Brandon Hughes is a mesmerizing combination of laidback and dedicated. Skye Callahan has always found him intriguing, though their fling ended years ago. When a young boy under her care needs protection after witnessing three murders, she hires Brandon to guard him. She’s certain they’re both safe in his keeping, but when she discovers the full truth about his shifting abilities, will it fracture their cautiously forming family and put them all in danger?
Skye glanced at the clock before looking at Caleb Hastings’s vitals displayed on the machine once more. Technically, she had gotten off nearly an hour ago, but she didn’t want the young boy waking alone in the hospital. From what she’d heard via the surgeon who operated, the poor kid had been through too much to wake without a comforting presence nearby.
The warm blanket and light sheet hid the thick bandages covering the boy’s stomach, but even glancing at him, it didn’t take a nurse to see he was clearly unwell. It was one time when Skye didn’t need her medical training to evaluate his state. He was almost as pale as a corpse, with cracked lips and shadows under his eyes.
She had heard from the surgeons that the operation had been touch-and-go for a while, but Dr. Higgins seemed cautiously optimistic that Caleb would make a full recovery as he’d relayed to her when they brought the patient out of recovery and into a room on the pediatric floor.
Caleb stirred, his eyes opening slowly as he thrashed briefly. When he calmed, she put a hand on his arm for comfort. When his gaze met hers, she gave him a soft smile. “Hello, Caleb. My name’s Skye Callahan, and you’re in the hospital. Do you remember what happened?”
He licked his dry lips, seeming to struggle for words. She assisted him by dabbing a bit of water in his mouth with the sponge in the cup. “You’ve been shot in the stomach, but the surgeon thinks you’ll recover. It was a serious injury though, so you’ll have to take it easy for a while.”
“The Jones family?” asked the kid in a rasp.
Skye didn’t lie to him, but she also didn’t remind him of the more unpleasant details in case he’d witnessed the murder of his foster family. “Neither one of them made it.”
A spasm of pain went across his face. “That sucks.” He spoke gruffly, in that cracking-voice way only a boy undergoing puberty could produce. “Bill and Jenny were always nice to me. They weren’t my folks or anything, but they weren’t the hideous foster parents I’d been expecting after hearing horror stories all my life.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, kiddo.”
His eyes were haunted when his gaze met hers, and there were myriad emotions reflected there. Chief among them was fear. “He’s going to kill me.”
She frowned as she set aside the cup. “Who’s going to kill you?”
The boy abruptly went mum, as though reconsidering what he’d planned to say. “Never mind.”
She took his hand, half-surprised when he didn’t pull away. “Caleb, there are people who can protect you, but not unless we know the whole story. I looked at your file, and someone noted this is your second brush with violence in just two months. What happened the first time?”
“My father was killed. He was shot in front of me.” Caleb paled suddenly, looking even more like a corpse. “You can’t tell anyone I said that. He doesn’t know I saw him, I think. Maybe he does. I’ve been feeling like someone’s watching me the last few weeks, and then with what happened to Bill and Jenny…” He trailed off, looking troubled. “I mean, he might not know I saw the whole thing happen, but I know enough to be a risk to his business.”
“Whose business, honey? I’m afraid I’m having a little trouble following along.”
Caleb’s features contorted, and he seemed to be doing his best to stave off tears. “The fucker who killed my dad. I can’t tell you who it is though. He’ll definitely kill me.”
She supposed she should admonish him for his bad language, but there were more important things to focus on. “If you know who did this, you need to tell us, Caleb. I’m sure the police will protect you, but they can’t do that if you don’t tell them what’s happening.”
He pursed his lips, looking obstinate. “I’m probably dead either way.”
She frowned at him. “In that case, you should just tell us what you know, and we can at least try to protect you. It’s better to fight back than give in, isn’t it?”
The boy seemed to mull over her words for a moment before he let out a small sigh. “His name is Thomas McCann, and he’s a drug dealer. My father worked with him for years, and there were even times when I was forced to run drugs for him. They argued over some missing money, and I saw through the crack in my door when McCann shot him.
“Somehow, I managed not to make any noise, though I was terrified. I hurried back to my bed, pretending to be asleep when he opened my door to check on me a few minutes later. He’d used a gun that was quiet. I don’t know how he did that, but it was more like a little muffled whomp sound than a bullet, or at least the sound I expected a gun to make, so I thought he didn’t know I’d seen what he did. If he had known, he probably would’ve shot me then.”
He spoke in nearly a monotone, as though reciting a passage from the dictionary rather than dramatic events that had happened to him. Her heart softened even further to the young man, and she squeezed his hand a bit tighter. “So you pretended to be asleep, and he fell for it?”
He nodded, but looked uncertain. “I thought he had anyway, but like I said, I felt like I’ve been followed recently, and then someone broke into Bill and Jenny’s house just as we were finishing up a game of Monopoly. He wore gloves and a mask, but his gun looked really familiar. It had that cylinder thing at the end, and when he shot us, we went down hard. I was still alive, but I held my breath when he stood over me, trying to play dead. I guess it worked, or else he wasn’t as thorough as he should’ve been, ‘cause he didn’t check for my pulse. He just stared at me for a moment and then walked out of the house.”
Her anxiety levels were shooting upward as the details of the story emerged from Caleb. “You poor sweetie. Is it possible your foster parents were involved in something?”
Caleb snickered, though he seemed to get a pain from doing so as he bent forward slightly, cradling his bandaged stomach. “No, I don’t think so. The Joneses were squeaky clean. I liked them, and they were cool in their own way, but they were also goody-two-shoes. I don’t think they’d ever done anything illegal. Not even gotten a parking ticket.”
“So you’re confident it was McCann back again?”
Caleb hesitated. “I’m not sure it was him directly, but it probably was. It was definitely the same kind of gun, if it wasn’t the same one. Either he wants to get rid of me ‘cause I know about his drug trafficking, or else he knows I saw him kill Dad.”
She squeezed his hand gently. “I’m going to call the police now, and we’ll keep you safe and secure.”
He clung to her hand. “You won’t leave me, will you, Skye?”
She shook her head. “Of course not. I’ll be here as long as you need me.”
Since Caleb didn’t want her to leave, even long enough to phone the police, she used her cell phone to do so instead. She was appalled when it took them more than an hour to send a police officer in uniform to take the statement. She frowned when the young man entered the room, looking harried. “I expected a detective.”
The young officer shrugged a thin shoulder. “I’m what you got. I was on duty, and it’s been the night from hell. Everyone seems determined to kill everyone else, crash their car, or destroy private property. I can take the statement though.”
Caleb looked uncertain. “This guy is going to protect me?”
“Of course he is,” said Skye with more confidence than she felt. “He’s an officer, and he has a gun.” Considering he looked like he’d just been potty-trained last week, she questioned the wisdom of letting a boy his age be an officer and carry a real gun. Perhaps she was just being unfair and slightly sour since they’d sent a raw cadet rather than a detective who could actually authorize taking charge of the boy and providing protection. She didn’t share any of that with Caleb though, knowing he needed to get a statement on record so he could be protected.
The kid still looked skeptical, raising a dark brow as he glanced at the officer before looking back at her. “Are you sure about this, Skye? If McCann doesn’t already know I saw him kill Dad, he’ll find out if it goes on record.”
She hated that he was already so savvy to how the justice system worked, clearly having been exposed to a dark side of it with his father. “I’m sure. Right now, you’re safe, but the only way to stay safe is to get McCann behind bars.”
With a reluctant sigh, the kid quickly told the officer—who hadn’t bothered to introduce himself, but his badge read Patrolman Bings—the story of how he’s ended up in the hospital. The young officer wrote quickly and asked pertinent questions, which restored a bit of Skye’s confidence in his ability to protect her young patient.
When he closed his notebook a few minutes later, she eyed him expectantly. “Now what?” she asked when the silence lengthened.
“I’ll head back to the station and file the report, and one of the detectives will follow up as soon as they have time.”
She glared at him. “That’s unacceptable. This boy needs protection now. There should be police outside his room, and they should have a plan in place to take him somewhere safe when he’s discharged in a few days.”
Patrolman Bings just shrugged. “I’m following procedure, ma’am. We’re all short-staffed, and we’re doing the best we can. It’ll probably be a day or two before a detective follows up with you.”
She glared at the young man, who winced and fidgeted under her scorching gaze. “He might not have a day or two of safety. He needs protection now.”
The young man shrugged again, which was becoming an annoying tick. “I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am. We’re shorthanded—”
She let out a sound of frustration and waved her hand. “You’re the frigging police. You’re not supposed to be shorthanded and incapable of taking care of a victim. He witnessed three murders, for goodness sake. That should warrant some protection.”
Still toeing the party line, the officer said, “We’re shorthanded and doing the best we can, ma’am.”
She actually let out a small shout of irritation, pushed beyond her limits. “Fine, I see you’re completely useless.” She ignored the expression of discomfort that crossed the young man’s face. Perhaps she shouldn’t turn her anger on him, but it was difficult to hold it in when she’d promised Caleb he would be protected, only to find out he wouldn’t be.
He might be safe enough in the hospital, but he’d probably be discharged within three or four days if he healed well enough, since that was the typical stay for a gunshot wound to the stomach. After that, if they still hadn’t bothered to provide him with protection, where was he supposed to go, and who would keep him safe? If they put him with another foster family, it endangered everyone.
“If you’re dissatisfied, you can call the ombudsman to lodge a complaint. You also have the option of private security.”
“Private security? How does that work?”
The officer shrugged. “You hire bodyguards.”
She nodded, already certain the state, who was technically Caleb’s guardian, wouldn’t pay for such an expense. But she couldn’t see allowing him to remain unprotected. Even if she had to bankroll it herself, she could surely afford to provide the kid with a few days of round-the-clock security until the police finally got around to doing their jobs.
After the cop left, she turned her full attention back to Caleb, alarmed by the dejected set of his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I honestly thought they’d be more help.”
“They’re shorthanded,” he said sarcastically. With a half-shrug that seemed full of disinterest, though his eyes reflected his true fear, he said, “It doesn’t matter. If McCann wants me dead, I’ll be dead anyway.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it, kiddo. I’m going to look into getting you some private security.”
He stifled a yawn, and his eyes started to close. “Thanks, Skye.” He let out a big yawn. “I like you.”
She smiled down at him, squeezing his hand. “I like you too, Caleb. I’m going to look out for you.” As far as promises went, hers was fully backed by sincerity, but hindered by a lack of ability on her part. She definitely needed professional help to follow through on that promise.
After Caleb slipped into sleep, she used her phone to search security agencies in and around San Diego. Most gave her a negative vibe, either being too flashy, too slick, or too gung-ho.
It wasn’t until she stumbled across the Sentry Security website that she started to get a positive feeling. Their welcoming page was warm and friendly, but also reassuring and full of underlying strength. She clicked on the “About” tab, which pulled up three faces with their biographies beneath them. She gasped when she recognized the face in the middle.
Warm tingles washed over her, and her nipples tightened against her scrub top. She hadn’t seen him in five years, but he was as handsome as ever with his gleaming tanned skin, bright blue eyes, and pale blonde hair. It was almost platinum these days, and she imagined he spent as much time surfing now as he did then, at least as much as he could spare.
It seemed like a lifetime ago since their fling in Baja during spring break, but she could still recall how strong and capable he was. She knew he would keep Caleb safe, and though that was based strictly on five days of acquaintance, and five nights of passion, she didn’t think she was allowing that to distort her perception.
This agency seemed like the logical choice, so she dialed the number with a shaking hand, uncertain if she would actually get someone even though they had an after-hours number. A crisp female voice answered, and she relayed scant details as she requested Brandon Hughes be the one to take the case. After reassuring her he’d arrive soon, the receptionist ended the call, and Skye nervously bit her thumb as she waited for Brandon’s arrival.
Giving in to a moment of vanity, she cast a look in Caleb’s direction, finding him still sleeping, and left the room long enough to visit the locker room for the staff. At her locker, she stripped off her scrubs and put on street clothes, glad she’d worn the skinny jeans that enhanced the curvaceous roundness of her butt before brushing the short auburn strands to frame her face.
Her makeup was still reasonably fresh, and she touched it up a bit before deeming it good enough. Deciding she looked at least presentable, if not gorgeous or as sexy as she’d been five years ago when they’d met on the beach, she rushed back to Caleb’s room, not wanting to miss Brandon’s arrival.
As she sat on the uncomfortable chair to wait, she wondered if he would remember her. Would he recall the nights they’d spent together, having the most amazing sex of her life, or had she been just another bed partner, quickly forgotten once he’d moved on and back to his regular life?
It wasn’t like she’d been pining over him for years or anything. She still occasionally recalled that week with fond memories and a tingle between her legs, but she’d gone back to her real life and moved on. It had been a vacation fling, with neither one of them ready for anything more. That was five years ago, and things had changed for her now. She was at a point in her life where she wouldn’t mind finding the right partner with whom to settle down, buy a house, and have some children.
Was Brandon at that same point in life, or was he still in the playboy stage? With his handsome appearance, charming personality, and the laidback way of a surfer, he likely had no more trouble attracting women today than he did five years ago. If he could have as many as he wanted, would he ever be ready to settle for one?
She let out a scoffing sound, realizing how ridiculous she was being. She hadn’t seen him for five years, and the chances were he wouldn’t even remember her. She shouldn’t be thinking about him this way, or at all for that matter. Caleb should be the sole focus of her attention at the moment, rather than her dormant libido. She needed to get her priorities straight and quickly.