There was something about the courthouse that Ell both loved and hated. She loved the clear rules and the regimented way it ran. There was never a question about what the next step should be, about what was and wasn’t allowed and about how a person went through those steps.
However, another part of her remembered coming as a child and the crushing disappointment that happened no matter how it went. Being there as an adult was different, gave a person a sense of power, but as a kid?
She recalled sitting beside a social worker, trembling, never sure how it would go or what that meant for her. Would they hand her over to her mother? Her father? Some relative she’d never met who wanted good karma points for taking in the poor, destitute child? Or would she take the gamble that was foster parents?
It was terrifying—always.
Which was exactly why Ell handed a closed cup of hot cocoa to the boy sitting on the bench in one of the many long hallways.
Donnie Denton, the first case she’d ever been assigned on her own. She could still remember walking in to see him, black eye but ready to take on anyone he needed to to survive. It had broken her heart to see him like that, to know he’d lived a life where he’d needed that hard edge.
He took the hot cocoa and offered a rough thank you. While other case managers had had trouble with him—they claimed he lied and was disrespectful and labeled him a lost cause—Ell had taken to him right away. She still smiled each time he went to respond with cursing but stopped himself, as if he knew it wasn’t appropriate to say in front of her.
At fourteen, Donnie stood taller than her and had started to put on more bulk. Even still, she couldn’t help but see the kid he’d been when she’d first met him.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered softly, holding the cup between his hands.
“You don’t need to apologize.” Ell took her seat beside him.
“Yeah, I do. I fu—I screwed up. You shouldn’t have to waste your time cleaning up my messes.”
Ell shook her head. “I know you—if you got into this fight, you had a good reason, right?”
The color leeched from his lips as he pressed them together, the universal signal for ‘I’m no snitch’ that he got whenever she questioned anything. Then again, he was going to have to go back to that life, to those streets, and the sorts of people who existed in that world didn’t forgive betrayal.
“I’m not trying to find out who it was,” she pressed, gesturing at his split lip and his black eye, all signs he’d taken a hell of a beating. “I’m just saying, I know you have a good heart. You wouldn’t be out there attacking random, innocent people. So for this to happen, you had a good reason.”
He let out a long breath before taking a sip of the drink. He held it in his mouth for a long moment, as if thinking, then swallowed. “Someone wanted me to do a job, but they didn’t tell me the real job. When they did? I told them to fu—I told them no. Well, he didn’t take no very well.”
Ell set her hand on his back and rubbed, knowing there wasn’t much she could do for him. It was like his path had been made for him before he’d ever been born, and no matter how hard she tried, she had no idea how to get him off it.
The creaking of a door caught Ell’s attention, and sure enough, Jeff Jadzen walked out of his office. Exactly the man she’d been waiting for.
Ell rose to her feet after nodding at Donnie, her way of assuring him she’d handle it.
Jeff took one look her way and walked faster.
Too bad Ell was perfectly fine with running in heels.
“Jeff, I need a minute—”
“Sorry, Ell, but I’m really busy. Set something up with my secretary.”
“I tried. I haven’t heard anything back in a week, and I’ve called every day.”
“Like I said, very busy.” He reached the men’s room, then smiled like he’d won some prize. “It was nice to see you. Call the office and we’ll try to get together next week.” He ducked into the bathroom, his voice floating out as the door swung closed.
Next week would be too late. The pretrial was set for Friday of this week, and she shuddered to think about Donnie ending up in juvie, of how quickly the rest of his options could float away.
Which was the exact thing that had her walking into the men’s room. She’d been in far worse places in her life for far less noble reasons.
“Please tell me you didn’t follow me into the men’s room.” Jeff spoke through a closed stall door, the annoyance palpable.
“I wasn’t finished talking with you. At least now, you can’t leave.”
The longest sigh came from the stall. “Which charity case are you here about this time?”
“Him again? Come on, Ell, you run yourself ragged and for what? Donnie isn’t some six-year-old who needs you to save him—he’s basically an adult in his world. Stop seeing him as something he isn’t.”
“He’s fourteen—that’s still a kid. He isn’t a bad kid, either.”
“You say that because you didn’t see the other person in the fight. Donnie shattered his eye socket with a bat.”
That took her off guard, the level of violence new. Still, Ell shook her head, reassuring herself that she knew Donnie. He didn’t lie to her. If he didn’t want to tell her something, he just wouldn’t, but he didn’t lie.
“You know what it’s like for people who live in that area.”
“Yeah, I know, because I see what happens to the victims.”
“Some victim. They wanted Donnie to do a job that was bad enough he turned it down once he knew the details.”
“Is that what he told you? Well, his ‘turned it down’ moment ended up being inside someone’s house as they robbed it. Did he leave that part out? That the woman walked in and saw them there.”
Ell cringed at the little detail that, well, yeah, Donnie had left out. Still, it didn’t change the rest. “Well, did Donnie touch the woman?”
Silence let her know she was right.
There was the flush of a toilet, then Jeff walked out and headed for the sinks. “No. According to her, Donnie’s friend pulled a bat, and when Donnie objected, the two got into a fight. Scared the poor woman half to death, and when Donnie won, when the other man took off, Donnie said sorry and escaped through a window. We caught him down the street.”
“You see? He was trying to help.”
Jeff dried his hands, then turned to face Ell. “You see the best in people, Ell, and that’s great, but it’s going to get you killed. These kids you help, they aren’t innocent and fragile. By the time they hit their teenage years, a lot of them are already killers. They’re dangerous, and they’re manipulative, and if you’re not careful, it’ll end you.”
How many times had she heard that sort of warning? People who told Ell that she should pick a safer job, that she should do something else?
It didn’t matter. She knew exactly why she did what she did. “Donnie has a shot. If you throw him into juvie, you’re just going to solidify this path for him. Prison doesn’t rehabilitate kids. It just makes them into better criminals.”
Jeff rubbed the corners of his eyes. “What do you want me to do? He broke into a woman’s house and put someone else in the hospital. I can’t just look the other way with that.”
“He needs to see there are options for him, that there’s a life he can still have that isn’t on the streets. Assign him community service hours, and I’ll make sure to find him a place to work them where he can do some good, where he can see a different life is possible.”
Jeff’s expression twisted the way it always did when he was in thought, when he was trying to see all the possible outcomes. His job had jaded him, but he wasn’t a bad man.
Finally, he nodded. “Okay. I’ll get it all drawn up and present it to his public defender. Make sure he understands that this is it, though. This is his one big shot. If he gets involved in something else like this, you won’t be able to save him again.”
Ell agreed, thanked Jeff, then exited the men’s room. A quick conversation with Donnie outside let him know the details, and even though he wasn’t the sort to admit to being nervous, the shuddering breath he released said he had been. He thanked Ell, then took off.
She would have driven him home, but Donnie was used to using the bus system. He always refused when she tried, saying he’d meet her wherever it was.
A glance at her watch told Ell that she didn’t have another appointment until later, which gave her time to gather herself. When she slung her bag over her shoulder and turned, however, she ran directly into someone else.
Hands grasped her arms to keep her upright, and Ell glanced up to find a familiar face grinning down at her.
Ethan Jaymes, a detective she’d dealt with more than a few times. He was tall, dark and handsome—all the things that made her certain he was also trouble, especially when he smiled at her the way he always did. His green eyes danced with an amusement that his voice mirrored. “Aren’t you in a hurry?”
She pulled away, extracting herself from his strong grasp. “You were the one standing far too close.”
“I said your name, and you didn’t hear me. Distracted?” He lifted an eyebrow.
“Well, believe it or not, my world doesn’t revolve around you.”
He let out a soft laugh, the way he always did when she soundly rejected him. It was odd, because sometimes it seemed the meaner she got, the more Ethan liked her.
And, just like clockwork, Ethan’s shadow came around the corner.
Clint Faire, Ethan’s partner, and an unnerving presence who had always made Ell fidget under his intense stare. He peered at her, no pleasure or surprise showing in his hazel eyes. He had a light brown beard and mustache, both well groomed, but shaved his head. If he weren’t dressed so well, she’d no doubt think he was some muscle-head up to no good. “Ms. Hayden,” he said, his tone as respectful as always.
Ell nodded back, still trying to calm her racing heart from her surprise at seeing Ethan. It shouldn’t have surprised her that much—the two detectives were often at the courthouse—yet they always managed to make her feel out of control.
Which was about the worst feeling she could imagine. Ell was the sort of woman who preferred everything in its place, everything well-regulated and scheduled. Ethan and Clint managed to make her feel the opposite, as if she couldn’t quite get a hold of all the pieces of her life, as if she couldn’t make sense of it all.
And why, she had no idea.
She’d known the two men for years, though never well. She wouldn’t call them friends by any stretch of the imagination, but they’d worked together from time to time—both on the same side and not so much.
“So who are you harassing today?” Clint asked in his matter-of-fact way that always made Ell’s cheeks heat.
“I wasn’t harassing anyone. I was doing my job.”
“And who did your job require you to harass today?” Clint pressed.
“No one.” Ell crossed her arms and tapped her foot, trying her best to make her annoyance as clear as possible.
“She followed me into the men’s room,” Jeff answered as he walked past, not slowing down to talk, seeming more than happy to rush across the hall so he could hide in his office again.
Ethan let out a hard laugh at that, and the fact he accepted her actions without question annoyed Ell. Yes, she was dedicated, but he could have had a second of ‘Are they being serious? Would she really do that?’ doubt.
“I needed to discuss something important with him, and he wanted to hide in the bathroom.”
“You’re going to get yourself into trouble one day,” Ethan said as he caught his breath from his laughter. “It’s good to go to bat for your kids, Ell, but be careful that you don’t put yourself in a position you don’t want to be in.”
His words ran through Ell like they always did, tinged in something she tried so hard to ignore. Why was it that Ethan managed to get beneath her skin like this? His voice was like honey, something sweet enough to draw her closer, but also sticky enough she feared it might trap her.
All the reasons it was a bad idea had gone through in her head on nights when she stayed up thinking about him, even about Clint. She had her life in order. She’d perfectly crafted each part of it, fitting the pieces together, making exactly the picture she wanted. The idea of anyone else coming into that, of them possibly tearing apart everything she’d worked so hard to put into place, terrified her.
Life was hard and scary and dangerous, but if she kept the pieces in their spots, if she made sure everything went where it belonged, she could avoid the pain and fear she’d known so well as a kid.
So Ell offered a quick goodbye before she risked falling any further into either man, before she risked everything she’d built, her perfect house of cards.
The last thing she needed was to let either of these men blow down all the hard work she’d put in.
Clint watched the social worker scurry away, her heels loud against the tile floor. He stared at her ass, at the way it looked in her slacks.
Knock it off, you pervert.
Despite chastising himself, he never fully shook that. Sure, she was way too young for him, and there was no doubt she was strung too tight. None of that changed that each damn time he spotted her, his pulse sped and his cock hardened.
Hell, he was pretty sure his cock was like a barometer for that girl—it took notice even before he realized she was around.
“She’s not interested,” Clint said, and yet again, Ethan wished the other man developed some sort of a filter on that mouth of his.
Then again, if he hadn’t in twenty years, it probably wouldn’t happen now.
Clint said what he thought, no matter the consequences. Teaching him tact was a pointless endeavor.
“Even if she was…” Ethan said.
“She’s too young.”
Ethan nodded. “Yeah, she really is. She’s grown up a lot in the last few years, though. Did you see Jeff all but run away? I can’t remember the last person who got him moving like that.”
Clint hooked his thumbs into his pockets, staring down the hallway in the direction Ell had scurried off in. “She’s got too many hang-ups anyways.”
Ethan snorted at the understatement. “That girl has more baggage than could fit on a plane.”
Still what? Ethan couldn’t help the fact his brain did that, locked onto her, and each time he came up with all the reasons it was a piss-poor idea, his mind seemed to rebut it.
Not that any of it really mattered. All the whys didn’t change anything—she wasn’t interested. Ethan hadn’t actually asked her out, hadn’t tried seriously to pursue anything, but Ell made it clear enough without that. The second their conversations turned to anything remotely personal, when an opening might occur where he could ask her, she shut it down and ran.
He had no idea if that was due to his age, his profession, her background and if she was just so terrified of the world that even the consideration of dating wasn’t there.
In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever seen her with anyone, or with any sign of dating at all…
Which seemed like a pity.
Ell was the sort of woman who should have a man—maybe more than one.
But since she didn’t seem on board with that plan—and he reminded himself again that neither was he—Ethan tried to put it behind him. He looked over at Clint and gestured toward the elevator. “Come on, let’s go get some lunch. We can ponder the direction of our love life over food.”
Clint nodded and followed Ethan’s lead.
Why not drown his disappointment in carbs?