I have a problem. I’m dreaming about a woman I’ve never even met before. I know who she is. I know where she is. It would just be creepy to meet her—or even initiate contact. But if I don’t get this little fixation of mine under control soon, I’m going to end up doing something stupid—more stupid than not paying attention as I turn the corner, about to walk past the object of my obsession’s restaurant.
But thank god I am, because one minute I’m frozen mid-step as Dee Duncan stops on the sidewalk outside Delish—she’s talking animatedly into her phone before hanging up and sliding it into her purse—the next, a tall, lanky guy in a black hoodie and jeans launches into a run straight at her. At first it looks like she’s just going to be knocked over, not that the piece of crap is going to yank her purse off her shoulder and sprint away with it in a middle-of-the-day mugging.
I’ve closed half the distance between us before I realize I’m moving. When she falls to the ground, grabbing her arm with a cry as she hits the pavement, I’m torn between going to her aid or hunting down the SOB and beating him to a pulp—and I’m not a violent man.
My body decides for me, and I’m bending down beside her, the world grinding to a halt the moment her crystal-green wide eyes meet mine.
“Are you okay?”
“Ye . . . yeah. My purse! It’s got my keys and everything in it.”
I hand her my phone. My fingers brush hers as I dump the device in her hand, but I don’t let myself dwell on how smooth her skin feels—later I will, but right now, I’m on a mission. “Code to unlock it is one, nine, eight, one. Call the cops. I’ll be back,” I say before I’m on my feet and running after the mugger.
“Wait. No!” Dee yells from behind me, but I don’t stop. I round the corner I saw the mugger take and spot his hooded head already halfway down the block. He probably thought he was home and free. Have I got news for him?
I’m almost close enough to ambush him, but he glances over his shoulder, his eyes widening before he darts down an alley and takes off. But being a city firefighter means I’m no slouch in the speed department, and lucky for me, I’m a shit-ton faster than he is. And by the time he’s halfway along, I’m close enough to swing my arm out and hook my hand in the strap of Dee’s purse, jerking the kid to a stop.
I grab his shirt and pull him around to face me. I’m ready to teach him a lesson.
“What the hell, man?” he spits out, his voice full of hot air and bluster that doesn’t match the wariness I see in his eyes. His gaze roams my face and perhaps wisely reading my angry expression, he changes tack. “Look, man, no harm, no foul, right? I’m just . . .” He lets out a big sigh, and for the first time, I really take him in. Old worn clothes, a smell not worth mentioning, and a downtrodden demeanor that hints he’s more resigned and tired than scared. It occurs to me that he’s probably around the same age as my sixteen-year-old son, Jake.
“Right,” I say, letting him go and standing to my full six-foot-three height. “This can go one of two ways. You going to drop the macho bullshit and listen to someone willing to give you a break?”
The boy living in a man’s world far too soon tilts his chin, but when his shoulders slump, it’s clear he’s a product of circumstance.
“You stay around here?”
He grunts and averts his eyes. “All around,” he mumbles. “You going to call the cops?”
I don’t miss the edge to his voice. “Depends if you plan on stealing a hardworking woman’s purse again?”
I spear him a scathing look, and he crumbles under it. I actually feel sorry for him.
“Nah. I saw her standing there and figured she wouldn’t miss it.”
“Do you miss having a bed to sleep in?”
“Every fucking day, man.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is—whether it’s a bed, a roof, a hot home-cooked meal, or even a purse, usually, they all mean something to someone.”
“I’m just so damn hungry and desperate, and—”
“Over the hard life?”
“Yes!” he spits out, and his anger clearly isn’t at me.
“Right. So, how about this.” I reach into my pocket and grab my wallet before unfolding a couple of twenties and holding them out for him. He goes to snatch them off me, but my fingers hold firm until his gaze jerks to mine. “You use this to get some food into you, and you let me make a call for you so you have a warm, safe bed to sleep in for a few days.”
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