Alexis McCord squinted into the late afternoon sun in San Diego, California, and yanked open the door of her little apartment, panicked by the text she’d received from the babysitter.
“Wylie! Chance! Where are you?”
“Here,” came a muffled reply.
“Where?” Lexi raced down the hall, following the girl’s voice into her bedroom. From under her bed, the fifteen-year-old babysitter pushed Chance, Lexi’s three-year-old son. Tears tracked down his dust-covered cheeks.
Lexi sat down on the floor and pulled Chance into her lap. “It’s okay, Chance. I’m here.” She brushed his white-blond hair off his forehead and pressed him against her chest, feeling his heart racing. She willed herself not to burst into tears, too. Time to be strong, she repeated to herself. For now. As Chance’s sobs declined into sniffs, Lexi turned her attention to Wylie, a sister of one of Lexi’s fellow servers. “Why’d you text me? What happened?”
Wylie crawled out from under the bed. “That guy you said to watch out for? With red hair?”
Hugh. Lexi nodded.
“He banged in the back door and said I had to leave. And to take Chance with me. When he started to cry, that man got wicked mad.”
Lexi squeezed her eyes shut, fearful of what the sitter might say next.
“So I took Chance and knocked on your neighbor’s door, but no one answered. That’s when we hid in their garage.” Wylie gulped. “Then this other guy went into your house.”
Lexi’s heart thumped. “What did he look like?”
“Big, you know. Beefy.” Wylie crooked her arm as if she was a fighter. “Lots of tattoos. I don’t think he saw us.”
Spike. Lexi reached over to the girl and gave her a one-armed hug, grateful that she’d managed to keep herself and Chance safe. “Let me pay you, Wylie.” Lexi reached into her uniform pocket and pulled out the tips she’d earned serving the lunch rush. “I’m so sorry this happened.”
“Hugh’s so mean.” Chance sniffed and rubbed a hand across his face.
The teenager glanced sidelong at Lexi before ruffling Chance’s hair. “My sister may not let me sit for you again.”
Lexi nodded. “I understand.” But who would watch Chance?
Wylie grabbed her backpack and left by the kitchen door.
Lexi followed Chance into the living room. He opened his toy box and rummaged inside, then allowed the lid to slam back into place.
“My cement mixer’s gone,” Chance announced, his chin quivering. “My dump truck, too. I hate Hugh. He keeps taking my trucks.”
Why Hugh did that, Lexi couldn’t fathom. After all, when Hugh had money, he bought Chance those trucks.
Chance picked up three other Tonkas—a car, a bulldozer, and the red van. Last month, Hugh had thrown the bulldozer against the wall, but then he had glued the toy back together, claiming he was sorry. Chance had been happy to retrieve the toy, even if its wheels no longer turned. The red van’s windows had been knocked out, too, but Hugh had glued cardboard in their place and drawn a cartoon face on one of them. Chance liked the whimsical grin that looked out the cardboard windshield. At least the wheels of the van still turned. Chance enjoyed zooming the van around his bedroom.
Lexi patted Chance’s nearest shoulder. “Maybe Hugh will bring them back,” she offered. She reached down and picked up the bedspread with the race track pattern. Chance had been thrilled when Lexi had brought it home from the Goodwill. He loved to race his trucks on the spread.
“Come on, Chance. I have to work the dinner shift. You’re coming with me.”
Her little boy reached for her hand. “Can I bring my car with me?”
“Of course.” It was the only toy Hugh had never touched. Lexi guessed that Chance wanted to protect it. “But you’ll have to play with it very quietly.” She placed a finger over her lips.
As they walked the four blocks from her one-bedroom apartment to the diner where she worked, Lexi debated what to do about Hugh. He’d found her in his car four years earlier. Out of a job and money, she had no intention of going back to Arizona. After all, she’d aged out of the foster system and the parents of that last group home had made it clear she couldn’t stay after her eighteenth birthday.
Hugh had offered Lexi a place to stay as long as she did what he wanted. At the time, Lexi hadn’t cared that he used her, as long as she didn’t have to survive on the street. And she’d found a job at the diner after only two weeks. Something Hugh hadn’t minded. He’d said her tips would keep them in food.
But the man had gradually changed. And not for the better. Especially after she became pregnant. Hugh had hurt her, leaving bruises she couldn’t hide. When her boss demanded to know what had happened, he’d insisted that she call the cops. Lexi was afraid to do that, fearing what Hugh might do to her, but she did look for another place to stay, even if the little one-bedroom apartment wasn’t in the best condition or in the safest neighborhood.
Lucky for her that shortly thereafter, Hugh was arrested and spent the rest of her pregnancy in jail. Even though Chance was Hugh’s son, he’d demanded that she give the baby up, that he was just in the way. But Lexi had flatly refused, saying her son wasn’t going into foster care.
Hugh also claimed that he hadn’t burgled those stores. Lexi threatened to tell her boss if Hugh touched her or the baby and he must have believed her. Most days, he stayed away, except when he wanted sex. But she suspected Hugh was breaking into businesses all along the strip near the beach where she lived. That explained how he came into money at odd times. Not that he shared it with her, except to buy toys for Chance.
~ ~ ~
Lexi finished her dinner shift and carried Chance out of the diner. Her arms ached by the time she arrived at the apartment. The front door was open, which meant Hugh must have come over. Angry voices, both male, confirmed it.
Before Lexi could turn around and leave, Hugh’s buddy, Spike, who reminded Lexi of a gorilla with his shoulder-length dark hair and huge biceps, spotted her on the porch.
“Well, look what just dragged in. Can I have her tonight? ’S been a while since I got laid,” he slurred, his beer breath preceding him when he took two steps toward Lexi.
Lexi backed away from Spike, using Chance’s sleeping form as a shield.
“Leave her alone. She’s my woman. You know I don’t share.” Hugh stood in the doorway. “’Sides, I got something for the kid,” and held up the two Tonka trucks Chance had said were missing earlier that day.
Lexi eased past Spike, walked into her bedroom and placed Chance on the little pallet she’d made into a bed for him. She returned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. As she suspected, Hugh and Spike had emptied it of the soup she’d made. All that remained was a pair of English muffins and three eggs, one now cracked along the side and oozing onto the shelf where it sat next to the muffins.
“Why’d you take Chance’s toys, Hugh?”
Spike laughed under his breath and then coughed. “Maybe ’cause he never got any toys when he was a kid and he’s relivin’ his childhood.”
“Shut up, Spike.” Hugh was about to say something else when he glanced through the windows at the sound of sirens.
He took off running, followed by Spike.
Two police cruisers, sirens screaming, lights sending blue and red streaks of color onto the front of Lexi’s apartment, screamed to a stop. The doors of the cruisers opened and two officers took off after Hugh and Spike. Two others, their guns drawn, walked up to the house as the sirens croaked to a slow stop.
Lexi raised her arms. “I’m unarmed,” she said, her heart pounding. “Please don’t wake up my son. We just got home. He’s in bed back there.” She motioned with one shoulder.
“You know those two—the ones who took off?” the policewoman asked after frisking Lexi. She motioned for Lexi to put her arms down while her partner glanced around the kitchen, looked in the bathroom and then the bedroom. He pulled the door closed after seeing Chance. “Kid’s in that room,” he stated. “Just like she said.”
Lexi focused her gaze on the policewoman. “I know them. Hugh Stockman. And Spike. All Hugh’s ever called him is Spike. What’ve they done this time?”
The male officer stared at Lexi. “You don’t know?”
Lexi shook her head. “I worked all three shifts today, at the diner up on Smith Street. You can ask my boss. Hugh came over this afternoon and scared my sitter. She texted me and I came home and took Chance back to the diner with me.”
“What’s your sitter’s name?” The policewoman pulled out a notebook.
“Wylie Gabriel. Her big sister works at the diner. You can ask my boss.”
“Your sitter’s address?”
Lexi provided it along with answers to the policewoman’s other questions. “What did Hugh do?” she repeated.
The policewoman ignored her when the other two officers reappeared, walking Hugh and Spike, both handcuffed, toward their police cruiser. The fugitives loudly proclaimed their innocence as they were placed in the backseat.
The male officer said, “They’re suspects in a jewelry store break-in earlier today.”
Lexi turned to see Chance stumbling into the kitchen. She held out her arms to him and picked him up. “It’s okay, honey.” She patted his back and kissed his cheek.
Lexi turned back to the policewoman. “Are you going to arrest me? I swear I didn’t have a thing to do with it.”
The two officers glanced at each other. “Not tonight,” the woman said. “We may need to talk to you again—after we check out your story. Don’t be going anywhere.”
“But I have to work tomorrow.”
“Breakfast for sure. I won’t know about the others until I get there.”
“You can go to work. We’ll find you if we have more questions.”
Lexi nodded. She closed the door with one foot, and collapsed onto the couch, barely missing the toys Hugh had returned. Like the others, they looked damaged. A huge dent decorated one side of the cement mixer, but he’d also created a lump of what looked like dirt, made from some kind of brown plastic that he’d glued into the bed of the dump truck.
Chance reached for the trucks. “Mine,” he declared.
“Time for bed, honey.” Lexi walked Chance into the bedroom, returned to the living room to lock the front door and did the same for the kitchen door, though it no longer sat squarely in its frame, a victim of Hugh’s entry earlier that day. She placed a chair against the door. That would have to suffice until she could convince the landlord to fix it. But would he tell her it was her fault, that she’d have to pay for the repair?
~ ~ ~
The next day, Lexi learned that the police had already spoken with the owner and Wylie. She was relieved that Hugh was in jail. She worked the breakfast and lunch shifts. As often as she could, she took Chance outside to run off excess energy before returning him to a rarely used booth closest to the entrance to the kitchen.
Lexi returned home after a less-than-average day of tips. Her frequent breaks had cut into the cash she usually took home. But she had no one to watch her little boy and Chance was too young to be left alone.
A knock sounded at her door.
“I’ll get it!”
“No, wait!” Lexi followed Chance to the door.
The policewoman from last night’s encounter leaned down to shake Chance’s hand. “Hello, little man. Is your mom home?”
Looking over Chance’s head, Lexi hoped the calm countenance of the police officer and her partner meant that she wasn’t in trouble, that she knew Lexi had had nothing to do with whatever crime Hugh might have committed.
“You’re not being charged. Your boss confirmed where you were—which means you couldn’t have been with Hugh or his partner.”
At Lexi’s raised eyebrow, the policewoman added. “They’ve been charged with breaking and entering and burglary.”
“How long will they be locked up?”
“That depends on the prosecutor and the owner of the jewelry store. The big guy had some of the goods on him, but your man—”
“Hugh’s not my man,” Lexi countered.
“Hugh’s mean,” Chance added, crossed his arms over his chest as he glared at the police officers. “Tell him to leave my trucks alone, to say he’s sorry for wrecking them.”
“I’ll do that,” the male officer replied, smiling at Chance.
The policewoman said, “Anyway, there’s a reward for the return of the jewelry. Some expensive pieces are missing. Stockman denies he took them. He claims it was Spike.”
Lexi backed away from the door at the news. To her knowledge, Hugh had never robbed a jewelry store before.
“But he’s locked up, at least for a little while?”
“Could be a long time,” the policewoman confirmed.
“Thanks for telling me.” Lexi watched the two officers tromp down the steps.
That evening, she made dinner with the leftovers the cook had said she could take home. Lexi listened with one ear to Chance’s chatter, trying to decide what to do. The extra key to Hugh’s old car, the one she’d climbed into that awful night when she was soaking wet from the rain and cold clear through, hung on a nail next to the back door. If he was in jail, Hugh wouldn’t need the car. If she took it, she could leave. What did she have here, anyway? Nothing but a dead-end job and an apartment in one of the worst parts of town.
I need a new start. In a new place. Where Hugh can’t find me. She glanced up in the silence that told her Chance was waiting for a reply to the question she hadn’t really heard.
“Want to go on a trip, baby? It’ll be fun, don’t you think? Let’s pack our stuff. Want to help?”
The little boy, his blond hair falling into his eyes, grinned. “Where we going? To the zoo, maybe? Wylie told me all about it. Lots of animals, some with big teeth. Rouwwwlll!” He imitated a lion or maybe a tiger. Lexi wasn’t sure.
“Not the zoo, but let’s get started.”
She walked into her bedroom, pulled two empty boxes out of the closet and stuffed their clothes inside. Chance did his part when Lexi asked him to gather up his toys. She filled the remaining space in the toy box with Chance’s bed spread, her heavy jacket and his sweater. Lexi placed the boxes in the trunk of the car and stuffed a paper bag with two changes of clothes for each of them.
She counted out her tip money. “Thirty-six dollars and forty cents.” Not much. It was two days before the end of the month. She called her boss and told him she wouldn’t be able to work for him any longer. Her fingers crossed, she asked for the last two weeks of her paycheck. He grudgingly agreed.
“Thanks. I’ll come get it now, if you don’t mind.”
Lexi belted Chance into the passenger seat, wishing she had a car seat for him. She drove back to the diner, collected her pay and cashed the check. She drove out of town, checking the rearview mirror every other block, feeling like she was being followed, though she saw no police cars or any of Hugh’s friends. At the first scenic turnoff on old Highway One, she helped Chance use the bathroom in one of the port-a-potties. She enjoyed a long look at the Pacific Ocean as the nearly-full moon shone on the waves before helping Chance back into the car.
Hours later, when she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer, Lexi pulled into a rest stop and huddled with Chance on the back seat. The next morning, she drove north with no clear goal other than to get as far away from Hugh as she could. On the fourth afternoon of her trek away from San Diego, the car’s engine coughed and sputtered before ceasing to respond to Lexi’s pressure on the gas pedal.
Lexi smacked the steering wheel in frustration. “No. Don’t you die on me now.” She steered the car to the side of the road and sat for a moment, trying to decide what to do next. She was down to her last fifty dollars after splurging on a cheap motel room the night before when the early December temperatures plunged. She was afraid that Chance was coming down with a cold. He needed a warm bed, at least for one night, even if Lexi couldn’t get the shower to work.
She looked around. The sign about one hundred feet ahead of her read, “Welcome to Sandy Reach, where the fishers come in eager and leave happy.” Hmm. Sandy Reach. She knew she was in Washington state, but not yet close to Seattle, according to the map she’d bought at the last truck stop.
“Where are we?” Chance poked his head out from under the blanket she’d spread over him in the backseat.
“Washington.” But Lexi didn’t want to have to walk into town. It was raining. Wind slapped against the driver’s side window and door, coming in off the ocean, whose gray waves looked angry and cold. Rather than open the door and risk getting wet, Lexi freed herself from her seat belt and climbed over the seat into the back with Chance.
“Move over, hon. We’ll take a nap together and wait for the rain to stop.”
Chance didn’t question her and snuggled in close.
Lexi dozed off. She woke to the sounds of someone knocking on the car window. In the darkness, the beam of a flashlight swept over the car and into the interior, temporarily blinding her. The authoritative voice of a man outside the car pulled her into a sitting position.
Police. Again. Oh, God. Does he know I stole the car?
Lexi waved at him, hoping he’d train the bright beam off her face. When he did so, she opened the window a crack and asked, “Yes?”
“Ma’am, you can’t park here. Too close to the road. You could get sideswiped.”
“My car died,” she explained, hoping the young sheriff wouldn’t arrest her.
“Then you come on out. I’ll drive you into town, and order a tow.”
Lexi looked down at Chance, still sleeping peacefully.
“You’ll have to take us both. I’m not leaving my kid.”
“Wouldn’t expect you to. Grab him and come with me.” The officer slapped a yellow piece of paper under the windshield wiper.
Lexi wrapped Chance in the blanket and hauled him out of the backseat. The sheriff took the boy from her. Lexi grabbed her purse and the bag with the last of their food, and followed the man to his cruiser. “You’re sure my car will be safe there?”
“Don’t know that it won’t get hit, but at least you won’t be in it. The tow truck ought to be here soon,” the sheriff replied after depositing Chance in the backseat. “I called it in while you were getting your stuff. You can sit in the front.”
Lexi did as he suggested, glancing at him after noting the long gun strapped between the two seats. “Am I safe up here?”
The sheriff grinned. “Sure.” He appraised her for a long minute. “Been on the road long, Blondie?”
Lexi stared balefully at the police officer. “Four days.”
“Anybody here in Sandy Reach I should call? A relative or friend? Or is your phone out of juice, too, like the car?”
Lexi shook her head, determined not to encourage conversation with the sheriff, who seemed like he wanted to talk.
“Then I’ll take you to a motel. You can stay there tonight. I’ll let the tow truck driver know where you are so he can call you about your car.”
As if it’s fixable, Lexi thought. She had a feeling that Hugh’s old beater had seen its last highway. “It better be a cheap motel. I don’t have much money.”
“Not to worry. I’ll ask them to comp you tonight. As a favor to the Sheriff’s department.” The man smiled again and seemed to puff out his chest.
Lexi mentally crossed her fingers, hoping the sheriff wasn’t like Hugh. For every good deed he did, he’d expected payment. Whether Lexi agreed or not.
The sheriff pulled up in front of a four-story hotel on the beach side of the road. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” He strode through the double doors and came back moments later. “Here. Your key. Need help with the boy?”
“No. I can manage,” Lexi insisted, realizing with a start that all she owned remained in the car, in the trunk. Too late now.
The police officer insisted on carrying Chance into the hotel, giving him back to Lexi at the door of her first-floor room.
“My name’s Grant Vaughn,” he said.
“Thank you, Sheriff Vaughn.”
“Deputy Vaughn,” he corrected. “Your name is?” he coaxed.
Lexi just looked at him, sending a quelling message.
He chuckled, lifted his hat off his head in a kind of salute and left.
Lexi tucked Chance into the bed closest to the window, closed the blinds against the rain-streaked windows, and slipped out of her clothes. She took a long hot shower, reveling in both the warmth and how much she appreciated feeling clean for the first time since she’d left San Diego. After wrapping her hair in a towel, she dried off and slid between the covers of the other bed.
Tomorrow she’d find out about the car. If it was no longer drivable, she’d collect their belongings and decide what to do next. Just like in the movie, “Annie.” Tomorrow. It was her last thought before she drifted into an exhausted sleep.
~ ~ ~
Lexi zipped up Chance’s jacket. “There. Now you’re set. You don’t want to be late.”
Five-year-old Chance reached for his new coloring book. “I want to show Freddie how I drawed her. In my birfday book.”
“I’m sure she’ll like it.” Lexi pulled the door closed, grabbed Chance’s hand and they walked down the street before turning to up the hill to trudge two blocks to the preschool. Lexi gave Chance a good-bye hug and reminded him, “I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Do I have to stay with Vonnie?”
“Not today. You’re coming to work with me. Cookie said he made you a special birthday cookie.”
Chance beamed. “Awesome!”
I wonder where he heard that word. Lexi strode rapidly in the direction of Omar’s Ales and Wines, the brew pub where she worked, her thoughts centering on the upcoming Christmas. For the first time in her life, the season held promise. For her and for Chance.
Cookie with the tattoo that completely covered one arm from shoulder to wrist was always nice to Chance. The cook at the pub looked fierce with his bushy dark brows, but he had baked Chance a birthday cookie, a treat Lexi felt he deserved, but one he’d never received from someone other than her.
In the two years they’d lived in Sandy Reach, life had taken an upturn. Lexi had a decent job and she’d been lucky to rent a little house facing the beach. It had needed minor upgrading and wasn’t much bigger than her apartment in San Diego, though it did have two bedrooms, which she’d painted with the landlord’s permission after he agreed to buy the paint. But the view of the beach was grand, and Lexi counted Omar and his wife, Daisy, as friends.
Chance was thriving, no longer afraid of every man they encountered. He even talked to the fathers of his playmates at preschool. The only fly in Lexi’s particular life ointment these days was her frustration at not being able to save enough each month to register for a class at the culinary institute she’d found when using Daisy’s laptop. The cooking school was less than a three-hour bus ride from Sandy Reach. From the catalog, she’d identified several classes she wanted to take. But would they even accept her? Her grades in high school had only been average. That was then and this is now, she reminded herself, determined to save every penny. As Daisy said so often, it was time to look on the bright side.
Lexi pushed open the door of the pub and headed for the women’s restroom to adjust her hairnet over her braids, coiled on top of her head. Just like Daisy wanted.
“Glad you’re here, Lexi. We need to talk about a change of scheduling,” Daisy announced.
“Gail is taking a break now that her baby’s here.”
“She had it?” Lexi was thrilled at the news.
“Last night. A little girl. So I’m going to need you for dinner as well as breakfast and lunch. Every day that you’re scheduled. Will you do it?”
“Can I bring Chance with me when I can’t get a sitter?”
“Of course. Cookie and Omar won’t mind as long as he stays away from the stove.”
And away from the customers, too, Lexi thought. Maybe this was her chance to save enough to go to culinary school. Tips were always better with the dinner crowd, even if it meant she’d have to get Vonnie to sit for her more often. Working more hours meant she’d be that much closer to becoming a baker. She’d asked Foster at the bakery in town, but he had rejected her offer to help him on her days’ off in exchange for being mentored.
Lexi nodded. “Count me in.”
“Good. You can start by taking care of Deputy Vaughn this morning.”
“Do I have to? Ever since I got here, he keeps asking for a date. I don’t date cops. Why won’t he take no for an answer?”
Daisy glanced in the deputy’s direction. “Just keep telling him no, hon. One of these days, you’ll get through his thick skull.”
Right. At least he doesn’t try to touch me, grab me, like some of the other customers. Lexi walked to the deputy’s booth, sighed and pulled out her order book. “What can I get you?”
“Just you, Blondie.” He smirked, his voice low. When Lexi didn’t reply, he cleared his throat and spoke loudly enough that even Omar at the bar heard him. “I’ll take the breakfast burrito. And coffee. Black.”
Lexi turned on her heel. Like always. Some things never changed. Deputy Vaughn reminded her too much of Hugh. Would she never meet a man who was nice? Who just wanted to be friends? Whose stares weren’t so suggestive? She glanced up as the doors whooshed open and several men in fisher gear walked in.
Maybe today’s breakfast crowd would net her more tips than usual. She lined up Deputy Vaughn’s order on the cook’s order spindle and headed for the table of fishers.
When her phone buzzed, she pulled it out of her pocket. Not familiar, not Chance’s preschool. She slid the phone into her pocket. Whoever it was would have to wait until her break.
“Good morning, guys. What can I get you?”