Reunited

an excerpt




Chapter One

Jubilee



I took my time walking up West Thirty-Seventh Avenue. As I crossed at a corner, I tripped over a discarded takeout cup, making a hell of a racket and bumping into a wall as a result. Man, my surveillance skills were really rusty. My target turned a couple of times, as if sensing he was being followed.

Damn, Jubilee. Get a grip on reality, pal.

I was forced to duck into the doorway of a still-closed bakery, and for three full minutes, I shared space with the smelliest vagrant I'd ever met. I poked my head around the shop's entrance. The target was on the move again. I kept my gaze on his shoes and crept out of hiding, following him up the street. I ignored the vagrant, who'd been yelling obscenities at me the entire time I'd taken refuge in his makeshift home. I wondered why he was still screaming and realized he was nuts.

My target stopped at a signal near Main Street, but this time didn't turn to see if he had a tail. I slowed my pace, feeling guilty about following my own son, but he'd left me no choice. He'd both freaked the hell out of me and broken my heart this morning by insisting that at the age of eleven, he was old enough to walk to school on his own.

"I'm in fifth grade now, Dad," Juan had said. "For three whole days. I can do this. I'm not a kid anymore."

"Eleven's not sixteen," I insisted. "You're still my baby."

"I. Am. Not. A. Baby." He glared at me, the closest we've ever come to having an argument. Juan is a wonderful kid and normally pretty compliant. He'd been asking to walk to school with friends, only none of them lived near us. A group walk I could have handled. It didn't help that my husband, Kieran, picked sides. And it wasn't mine.

It almost killed me to see my kid setting off alone with his backpack slung over his shoulders. I knew he had a cell phone in the pocket and some decent self-defense skills, but I know what can happen to little boys. School was only three-quarters of a mile away from our fantastic new house on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Park. A great neighborhood, but still...

He knows what I've seen. He knows all about how I walked his cousins to school in Lone Trail, Texas, after their friend, Petey Miller, got shot in a drug war crossfire right outside the front gates.

I've told him about Etan Patz, the poster child for missing children who disappeared the first time he told his mom he was old enough to walk to school. The seven-year-old New Yorker's vanishing was an unsolved mystery for decades until a man finally came forward recently and confessed he snatched Etan as he saw him walking on the street.

"Yeah, but he was seven. I'm eleven and I know karate, Tae Kwon Do, kung fu, and--" He'd paused dramatically. "I can really kick ass, Dad."

I'd been forced to let him go. I acted fine about it, but I'd waited until Kieran drove off to work and Juan took off walking. I followed him, ignoring the howls of protest from our dog, Beckham.

Juan walked briskly along Thirty-Seventh. It worried me that we lived on the edge of the park because, in my mind, the bad guys could grab him and drag him off the street and take him--

Stop it. He's doing great.

He turned up Main Street. Man, what was his hurry? I was beginning to sweat. In spite of his speed, he didn't try to outrun the lights on the corner of East Thirty-Sixth, just like he'd promised. His school, on the corner of Thirty-Third and Main, was only a few blocks away. Juan picked up the pace. I began to huff and puff a bit. Geez Louise, I was in sorry shape.

"Boo!" a voice behind me said.

I jumped and screamed like a prom queen. "What the fuck!" I shouted, thinking the vagrant had followed me. On the contrary, it was my hot, handsome, very fragrant husband.

"What are you doing, Jube?" he asked, a forced smile on his face.

"Getting a little exercise."

"I see." He tilted his head, his gaze holding mine. "And you just happened to be walking past the school?"

"I'm not there yet." I frowned.

"And you're not going to be, either. Juan just texted me that some old creep was following him."

Some old creep? "I..." I peered over his shoulder and saw his squad regulation black Dodge Charger parked at a bad angle at the curb, his partner, Emil Anthony, leaning against the driver's side door. He had his arms folded across his chest, a pissed-off look on his face.

"What are you doing in those clothes?" Kieran asked.

"Huh?" It took me a second to realize he was referring to the old rags I'd thrown on in a pathetic attempt at camouflage.

"You scared the pants off our kid. And me." Kieran stuck his regulation Sig Sauer into its holster. His eyes glittered dangerously. Normally, this would be a huge turn-on, but not when his ire was focused on me.

I bit my lip. I knew Kieran had been worried, too, but he was so much more Zen about this than I'd imagined him to be.

"Well?" he asked, his tone softening.

He waited.

I blew out a breath.

Sweat trickled down my face. I could feel his partner's gaze searing into me. I hated the medal-decorated, brilliant, fast, handsome Emil Anthony. I'd been a hotshot once, too. I'd been a U.S. Marshal. I had achievement awards, just like him. Only I'd stopped working in law enforcement to raise our son. Kieran was a homicide detective for Vancouver PD. But now that our boy was eleven and could kick ass for himself, I'd soon be obsolete in my own family.

"Jube, what's going on in that beautiful head of yours?" Kieran squeezed my shoulder, the closest he'd get to a public display of affection in front of his macho partner.

"I--"

"You know I love Juan, too."

"I had a bad feeling." There. I'd let it out.

Kieran dropped his hand and gave an aggrieved sigh. I didn't say anything. I'd told him the truth, but he'd point out that I hadn't mentioned it before. He'd also probably insist that I was overreacting to Juan's need for a bit of independence.

"I had a bad dream," I said. He just stared at me, so I went on. "Look, I know it sounds crazy, but I woke up in the middle of the night and I was certain there was a stranger in our bedroom. He shook me awake and he was holding a bunch of roses. He beckoned me to follow him."

"A guy with roses." Kieran shook his head, sounding exasperated. "Jube. I'm the one who rescued Juan. I'm the one who knew he was my son the moment I met him. I'd lay down my life for him."

"He's growing up so fast. He doesn't need me anymore."

"You stupid man! Of course he needs you. He called you first but your cell phone was turned off, so he called me. You fucking freaked the hell out of both of us." He paused. "I'm proud of him that he kept his head and texted us. Jube, I've got tracking devices on his cell phone and backpack--"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You still would have put on old pants and followed him." He dropped his voice. "That's why I love you. You're still a U.S. Marshal, through and through." One more shoulder squeeze and a wink. "See you tonight." He grinned. "Even in old clothes, you're still hot, Marshal Mason. And don't worry. Juan will never know the old creep following him was you."

He walked over to his car. He had a mighty fine ass. Vancouver PD Sergeant Emil Anthony might not admit to being gay but I was certain he had his sights set on Kieran. I knew I had nothing to worry about as far as Kieran was concerned, but I suspected Emil would make me the butt of a lot of jokes for weeks to come.

A lump formed in my throat at the thought of being Marshal Mason. I missed the work, but Kieran and I had opted for a quieter life in Vancouver after a couple of hectic years in the Texas Taskforce. At least, my life was quieter. Old habits died hard though, and I was still wary and suspicious of everybody we met. I turned around and headed home, stopping in the doorway where I'd spotted the vagrant. I gave him my shirt and would have given him my pants, but didn't think I should walk home naked.

"Thanks," he said in a raspy voice. "But you keep it. Looks like you need it more than me. And anyways, I got my standards."

I went home feeling dispirited. I didn't miss the stress of working law enforcement but missed the sense of purpose it had given me. I'd met Kieran when he came to Texas to help on a big drugs and murder case at the invitation of Lone Trail's then-sheriff, Dillon dePriest. In the course of a later investigation we worked together, Kieran went undercover as a sex trafficker in the town of Mesquite. Juan, our little, gorgeous, loveable Juan, had been five then and heavily drugged when he'd been smuggled into the brothel as an intended sex slave.

Yes, Kieran had saved him and we'd adopted him. Mercifully, he had no memories of the episode. Born in Mexico, his parents had sold him to slave traders. How any parent could do that to their child was beyond me. I felt prickles of shame as I got to our house. He had no bad flashbacks to that time in his life, but now he thought some old creep was following him to school.

Inside our house, Beckham acted like she'd been left alone all day. She tried all her usual cute-dog antics to get me to take her outside. She'd already been for a three-mile run with Kieran and had plenty of access to the backyard via a doggy door. Beckham preferred being anywhere but left alone in the house. I rubbed her soft ears as she threw herself onto her back. The landline phone began to ring. I checked the readout. Juan.

Oh, God.

I snatched the phone. "Juan?" Had something happened? Was he in trouble?

"Dad? I just realized you were following me."

I was tongue-tied. How had he figured out it was me? Kieran said it would be our secret.

"Dad?" he asked again.

"I'm here." I felt like a major buffoon now.

"I love you, Dad, but don't do it again."

"How did you know it was me?" I blurted.

"I recognized the shirt. Not too many guys have shirts with purple paint smears on them."

For a moment I felt even more ridiculous, then I began to laugh.

"You're a nut," he said. "Thank you for loving me so much." I heard a bell ringing in the background. Knowing this was his first year of full immersion into the French language, I tried to keep things light.

"Amuse toi," I told him.

He chuckled. "Have fun? I'm at school, remember?" He blew me a kiss and ended the call. He was so much like Kieran, it was scary. I peeled off my clothes and took a shower. It was gonna be a fun day. I was determined. I washed up quickly, then dried off and put on my suit and tie. I had taken on part-time work as a mediator of adolescent crimes for the Prosecutors' office. I wished I'd get more work. I enjoyed the challenge and it made me feel useful. Maybe I should let the DA know I was interested in more cases.

I turned on my cell phone, checked for messages, and saw the time. I had ten minutes to make it to my appointment. No sweat. I pocketed the phone and picked up the case file. I'd familiarized myself with the notes over breakfast. It was a typical case--one I'd had plenty of times. Fourteen-year-old Lucy Trang had been arrested at a local Macy's department store for shoplifting. She'd attempted to steal three high-end hair brushes, valued at thirty dollars apiece, and a bottle of Celine Dion perfume.

She'd been upset about being caught and had agreed to mediation at the suggestion of the store's security officer. The crime-prevention program between stores and city of Vancouver had been in effect a few years now. I had no idea how effective it was, but I could see from her record sheet that this was Lucy's first arrest. If mediation today was successful, she'd complete some form of community service in lieu of a juvenile record.

Starting up my car, I thought about her theft of the perfume. I adore Celine, though I'd never smelled her fragrance. She's my girl. Our girl, actually. She's fueled my relationship with Kieran, her music becoming our endless love theme. Juan rolls his eyes when he catches us dancing to her.

He tolerates Celine. We tolerate One Direction.

It struck me that it was an unusual choice of fragrance for a teenager to swipe. Probably it was a gift for Lucy's mom. I debated playing Celine as I drove the few short miles into the downtown business district and decided it would be rude, considering my assignment.

I hummed "I Drove All Night" as I approached the Law Courts building in Robson Square. It's an impressive complex that'd won many awards for its unique, avant-garde design. The architect once said he didn't want to create a stuffy building, but one that looked as if it lay on its side. He said he wanted to let people walk all over it.

And we did.

I pulled into the parking lot for the courts, which jostled for space with the Vancouver Art Gallery and various provincial government offices. I flashed my ID to the security guard and made my way to the office complex adjacent to the court. In one of these rooms, I would mediate between Lucy Trang and a representative of Macy's. I loved being involved with this program that helped troubled kids make amends for things like petty theft. It gave them a second chance and hopefully scared them straight.

I saw a young Vietnamese girl sitting in the hallway beside her father. I sensed his distress immediately. I walked over and introduced myself, asking if I could get them some water, or maybe some tea or coffee.

"No, thank you." His tone was stiff. "I am shamed today," he said.

Oh, brother. I could imagine this was something he'd said to his kid more than once since she'd been arrested three weeks ago. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Brenda Smart approaching me. I loved Brenda. She was the liaison for Macy's and was a dream to work with. She loved the crime prevention program and fought hard for the kids who came through her stores to be diverted to community work, as opposed to juvenile detention centers and a ding on their records.

In the mediation office, I got things going by asking Lucy a few softball questions about her favorite music, makeup, and friends, and then casually asked about the perfume.

"Did you take it for yourself or someone else?"

"It was for my auntie's birthday," she said. She lapsed into a depressed silence, peering up at me through the thick fringe of black hair guarding her eyes.

"Is this the first time you've shoplifted?" I asked her.

She looked at me a long moment before shaking her head. It surprised me she was being honest but not that this wasn't her first offense.

"Can you tell me why you did this, Lucy?" I smiled at her--I hoped in a kind way.

"I wanted the brushes."

Brenda and I waited for her to say more, but she didn't.

"Why did you need three hair brushes?" I asked.

"Because."

Brenda spoke up then. "When you were caught, you had thirty dollars cash in your purse, so you could have bought one hairbrush."

"I..."

That was all Lucy said. She had no defense. She wasn't the most eloquent juvenile offender I'd ever met, but I suspected she was afraid of saying more in front of her father. A parent needs to be present though, for this very reason. A kid who goes through an experience like this usually doesn't rush off to shoplift again too soon.

"If we offer you community service as an option rather than something more severe, will you take that opportunity today?" I asked her.

"Yes." Her voice came out low, frightened.

Her father opened his mouth before we could progress. He began to rant that he'd escaped Vietnam in a boat thirty years ago. He talked of his embarrassment and fury that his daughter saw no significance in the family's good fortune that Canada had given them a home and a new life--that he and his wife had worked themselves to the bone and this was how Lucy repaid him.

It had nothing to do with anything, but we allowed him to vent. He was angry and hurt, and I didn't blame him. In my six months involved with the program, I'd never seen a kid steal essential items. It was always random, frivolous stuff. Boys tended to veer toward electronics. Girls toward makeup and jewelry.

When Mr. Trang went into full victim mode, I started tuning him out. My cell phone began to vibrate in my pocket. I thought I'd turned it off. I took it out to do that and was surprised to see the name Harley Thatcher on my readout.

Harley is my niece. My sister, Pauline, married Harley's dad and my former co-worker, Trace Thatcher, one of the greatest U.S. Marshals in history. The family lives in Dallas, but Harley was in her last year at Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship. She was in training for the Olympics women's basketball team, and a damned fantastic kid.

I itched to take the call but slipped the phone back into my pocket.

As soon as Mr. Trang took a breath, I asked Lucy if she would be willing to write a letter of apology to Macy's, as well as serve her community.

"Yes," she and her father said in unison.

"How many hours?" he asked.

"Forty," I said, assigning her two months to complete the program. I glanced at Brenda. We'd already discussed terms privately. She handed a sheet of paper to Lucy with the approved list of services from which she would have to choose.

"Trash collection," Lucy said. An unusual choice for a girl, but then again, maybe I'd met too many who whined and sniveled and preferred working at retirement villages, making cups of tea for old ladies.

Mr. Trang ranted a little more. Man, his kid should have shoplifted a muzzle for him. She sat there like me and Brenda, just letting him talk. My cell phone rang again. Once more I checked. Harley. I was worried now. This wasn't like her. The last time she'd called me frantically, she was in trouble. She'd had an abusive ex-boyfriend and he wouldn't leave her alone. She was afraid to tell her father, so we flew to South Bend, Indiana, and, as I helped move her from her off-campus apartment to a dorm, Kieran went to deal with the ex.

He was a local amateur boxing champion who'd been training her, but after Kieran finished having a "quiet word" with him, the boxer had two broken legs and Kieran had a black eye. Ryan Arvelle hadn't taken too kindly to a Canadian cop telling him to stay away from a young woman he wouldn't let go of. He'd challenged Kieran to a round of boxing.

Bad mistake. Kieran had knocked him out cold in two minutes and thirty-seven seconds in Arvelle's gym. Somebody had taped the whole thing on a cell phone and uploaded it to YouTube. It had gone viral. Now every teenage girl in America wanted Kieran for a dad.

Our son watched the footage over and over and loved how his father dropped the snarling, spitting, crazy boxer. As far as I knew, Harley hadn't had any further trouble with him. We'd changed her cell phone number and blocked his email addresses and filed a restraining order against him. It was still in effect and she knew better than to not report any efforts he made to contact her.

I couldn't wait to bolt from the meeting to return her call.

"Harley," I said, as I raced into the hallway. She'd called a third time and sounded frantic.

"Uncle Jube?"

"Are you crying?" I'd never heard Harley crying. This was the girl who fought for Notre Dame to have a female boxing team. It was her hobby. She could have had a pro career except that basketball was her life. Still, she had taught Juan some cool moves. She was a warrior. I waited for her to respond.

"A little bit." She giggled through her tears.

"What's wrong?"

"I miss you guys."

Oh, man. I blew out a breath. We missed her, too. She'd come up for a week after Christmas and it had been the best time ever. She felt her father and Pauline had their hands full with their two-year-old daughter, Tracy, and twin boys, Andre and Philip, who were now thirteen. I don't think she lacked for attention. My sister dotes on her as much as she can, but with Harley living away from them, it's difficult. Pauline is more of a mother to Harley than her own mother is and she encourages Trace to fly to Indiana for all her big games.

The truth is she enjoyed having a boyfriend. It's tough for a brilliant, multi-talented girl to find a guy who can handle all that and her ability to potentially beat him to death. In our home, she gets to hang out with three men who adore her. It also doesn't hurt that word got around her school that her Uncle Kieran knocked out a golden gloves champion.

"Can I come up and visit?" she asked.

I frowned. I knew she was back in school and this year was crucial.

"When?"

"Well, I have Friday off and Monday's a holiday."

"Ah, a long weekend. Sure." I felt certain Kieran wouldn't mind. "We'd love it. If you can find a good deal that works for you on Hotwire, you've got my credit card number. Buy yourself the ticket and email me the details. We'll be at the airport waiting for you."

"Oh, cool!" She sounded better now. "And Uncle Jube?"

"Yes, sweetie?"

"Please don't tell Dad I cried."

"Okay, I won't." She ended the call with "I love you," and I said the words back. I was worried now. Something was bothering her, but Friday was only two days away. I pondered calling her back, but Brenda caught up with me in the hallway.

"I kinda felt sorry for Lucy, didn't you?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"She told me she was going to sell the brushes on eBay." She shook her head.

"When did she tell you that?"

"Just now. In the washroom."

I shook my head. "Good thing she got caught." My cell phone vibrated. Kieran.

Brenda and I waved goodbye and I took the call.

"Hey, babe," I said.

"Hey, yourself. Jube, has Harley called you?"

"Yeah. I just spoke to her. She called you, too?"

"She was looking for you. I can't be positive, but I think our girl was crying."

I thought about my conversation with her. She hadn't told me not to tell Kieran, only her father. "She was. She says she's okay. She's flying up here on Friday for a few days. I hope that's okay."

"Of course it's okay. She hasn't heard any more from that weasel, Ryan, has she?"

"She didn't say." I worried even more now. "I should call her back."

"Yeah. And if that punk tries anything, I'd like to break his arms this time."

I laughed then. "You broke his legs. He won't go near her." I hope.

"Call her back. If you need me, I'm here." He paused. "I'm so glad Juan isn't a girl. When he starts dating it won't be so tough for us."

"The hell you say."

There was a long pause on the other end. "Please let me have my false sense of security, Jube. I need it. Hey, you know something? I just read that that actor, Will Smith's son, filed for emancipation from his parents!"

"He did?"

"Jube, he's fourteen. You don't suppose Juan will come up with the same brilliant idea, do you?"

"No. We're not rich enough."

He laughed. "Phew."

My cell phone rang again and I saw the readout. Sean Mercado. Man, it seemed like the entire U.S. Marshal clan was calling me today. I let Kieran go. He told me he loved me. I told him he should. I was glad I could make him laugh. I switched to the second line and exchanged pleasantries with Sean.

Kieran and I had trained Sean and his life partner, Nicholas Fournier, as U.S. Marshals and had maintained a strong friendship with them. Like Trace, they were still active marshals and were happy together.

"Did Harley call you?" he asked.

"She called you, too?" What in the world was going on with her? I had to call her back.

"Yeah. I got worried. I think she was crying."

Dang. "What did she say to you, Sean?"

"She said she couldn't find you. She called Nicholas, too, but he's out in the wilds, undercover." His voice faltered. Man, I didn't miss those bad ol' days of never knowing how Kieran was when he undertook such assignments--and vice versa.

"I haven't heard from him in a couple of weeks, but he got her call and then contacted me. We both know what happened the last time she was in a panic. Do I need to go to Indiana and hunt down that little prick, Ryan Arvelle?"

"Give me a couple of hours. I'll call her back."

"Yeah, she's more likely to tell you than me. You need anything from me, Jube, I'm right here. I'll be happy to break the rest of his body. Just let me know."

"Gotcha." We ended the call. I paced the hallway with minutes to spare for my next mediation and called my niece. It went straight to voicemail. I left her a message, asking her to call me, and a few seconds later received a text with her flight number and arrival time. She'd put hearts and smiley faces on the note. I tried to assure myself she just missed her uncles and her younger cousin.

Then I remembered my dream of the man with the roses. I had a horrible feeling she was in trouble. The guy in my dream didn't resemble Ryan Arvelle, but then it was a dream--okay, a nightmare--and it might not mean anything at all.

She called me back within seconds.

"Baby girl, is everything all right?" I asked her.

"Of course."

"You're not having any problems with Ryan, are you?"

She hesitated too long, but her voice sounded bright. "I just had a fight with Mom." I almost asked which one, but was pretty sure she meant her birth mother.

"Is everything okay?" I asked.

"She's married to a wacko."

Now I knew she wasn't talking about my sister. Harley's mom had married a guy none of us liked, but I didn't think Harley had that much to do with them. Her mother had sort of disowned her since Harley spent her weekends and vacation time with Trace and Pauline. It shocked me how badly Harley's mother treated her.

Pauline did everything she could for Harley, who was an amazing, loving kid.

"I just miss you and Uncle Kieran. Hey, you need to arrange a date night with him so I can hang out with my favorite cousin, okay?"

I hated the doubt I felt. I had to remind myself she was a twenty-two-year-old woman and I shouldn't treat her like a kid.

"It's gonna be my last night to have pizza and cookies. I'm going into serious training, so I figure who better to splurge on cheese and butter with than Juan?"

I laughed then. Juan would eagerly help her demolish homemade pizza and cookies. I began to plot a sexy date with my husband.

"Can't wait to see you," I said, and let her end the call.