yeah, I did,” Angus put in. “Said they didn’t feel good enough to come down here this morning.”
Sighing, Scarpino shook his head, a wealth of meaning in the gesture. “I got me a proposition, Linc. Listen up. I’m gonna get you out of here. And you’re gonna make amends. You’re gonna work at my diner, report to me and keep your nose clean. If you do, I won’t press charges for breaking and entering. You didn’t get no money, anyway.”
“Go to hell,” Linc said, unable, unwilling, to accept charity.
Then he heard Beth start to cry. Aw, shit. “Please, Linc, let’s do this. I’m really scared.”
Linc expelled a weary breath. His tough-guy instincts warred with his brotherly concern. And, to be honest, he was wrecked most of the time, being responsible for everything. Sometimes, he wished an adult would take him in hand. He thought about his girl; if he did this stupid stuff with Scarpino, he’d be able to get Margo out of town quicker. He had another year of school left, she had two. If they could just finish…
He heard a rustle behind him. Joe was restless on the cot. Linc said, “Murphy, too?”
Scarpino shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
“No can do.” Angus sounded sorry. “His father said nobody’s to bail him out for a while. Legal guardians have say.”
Linc faced Joe. His friend’s expression was so damn bleak it broke Linc’s heart. “Do it,” Joe said. “I’ll be all right.”
“I won’t leave you hangin’.”
“You got to.”
“Go, Linc. You got a chance.” The unspoken And I don’t hung heavily in the air.
Torn, Linc nonetheless nodded. He turned to Scarpino. “All right.”
Angus unlocked Beth first; her face was streaked with tears. Then the jailer opened Linc’s cell.
Beth flew into his arms, and he held onto her. “Oh, Linc.”
“Shh. It’ll be all right.” He’d never lied worse in his life. As he looked back at his friend, sitting on the ragged cot in the dismal jail cell of Glen Oaks, his face swollen from his father’s fist, Linc knew in his heart things wouldn’t be all right for any of them.
He also knew that it was mostly his fault. And he’d have to live with that forever.
15 years later
THE silver Jag sat low and sleek, hugging the curb in front of Zip’s Bar and Grill. Ron Donovan’s eyes narrowed on it, then glanced up the street to his mother’s place, The Downtown Diner. At midnight, the storefront was dark. She’d split for home hours before, but he could still see her disappointed face, hear her fed-up tone and angry words. No more hanging out with those guys, Ronny. I mean it.
He kicked one of the rocks at his feet; it flew off the cement sidewalk into the road. Taking a drag on his Marlboro, he blew the smoke out in tiny little rings; the familiar tobacco scent calmed him. As he watched the puffs disappear into the March darkness, he remembered another night ten years before. The night his father, Danny Donovan—way cool dad, stellar husband and up-and-coming race car driver—had been killed.
His mother hadn’t been yelling at him then. Instead she’d crept into his room and sank onto the edge of his bed where he lay, facedown. She’d gently turned him over, dried his freakin’ baby tears with the sleeve of her pajamas and cuddled him to her chest for a hug. Then she gave him the hot chocolate she always fixed when things were tough. As he drank, she whispered, You got me, buddy. We’ll be okay, I promise.
Because the words stung like a son of a bitch—they’d been anything but okay thanks to Ron himself—and because the memory was an emotional knife twisting in his gut, he ground the cigarette under his boot, yanked up the leg of his jeans, and slid out the blade he’d bought in the city at Violence, Inc. His buddy Loose had introduced him to the seedy little shop in the Village. The metal was cold against Ron’s fingers—cold, slick and potent.
The heavy feel of the weapon gave him courage; he stalked across the street toward the hotshot car just begging for his attention. The goddamned window was down, and its rich, expensive exterior was wide open—tempting a saint. Familiar fury built with each step Ron took; by the time he reached the car, a red haze of rage was ready to eat him alive.
Memories of his grandmother’s scrapbooks fueled his anger. In them were pictures of his dad, not tall but muscular as hell, in his NASCAR helmet and racing suit. His mother’s dark hair had flowed down to her waist then, her big brown eyes twinkling at the camera. Wrapped up in his dad’s arm, she looked happier than Ron ever remembered seeing her. There were corny snapshots of him and his dad together, too. When Ron looked at them, sometimes he could still feel the heavy weight of his father’s arms hugging him tight. Ron was the spitting image of his dad, Grandpa Carl always said, right down to the curly brown hair, stubborn chin and dark eyes.
Cursing the bastard who’d ruined it all, Ron jerked the knife up to hover over the Jag. Cocky and self-assured, that’s how the guy had been described in the newspapers—Tucker Quaid, aka The Menace, owner of this little baby and three-time Winston Cup champ. So sure of his dick-brained self that he left his car unlocked and the windows down. So sure of himself that he’d dare come back to Glen Oaks all these years later.
Emotion clawed to get out of Ron. When it did, he cut the knife through the air. The sharp blade ripped the convertible top, meeting some resistance, but Ron got the job done. The soft gray leather of the driver’s seat with its rich new-car smell was an easier mark, the knife’s slice as smooth as a boat’s hull cutting through water. Ron only had to lean over to tear up the passenger side. Then, he squatted down and dug into the tire at his left. He stole around the car and made quick work of each one.
With each righteous stroke of the blade, some of the haze lifted. Some of the defiance faded away. When he was done and surveyed the torn leather and shredded tires before him, he almost couldn’t remember making the dozens of cuts. Straightening, he went to stuff the knife in his boot when an arm like wood locked around his neck; fingers like steel encircled his wrist. His weapon clattered to the pavement with a rickety thud. Ron was slammed back against a rock-hard chest.
“Damn fool kid,” the guy who cornered him barked out. “What the hell makes you think you can get away with this?”
Ron had heard that sissy Southern drawl on TV; he knew whose voice it was. If he circled around, he’d see the big rangy body, the cropped blond hair and the cold green eyes of Tucker Quaid.
The man who’d killed Ron’s father.
TUCKER Quaid prowled the police station waiting area, a stark twelve-by-twelve room smelling of stale coffee and furnished with sticky orange vinyl chairs. He was more keyed up than he used to get before a big race. With each step, he cursed a blue streak.
He should’ve known that coming back to Glen Oaks would be bad news all around. But shit, he hadn’t planned on this. He’d been poleaxed when he’d learned the snot-nosed brat who’d slashed his Jag was Danny Donovan’s son. Tucker had jerked the knife out of the boy’s hand, smashed him facedown on the hood, then pinned the kid there with his knee and chest. He’d whipped out his cell phone and punched in 911, only to hear, upon the arrival of a Lieutenant Pratt, who the vandal was. Damn it to hell. Couldn’t anything go right with this friggin’ family?
Drawing a cup of coffee, he sipped the brew, wincing at its bitterness, scowling down at the scarred wood floor. As always, the guilt came, as clear and cold as a mountain lake—and just as sobering. Searching hard for his alter ego, The Menace, Tucker tried to block the images. But the kid looked so damn much like his daddy that the memories were impossible to backstop.
This time Tucker was bombarded by one of the zillion headlines from the newspapers. Big, bold, accusing letters declared, Menace’s controversial blocking takes life of young driver NASCAR investigation to follow.
Remorse had dogged Tucker like a rabid fan as he followed the racing circuit and climbed the slippery ladder of success until his own crash three years before had left him with a bum knee and no desire to race again.
Yeah, hotshot, what’re you doing here, then?
Tucker sighed. Good question.
Before he could answer it, the door to the waiting area flew open and people hustled in. Aw, shit! It had to happen someday, since he was back in town, but he hadn’t expected it so soon, or when he was so raw, or when he’d had a couple of bourbons under his belt to lower his defenses. He tried to marshal them fast.
Danny Donovan’s widow, and the guy with her, froze just inside the room. At a loss for words, Tucker simply stared at them, feeling like a Class-A bastard.
Breaking the freeze-frame first, the man approached him. To Tucker’s surprise, he held out his hand. “I’m Linc Grayson, Mr. Quaid. Ronny’s uncle. We’re sorry about this.”
Uncle. Grayson. He had to be Beth Donovan’s brother, then. Though Tucker hadn’t ever talked to her personally, he knew something about her family. “I reckon I’m sorry, too,” he said as he shook Grayson’s hand. Tucker tried to stifle the shame and stigma of his actions of ten years before, but they surfaced like topped-off gasoline when he stared over Linc Grayson’s shoulder into the rounded eyes and troubled face of the man’s sister. It about tore him up all over again.
Dressed casually in jeans, a red sweatshirt and a windbreaker, she’d changed in the ten years since he’d last seen pictures of the grieving widow, as the papers had played it out. She’d been in her twenties then, with long dark hair and smooth, clear skin. No worry lines had marred her brow. No creases had framed her mouth. The wear and tear of raising a son alone, supporting herself, and dealing with her childhood sweetheart’s death had taken its toll on her. Though there was a womanliness about her now that could make a guy ache deep in his gut, she’d aged. And toughened up.
In a rusty voice, he mumbled, “Mrs. Donovan. I’m sorry.” Inadequate words. Goddamn it, he’d waxed eloquent in interviews after winning at Daytona and Darlington, but he was as tongue tied as a teenager on his first date in front of these two strangers.
She crossed the room, tall and graceful, and smiled sadly at him. Close up, her brown-as-chestnut eyes were bloodshot and a little puffy, like she’d been crying. Free of any cosmetics, her skin was spattered with freckles. “No, Mr. Quaid, I’m sorry. For what Ronny did.”
Honesty made him say, “Understandable.”
“Unacceptable,” she answered. “He had no right…”
Tucker held her gaze, dumbstruck by what he saw there. No blame, no bitterness that he’d ruined her life. There was only cold acceptance.
Grayson broke the tense stare-off. “Shall we sit?”
Crumpling up his cup and tossing it into a rank-smelling trash can, Tucker dropped into a chair.
“Want some coffee, Bethy?” Grayson asked.
Beth Donovan nodded. “I think we’ll be here awhile.”
Her brother had poured her a cup and one for himself, when the door to the holding room opened. The muscle-bound lieutenant with a jaw made of stone nodded to Beth. “Good, you’re here, Beth.” He glanced at her brother. “Reverend.”
Surprise ambushed Tucker and he blurted out, “Reverend?”He studied the man, seeing a boxer, or even a construction worker, in the solid wiry form that sported jeans, a flannel shirt and a quilted vest. His face was stubbled with a growth of beard, and his dark hair brushed his collar; he didn’t look like any minister Tucker had ever seen.
Despite the circumstances, all three people smiled, even the stand-at-attention lieutenant. “A common reaction,” Grayson said. “I don’t look the type.”
“It’s ’cause you’re not,” Beth told him affectionately. This, at least, brought a sparkle to her eyes.
Lieutenant Pratt quelled another smile and nodded. “I’m glad you’re here, in any case. Ronny’s more surly than usual.”
Beth drew in an anxious breath. Linc reached for her hand and pulled her up. “We’ll deal with this, honey. Let’s go in.”
“You, too, Mr. Quaid.” The cold reserve of the lieutenant made the Graysons appear downright cozy with him. Doc had warned him that even though the town council had literally begged Tucker to come to Glen Oaks, some people would treat him like a leper.
Which was just fine with him. He’d lived the last ten years in an emotional wasteland, and he planned to keep it that way. Especially while he was in Glen Oaks.
The holding room was smaller than the waiting area. The air bore the faint scent of sweat. Straight-back chairs were pushed up to an old wooden table; one seat was already occupied by the young man of the hour—knees spread, head bent, hands linked together. When they entered, the boy looked up. Tucker expected the insolence Pratt had mentioned and which he’d seen earlier. Instead, when Ron Donovan’s eyes landed on his mother, there was only sadness in them. He said nothing, though, just stared at her.
Linc spoke first. “You okay, buddy?”
Transferring his gaze to his uncle, the boy nodded.
After a moment, Beth crossed to her son and squeezed his shoulder. She bent down and whispered something to him, making his head droop lower. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Gently she kissed his hair.
Averting his gaze, Tucker took in the white walls covered with WANTED posters, the overhead fluorescent lighting and a phone on the square table; he looked anywhere but at mother and son.
Beth asked the lieutenant, “What’s going to happen now, Mike?”
Small towns. Tucker had forgotten what they were like. He’d buried all memories of the backwater village in South Carolina where he’d grown up almost as deep as he’d buried his recollection of that life-altering day here in Glen Oaks ten years before.
Pratt dropped his file on the table and indicated they should sit. When all five were settled, the officer said, “He’s had his last chance, Beth, you know that. When he ripped off those boots.” The cop’s gaze hardened. “And his grandparents aren’t going to pull strings this time, like they did before.”
“I know.” She stared at her son, but again not like he was some alien creature, whose behavior was foreign to her. It was as if she understood him. Felt bad for him. Tucker didn’t get it.
“But that was a year ago.” This from Uncle Linc. “He’s been straight since then.”
“I realize that.” Pratt shot a quick glance at Tucker. “But I also know he’s been in trouble at school since the end of February.”
When The Menace had returned to Glen Oaks. The cause of the boy’s backsliding was obvious. Tucker wanted to squirm on the hard chair like a kid in the principal’s office, but forced himself to sit still. Nobody spoke.
Then Pratt focused in on the mother. “I’m going to arrest him for this, Beth.”
Her little gasp knifed Tucker low in the belly.
“He just turned seventeen.” Her voice was close to a whisper. “He’ll have a record as an adult if you do that.”
Blowing out a frustrated breath, the officer shook his head. “He knew all this, didn’t you, Ron?”
The boy ran his finger over one of the scars in the table. “I knew.”
“You want to go to jail, Ronny?” Linc asked.
His gaze still lowered, Ron shook his head.
“Then why’d you do this?”
The boy’s head came up fast, and this time his face was surly; he looked loaded for bear.
Grayson told him, “It’s gotta come out, Ron. You gotta see it.”
“I see it.” He spat out the words.
The minister surfaced from inside the uncle. “You’re having trouble with Mr. Quaid’s return to Glen Oaks, aren’t you?”
“I don’t give a shit about Mr. Quaid.”
“I wish you wouldn’t swear in front of your mother, bud.”
Ron actually bit his lip. “Sorry.”
Man, this whole thing was out of kilter, Tucker thought. The kid had just committed a crime, and they were on him about swearing. But it wasn’t just that. There was no animosity among the three of them.
“Look, I did this,” Ron admitted. “I gotta pay.”
“You don’t know what you’re in for, honey,” Beth said with surprising strength. “There’ll be a heavy penalty this time.”
The grim resignation in her voice moved Tucker to action. “What if I don’t press charges?” he asked, unplanned, and maybe unwisely.
Four heads snapped around to look at him.
Bitter hate flared from the boy’s eyes. “Don’t do me any favors.”
Pratt scowled. “It isn’t that easy, Mr. Quaid. He committed a crime. The damage was thousands of dollars. I can’t let it go.”
“Why would you want to, Mr. Quaid?” Beth asked. “He destroyed your car.”
Tucker was stunned by the question. “How can you ask that?”
A kaleidoscope of feelings bounced crazily around them, rearranging the emotional landscape too fast to follow. Tucker scraped back his chair, the sound loud in the suddenly quiet room. “Obviously my comin’ here has brought on a fall from grace in the boy.”
The reverend gave a wry grin. “From grace is a pretty big stretch, but you’ve got the gist of it.”
“Look, I don’t condone what he did. But there seem to be extenuatin’ circumstances.”
“That’s an excuse,” Pratt said, shaking his head. “I won’t let him off scot-free.”
Linc’s eyes narrowed. “How about having the Council make a recommendation to the court?”
“The what?” Tucker asked.
“The Community Youth Council. An organization comprised of the police, the school, a community representative, the Social Service agency in town and a member of the clergy.” Linc smiled sadly. “Glen Oaks has a long-standing problem with the youth of this town. It has something to do with the influence of the race track and our proximity to New York City. We’ve established a council to set up programs to keep the kids straight, and our own kind of lay court to deal with minor transgressions. We also make recommendations to the judge.”
“This crime is more than minor,” the lieutenant put in.
“But the circumstances are unusual. And since Mr. Quaid has indicated an understanding, maybe this is the best route to go.”
“I don’t like it.” Pratt’s face was implacable.
“You’ve been pleased with Ronny’s turnaround this last year.”
“At least let the committee meet. You’re on the Council. You know we don’t let the kids off scot-free, Mike.”
Pratt jangled the keys attached to his belt loop and stared at the floor thoughtfully. “All right. Try to call it for Friday night.” He faced Tucker. “You think about this, Mr. Quaid.”
“Sure.” Tucker had no intention whatsoever of thinking about whether or not he was gonna hurt this family again.
Glancing at the clock, Pratt stood. “Take him home, Beth.” He zeroed in on Ron. “It’s not over, kid.”
Ron stared sullenly at him. Everyone rose.
Beth said, “Linc, take Ronny out to the car, will you? I’d like to talk to Mr. Quaid for a minute.”
Her brother gave her a sideways glance, and her son glared at her.
“Stay here.” Pratt headed for the door with Linc and Ron. “I’ll walk you two out.”
Tucker’s heartbeat speeded up like he was about to circle around a hairpin turn. His palms began to sweat. He’d been staying out at the lake with Doc and avoided this woman since he’d come back to Glen Oaks three weeks before; he’d planned to keep his distance for the six months he’d be here.
They were alone all too soon.
Tucker swallowed hard and faced her.
Huge brown eyes stared up at him. Again he was surprised there was no anger in them, no blame. Having grown up with animosity as a daily diet, Tucker didn’t know how to digest Beth Donovan’s attitude at all.
“WHAT’D you wanna talk to me about, Mrs. Donovan?” As in the pictures she’d seen of him, before and after the accident, Beth noted how hard Tucker Quaid’s face was. His jaw was granite-edged, his mouth stem and unsmiling. But she knew a living, breathing man suffered inside the expensive leather jacket and tailored pants and shirt he wore. In the weeks following the crash, a few of the photos had captured a tortured look on his face. There’d also been the letter he’d written her, full of remorse. He’d offered financial assistance, which she’d of course declined.
Setting her purse down on the table, she straightened her shoulders and stuck her hands into the pockets of her nylon jacket. If nothing else since Danny’s death, she’d gotten tougher. “I wanted to thank you for what you’re doing for Ronny.”
A quick glint of something—annoyance, or maybe just guilt—flickered in his green eyes. Right now they were hard and flat, the color of jade. “It’s the least I can do.”
“Many people wouldn’t.”
His gaze slipped from her to the WANTED posters on the wall. His sigh was evident in the movement of his shoulders.
“I just want you to know I appreciate it.” When he didn’t respond, she added, “And the whole town appreciates your coming back to help us out.”
“Why are you here?”
He faced her, almost against his will. The stoic mask was in place, though his light complexion was flushed. Rotely, as if he were reading from one of the publicity flyers, he said, “I’m here at the request of the town council to help revive the economy of Glen Oaks. My reputation as a driver, along with Doc Holt’s as my former crew chief, has attracted the best NASCAR drivers in the world for an exhibition race in September. My comin’ out of retirement, and the new car Doc’s workin’ on, are the lure—along with the track’s refurbishment. Your town’s hoping to recapture its status as one of the finest raceways in the world.”
Patiently, she stared at him, waiting for a real answer.
The mask slipped. Digging his hands in his trouser pockets, he said in low, gravelly tones, “I owe you. I owe this town.” His voice cracked on the admission.
“No, Mr. Quaid, you don’t.”
“Tell me that boy out there didn’t get into trouble because he lost his daddy. Tell me he didn’t backslide because I came back to town.”
“Ronny’s issues aren’t your fault.”
“Of course they are.”
Wide-eyed, Beth cocked her head. “Is this how you’ve felt for ten years?”
A muscle leapt in his throat. “More or less.”
She gave him a small smile. “Then maybe that’s why God sent you back here.”
“God had nothin’ to do with my comin’ back.”
“You’re here to pay a debt you don’t owe, Mr. Quaid. It’s not your fault Danny died.”
“My car played chicken with your husband’s for ten laps before his skidded off the track, causin’ it to flip twice and crash into a stone wall. Everybody said my blockin’ was too aggressive.” His mouth thinned. “There was even an investigation.”
The stark words resurrected a vivid image. For a minute, she relived the scene she’d watched from the stands: the high-pitched screech of the tires, the shattered glass, the thud of Danny’s car crashing into the concrete wall. Ten years had blurred the memory, but sometimes it still had the power to shake her. In a hoarse voice, she told him, “The NASCAR sanctioning body declared the collision an accident of indeterminate cause.” She frowned. “Auto racing is a dangerous sport. Everyone out there is at risk. It’s why I don’t want Ronny involved.”
The man’s face clouded with naked emotion. “Your son wants to race?”
“Yes. But he won’t. Not just for me, for his grandparents. Julia and Carl are horrified at the thought, just like they were about Danny. They have a fit when Ron even goes to the races held at the track now.”
“He should do something else. It’s a tough life.”
Beth remembered Danny’s high every time he climbed out of the car. His unshakable belief that he was going to be the best. His refusal to even listen when she expressed the concern every person who loves a driver feels when he gets into a race car. “I know. I don’t want that life for my son. He’s good in art; I wish he’d pursue that. I need to keep him on the straight and narrow.”
“A parent can only do so much.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong about that, Mr. Quaid. A parent can save a child’s life.”
“Or destroy it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothin’. Look, for the record, I don’t want any thanks for this. As I said, it’s the least I can do.” He looked away. “Besides it was a good excuse to spend some time with Doc after his heart problems.”
“I heard about that. How’s he doing?”
“Fine. Ornery as ever.”
She crossed to him; Tucker Quaid was unusually tall for a driver, and she had to look up at him. This close she could smell some woodsy scent on him. “Well, for the record, I don’t blame you for Danny’s death; if it makes a difference, I wish you wouldn’t blame yourself.” She reached out and squeezed his arm; he looked like she’d given him a gift. “Anyway, I appreciate your wanting to keep Ronny out of jail. I’ll see you at the Council meeting.”
“You’ll have to go when the case is presented.”
“Can’t I just send a statement?”
“I’m not sure. They’ll want to talk to you, I’d guess.”
He seemed resigned to that. She wished she could help, but she had a hundred and sixty pounds of trouble waiting for her outside that door. Right now her son needed her.
And truthfully, she was shocked to realize she wanted to help this man. Though her own past, and having a minister as a brother, had helped her to forgive Tucker Quaid, she’d never envisioned feeling sorry for him.
With that strange emotion in her heart, Beth turned to leave the police station. The door creaked as she opened it.
His words stopped her. “Mrs. Donovan?”
Circling around, she faced him. “Yes?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“There’s somethin’ different about your relationship with the boy. I can tell you’re as mad as a hornet at him. But there’s no animosity there. It’s as if you understand him.”
She smiled serenely. “I do understand him. I know exactly where he’s coming from.”
“Because, Mr. Quaid, by the time I was Ronny’s age, I’d done a lot worse things than steal some boots or slash up a car.”