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First pages

Chapter One

Thursday, Swain County, North Carolina, June, 2026

 

A security guard. Zoe lowered her binoculars. Bouncing donkey balls. Since when did the Higher Education Life Potential School hire a security guard? So much for breaking into the building with no hassle.

She raised the binoculars again and studied the man patrolling the grounds. Though too far away to see his face clearly, the floodlights illuminated his body. In his thirties probably, her age. Not overweight, held his head high as he walked, moving sure and steady, like a cheetah prowling his territory.

He stopped, looked around, right up at her position on the hillside. Zoe shrank further into the shrub where she hid, branches scratching her scalp and tangling in her hair. Ignoring them, she kept watching. He couldn’t see her up here; no way. She’d been quiet as a librarian, so he couldn’t hear her either. She was too far away to be detected.

Why didn’t he move? He kept looking her way. He wouldn’t stay in this corner of the property all night, would he? No, there, back to walking, around the corner. Perfect. She tucked the compact field glasses into the fanny pack around her waist. She’d wait a few minutes and track him, see when he returned to this spot. He probably had a set route he patrolled.

But maybe not. What if he returned, parked his butt right where she needed to be, and settled in for the night? Best to go now, while she had the chance. Gripping the bolt cutters she’d bought with the last dollars of her tip money, Zoe slipped from her hiding spot, crouched low, and ran down the hill. Close to the property, she tiptoed the few yards to the chain-link fence. A few snips and she had a hole big enough to slide through.

A leg in, her shoulder, arm … she hissed as the sharp metal of the fence gashed her hand but forged ahead. This was the hard part. Entering the school would be a snap. The latch on the window of the women’s restroom near the faculty lounge had probably not been fixed since Zoe’s abrupt departure from the school. A good push and the window would give.

Staying in the shadows, Zoe ran across the campus of H.E.L.P, the unfortunate acronym of the school’s name. Fancy word, campus. Some of her coworkers liked to use it. There were only two buildings on the property now, the school itself and an admin building. The rest of the compound consisted of a playground, a baseball field and a parking lot, with a fence surrounding the whole complex.

Construction equipment and material filled a corner, ready to start work on the new wing. That must be the reason for a night security guard. Preparation for the project had begun before she’d been suspended; now it appeared to be in full swing.

Zoe gazed around. Though she’d only been gone two months, and June would be summer vacation anyway, she missed the place. A lump formed in Zoe’s throat. She loved her job as an art teacher at H.E.L.P. One day last spring, she’d taken her students to the very hill she’d just climbed down, and they lay on their backs and found animal shapes in the clouds. Fun times, and she’d do everything in her power to make sure there were more sky-gazing days in her future.

All she had to do was get inside, get the file she needed. Then she could get her job back and get her life in order.

But most important, the information in that file would stop an evil man from attacking another victim, as he’d done to her seven months ago in November.

Don’t think about that now. Focus. Pressing her shoulders against the building under the window, Zoe took a deep breath and chanted her mantra. I am brave like the badger and twice as fierce.

After the shit hit the fan in the Secure States of America six years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina performed special healing ceremonies and allowed visitors to attend. People were encouraged to discover their spirit guide, and Zoe picked the Honey Badger, considered “The World’s Most Fearless Creature” by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Fearless. Be fearless now. Turning, she stood on her tiptoes, reached up and shoved the window. Just as she suspected, it opened easily. Grab the ledge, pull herself up …

“Stop right there. Out of that window.”

Shit. Zoe dropped to the ground into a crouch and turned toward the voice. How did that guard sneak up on her? A light hit her face and she raised her hand to block it.

“Stand up.”

She did, keeping her hand over her eyes.

“What are you doing on this property?”

Double shit. The guy sounded pissed.

“I’m a teacher. I forgot paperwork, drove all the way here, and left my keys at home. I need to get into the building for a minute. I’ll show you my badge. Want to move that light out of my eyes?”

He lowered the beam, and she pulled a plastic badge from her pocket.

Not hers. Last semester she’d volunteered to assist the human resources specialist, and part of her job had been to order badges. One of the teachers had a divorce name change, and Zoe had shoved the woman’s old badge into a drawer. When the principal put her on “indefinite leave” in April, she’d dumped the contents of her desk into a box.

Sorting through the box several nights ago, instinct told her to bring the ID along on this mission.

Security Guy studied the plastic square, flashing his light in her face again to see if the photo matched. She caught a glimpse of his face and did a quick perusal of his body. Like she guessed, mid- to late thirties. Five o’clock shadow, dark hair. Tall, filled out his uniform well.

“This doesn’t look like you. How did you get in here?” he demanded.

“Through the front gate.”

“It’s locked.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is. I just checked.”

“You better check again. I’ll wait here.”

“Uh-uh. Come with me.” He crooked his finger.

Crap. Her lie about the gate was spur-of-the-moment improv. She hadn’t thought she’d need an escape strategy, other than her slip-out-the-same-way-she’d-come-in plan. The only reason she’d brought the fake ID was if a custodial worker caught her in the building and questioned her presence.

Security Guy wasn’t about to let her go without a better explanation. Which she didn’t have. She swayed like she was about to fall, and when he reached for her, she stomped on his foot with strength born from fear, then rammed her knee into his groin.

“Mother fuck.” He dropped to the ground on his knees.

Pushing her short legs faster than she ever thought they’d move, Zoe ran for the fence.

“Get back here!”

Not a chance in hell. Zoe kept running and suddenly stumbled, landing on her hands and knees. She looked to see what tripped her, but there was nothing in sight. She tried to rise again but it was like someone tugged on her pants legs. WTF? With a heave, she pulled herself up and kept moving.

Just a little farther. Where was that hole? There. She squeezed through, scraping the opposite hand this time but not stopping. Grabbing the bolt cutters from where she’d laid them on the ground, she raced past the shrubs, across the grass and onto the side street, not stopping until she saw her car, parked two blocks away in the dark lot of a closed gas station. Still moving, she pulled the clicker from her pocket and tapped frantically, wrenched the car door open and fell inside.

Move. Fast. She dropped the keys, hit her head on the steering wheel when she bent to pick them up. Come on, clumsy, let’s go.

Fumbling, she jammed the keys into the ignition, started the car and took off.

****

Inside her house, Zoe locked the front door, leaned her back against it and slid to the floor. Holy crap, that was close. And futile. She didn’t make it inside. Tears of frustration poked the back of her eyes. It had been such a simple plan. Get into the admin office, pull up the list of conference vendors from Brenda’s computer and get out. Easy.

Damn security guard. There was likely going to be one on the property every night now, with construction going on. Maybe she could wander into the building during the day. Find out when the custodian came to clean, if there was one in June. Act like she belonged, use that same ID, hope whoever was there had bad eyesight and didn’t look at the badge too closely.

Zoe glanced at the Humane Society calendar on her wall and her heart sank. Only nine days until the Summer Teachers’ Workshop. She had to find Shitwad.

She’d given her attacker the name which stood for Stupid Hyena Is Through With All Damage. Hyenas were aggressive animals, scavengers. Zoe assigned him this animal because anyone who molested an unwilling woman was a low-life predator.

And if she didn’t find this predator soon, he would strike again at the biannual conference, she knew. Attack another woman, put someone else through the agony she’d endured the past six months since he’d assaulted her. She had to stop him.

Last November, Zoe had attended a teacher’s conference. A man attacked her, but he also drugged her so she couldn’t remember his face. It had to be one of the vendors, and if she could get the list of names of every person who was with each vendor company, she could get online and figure out who Shitwad was. That list was in the school, where she’d almost gained entry. Almost.

The sound of her phone ringing made her yelp out loud. Damn. Did she leave the ringer on during her break-and-enter? Stupid and careless. The caller ID showed her mother’s number and smiling face. Great. Just what this evening needed. A dose of Melissa. Zoe wanted to settle her nerves with silence and a glass of wine, but if she didn’t answer, Melissa would leave a long message and call back in five minutes. Repeatedly.

Zoe swiped the phone. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, sweetie. You will never guess where I went yesterday.”

“No, I probably won’t, so why don’t you just tell me?”

“Well, you don’t need to be snippy.”

Zoe leaned her head back and closed her eyes. No, she didn’t. “Sorry. Tell me where you went.”

Melissa loved to travel. Since The Annihilation, citizens of the Secure States of America were able to ride super-fast shuttles and airplanes all over the country. But only in their country. An electronic shield covered the States, keeping Americans inside and everyone else out.

In 2020, a group, never identified or caught, deposited a substance containing the Malik virus into the United States’ water supply, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans and leaving masses more brain-damaged.

Two classes of people now occupied the country. Damaged Citizens, or DCs, lived among the rest of the population of Unchanged Citizens, or UCs. The travel restriction was put in place to contain the virus, or so the government said. Deliveries in and out of the country were done by high-power drones and autopilot ships and planes, and only select people got to pass through the shield and exit the states.

Life changed, and anyone who wanted to survive adapted the best they could. One way the government pacified the citizens was to implement EzRide shuttle busses and EzFly airplanes. Both modes of transportation were free, fast, and easy to use.

Melissa took full advantage of the ability to move around the country and would gather her friends and depart her Indianapolis home for trips all over. Since she loved plants and flowers, they visited botanical gardens, greenhouses, went on garden tours, and did anything and everything related to flora.

“I went to a bonsai display in Minneapolis. Magnificent! You would not believe how people can grow those tiny trees. I’ll send you pictures.”

“Sounds like fun.” Zoe pulled herself off the floor and flipped open her laptop. Melissa would talk nonstop for at least ten minutes, and Zoe could use that time to half-listen and clean out her email inbox.

Scrolling through the messages, her heart skipped a beat. A note from the court. She clicked it open and read it once, then again. A lot of legal jargon she didn’t understand, but one sentence she did.

When you’re near to completing your anger control program, you must retain the service of an attorney before the court can further process your case.

An attorney? Zoe clenched her fist. Those government assholes, expecting her to pay for a lawyer. Where was she supposed to get that kind of money?

Chill. Control that temper. She pulled in a breath. Getting pissed and involved in a stupid road rage incident was why she was suspended and locked out of H.E.L.P. Why she couldn’t retrieve that list she desperately needed. She had to complete an anger control program before the school would consider allowing her to return to teaching, and the judge had told her she might need counsel, Zoe remembered.

If you are unable to afford an attorney, the court will appoint one to you.

“Honey, did you get that email I sent?”

“What?” With an effort, Zoe tuned back into the conversation.

“A flyer about an art contest. I got it in the mail. It’s addressed to you, but I accidently opened it. I scan-sent it to your email. The prize is ten thousand dollars, and it’s perfect for you. They want artists to pick a zodiac sign and present their interpretation with a twist. Because it’s sponsored by Twist Energy Drink company. Get it?”

“I get it. I’ll check it out.” Zoe closed her laptop to shut out any more bad news.

“What are you doing?” Melissa asked.

“The usual. I’m off work tonight, so I’m cleaning up the house.”

“Don’t throw anything away without checking it first,” Melissa said.

“I know, you told me. We need to find the will and Becky’s other legal documents.” Zoe rested her head on the table. The burst of adrenaline that pounded through her body had left, leaving her legs shaking and a headache brewing.

After her Aunt Becky died suddenly in January, neither Melissa nor her sister wanted to wade through the mess or put the house on the market to sell. After being attacked in November, dumped by her fiancé, Dean, in March, and losing her teaching job a month later, Zoe volunteered to live in and clean the house. Couldn’t be any worse than what had happened to her over the past months, and having a home so close to where she used to live was a blessing.

Sort of.

Becky was a recluse, and the family knew she had hoarding issues. They respected her lifestyle and didn’t nag her, but since she hadn’t allowed anyone to come inside her home for the past year, they didn’t realize the extent of her madness. Zoe lived only forty-five minutes from Becky and had been hurt when her aunt declared her home off-limits. She’d told them all she was cleaning and redecorating and even sent them pictures of partially done projects, promising to have a grand open house when renovations were complete.

The pictures were taken at someone else’s house or downloaded from the internet. When the women had finally gone to Becky’s home after the funeral, Aunt Linda, Melissa’s sister, had raced to the back yard to vomit. Piles of newspapers and magazines created a maze. Mice skittered and cockroaches blatantly roamed, and both inhabitants left their mark with little pellets of poop everywhere.

Becky’s safe deposit box, which should have contained the documents to wrap up her estate, only contained love letters and poems from one of Becky’s girlfriends when she was in the Navy, so Zoe’s mission was to find the paperwork.

First thing she’d done was borrow a shop vacuum to hose up droppings. Then she stashed Becky’s moldy furniture in the garage until she could afford someone to haul it away, sold what items she could, bought a new bed, and called the little house home.

Mounds of paper were moved to the back two bedrooms, and every day for the past two months, Zoe put on a face mask and carefully checked every book and piece of paper before throwing it into the trash.

“Don’t rush,” Melissa said. “Cleaning is therapeutic. It will take your mind off your asshole ex-fiancé, Dean. And getting fired and losing your condo.”

“Curse word. Put money in the jar.”

Zoe automatically tensed when she heard her stepbrother, Zane, yelling in the background. After The Annihilation, Zoe’s father and brother died. Melissa married Troy and adopted his DC son Zane. Zoe tried to be part of her new family but just couldn’t let them in. Letting other people in meant pain, because sooner or later, everyone let you down. Or left you, or both.

“I’m temporarily suspended, not fired,” Zoe said. “Once I complete the court-ordered program, I can get my job back.” Maybe. “Anyway, I have a job. I’m making okay money at Mario’s Place. I’m doing fine.

The server job earned her just enough to pay the utilities, put gas in her car and buy cheap food. Really cheap food. Thank heavens for her meal allowance at Mario’s Place, though some days she couldn’t look at a dish of pasta without gagging.

“Of course you’re doing fine.” Zoe gritted her teeth at Melissa’s placating tone. “You’re going to enter that contest, aren’t you?”

“I’ll think about it.”

Wrong answer to give the determined Melissa.

“Now honey, you need to keep your spirits up. Wallowing in self-pity won’t do you any good. Stay busy. Put your energy into something positive.” Melissa would be waving her hand in the air as she talked and pacing her living room. “Have you heard from Dean?”

“No, mom, I haven’t.” The pressure in her head increased and she rubbed her temples.

“You should contact him. I’ll bet he misses you.” Melissa couldn’t or wouldn’t leave the subject alone, once she got on a roll. “Men are like that, you know. They get to a certain age, they need to run away, to find themselves. He’ll come to his senses, realize what a good life he had with you.”

All he had to do was look up his ass. That’s where her ex-fiancé would find himself. Dean wasn’t coming back to her. His reason for taking off, the new job in Los Angeles—bullshit. Zoe knew why he left. Who wanted to be with a woman who woke up screaming most nights?

“I don’t want to talk about Dean. I need to go, Mom.”

“How about Troy and Zane and I come and help you clean next weekend?”

The throbbing in her head spiked further, and Zoe headed to the bathroom for an aspirin. “Nope. I’m good. I’ll get it done by myself.”

“Then you come here. Take a break. You remember Carolyn? Her son is coming to visit. He’s a nice guy. An accountant. Good steady job. We could all go to dinner. It takes less than an hour and a half for you to get here from Rache.”

“What’s that? Can’t hear you, my phone’s cutting out.” Zoe stuttered on every other word to prove it.

“I said…”

“What? Sorry mom, you know how the reception is in these mountains. I’ll talk to you later.” Zoe disconnected and swallowed the aspirin. That was all she could take for the evening.

A meow drew her attention to the kitchen. Vinnie the cat wobbled around the corner to greet her.

“What have you been doing all day, little monster? You hungry?”

Another meow confirmed, and Zoe headed to the pantry in the kitchen. The scruffy cat had wandered into the playground at school one day, then hid as the kids all rushed to grab him. Zoe had coaxed him to her with a piece of her lunch sandwich, wrapped the pitiful creature in a towel and took him to the vet on her way home. He had hypoplasia, a neurological condition that gave him walking and balance problems. One ear was badly torn, and he had numerous cuts and scratches.

A fighter, the doc said, as he removed the ear and cleaned him up. That was the only way he’d survived and probably wouldn’t take to living indoors. But the little guy settled into Zoe’s place fine, and since she couldn’t find anyone searching for their lost cat, she kept him and named him Vincent Van Gogh, after the artist who also had only one ear.

“How about cat food for you?” She pulled a can from the pantry. The bare pantry. “Might be cat food for me tonight, too. I’m out of leftovers from Mario’s. Any frozen dinners?” A peek in the freezer showed more empty space.

Time to go shopping. Tomorrow she’d hit the grocery store on her way home from work and … yuck. Bright red letters on the wall calendar announced Friday’s evening agenda. Anger management class. Part of the anger control program the judge said she needed to complete before they’d consider dropping the charges.

Zoe didn’t want to manage her anger. Rage was her friend. Fury kept her alive, drove her to keep going and reach her goal. Find the man who attacked her at the teachers’ conference, stop him from harming anyone else, and get her job back.

But she had to play nice and complete the court-ordered program. If the judge hadn’t lied, the charges would be lifted from her record after she finished, and life would go back to normal. Judges didn’t lie, did they?

Peanut butter. Again. Zoe took the jar off the shelf and dug out a loaf of stale, white bread. It would have to do. While she ate, she read over the rest of her emails. She’d sent her teaching resume to several job sites, then pulled it down. No one would hire a teacher with charges pending. Why put herself through the humiliation of certain rejection?

Then, she’d signed up at a few art sites, posting pictures of her oil paintings and watercolors in hopes of making sales. Anything to earn money.

Junk and more junk in her inbox. Another email popped up. Her mom, sending a picture of a woman in a long, frothy green dress with a ridiculous amount of lace all over.

Isn’t this a fabulous dress? It would look perfect on you. We can celebrate with a night on the town when you win that contest.

Fabulous. Zoe wrinkled her nose. Fabulous if you liked a dress that looked like Grandma’s kitchen curtains and would itch like the devil. She clicked and read the email from the court again. A lawyer. Her stomach knotted around the peanut butter.

To distract herself, Zoe pulled up the flyer Melissa sent and studied it. Ten thousand dollar prize for the first-place winner, with second and third place each receiving five thousand. Zoe planted her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her fists. Normally, she’d scoff at her chances of winning. But having this contest appear, at almost the exact time she desperately needed a large wad of money? Had to be karma smiling.

But if she won, that money sure the hell wouldn’t buy a scratchy dress and dinner. The court wanted her to have counsel … fine. They’d provide her an attorney? Sure they would. Either some ready-to-retire senior who could care less about her case, or some kid fresh out of school who didn’t know shit.

Nope. She’d hire the toughest lawyer, a tiger, to fight her case.

And she’d hire a burglar to break into H.E.L.P. Now that she knew a guard was on the property, she’d be better prepared. Zoe settled in at her keyboard and put her hand down so Vinnie could lick a dab of peanut butter off her fingers. Where did one look to hire a thief?

****

Grant fell into his kitchen chair and groaned. What a fucked-up night. He hissed with pain as he bent to untie his boots. Couldn’t remember the last time he’d been kneed in the nuts, but it hurt like hell. Probably did last time too. A good reason to avoid having his stones make contact with a hard object.

Who was that crazy woman, and what was she after?

He’d been hired to protect the construction supplies and equipment and told to stay out of the building. Technically, he should have called the cops on an intruder, but hell, he couldn’t just walk away and let her break in. His instincts fired up the minute he saw her trying to climb in that window and he’d reacted.

And damn it, his instincts kicked in again as she ran away, and he’d unintentionally let loose a blast of his power at her. Not hard, thank God, but enough to trip her. If he hadn’t been in such pain he could have done more. That hadn’t ended well the last time he used his power on a person.

The woman was not an employee, he knew that. The badge was fake and that story about needing to get paperwork, having tried to get in through the front gate? Lies. That gate was locked, he’d checked after she ran off, and he found the hole she cut in the fence. No way would anyone go through all that to retrieve forgotten paperwork.

His employer, Safety First of Rache, wanted him to alert them when he spotted suspicious activity, so he sent them a text immediately after the incident last night. Or this morning. Whatever the hell time it was. Night shift had his brain scrambled. His supervisor at Safety First told him to write a report and email it, said they’d have a cop out to look at the damage. Didn’t seem too upset, told him it was kids goofing around.

Grant would send the report, modified. No way would he admit to having his balls racked by a girl. He’d tell them he couldn’t see a face and the intruder ran as soon as he played his light on him.

Kicking his boot across the room, he winced as it hit the wall. Old Lady Bluehair in the next apartment would be knocking on his door any minute, wondering about the noise. Cheap paper-thin walls. The building was really for high-functioning DCs, but Grant’s brother Aaron had connections and got him in. The only other places he could afford were shitholes.

Grant was grateful for the place but soon realized how much it pissed him off to see the residents every day and be reminded of the results of the Malik virus. Fucking terrorists. He kicked the other boot off, not as far.

After getting discharged from the Army two years ago, Grant sold his house where he’d lived with his ex-wife. He planned to buy another home, but the minute the money from the sale hit his bank, the government froze all his funds. Said they would keep his assets until they determined the extent of the damage to the soldier he’d attacked.

Bullshit. Medical expenses for the guy he busted up were covered by the Army. The government wanted to punish Grant. Other ex-military personnel had the same thing happen, had their bank accounts and other savings locked up, and posted their experience on forums. But Grant learned the freeze could only last three years at the most, so he’d wait them out.

Hell. It was Friday morning. He should move his truck before the overworked social worker made his weekly visit to check on the residents. First time the guy came, Grant had just moved in. The jerk knocked on his door, woke him up, wanted to know if Grant owned the red pickup truck in the parking lot. Sensing the correct answer was “no,” Grant grunted out a negative response and shut the door in the guy’s face.

Then he kicked himself for not noticing the absence of vehicles in the lot. Most residents didn’t drive and took the EzRide shuttle to work and everywhere else they needed to go. Cars in the lot belonged to visitors. Dumb move, leaving a hot-looking truck in plain view. Grant counted on the agency that monitored the residents to be busy enough not to stick their nose too far into his business, but he didn’t need to wave a literal red flag at them.

Bart was his pride and joy, and he wouldn’t give her up. Julia named his truck, when he first brought it home. His wife had come out to the driveway, and he expected an ass-chewing for the impulsive purchase. Instead, she’d thumped the door and told him that was certainly a Big Ass Red Truck. Then she burst out laughing and named it Bart.

Grant kept the name but had to change the gender to female, since he loved the vehicle. He’d never give her up, so on Fridays, inspection day, he parked the truck down the road until evening.

Eyeing the bottle of sherry on the counter (his guilty pleasure he hid from everyone; real men didn’t drink sherry, for fuck’s sake, but he loved the taste), he fought with himself a full minute before he grabbed it and poured a shot. For the pain in his groin. The second shot, to dull the humiliation of letting a girl who barely reached his chin knock him to the ground and get away. The third shot ...

He should be pulling on his vest, heading to work as a police officer, not taking off a stupid security guard uniform. Should be having coffee in the precinct ready room, getting his assignment, hitting the streets.

With a Bad Conduct discharge from the army, that cop job wouldn’t happen. Only way to get the discharge changed: apply to the Discharge Review Board and request to upgrade to Other than Honorable Discharge.

He’d contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs for help, and they told him the best path would be to claim the reason he attacked his platoon sergeant was due to psychological issues following his wife’s death. Do therapy, including anger management class, get counseling, and turn in a DD Form 293, “Application for the Review of Discharge or Dismissal from the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Bunch of crap. He’d attacked Sergeant Murphy for violating his privacy. For digging through his personal possessions and finding those pictures of his wife. But Grant refused to tell anyone that. He’d suck it up and do the bullshit therapy and whatever else it took to clear his name, including telling people he was a nutcase.

Tap, tap, tap. Grant groaned. He could try to ignore the sound at his door, but Old Lady Bluehair wouldn’t go away. The gentle knocks would increase in volume and then she’d start yelling. He opened the door.

“Hello, Mrs. Henson, how are you?”

She peered at him with eyes way too sharp to be a DC. Grant suspected she faked that status, too, in order to live in the building. He never saw or heard visitors at her place, and assumed she had no family. Like lots of people after the Annihilation.

Fucking terrorists.

“I’m fine,” Mrs. Henson said, cocking her head on her wrinkled neck. “I heard a noise. Are you all right?”

“Yes. I banged something against the wall. Sorry to bother you.”

“Didn’t bother me, honey, I’m up and kicking. I just made coffee. You want a cup?”

“No ma’am, I work the night shift. I’m going to bed.”

“Oh, that’s right, I keep forgetting. You poor boy. How about a bran muffin?” She held out a plastic-wrapped object. “Keeps things moving, if you know what I mean.”

No, he didn’t want a bran muffin. Things moved just fine. But resistance was futile. If he didn’t accept now, the muffin would be waiting on his doorstep, and he’d squash it into a gooey mess with his boots the next time he went out.

He took the muffin. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”

“You’re too thin. You need to eat more. Honey, if you have a few minutes, would you come take a look at my closet door? It’s not shutting right.”

“Sure, I can do that.”

Though he’d tried to lay low and not interact with the building residents, when he saw someone in need, Grant had to step up. He’d helped a man who had no idea how to use a power drill and was attempting to hang a flower box on his balcony and assisted a young woman who was trying to assemble a bookcase with a butter knife in the parking lot. Word got around, and he became the unofficial handyman.

“Such a sweet boy. Your mother must be proud.”

His mother would roll over in her grave if she saw him now. Everyone in his family had always been employed, at decent jobs. They weren’t slackers, and they sure the hell didn’t get kicked out of a training program because they lost their temper.

Mrs. Henson patted his cheek. The first time she did this, he’d flinched, but now, the soft, wrinkled hand gave him comfort. He suspected the human contact did her good, too.

“I’ll give you a call on my day off and come over, check it out.” Though he could just yell and she’d hear him fine through the walls.

As he showered, he commanded his brain to shut down and not think about the job or about a pipsqueak burglar. Whatever that weirdo was up to didn’t concern him. All he had to do was maintain security on the jobsite, not make waves. Follow the instructions he’d received from the court, behave.

The warm shower, sherry and calming talk did their job. He almost had his earplugs in when his cell phone rang. Aaron. Another person he couldn’t ignore. His brother would also persist until Grant answered.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Naomi Bellina lives in sunny Florida with the love of her life and the world’s chattiest cat. She became a romance author because her characters insist on falling madly in love. She can be found eavesdropping on strangers for story material, dancing, riding a motorcycle, and creating healthy meals. Her motto: Never pass up the opportunity to have an adventure. She’s delighted to be involved with Kindle Scout and hopes you enjoy her book.

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Crappy things happen, things we can’t control, and we need to face them head on and deal with them. But it’s okay to be scared and angry sometimes, and to let those feelings show. Life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns (boring!) And also, it’s okay to reach out for help.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I’m drawn to the Romantic Suspense genre because romance is better with an element of danger, don’t you think? When the going gets dangerous, people realize who and what’s really important to them. And I love when two people are forced to team up, and find that opposites attract.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
The country needs heroes, even if they are messed up. When a deadly virus attack is launched on America, everything changes. This book is part of my futuristic romantic suspense series, Messed-Up Heroes. Each story is stand-alone and no annoying cliffhangers. There ARE happily ever after’s for all!

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