My lungs were on fire, my body aching with every step, and all I wanted to do was collapse into a puddle on the ground. Every breath I pulled felt like sweet agony, but I didn’t stop.
Anyone who ever said that they liked running was a liar. Still, I pushed myself harder and harder because running was the only way I’d be able to reach my goals. The only way I could make my dead brother Danny proud… from beyond the grave.
“Tacos,” I wheezed when I crossed the finish line and collapsed next to my best friend. “Someone needs to get me tacos. And tequila, but I’ll settle for tacos.”
Kennedy sat there on the grass in the middle of the track at Birch High School, with a stopwatch that she was supposed to be using to time my laps, snoring. Her red hair covered her face and her arms held the watch against her chest.
“Are you kidding me?” I kicked her leg, and she snorted. “Come on, Kennedy. I needed you to time me. The stupid physical fitness standards are ridiculous.”
She opened one eye and glared at me the way only she could, shoving her hair out of the way. “I’m going to kill you,” she muttered. “I was timing you. Until the last lap because you slowed way down.” She threw the stopwatch at me. “Now, let me go back to sleep.”
“But I want tacos,” I whined pathetically. “Can’t you sleep later? You know, when you’re home alone for the night because your stupid fiancé has to work?”
That got her up. There were very few things in life that Kennedy would pass up, and tacos wasn’t one of them.
“Fine, but we’re not going to Lucy’s. I want real tacos.”
That’s how we found ourselves all the way out at Alta’s Takeout, halfway to the island and an hour from Birch. But we got the best tacos in the entire world. Alta’s place was the absolute best in the county, and maybe even the entire state, and she knew it. The older woman stepped out from behind the counter, and I wanted to hug her. She couldn’t be more than five feet tall, and she had the type of curves that pinup models had in the fifties. Her black hair had silver streaks in it, and I couldn’t believe that she had four kids.
“Alta,” I groaned around one of the most delicious meals I’d ever had. “I don’t know how you do it. But you make the best meat I’ve ever had in my mouth.”
Alta laughed, and Kennedy snorted from her seat across from me. But she wasn’t looking at me. Instead, she was staring over my shoulder, and my face flamed as I realized we weren’t alone.
“Emma Hayes.” Alta clapped her hands together. “You kill me, niña. Dominic, why can’t you find a girl like Emma?”
I turned to see Dominic Ortiz, Alta’s son and the man who starred in every single one of my fantasies, standing there with a strange look on his face while he watched me shove the last bit of my taco into my mouth.
When he saw me staring, I could have sworn I saw him bite his lip before answering his mother. “Lo siento, Mama. There’s no woman out there like Emma.” His eyes locked on mine, and I couldn’t help the blush that crept up my neck and into my cheeks.
“Damn straight,” I said with a nod, then I turned back to my plate. But I felt his gaze on me the entire time. And when he walked out and I dared to look up, we locked eyes again. I saw the same desire there that I’d seen the night of Parker and Remy’s wedding. Right before he vanished into thin air.
Although, in the pale light of the hangover I had the next morning, Dom wasn’t the man for me. Not only was he a friend of my brother’s, but they’d served together overseas, and they worked together at Birch Police Department. The last thing I needed in my life was another controlling man, or a cop for that matter. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t continue to check him out every single chance I got.
A piece of potato hit the side of my face, and I looked up to see Kennedy staring at me with huge eyes. “What the fuck was that?” She popped another fried potato into her mouth and glared.
“Nothing?” I tried for nonchalance, but it just came out like a garbled mess of a question. “Nothing,” I tried again with more conviction, but Kennedy wasn’t buying any of it.
“You never told me what happened at the wedding after me and Linc bounced out, you know.” Kennedy stared at me while spearing one of her potatoes with the plastic fork that Alma gave with all of her takeout orders. “Did something happen between the two of you?”
“No.” It almost felt impossible for my face to get even hotter than it had been before, but I still felt my skin grow hotter under her questioning.
“Holy shit,” she muttered mutinously. If it wasn’t me in the hot seat, I might laugh at the comical way her eyes widened. “Something did happen between the two of you. Why don’t you tell me?”
Rather than answer her, I sat back in the booth and did my best to ignore the traitorous emotions that filled every pore of my being. Embarrassment, humiliation, rage, and a giant bowl of self-flagellation had been the only things I took home from Parker and Remy’s wedding. And none of those emotions were things that I wanted to share with Kennedy. Not only was she one of my best friends, but she was engaged to my older brother. The last thing any of us needed was an awkward conversation about me getting rejected where Linc might have to defend my honor.
When the alarm on my phone started to go off, my heart stuttered nervously in my chest. In my rush, I almost forgot that I had plans.
“I gotta go.” I stuffed the last bits of my taco into my mouth and picked up my trash. “I’ll see you tomorrow? Same time and place?” We had a routine, and I had a goal in life that I’d never accomplish if I didn’t get my ass back out onto the track every day.
Kennedy sighed deeply and then nodded, staring at her food like she’d never eat again. “As soon as I get home, Linc’s gonna eat the rest of my food.”
“Nonsense,” Alta said suddenly as she popped up next to the table like a banshee appearing out of nowhere. “You’re going to take that man his own food and if he tries to eat yours, you stab him with this spork.” She waved the plastic utensil in the air like a weapon, and I almost peed myself from laughing so hard.
While Kennedy and Alta moved to the counter and Alta started getting a takeout container ready for her, I snuck out through the side door as quietly as I could.
“Where you going?”
I screamed and whirled around, reaching out with my fist to hit first and think second. Except Dom knew exactly what he’d done and grabbed my fist before it could connect with his chest.
“What the hell, Dom?” I grabbed my hand back and thought about kicking him in retaliation.
“You left without saying goodbye.” He shrugged, and I looked up to see him run a hand through his beard, staring at me contemplatively. Like I was a wild animal that he wanted to put down.
Instead of sighing like I wanted to at the sight of the muscles in his arm flexing while he stared at me, I cleared my throat and looked down at my feet. “I’ve got nothing to say to you, Dom.”
“Don’t have anything to say, my ass, bonita. There’s plenty to say.” When I didn’t answer him and didn’t even look up, Dom shifted so that he was directly in my line of sight and poked me in the forehead. “Dios mío. You’re the most stubborn woman I’ve ever met in my life, you know that, right?”
That got my attention, and I glared at him. “You’re in my way, Dom. I don’t want to have to call your mom out here. Or better yet, my brother to come and deal with your shit.”
“Oh.” Dom laughed out loud. “You mean the brother who literally called me on my way home to tell me that he saw your car here and that I should come sweep his pain in the ass sister off her feet so that he could have his fiancée back? That brother?”
I wanted to slap the expression off his face, but I knew I couldn’t reach. Instead, I kicked the rocks at my feet and pretended that I was kicking him in the shins. Either that, or I’d climb him like a tree. Either way, Dom would bring nothing but trouble, and I knew he wasn’t lying about my brother, either. Linc made sure to point out that I was stealing too much of Kennedy’s time. Every single day.
“Look.” I sighed deeply and turned my attention to Dom, trying not to let his beard melt my resolve. “I just want to go home. I’ve had a long day. I’m tired, and my muscles are starting to hurt from the run I went on before dinner. So unless you’re going to put your hands to use and give me a massage, I’m going.” I stepped around him, ignoring how little space there actually was between the two of us. “I’ll see you later, Dom.”
I barely pulled into my driveway by the time the sun went down, and the telltale little girl with blond pigtails sitting on my doorstep was a sign that I was almost late for the most important part of my day.
“You’re late,” Bianca chimed like an angel as she bounced up from my stairs when I finally grabbed all my bags and slammed my car door. “But Momma sent me with a batch of lasagna for you if I can stay here tonight.” Her eyes darted across the street to her house, and I had to fight to keep a smile on my face when her dark-brown eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t worry, Bee.” I nodded toward the front door. “You carry the lasagna. I got the goods, and we can stay up late with a movie, okay?”
Bianca Hart, whose parents bought the house across the street from me four years ago when I moved in, was one of only two people in the entire world that I’d blow off food for. Between her and my nephew, there wasn’t much room in my life for anyone else.
Especially once I started getting ready for my next step in life. Then I probably wouldn’t even have time for much of anything at all.
In the distance, even through the closed windows and doors of my house, I heard Bianca’s parents starting to fight, and I knew our night was about to get worse, before it got even the slightest bit better. And I knew that if I didn’t make the call, one of them would end up in the hospital, or worse. While Bee couldn’t see what I was doing, I slipped my phone from my pocket and sent my big brother a text.
Emma: Linc… They’re at it again. Bee is here with me. Can you call it in?
Linc: I got it. Take care of her. I’ll handle them.
Sighing, I put my phone away and went back to work, distracting Bee from everything Terible the world felt like throwing at her.
“Tell me a secret, Emma.” Bee sat across the kitchen table from me while I put all the groceries and junk I’d gotten at the store away. “Something nice.”
I looked up from the bag of marshmallows I’d been contemplating tearing into and saw the tension in her eyes. Too much of it for a seven-year-old, that’s for sure. Swallowing down the sudden rock in my throat, I shut the pantry door and leaned against it while I pursed my lips together in thought.
“Did you know…” I trailed off, trying to come up with something. Bee stared at me like I was about to answer all of life’s greatest questions, and I couldn’t let her down. Not with all the crap she had going on at home. “Oh.” I snapped my fingers together in triumph, because who else should I let in to my deepest secret besides her? “Did you know what I’m training for? With the running and the working out, even though I hate it?”
Bee shook her head, her pigtails dancing on air with the movement. Her eyes lit up with the excitement of a shared secret.
I stepped away from the wall, moving until I was standing right next to her, and then I leaned down so that we were face-to-face. “I want to make a difference,” I told her quietly, even though there was no one else in the house to hear our conversation. “I want to do something for all the people in the world who don’t have anyone they can call for help. The ones who don’t trust the people coming to help.”
Bee’s eyes, still bright with the excitement of what I was telling her, began to fade slightly as her mind began to process what I was telling her.
“I’m going to train to be a police officer, Bee.” The smile and relief I felt for telling another person my secret vanished the instant I saw her shoulders slump. “Hey.” I pulled her into my arms, wrapping her in a tight hug. “What’s wrong, little bee?”
Bee cried against my chest, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was wrong. What I’d said that broke her heart.
When she pulled away after what felt like forever, her face was red and her eyes swollen. Her sobs faded into hiccups and she stared at me like I’d just stolen all her candy on Halloween. “If you leave, who’s going to protect me from Daddy?”