Former small-town football hero turned cop, Joe Kessler never met a linebacker, perp, or a woman he couldn't handle. Then a troubled single mom walks into his life, and the only place this hot jock will ever see 'easy' again is in the dictionary.
The worst time for a police cruiser to fly off a bridge was when you were handcuffed in the back. Joe Kessler braced as the Hummer crashed into the cruiser from behind for the final time and sent the brand-new Crown Victoria over the railing.
The two Philly cops up front—the driver Irish-looking, the other one black—yelled all the way down, “Hang on! Hang on! Oh hell, dammit!”
Joe and Lil’ Gomez, free-flying in the back, swore more colorfully than that as the car hit the Schuylkill River with a bone-rattling crash. Joe smashed into the metal screen that separated him from the scrambling officers, Lil’ Gomez on top of him, the kid’s pointy elbow slamming into Joe’s cheekbone.
God, he hated undercover work.
Then the rear end of the car slammed down, and they dropped back into their seat, Lil’ Gomez still swearing, the driver shouting into his radio unit, “Officers in the water! Men in the water! We went off the bridge!”
Joe pushed the scrambling kid aside. “Hey! Let us out!” He kicked hard at the door that didn’t budge. “Let us out, dammit!” But the officers paid no attention to him as the cruiser began sinking.
The river churned in the dark night around them, swollen from the spring rains. The cop in the driver’s seat jabbed at the window button by his side, his partner doing the same, grunting, hurrying to roll the glass down before the water could short out the electrical system.
“Hey!” Joe banged against the back door in vain; everything was controlled from the front in a police cruiser.
He glanced at Lil’ Gomez as the scrawny teenager beat against the glass on his side, cussing at the cops, his brown eyes filled with panic. Then the front windows were down at last, the cops tearing at their seat belts.
“Undercover officer.” Joe gritted his teeth. A month of undercover work down the drain. His gaze met the driver’s in the rearview mirror, and he shouted louder. “I’m an undercover officer!”
But the kid’s yelling and the loud rush of the raging river drowned out everything else.
The ice-cold water was up to their knees in a second, then up to their chests. Ho-ly fuck. Joe had to catch his breath as he adjusted to the shock.
He twisted to kick the wire mesh divider to draw the cops’ attention, but the officers were focused on getting out, paying no mind to the panic in the backseat.
The car filled up in seconds, only a two-inch air pocket hanging on stubbornly under the roof where Lil’ Gomez was sucking air, quiet for the moment. Underwater, the headlights’ eerie glow provided maybe a foot or two of visibility; nothing but murky river beyond that.
Joe rattled the door as he watched the driver wiggle out of the car, then kick away, disappearing in the dark water in seconds. The cop on the passenger side was squeezing through his own window inch by inch. He was rounder than his buddy, but he heaved himself through at last, glancing back.
Joe banged his cuffed hands against the rolled-up window in the back, holding the man’s gaze.
Indecision mixed with desperation on the officer’s face. Then he reached back in, his dark hand barely visible against the car’s black interior. He pressed the button and waited three seconds for the glass in the back to slide down most of the way.
Then he pushed away and faded into the roiling water.
Joe grabbed Lil’ Gomez and shoved him out, then drew a deep breath from the air pocket under the roof. He grabbed the window frame and forced himself through, paying no attention to the skin he was scraping off, thinking only about escaping a watery grave.
His lungs were bursting by the time he freed himself, the car shifting as the water rolled it. Zero visibility. Which way up? The side mirror dragged against his leg from hip to knee. Okay, the car would be going down. He kicked at it for leverage and tried to move in the opposite direction.
He kept his hands stretched in front of him, palms pressed together, kicking as hard as he could, up and up. And barely made headway. His lungs ached.
He was going to drown. Shit.
The image of a pair of laughing, gray eyes flashed into his oxygen-starved brain, mysteriously beautiful eyes and the hot model who went with them—Wendy.
He refused to drown, dammit.
Kick. Kick. Kick.
He toed off his water-filled shoes so they wouldn’t drag him down, wiggled his body for all he was worth, his legs moving, scissoring without break.
His ears rang by the time he breached the surface, but he did reach it, the Schuylkill River filling his mouth with dirty water on his first gulp for air. He choked and tried again. This time, he succeeded in drawing a full breath.
Unforgiving cold and darkness surrounded him.
He couldn’t swim with his hands cuffed—the best he could do was try to ride the current, angling himself toward shore. But that strategy wasn’t going to be enough. The current was too fast.
“Hey!” he called out again. “Hey! I’m here!”
No response came.
Without being able to use his hands, he’d been slower coming up than the two officers, less able to fight against the river. The current had separated him from the cops.
The lights of the Schuylkill Expressway glowed high above, the bridge now several hundred feet from Joe, the distance growing by the second. The water was rapidly carrying him downriver.
Trying to see, he paddled as hard as he could, his feet growing numb from the cold. But not a single boat ran the river nearby, nothing ahead and nothing behind him.
“Help!” he yelled again anyway, and as he tried to gulp air, he swallowed more water. He coughed it back up, wiggling to stay afloat, twisting and turning. Where is the kid? “Yo, Gomez!”
No response reached his ears, only the sound of the rushing river. But something that could have been a body caught around his legs the next second. He reached down and pulled hard. Then Lil’ Gomez broke the surface, limp and unconscious, and Joe whacked him hard on the back. One. Two. The fifteen-year-old coughed up water as he revived, clamping on to Joe and trying to climb him.
But the kid managed to yank him under.
Joe fought his way back up. Coughed. “Hang on, dammit.” He kicked hard in the water to keep both of them afloat. “You’re okay. I’ll hold you up. Stay still.”
Not a chance. Lil’ Gomez couldn’t rein in his panic. He wasn’t nearly the tough gangster he wanted to seem, no matter the clothes or how big a gun he carried. He wanted to be just like his brother, wanted desperately to belong. He wanted and needed protection, the gang the only family he’d ever known.
“Hang on,” Joe told him. “Kick with your feet.”
Moonlight glinted off the kid’s wet cornrows, each held with a different color rubber band at the end. His eyes flashed dark with fear. He gurgled a single word: “Pants.”
Probably down at his ankles.
Joe held on to him. “Kick off your shoes, then kick off your pants.”
The kid struggled but managed after a minute. Joe didn’t let him go. Better not get separated. “Kick and breathe. Don’t panic.”
The cold of the river seeped into their bones. Lil’ Gomez kept flailing.
Might be easier to keep the kid afloat if he was knocked out. But before Joe could act on his desperate idea, he spotted something dark upriver, maybe a hundred feet away and closing the distance rapidly.
By the time he made out the long, bumpy form, the log was nearly within reach. He grabbed after a ragged stump of a branch, but the river rolled the log and the stump smashed into his face, nearly knocking him out. He tasted blood.
“We gonna die!” Lil’ Gomez screamed.
Joe stayed with the log. Like hell he was going to drown now. They’d made it out of the car, up to the surface. They had a flotation device. “Grab on!”
He helped the kid grab hold of a knot at the front of the log first, then looped his own handcuffs around a gnarled root and held on for dear life as they hitched a ride, choking and coughing.
He kicked with all his might to give the log some direction, angling toward shore, toward the lights of the city, balancing his body as best he could. The river ran rough. If the log rolled, they’d go under, get tangled, maybe never come up again.
He tried to hold their raft steady in the water, but the log kept dipping under, couldn’t handle the both of them. Lil’ Gomez scrambled to hold on, sputtering water every time it hit his face.
Joe eased his weight off the gnarled root ball in the back. That helped the log regain some buoyancy. Okay. So one person could catch a ride, but not two.
Making the decision took only one desperate second.
“Keep this thing steady,” he yelled to the kid. “Keep your balance. Kick toward shore. You’ll be all right.” And then he let go completely.
“Don’t leave me, man!”
The kid’s eyes filled with true panic, but the log no longer dipped under. Then the next second he and his raft were nothing but a dark blob on the water, rapidly disappearing downriver as the current sped them away.
Joe pedaled hard as he watched the kid disappear in the darkness. Then he looked back toward the bridge, but no other logs came down the river, not a chunk of driftwood, not so much as a twig, nothing to hang on to, nothing to save him. He filled his lungs, turned on his back, and tried to stay afloat, head angled toward shore as he kicked with his feet.
Okay, that worked. He was swallowing a lot less water. Still, an eternity seemed to pass before he thought he might be gaining ground. Then more endless minutes crawled by before he finally reached the muddy bank. The Schuylkill River had carried him past Philadelphia by then, the city a jumble of lights behind him.
He crawled out of the water and coughed as he flopped over to lie in the mud on his back. His face pulsed with pain as he scanned the barren stretch of land around him, handcuffed and freezing, panting. No sign of life here, not down the riverbank or farther in, just some scraggly bushes and broken reeds. He hoped Lil’ Gomez reached land somewhere where people would find and help him.
The river rushed along in the dark night. And if that wasn’t enough water, rain began to fall—not a serious downpour, but within a couple of minutes the drops were coming down pretty steadily.
Joe shivered and blinked blood out of his eyes, looked past the slope that led to the river, but couldn’t see any buildings up there, no lights or movement.
Just as well. He was wanted by the city police because they thought he was a member of the infamous Brant Street Gang. The rival gang had just tried to kill him—he’d caught glimpse of a Twentyniners bandana hanging from the Hummer’s rearview mirror.
He struggled to sit, wasting no time on worrying about the cops or the Twentyniners. On a night like this, hypothermia would get him first.
* * *
Wendy Belle had a gun, but she didn’t want to use it. My mother killed my father wasn’t the kind of legacy she wanted to leave for her baby.
She squirmed as Keith pushed her roughly against the kitchen wall, his breath—giving hints of expensive whiskey—fanning her face. His pale blue eyes watched her with a predatory gleam as rain drummed on the windows of her two-bedroom Wilmington apartment. It’d been raining most of the night and all morning. Miserable weather for a miserable day.
“Keith,” she said. Saying no would only make him more determined. “Listen, want to watch the game on TV? I recorded it yesterday.”
Once when he’d been like this, she’d succeeded in distracting him with football. She kept recording games, even if the trick hadn’t worked since, just as a person keeps insurance that might or might not pay when trouble hits. A slim chance was better than nothing.
The overhead light in the kitchen glinted off his short blond hair styled into the “successful businessman” cut with a touch of gel. His expensive designer suit perfectly fit the shoulders that boxed her in. GQ could have put him on their cover with the title: Most Eligible Insurance Broker. With a temper.
He grabbed her hard between her legs and laughed. “You know what I want, babe.”
And when she stiffened, when she pushed against him, he said, “Come on, don’t be like that,” in the low-toned voice she used to think was so seductive.
Now that tone sent a cold shiver down her spine.
At least he wasn’t shouting.
Her two-year-old slept in the next room, the door open—she hadn’t had a chance to shut it before Keith barged in—but she couldn’t tell Keith to keep it down so he wouldn’t wake Justin. She didn’t want to bring her son to Keith’s attention at all if she could help it.
Say something. Her only chance was to somehow talk herself out of the situation. Deescalate. Fighting back physically was futile. Every time she’d tried that in the past, she’d failed. Keith had every physical advantage. He had plenty of muscle power from all the hours spent at his country club’s gym to network and meet potential clients.
He ground his body against hers. “You like it rough? I’m going to give it to you rough.” He sneered as he wrapped her hair around his wrist. He yanked until tears filled her eyes.
She didn’t like it rough, and she didn’t like it anyway at all from him, but he’d been gunning for her from the moment he’d shown up at her door uninvited. “Wait.” She tried to twist away from him in the L-shaped kitchen that stood open to the living room. “Let me make you some lunch.”
“I told you what I want.” His tone stayed silky smooth.
He looked her over as he held her in place. His eyes narrowed. “Are you off your diet? Can’t you do anything? You don’t want to get fat and lose your gigs, do you? I’m trying to help here.” He smacked his right hand into the kitchen cabinet next to her head, rattling the dishes inside. “You have to pay attention to these things.”
She held her breath, praying that Justin wouldn’t wake. If he woke, he might cry, and that might set Keith off even worse.
But Keith lowered his voice. “Come on, babe. I had some stressful morning meetings. It’d be nice if you made me feel better. After all I’ve done for you. Come on. You’re my girl.”
No, she wasn’t, and she thanked God for that. At the beginning of their relationship, when she’d still had stars in her eyes, she used to daydream about the day when he would propose to her. Now she was grateful beyond words that had never happened. All she wanted was for him to be out of her life forever.
“Why don’t you sign the papers before we forget about them?”
Instead, he reached up to squeeze her breasts until they hurt.
She swallowed. “It’s not the right time for me. I’m sorry.”
His eyes flared with fury. “Why the hell are you teasing me then? You know that shit grosses me out.” He shoved her to her knees, hard enough so it would leave bruises.
He was usually more careful with things like that. He knew how to hurt her so no one could see the signs later. That he didn’t seem to care today filled Wendy with a new level of dread.
“Shut up and get to it.” He braced his hands on the wall and rolled his hips toward her face.
“Could we sign the papers, please?” She wasn’t beyond begging. She would have done anything to get him out of her and her son’s lives forever.
He shot her a meaningful look. “Maybe.”
But she knew he wouldn’t. He’d promised before. This wasn’t the first time they’d played this game. She’d tried to be as nice as possible to him, not to make him mad. She’d even let him touch her, for Justin’s sake. Every time hoping, praying, that he would sign over full custody to her.
When she’d given in, he used her. When she’d stood up to him, he beat her down. But she couldn’t give up. She had to make this work.
She moved to rise. “I really need you to sign the papers today. I mean it, Keith.”
He smacked her so hard she fell sideways, knocking a kitchen chair over, which knocked a second chair to the tile floor, one loud crash after the other as she caught herself on the table, head whirling.
Justin wailed in the bedroom, a long sharp cry of displeasure at having been so rudely awakened.
“Shut that fucking kid up!”
She scrambled to close the bedroom door, darting across the living room between the sectional and Justin’s rocking horse. She pulled the door closed as quickly as she could and put herself between Keith and her son.
She didn’t go in to soothe her baby. Keith would come after her. The spare bedroom had a bed. She didn’t want him anywhere near a bed. And if Justin didn’t quiet down, Keith would get angry at him.
She could deal with being pushed around, but if Keith hurt Justin, she would shoot him. She had a gun in the cookie tin on the top of the fridge.
She held her breath. Don’t cry, baby. Don’t cry. And Justin quieted after a final wail.
She didn’t have time to relax. Keith stalked her, mouth turned up in anticipation.
She evaded, stepping around the ottoman, then putting the kitchen island between them.
“Here they are.” She opened the top drawer and pulled out the battered manila envelope on top. She needed to refocus him. She laid the custody papers out on the island, then searched for a pen.
“Are you trying to piss me off?” Keith caught up with her and grabbed her by the wrist, his gaze hardening.
“Why don’t you sign these while I make you something to eat? How about a couple of hamburgers?” He always liked the way she made those, with sautéed onions and peppers on top. “I’m hungry. Aren’t you?”
But the dangerous glint in his pale blue eyes spoke of a different kind of hunger that had nothing to do with food.
“I bet you put out for the photographers.” He growled. “Are you still whoring for your agent? You don’t think I’m good enough now? I’m not as good as he is?”
She was a small-time model these days, modeling for the weekly department store circulars, making barely enough to pay for the apartment and support herself and Justin. She’d never had an inappropriate relationship with her agent—who was gay—or the photographers. At least a dozen people milled around at a shoot, everything timed to the minute. There wouldn’t have been an opportunity if she’d been looking for it.
And she wasn’t. God knew she learned her lesson, again, the last time she’d let her guard down with a man. But she couldn’t tell Keith about that. If he found out that she was pregnant again, it would send him into a rage. Her latest crisis was her own problem. So she simply said, “I don’t have time to date.”
“You’re a fucking liar.” He let her wrist go, but before she could step away, he grabbed her arms, tightly enough to hurt.
“Or what? You’ll blabber to the cops again? You think it’ll work better this time? Do you know how much money my company donates to the police department? You think the cops would ever want to mess that up?”
“Please let me go. I’m sorry.”
She’d learned her lesson with the police the last time. The officer responding to her call told her any accusation of battery would be her word against Keith’s. And then he advised that she should stop provoking her guy. “Just get along,” he’d told her.
Keith had trapped her, in more ways than one. She couldn’t fight back physically and win. He was stronger; she’d just get hurt. If he put her in the hospital, who would take care of Justin? If she went for the gun, she’d have to use it. He wouldn’t stand for being threatened. Once she pulled the gun, there would be no turning back.
Then the police might or might not believe that it was self-defense. If she went to prison, where would her son go?
If she went for a restraining order against Keith, he’d fight back by demanding time with Justin, an official, enforceable shared custody agreement. And having to send Justin to him on the weekends, on unsupervised visits, scared Wendy more than death itself.
If this had been just about her, she would have fought back, would have run a long time ago. But they had a child together, which meant they were tied together—by custody law if nothing else. She couldn’t find a way around that. There were no good choices at this stage. All the choices were the kind that decided who got hurt, her or her son, and how badly.
So she took the beatings.
But as Keith shook her, a loud rap sounded at the door.
“Wendy? Is everything okay? I heard that crash from the end of the hallway as I was coming up.”
Sophie’s voice coming through the door was nothing less than a lifeline. Oh, thank God.
Wendy tried to move to let her in, but Keith held her in place. “I don’t want to find out that you’ve been complaining about me behind my back.” His tone dipped low, threatening. “Our relationship is nobody else’s business.”
“Wendy?” Sophie Curtis, pretty much the only friend she had left, called again.
Keith silently shook his head.
Another rap on the door. “I’m coming in.”
And she could, thank God. Sophie had a spare key for emergencies.
Keith stepped away as the door opened, the smell of fresh paint rushing in with Sophie—building management was having the hallways painted. He put on a charming smile, the hostility melting off him in an instant. He changed roles faster than a stage actor.
“Hey,” he said, “no need for alarm. We got a little carried away.” He winked at Wendy as if sharing a private joke, as if they’d been sharing a careless moment of passion.
Sophie stayed in the doorway as she measured up the situation with a neutral look on her face. “Bing is coming up in a minute. He’s parking the car. He just got off shift at the police station.”
Keith turned to Wendy fully, his back to Sophie, pure hate flashing onto his face. He grabbed the custody papers from the kitchen island, crumpled them into his pocket. “A boy needs his father,” he whispered, his voice full of warning. Then he turned to go. “Need to drop my car off for detailing. You girls have fun.” Smiling again.
Sophie closed the door behind him and turned the dead bolt. “Sorry I’m late.”
She was a head shorter than Wendy, wrapped in a stylish black wool coat, her cheeks pink from the cold. After her pretty serious health issues for the past couple of years, it was nice to see some healthy color on her.
Her wild red curls bounced around her face as she moved forward. She dropped her purse on the kitchen island. “Are you okay?”
Wendy smiled, fighting against her sharp disappointment. She’d failed to get Keith to sign over custody once again. She filled her lungs and pushed the despair aside.
“I’m glad you’re here.” She glanced at the windows. “I wish the rain would stop already. I thought we could take Justin for a walk when he wakes up from his nap. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.” Keep talking. Maybe Sophie didn’t notice anything. “How was traffic?”
She’d never told anyone Keith had turned abusive—not her friends, and not her parents who lived in Florida and already worried endlessly about her.
Keith Kline was somebody in Wilmington. He held memberships in all the right business clubs. His company gave a ton of money to charity, including the Police Association. The police wouldn’t help her. And the people who loved her would get hurt if she dragged them into her screwed-up relationship. Sophie couldn’t find out. Nobody could.
Wendy walked over to the smaller bedroom, pushed the door open a few inches, and peeked in. Since Justin was sleeping peacefully, she went back to the kitchen. “Out like a light. Want something to drink?”
She was the one who’d picked Keith. He was in her life because of her bad judgment. She had a child with him. She had to figure out how to deal with that. Handling Keith was her responsibility and nobody else’s.
Sophie watched her. “I didn’t realize Keith was coming over today. How are things with him?”
“Okay.” Keith would kill her if he found out that she talked about him behind his back. She grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge. “Is Bing really coming?”
“No. Do you mind? I thought—” Sophie shrugged out of her coat, folded it over the back of the sofa, then walked over to the table with a tentative look in her eyes.
She wore dove-gray slacks with a white top, her style flawless. She had a good eye for color and design. Could have worked in the fashion industry. Not that she’d ever been interested in that kind of thing. Sophie’s passion ran to computers. She had her own web design business. She was smart and strong, everything Wendy wanted to be.
“How was your checkup this morning?”
Sophie flashed a brilliant smile. “Passed with flying colors. The ticker keeps on ticking.”
Wendy set the bottles on the table, then moved to pick up the chairs so they could sit and chat while Justin finished his nap.
Sophie helped, caressing a translucent acrylic dining chair that had the sleek lines of a sports car. “These look fantastic. I have serious furniture envy.”
“Scored them from Mia.” An interior designer who often worked on the same sets as Wendy. “Castoffs of some millionaire client.” They were modern design, pieces of art that Wendy could never have afforded otherwise. Her table didn’t match, a minor detail. Someday.
“Hey, the pictures are new too.” Sophie moved toward the living room, where new photos hung on the wall.
The photographs caught Justin in the early morning light, sitting in front of the window, dust particles floating in the air, sparkling like diamond powder in the sunlight. The images had a surreal, magical feeling, the perfect symbolism for the magic of childhood. The morning she’d taken those pictures was one of the few times when everything had come together perfectly.
“You have serious talent.” Sophie kept looking. “If you ever quit modeling, you could be a professional photographer.”
“That’s the dream.” To be living somewhere far away from Keith, having a successful business so she didn’t have to worry about the future and money. To be strong and independent. She felt light years from that this morning.
Sophie turned with a smile, but then her eyes grew somber as she caught Wendy’s mood. She stepped closer. “You know you can tell me anything, right? That’s what friends are for.”
“Sure.” Wendy twisted the top off her water bottle. Sophie didn’t deserve Keith’s nastiness dumped on her. With her health issues, stress was the last thing she needed. “Everything’s fine.”
Sophie glanced at her legs. “Then why is your knee bleeding?”
Wendy looked down, past the hem of her new wool skirt where bright red drops beaded on her skin. Unlike high-fashion shoots, department-store flyer jobs let models keep the clothes—a perk her small budget appreciated.
She grabbed a napkin, dabbed where her skin had split on her right knee. No big deal. She could definitely cover that with makeup for work.
She tried to stretch her face into a smile. “I slipped.”
She struggled to put on the public-Wendy persona, the mask that showed her in control of her life and happy. She’d been modeling since she was sixteen; she could act. She’d become good at hiding her scared, weak core even from those close to her. Except, the nonchalant laugh she was working on never formed on her lips.
Sophie waited, practically radiating patience, love, and support. She wouldn’t push. She never did.
The mood shifted between them.
Tears gathered in Wendy’s eyes for some stupid reason. She dashed them away. She wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t a crier. Crying never solved anything. Tears usually made Keith angrier.
Sophie came over and put her arms around her, held her. The comfort felt so incredibly good, especially after Keith flying off the handle, after being scared to death for the last twenty minutes. Wendy drew a deep, shuddering breath.
“I didn’t really slip,” she whispered.
“I know,” Sophie whispered back, holding her tightly. “We’re going to figure out what to do about this.”