Liz is a social worker with one of the roughest beats in Denver. Compassion for her clients and her spirited personality continue to get her into dangerous situations with one unhappy perpetrator after another. Officer Alex Demas has bailed Liz out of more than one messy situation, and has always been interested in her. He sees his opportunity when one of her clients is caught up in a drug ring.
Liz never liked getting to the destination before the cop, especially in this part of town. Fortunately, even though these were non-emergency after-hour calls, social workers usually had Denver PD assist them at night.
She checked the car doors to make sure they were locked, and then sank down in her seat to survey the house. She could see occasional movement in the upstairs room. A black silhouette passed by through a burnt orange curtain.
Liz scanned the area. The houses had been converted to multiple occupancy; lawns were neglected; torn shutters hung from dirty windows; aged paint blistered and chipped off the siding. The streets were littered with old cars, some parked in driveways, others in yards.
There was a little moisture from an earlier snow, and a cold wind was picking up. It was otherwise quiet and still except for two bundled-up figures walking away from her up the street into the dark night.
She reached forward to start the car for some heat when she caught a flash of blue lights in her rearview mirror. A black and white pulled up behind her.
An officer got out and started to walk over. She observed the confident stride, the nice physique. Yep, it was him. She took a look in the rearview mirror to do a quick check of her appearance.
She squeezed her cheeks to add some color and opened her eyes wide, pressing lightly on her lashes to curl them back. She ran her fingers through her brown hair, twirling it into a twist and then stuck it into a clip. Liz kept thinking throughout the entire ritual of how pathetic she was.
She rolled down her window and looked into the handsome face of Alex Demas. He was one of her favorite cops and had been with Liz on some of her toughest calls.
He leaned into the window, the streetlight shimmering in his blue eyes. He ran his fingers through his dark hair as he fixed his gaze on her.
Her stomach jumped as she returned his stare. She had always considered him attractive but felt funny about it—like thinking your cousin was cute. And not wanting to mix business with pleasure, she’d always kept her distance.
“Sorry I’m late.” His mouth curved into a gorgeous grin, showing he was glad it was Liz. The feeling was mutual.
“What took you so long?” she asked through chattering teeth.
Alex rested his arm on her open window. He was close enough for her to smell a hint of his signature cologne—a light woodsy aroma.
“I was taking care of a gentleman that needed a place to sleep for the night. A store owner said he was loitering so I picked him up and took him to the shelter.” His arms moved about, animating the account.
Liz smiled her appreciation. Some cops wouldn’t have taken the time to make sure a homeless guy made it to a shelter, but simply sent him away to satisfy the complaint.
“I’m surprised they had room for him. On nights like this, they’re usually turning people away.”
“I used a little friendly persuasion.” He looked around. “What’s going on here?”
“Dispatch said the folks downstairs heard a disturbance on the upper floor.” She pointed to the second story orange curtain and he turned to scan the house.
“The bottom part of the house looks empty, but we can try to talk with them first since they made the call.”
Alex still had his gaze on the house. “What a dive. I hate to think of kids living in these places.”
“I know what you mean.” But she tried not to. A social worker had to stay objective.
“Sometimes I just feel like going in there and snatching the kids up and taking them home with me.” He tightened his lips as he looked at Liz.
Surprised by his passion, not wanting to emotionally go where he was, she stated, “These situations can bring out the paternal side in a person.”
As she stepped out of her car to go walk to the patrol car, Liz remembered the conversation she had with her mother earlier about how nice it would be to have a son-in-law. Her mother meant well, but became relentless every year around Liz’s birthday.
When they got to Alex’s car, he rushed over to her side opening the door for her. He exaggerated the motions, waving her in with his hand and giving a mock bow.
She chuckled as she sat down. “What’s the special treatment for?”
“I know that look. Someone or something is on your mind.”
Liz paused and then looked away, trying to hide whatever he was able to read on her face.
With no reply from her, he sighed, shut her door, and got in on his side of the car. “So, what is it?” He pulled out his laptop and started entering the residence information. “And don’t tell me ‘nothing’ like you always do.”
Liz flipped open her phone to check messages and snapped out of her thoughts, digesting his words as she slipped back into the conversation. “Oh, it’s nothing.” She looked up at him and, realizing what he had just said, smiled sheepishly.
His brows drew together and a frown appeared across his full lips. It was then Liz knew she was cornered.
“Just the same conversation my mother and I have every year about this time.” She sighed. “Did you find a record?”
“Yes, I did, but you’re not going to hear it until I get the full story.”
As curious and stubborn as Alex was, Liz knew better than to give him any hint something was wrong without expecting a full interrogation of the situation.
“Oh, then happy birthday.”
Liz snorted. “Thanks, but you’re a couple of days late, as usual.”
Alex closed his laptop and leaned his back against the door to face her, bending one knee up on the seat. His eyebrows rose, as a musing smile stretched across his face creating a dimple Liz knew well. The smug smile told her he was relishing the situation.
“She finally got to you, eh?” He let out a soft chuckle, his dimple still showing.
A bitter taste came up in the back of Liz’s throat, knowing how much it meant to her mother to have her settle down. That was the real reason, not grandkids. Liz’s job had become more hazardous over the past few months, and she knew some kind of change was needed, but not necessarily marriage. “Yeah, she did.”
He reopened his laptop, searching for the record he’d requested. “I’ve never met your mother, but I’ve heard enough about her from you to convince me she’s someone to be reckoned with. Maybe it’s time you listened to her.”
She sighed. “I wish it were that easy.”
“Yeah, me too.” He looked down at his screen. “I pulled up a Thomas Harris. He has a domestic violence, some outstanding traffic tickets, a DUI and a disturbance call. Does your department have anything on him?”
“No. How long ago was the domestic violence charge?”
She leaned in next to him to get a better look at the screen and her shoulder brushed his. An electric shock shot through her and she jumped back. Alex smiled at her, and heat crept into her cheeks. She grinned to cover her embarrassment, hoping he couldn’t read the effect he had on her, and then turned her attention back to the screen.
“Looks like a couple of months ago.” His gaze rolled up and down the screen, the bright glow illuminating his face. He had all the classic features of a Greek—black curly hair, a strong jaw and chin, big, blue eyes and big nose, but not too big.
They put away their modern technology, exited the warmth of the vehicle and walked across the icy street. She pulled her coat tighter around her and moved quickly to fight the cold, leaving Alex a few steps behind.
Alex stuck his hands in his pockets, walking rigidly against the bitter air. He had just started up the worn, creaky stairs leading to the porch when she knocked on the door, noticing the condition of the place. Splinters and worn paint had chipped off its exterior. The porch was in the same tattered condition.
As he came up beside her, something solid hit the back of the house. He froze. “Did you hear something?”
Alex always got excited when something dangerous might happen. Liz didn’t. His body stiffened as he waited, standing perfectly still.
“I heard it,” she whispered, hoping he wouldn’t pursue anything further. She moved away from the door, quickly looking for an escape.
“Knock again.” Alex’s blue eyes sparkled with excitement.
She scrunched her eyebrows at him. “I don’t want to knock again. If there’s someone in there that doesn’t want to see me, I don’t want to see them either.”
As they moved to the side stairs that led to the upper part of the house, a flash of gray went by from the other side. They turned to see a guy wearing a gray sweatshirt running at an incredible speed down the street.
“Why does it have to be a teenager that’s fast?” Alex mumbled as he took off. It took a few seconds for him to catch up, but he closed in at an impressive rate.
Alex grabbed the runner by the scruff of the neck, towering over him, almost lifting him off his feet. The teen pushed away a few times but was too winded to put up much of a fight. Alex held fast as they approached the house puffing and panting. Alex sat the teen down hard on the porch step and bent over, placing his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
“What’s the hurry?” Liz started to walk over, but Alex put up a hand to stop her from getting too close to the runaway teen. The young, blond man sat with his head down between his legs, trying to suck in air.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
Liz glanced up at the upstairs apartment. “I’m going up while you take care of him.” She gestured to the freakishly skinny frame of the young man.
Alex’s eyes jumped up to meet hers as he reached for his radio. “Let me get hold of Jake first.”
“I do this alone half the time anyway, Demas.” At the sound of Jake’s voice on the other end of the walkie-talkie she started walking away.
“I’ll be up as soon as I can get some backup.” Alex called after her, but she was already turning the corner of the house.
“I’ll be fine.” She answered too far from earshot, and turned to climb a dozen wooden stairs.
Liz knocked on the door of the second floor apartment and stood back, saying a silent prayer as a teenage girl opened the door, glaring at her. She looked at Liz with unblinking eyes and didn’t say a word, just stared and waited.
“My name is Liz Adams. I work for the Department of Social Services. Is Mr. Harris home?”
The girl backed up, opening the door wider. A little boy clung onto her leg, walking backward with her as she moved. His eyes were big with question, and he was holding on so tightly that his fingers were white from the grip. The girl pulled away from him and walked out as Liz walked in, shutting the door behind her.
A middle-aged woman was sitting on a brown velour couch. She wore a cafeteria-cook’s uniform, and her short black hair was covered with a net. Her face was ashen. “Yes, I’m Rose Harris.”
A large man, presumably Tom Harris, sat in an old recliner with his dark, sunken eyes fixed on the TV, with no acknowledgement of Liz. His navy sweats stretched across thick thighs, and crumbs of food lay scattered across his chest.
Liz introduced herself and then scanned the area and found a small stool to sit on. She took out a pen and paper and studied the room, checking the living conditions.
The furniture, worn and discolored, had torn material hanging off its edges. The color of the carpet was unclear under stains, and some spots had been worn to the pad. A distorted mix of smoke and beer polluted the stale air. Dirty dishes were strewn throughout the place, and articles of clothing, shoes and newspapers covered the floors.
“We haven’t had the time or money to fix things up around here yet since the last social worker was here,” Rose mumbled to Liz.
“I understand. I just need to talk to the boys privately.”
“Yes, I know.” Rose stood and led Liz down the hall.
Liz wrote down all the pertinent information and checked the kids for physical abuse. When she finished with Jimmy she asked him what had happened.
“My dad gets mad cuz he doesn’t have a job.”
“You said your dad didn’t hit you tonight. Has he ever hit you?”
“No, just Scotty, and sometimes my mom.” He averted his gaze as he spoke.
Liz laid a hand over Jimmy’s head and moved toward Scotty’s room to get his side of the story.
The situations gave clue to his father’s temperament. Marks on Scotty’s back led to more questions about the family history and what abuse had gone on in the past. Dad’s drinking and temper increased with each job he’d lost, escalating into incredible tension within the household.
Liz asked Scotty similar questions then pulled up Scotty’s shirt to see bruises on his back. “Looks like a belt.”
Scotty nodded and sat on the bed across from Liz who sat in an old wooden chair. “What made him mad, Scotty?”
Scotty intertwined his long, skinny fingers and averted his dark gaze. “Something at school.”
Liz cupped her cheek in her hand and leaned against the chair. “Did you get into trouble?”
“Yeah.” He lifted his gaze to meet hers. “But not for school stuff. I do real good in school.”
Liz smiled, glad to have something to smile about. “That’s something to be proud of. What was it then?”
He nodded, causing the flimsy mattress to sway. “This guy outside of school, I was supposed to give him something but forgot.”
“And what happened?”
“The guy came over to get it, but I left it at school. So he got mad, and that made my dad mad.”
“I think that guy might be with Officer Demas right now.”
Scotty’s eyes widened.
“How do you know him?”
“He’s my sister’s boyfriend.”
She nodded in understanding. “What did you need to give him?”
Scotty looked down at his stocking feet, staring blankly at his socks.
“Can’t tell?” Liz didn’t want to put Scotty into a compromising situation, especially while he was still in the house with the possible suspect downstairs. But it didn’t sound safe for Scotty, and that gave her more reason to place him.
Scotty shook his head.
Liz leaned forward. “We’ll let Officer Demas take care of him. What I’m concerned about is you. I think it would be best for you to take a break for a while until your dad feels better.”
“I don’t want to be alone.” Scotty’s big eyes about broke her heart.
“Jimmy will be with you.”
He let out a relieved breath and placed his hands on the bed.
“You’re never alone, Scotty. God’s always there for you.” Liz never knew how her clients would accept her words of faith, but when Scotty’s gaze lifted, she knew they had been well received.
“That’s what my mom says.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Liz stood. “Let’s go talk to your parents.”
Scotty and Jimmy stood beside Liz as she sat next to their father on the stool she had used earlier.
“I found marks consistent with physical abuse on Scotty’s back, Mr. Harris. I understand there was an altercation between you and your son earlier today.”
She paused to give him a chance to speak. He sat unmoving.
“We need to place your boys in temporary foster care until we go to court. Then the judge will decide what needs to be done before they come back home.”
Mr. Harris’s gaze never left her face as his turned a light shade of red. “You think you can come in here and break up my home?” Spit flew as he forced out the words, and his voice raised.
It was time to leave. She had done her part to explain the situation, and he wasn’t stable enough to handle it, but Mr. Harris started in again before Liz had a chance to exit.
“You can’t take my boys. I don’t care who you are or what I done.”
Liz lifted a shaking hand and grabbed Jimmy’s as Scotty hurried toward the door.
Rose held a quivering hand over her mouth, her eyes wide, terrified, as Tom got up out of his chair.
Liz whipped her head around to get a visual on Mr. Harris and saw him stumbling toward her. His eyes locked on hers as he staggered nearer. His hunched-over posture gave him a monstrous appearance as he labored to carry his huge body closer to her. He was struggling, sliding one foot forward and then the other, mumbling something that she couldn’t understand.
She held Jimmy close behind her, taking a step back with each one Tom took forward. She had to stay calm as long as he didn’t get any closer. If he did, it would just be a matter of how fast she could run with a six-year-old in her arms.
Her heart raced as she saw him slowly stalk toward her. Sweat rolled down his face, droplets making small spots on his sweatshirt. Squinted eyes peered at her, losing their focus as his head dropped, and he fell to one knee, clutching his chest.