A Man of Honor
A Starting Over Novel - Book 2
Brave. Bold. Brainy. One woman reached for the gold, one for the law, one for the university, and one ran as far from home as possible. But often, the best laid plans fall apart, and Starting Over is the only thing to do.
Heather Marshall, wants to save the world. She rides in her van at night helping runaway teenagers. In her jeans and sneakers, she looks like a kid herself. But looks can be deceiving. Heather grew up with two alcoholic parents--one a sheriff--and now with a degree in social work and a black belt in kick boxing, she knows just what she’s doing.Dave McCoy doesn’t think so. He’s the cop on the beat who’s saved her hide more than once because of that old, unreliable van not to mention the gang wanting to use the kids as drug runners. Why can’t she understand that a big city like Houston is not as safe as the small west Texas town she hails from? And why is she so afraid to trust him with her safety and perhaps…her heart?
Dry Creek, West Texas
Heather Marshall slammed the door of the small wood-frame house she called the pit and ran down the country road, wanting to follow it forever. Tears flowed down her face. With a hard stroke, she wiped them away, then pressed her right side where her daddy’s fist had connected. She knew the impact would cause a colorful bruise that would last for days.
She paused a half mile away at the cutoff leading to town and limped toward the familiar limestone rock where she’d wait for her sister, Kathy. The limestone formed a natural bench, and Heather sat down heavily. She wrapped her arms around herself. January evenings were cold in West Texas, and she’d had no time to grab her jacket. Hadn’t even thought about it. She’d just wanted out.
Oh, God! What could she do? Her parents. A couple of alcoholics. And if alcoholism was a disease, like folks said, George and Jolene sure didn’t care about curing it. Neither did the others who partied with them.
As she waited, the occasional car passed by. Drivers waved and Heather waved back as if nothing was wrong. Pretending. Just as they did. Everyone in town knew the Marshalls, but neighbors mostly minded their own business. Mostly. Except not a month ago when her daddy had lost his job. Then, everyone knew everything because George Marshall had been a deputy sheriff for the town of Dry Creek.
Heather spotted the big headlights of the local bus, stood up and ran toward it. A minute later, Kathy got off.
“What happened this time?” she asked, wrapping her sweater around Heather’s shoulders.
“He’s drunk,” replied Heather, her voice trembling. “Very, very drunk. He broke a lamp, and he’s...swinging...hitting everything and... He’s a monster and there’s nowhere to hide.”
“Shh.” Kathy put her arm around her sister. “He’s gotten worse since he was dumped from the force.”
“At least they took his gun away,” said Heather.
“If only Mama had the guts to throw him out,” said Kathy. “She’s what’s called an ‘enabler.’ I’ve been studying, doing some research.”
Heather nodded, but the news didn’t make her feel any better. Kathy liked studying so much—was so good at it—that she’d won a college scholarship for next year. In Houston.
“Kath,” she whispered. “What am I going to do when you’re gone?”
“Oh, sweetie,” Kathy replied, holding her close. “Leaving you behind is killing me. But...I’ve got to get out of this place.”
Heather leaned against her big sister. “Then take me with you,” she whispered. “Twelve is old enough.”
Kathy didn’t reply at first. Then a tear landed on Heather’s cheek. Finally, Kathy choked response. “I can’t, Heather. I just can’t.”
Fifteen years later...
Heather drove slowly along the service road of the busy Katy Freeway. Her unmarked van was filled with supplies—food, water, toiletries, blankets—she’d packed before starting her rounds that evening at the end of September. A full mobile pantry testified to the money-stretching skills she’d honed from childhood. And now she was using that talent to help other kids. Kids in trouble. Runaways.
Her gaze shifted from the traffic ahead of her to the parking lots alongside the Houston interstate. She’d developed keen night vision to spot her delicate quarry.
A group of youngsters stood waiting for her to pull into the driveway of a tired-looking strip mall, one of her usual stops. She recognized two girls–Brenda and Alicia-and wanted to cheer. Return visits meant trust…at least, some trust. Without it, she’d fail, despite her best intentions.
She turned into the mall and pulled forward, parking parallel to the road, careful not to block the driveway. She shut the motor and groaned when it groaned. That would take more money to fix, but she’d worry about that later. She grabbed a box of PBJ sandwiches and chips, pulled the van door open and stepped outside.
“Hey, y’all. I’m so-o-o glad to see ya. Who’s hungry?” She reached into her carton, distributed the items, studying the youngsters as casually as possible.
Youngsters? A few of the new boys seemed older. Or maybe it was the expression on their faces that made her think so. She turned to Brenda. “Going to introduce me to your friends? Or...aren’t y’all together?”
Alicia spoke up. “Oh, yeah, we are. These guys got a place to live. So we don’t have to eat up your sandwiches anymore. We just wanted to say bye to you and thanks.”
“Baby G, you talk too much,” snapped one of the new members of the group.
“Sorry,” Alicia whispered, looking at the ground.
The dynamics had changed in the past few days and not for the better. “What’s going on?” she asked Brenda, the more confident of the two girls.
Brenda shrugged. “We got a place of our own now. And jobs. Easy jobs. That’s all.” She looked away. “Ask them.”
Heather turned toward the three newcomers.
“Like the girls said, they’re with us now, and we’ll take care of them.” One male stepped forward. The leader, in posture and gesture. Letting her know what’s what. Possibly thought she’d go looking for the kids if they didn’t show up. Maybe get the cops involved. “We’re just letting them say goodbye to the nice lady. Because we’re nice boys. Right?”
His two cohorts chuckled, but Heather focused on the speaker. In his twenties, Latin, husky build, a couple of inches taller than she. “And you are...?”
He grinned at her, full of confidence and machismo, before his expression turned hungry, like a rattlesnake tasting the air. His dark eyes traveled slowly down her body and back up. His easy grin became a sickle-shaped smile, sharp and predatory. He stared at her without blinking.
She met his gaze head-on, but goose bumps burst out all over her skin. She could probably handle one of them. But three? She rocked on the balls of her feet, ready to run.
The man cocked his head before replying to her question. “Just call me el Jefe–the boss.” He nodded at the girls Heather had been helping. “Go. Jet outta here.”
The kids obeyed instantly, and Heather faced the three men.
She heard cars passing along the service road, and one actually entered the lot. But the driver kept going, intent on finding a parking space closer to the set-back stores. Probably never noticed her. And neither would anyone else.
Heather stepped backwards—closer to her van. “I’ve got more stops to make,” she said. “People will be looking for me. If you’re hungry, grab a sandwich. Take the whole box.” She tossed it to the leader, who let the food hit the ground. She inched backwards again, glad she’d left the door open.
“No, chica. No van,” he said, swaggering toward her until he was only a few feet away. He pointed at one of his friends, and nodded toward the vehicle. “Go. Take a look.”
Look for what? Blankets? Heather watched in disbelief, her anger rising, as the man entered her van. She’d worked hard on this mobile outreach project. “What do you think I’ve got in there?” she demanded, hands on her hips. “Drugs?”
Two sets of black eyes burned her. The “boss” and his cohort outside the van stepped closer, and she groaned silently. When would she learn to keep her mouth shut? And why hadn’t she been able to find a partner that night? She heard the third man rummaging in her vehicle. Heard him behind her when he called out.
“Mira, amigos. Look what she keeps for playtime. All different colors, too.”
The box of condoms. For the kids who asked her. So children wouldn’t have children.
El jefe’s eyes lit up, a leer crossed his face. “A consolation prize,” he said. “With the beautiful lady.”
Bile rose to her throat, but she forced it down.
He reached toward his waist, snapped his wrist, and suddenly silver metal gleamed in the light of the streetlamp. A knife with a long ugly blade.
“Into the van, Miss Heather. And no noise.”
They could drive away with her. They might kill her. But to go quietly?
“No-o-o!” She screamed at the top of her lungs, running at the man, counting on the surprise factor to give her an advantage. She kicked him flat-foot in his solar plexus, and he stumbled backwards, giving her space to spin around and kick him a second time. Directly to the groin. He doubled over, howling, and dropped the knife.
She spun and targeted the other two men. Similar weapons gleamed in their hands. By the feral light in their eyes, she could tell they wanted her blood.
She was screwed.
Officer Dave McCoy approached quietly. The players were so intent on their drama, they hadn’t noticed him yet. He hadn’t been flying lights or sirens, merely cruising the freeway as part of his patrol. But he’d recognized Heather Marshall’s van, a van held together with spit, as he’d mentioned to her on numerous occasions.
When he spotted it, he’d slowed to make sure she hadn’t broken down. He hadn’t planned on stopping. He knew she wanted him to stay away from “her” kids, as she’d requested in the past. Except when he cut his wheel to enter the lot, he’d heard her scream. He’d braked hard and quickly made his way around the back of her van in time to see her connect with some guy’s family jewels and a weapon fall to the ground. The other two thugs pulled their knives, and he ran forward, gun in hand. “Drop them.” He hoped his voice was as deadly as his weapon.
As one motion, they turned toward him. Then Heather raced to kick the knife away from the guy on the ground.
Dave kept his eyes on the men, but spoke to the woman. “Get behind me...go to my car and call for backup. Code 8. When you tell them I can’t get to the radio, they’ll be here in seconds.”
He sensed her disappearing behind the van. “I said drop those knives. Now!” He barked.
One hit the floor.
He waited a heartbeat and aimed his weapon at the suspect still holding his knife. “Resisting arrest. I’ll start with your knee....”
The knife dropped. “Smart boy. Both of you–put your hands on your heads.” Now his voice was quiet, full of authority. “You’re going to stand there nice and easy...because I just had target practice today...and I’m damn near perfect....” And just as he’d predicted, it didn’t take two minutes until he heard the sweet blare of sirens closing in.
The perps heard it, too. “Smart boy” turned and sprinted toward the row of stores at the back of the lot. And from the corner of his eye, Dave saw a blonde whirlwind fly after the guy. “No!” she screamed at him.
“Let him go!” Dave yelled. The woman was putting herself in more danger, and he could do nothing at the moment.
But then his buddies arrived–Powers, Jazzman, Yorkie and two others. “Cuff these two,” Dave ordered as he sprinted after Heather. “Bring ‘em in. Weapons are on the ground, but search them again. One of you follow me.”
Heather was gaining on the guy. The few shoppers on foot quickly got out of the way. Between Heather giving chase, and the people watching him, the suspect seemed to get confused. Dave veered left to cut him off, his timing perfect. The perp almost ran into his arms. Dave turned him and cuffed his hands behind his back.
And there stood Heather Marshall. Unstoppable. Her blond hair in disarray, sexy enough to raise any man’s blood pressure. She came straight at the cuffed man, her hands fisted, looking ready to smash his face.
“Where are my kids?” she screamed.
“She’s crazy, man. Loco,” mumbled the perp.
“We didn’t do nothin’ to those kids.” The man tilted his head. “See? Mira.” He stared over Heather’s shoulder.
“Are those yours?” asked Dave.
Heather turned. Her smile answered him.
“Jazzman,” called Dave, “take this suspect into custody.” He watched his buddy haul the guy off, heard him begin, “You have the right to remain silent....” That was enough for Dave.
He turned back to Heather, who hadn’t moved, simply staring at the teens. “Ms. Marshall?”
She looked up at him, her face pale in the dim light, her lips trembling. So unlike her usual self. “McCoy,” she said in a small voice. “I-I don’t feel well....” He caught her before she hit the ground.
Heather heard high-pitched voices and a single low one. She opened her eyes to see McCoy kneeling next to her, his intense gaze tinged with concern. She felt his fingers gently on her wrist.
“Come on, Heather, breathe. Inhale. Exhale. That’s it. No more sleeping.”
The ground felt hard under her body. She slowly turned her head and realized she was still in the parking lot. Alicia and Brenda stood nearby. She began to push herself to a sitting position, and felt a strong arm around her, assisting her.
“This is ridiculous,” she murmured, now upright. “I’ve never fainted in my life.”
“You’ve probably never taken on three hoods in your life, either,” replied McCoy, “and all at the same time. I guarantee your adrenalin shot through the clouds and then crashed. An occupational hazard for cops.” He paused, fingers still on her wrist. “Your pulse is normal now, but we’ve called an ambulance. The medics should be right here.”
“No way,” she protested weakly. She got to her feet, then wished she hadn’t. Nausea made her sway.
“Would you take it easy for a change?” McCoy’s impatience sounded too familiar to Heather, but his firm hand steadied her.
Why did it have to be McCoy who showed up? She didn’t like the man—which was fair because he sure didn’t like her, either. She had to tolerate him, though, because he was the cop on the beat where she and Kathy had lived and worked for the past four years. He’d proven helpful when they’d needed him at Welcome Home, the women’s shelter they ran. But his quiet ability to make people do what he wanted them to do—so different from her father’s loud abuse—scared her. McCoy was a controlling cop. In the end, he and George were the same.
McCoy was talking again. “What were you thinking, Heather? How could you go out without a partner? Again. How many times have I…?” He shook his head, frustration clearly written on his face.
His voice wasn’t quiet tonight.
She stood on her own now. “What happened to ‘Miss Marshall’?” she asked, seeking to divert him.
“Try acting like an intelligent adult,” he began, cut off by the ambulance’s screaming approach.
“I’m not going to the hospital,” said Heather. “Absolutely not. I’m feeling much stronger. Healthy as a horse.”
“And more stubborn than a mule.” He sighed a huge sigh. “Why don’t you let the medics make the call?” Dave replied. “In fact, you might prefer the hospital.”
He nodded. “We’re going to have a little talk, Ms. Heather Marshall. Just as soon as you’re up to it.” He added something under his breath.
“What was that?” she asked.
He didn’t reply.
“Do you insult every law-abiding person on your beat?” she asked, her anger mounting. “I am not a child.”
His eyebrows rose to meet his hairline. “I’ll let that pass. But you’re going to listen because what I’ve got to offer is a lot of common sense. Something you sorely need.”
The medics arrived then, preventing Heather from retorting. Five minutes later they pronounced her vital signs strong, and when she refused to accompany them to the E.R., they left.
Brenda and Alicia walked slowly toward her, their heads cocked to watch Dave at the same time. “Ms. Heather,” said Alicia, “I think I want to call my mama. I want to go home, and I don’t care what Brenda thinks.”
“I didn’t say nothin’,” said Brenda. “I’m going to the Youth Center across town. It’s better than goin’ home. I ain’t never goin’ back home.” She raised her chin as if to dare anyone to say otherwise.
“That’s fine,” said Heather quickly. “Sometimes, home isn’t the best place.”
The familiar comfort of helping the youngsters enwrapped her like a soft flannel blanket. Helping them was what she did best. Dealing with Officer McCoy was another matter.
Heather glanced into her rearview mirror. Yup. The cop was following her to the woman’s shelter. Five minutes later, she paused in the driveway of Welcome Home, pressed the button, and waited for the chain-link fence to slide open. “Thanks, Diana,” she said into the speaker. “I’m not coming in tonight. Going straight home from here.”
Before leaving the van, however, she took the time to fill out a trip form which included miles traveled, number of teens helped, amount of supplies used. The raw data would help to establish the need for teen services. McCoy was waiting for her when she drove her compact Ford Escort from the lot. Furious, she pulled over to the curb and got out.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” she asked. “I can make my own way home.”
“Simply doing my job,” he replied in a calm voice.
“Look, McCoy,” she began. “You were really great back there, and I appreciate all your help. But—”
“How about you getting back behind the wheel,” he replied, “so I can follow you home and call it a night?”
Without saying a word, she got back in the car and slammed the door shut. What choice did she have? She had to get home before Kathy called the police. It was after eleven. The cop hadn’t lied. McCoy worked 4 p.m. to midnight, and his shift really was coming to an end. He’d spent a lot of it on her.
The entrance light glowed over the door as she pulled in front of the small brick house she shared with her sister. Kathy’s car sat in the driveway, with Mark’s Lexus behind it. When Heather was home, Mark normally parked in the street, leaving the driveway for the women. He must have stayed later than he’d planned that evening.
Her mind raced. Now, she’d have to explain her adventure to both of them if they saw McCoy. Well, McCoy wasn’t going inside, so maybe they wouldn’t have to know about her evening at all. The less Kathy knew, the better. Between her upcoming December wedding and Welcome Home, Kathy shouldn’t have to worry about Heather, too.
Heather left her vehicle and walked toward McCoy who was standing next to his patrol car. She pasted a smile on her face. “You can go home now, McCoy. Thanks.”
He inclined his head toward a spot behind her. “Not so fast,” he replied with a smile. “Look there.”
Kathy and Mark were striding down the front walk toward them.
“Damn it!” said Heather, her temper rising at McCoy’s sense of humor. She glared at him. “I’ll do the talking, McCoy.”
But Mark cut her off before she could start. “Your sister’s worn a hole in the rug from pacing. Is there any law that can keep her off the streets this late?”
“Late? It’s only just past eleven o’clock,” said Heather.
The cop shook his head. “I suggest you form the Heather Marshall Safety Committee. At least insist on her having a partner. The woman doesn’t understand that a city as big as Houston is not safe like the small town she’s used to.”
“What happened tonight?” asked Kathy, looking from Heather to McCoy. “Was it the van again?”
“Ms. Marshall will explain everything,” Dave said. “I’m going to file my reports.”
And just like that, he was gone.
Kathy turned to Heather. “What kind of reports does he have to file?”
“It was nothing. Come on inside and I’ll tell you.” An expunged version.
By the time they reached the kitchen, she’d decided how to restructure the story. She left out the knives, the fainting spell. McCoy happened to be passing by–a truthful statement–and overreacted to the boys, not men. “You know I can take care of myself,” she said, glancing from Kathy to Mark. She stretched and flexed her arms. “I’ve trained in kick boxing.”
Mark stood in the doorway, shoulder against the wall, his posture as casual as his attitude seemed to be.
“And exactly why,” he began slowly, “are we speaking about fighting skills right now?”
“Oh, my God!” said Kathy, grasping Heather’s arm. “Something really did happen tonight.” Her eyes filled immediately, and Heather hugged her tight.
“I’m fine, Kath. I promise. It was nothing.”
“Officer McCoy suggested you take a partner, Heather,” said Mark. “And that makes sense to me.”
She looked up at the man. “I had a partner, but she backed out. I couldn’t not show up for the kids. End of story.”
Mark turned his attention to Kathy. “Do you want me to hire a security guard to go with her?”
“No!” Heather’s response. “Of course not.” Mark came from Texas royalty–ran a successful pipeline company for the oil industry. But she had no call on his funds.
“Let’s calm down,” said Heather, modulating her voice while her thoughts raced at Mach speed. “I’ve been going out in the van for the past two years. So, what’s really changed?”
Kathy jumped up from her chair as though burned. Her dark eyes blazed at Heather, her hands fisted on her hips. “You want to know what’s changed? I’ll tell you—the van’s falling apart now, and you could be stranded anywhere—back streets, dark parks—wherever the heck you go. You’re staying out later than you used to, and you used to arrange for a lot of volunteers to help. You’ve either forgotten about that, or you’re too busy, but I don’t like the results. And that’s just for starters.
“At work, you flag in the afternoons, and I need you at full strength. Welcome Home is our first priority. We have contracts to fulfill for those women and their children. They are our clients.” Kathy’s breath was labored, and Heather held up her hand. “No, I won’t stop,” continued Kathy. “Because more important, I love you, Heather. You’re the only sister I have, and I can’t lose you.”
Tears trickled down Kathy’s face. Heather reached for her sister and wiped the tears away. Then she felt Kathy’s fingers on her own cheeks.
“You’re crying, too,” whispered Kathy, squeezing her tight. “This girl never cries.”
“Whew!” said Mark. “Good thing I have no sisters. W-a-y too emotional for a guy like me.”
Heather gave him a thumbs-up and a wobbly grin. “All we need is a new van,” she said, “and you’ll be happy again, right?”
“Not totally, but it’s a start,” said Kathy. “Know someone in the car business?”
Heather tapped her mouth with her forefinger. “No-o-o, but how about some private funding?”
“Heather! Every dollar we raise right now is for Welcome Home! I’m not screwing around with funding sources. We could lose donors or be shut down for transferring funds, even with the best of intentions.”
“No, no. Of course not from the shelter!” replied Heather quickly. “But how about Sara Patterson? She’s got a birthday coming up. Perfect timing.”
Heather looked at her sister and grinned. An identical grin crossed Kathy’s face. “See why I love working with her?” Kathy said to Mark. “She’s the creative problem solver. I’m the dry administrator. We’re a great team.”
“Sweetheart,” said Mark, with a gleam in his eye, “I think you’re pretty darn creative.”
The two sisters looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
“I don’t get it,” Mark added. If it’s Sara’s birthday, why would you get a van? Doesn’t she get the presents?”
“Nope,” said Heather. “She throws herself a party and tells all the guests to make checks payable to her favorite charity.”
“Let’s make sure it’s us this year,” said Kathy.
“A very unique approach,” admitted Mark. “How’d you meet such a woman?”
“Heck, we knew her in Dry Creek. Same age as Heather,” replied Kathy. “She was as miserable in that small dusty town as we were and practically took the next bus out of there after Heather’s, right after they graduated high school. She stayed with us in Houston for a little while, before her career took off.”
“She’s a real estate mogul,” added Heather. “I tease her about it all the time. The poor country girl makes good in the big city.’” She reached for the phone.
“It’s late on a work night,” said Mark. “You could frighten her by calling now.”
“Sara’s evening is just getting started,” replied Heather. “She parties a lot.” Sure enough, Sara answered on the first ring. And five minutes later, they had a sponsor for the van.
She left her sister and Mark in the kitchen and made her way down the hall to her bedroom, flopping on the bed, exhausted. She wouldn’t give up on the kids. Not ever.
She closed her eyes and unexpectedly images of the big cop filled her mind. Dave McCoy. What the hell did he know about living in a small town? Safe, huh? He didn’t know sic’em from c’mere about a small town. And he didn’t know anything about her, either. Which was just the way she wanted it.
Dave walked into the station house alone, his mind on the report he’d file. He’d follow up with Heather Marshall personally the next day or night. Right now, however, she had him stymied. The superwoman wasn’t pressing charges. After her fearless performance in the parking lot, he’d been struck silent when she’d told him. Of course, he’d be pressing charges on behalf of the citizens of Houston. And she’d known that. The perps wouldn’t get away with violence.
She’d wanted to keep a low profile for the sake of Welcome Home. No newspaper articles or items on the police action sheets. Nothing that would connect her to the safe haven and expose its location. Her clients at the shelter needed to feel secure. He understood her point, but was surprised just the same. She could have been killed.
The thought made him sick. God knew she wasn’t easy to deal with. Some might say, pig-headed, and he’d be one of them. But she was so alive. Passionate about everything: her work, her family, the kids. If he lived her way, he’d be exhausted. And out of a job. Dave’s reputation as a dependable cop rested on his ability to remain calm and in control.
By the time Dave reached his work desk, he knew the thugs were behind bars clamoring for their lawyers. He’d also been slapped on the back by almost everyone in the station house.
As Dave began writing his report, Powers and Jazzman, his backup, came over ready to discuss the incident. And Heather Marshall.
“I never saw anything like it,” Powers said.
“Where is she now?” asked Jazzman.
“Home,” replied Dave. “She insisted on driving that godforsaken van back to the shelter. I stayed on her tail until she walked through her own front door.”
“Hell,” Jazzman said, nudging Powers, “I would have stayed on her tail, too.”
The guys laughed. “That is one fine-looking woman,” Powers agreed.
“Enough,” Dave growled.
“An Amazon,” Jazzman said louder.
“She’s only this tall,” protested Dave, touching his chest. “Exactly.”
His buddies grinned at each other. “Exactly?” asked Powers. “And how do we know that?”
Damn. Dave felt his ears start to burn. “Knock it off.”
His friends didn’t budge. “Okay,” said Dave. “She passed out, and I couldn’t let her fall.... Oh, what the hell. You both know the neighborhood. You must know the Marshall sisters.”
“Yeah, but...uh...we’re not that up close and personal. It’s your beat. We’re just neighbors. But if you want to trade off with me…?” Powers let his voice rise in suggestion.
“Get out of here and let me do my work.”
Laughing, his buddies finally left him in peace, but Dave couldn’t concentrate. He kept picturing Heather, alone, surrounded by those men. With knives. A lucky kick to the groin bought her time, but there was no defense against a well-aimed blade or bullet.