“Be on the lookout for identity theft.”
Hannah nodded. The cop left, leaving her empty and hopeless.
“I’m sorry.” Royce moved to the bedside. He reached for her hand, then stopped with a frown. “I know you wanted to help that girl.”
“He was going to hurt her. Really hurt her. I could see it in his face.” The images were permanently branded into Hannah’s mind. The cold anger in the man’s eyes. The girl’s fear. Was she still alive?
“I’m sorry.” Royce shifted, glancing toward the door as if willing Grant to appear.
Grant . . .
Last night’s incident would disturb him. “Look, my brother doesn’t need to know all the details.”
Grant had suffered post-traumatic stress. He was doing better since he’d left the military, but crimes against kids were Grant’s weak spot. She didn’t want anything to disrupt the peace he’d found or impede his progress. Why should they both suffer?
Someone knocked on the door frame. Tears burned the corners of her eyes as Grant walked into the room. The safety and comfort his presence offered flooded her with relief.
Grant’s gaze swept over Hannah, his blue eyes assessing her with military precision. She suspected he’d never truly be able to shake the soldier inside of him. “What happened?”
She offered a weak smile. “I got in between a big guy and his girlfriend.”
Grant’s eyes hardened.
“What can I say?” She picked at the blanket weave. “You know me. All leap, no look.”
Royce cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry.” Hannah introduced them. “Royce Black. My brother, Major Grant Barrett.”
“It’s just Grant now. I’ve dropped the major, remember?” Grant shook Royce’s hand. “Thanks for calling me.”
Royce summed up her condition in a few sentences. Grant nodded and asked Royce a few questions about her follow-up care.
“Hello, I’m right here.” Hannah waggled her fingers.
“Thank God.” With an indulgent expression he usually reserved for the children, Grant leaned over and kissed her cheek. He turned back to Royce. “You’re sure she’s supposed to be released today? She looks terrible.”
Hannah would have rolled her eyes if movement of her eyeballs didn’t hurt. “You’re still talking about me as if I’m not here.”
Both men ignored her.
Royce said, “Yes, discharge papers are on the way. She tried to refuse admittance.”
The men exchanged an Of course she did look.
“I just want to go home, Grant,” she said, embarrassed at the pitiful tone of her voice. “My injuries are minor.” Really, she was achy and bruised, but Royce’s worries seemed overboard. The doctor hadn’t seemed nearly as concerned.
He squeezed her hand. “OK.”
Royce turned to Hannah. “I’ll call you in a couple of days.”
After a long flight and drive, Hannah’s sore muscles and bruises had stiffened. Grant led her inside the fixer-upper he and his surely soon-to-be fiancée, Ellie, had bought over the summer. Hannah limped into the house. Baby gates blocked off the dining and living rooms on either side of the foyer. Though Halloween had passed more than a week ago, three paper bats hung from the foyer light fixture.
Barking, AnnaBelle the golden retriever barreled down the hall. Grant stopped the dog with one hand. “Whoa.”
“She’s fine.” Hannah scratched behind the silky ears. “Good girl.”
Hannah vaguely registered a gated-off room full of building and painting supplies.
“Aunt Hannah!” Carson ran down the stairs in race-car pajamas. He threw his arms around her waist and buried his face in her sweater. “I missed you.”
Her bruised tailbone protested as she stooped to hug him. She held him close, the contact with his small body—and giant affection—softening her like butter left in the sun. “I missed you, too. It’s so late. What are you doing up?”
“I heard AnnaBelle bark, and I knew you were here.” He rubbed his sleepy eyes.
An earsplitting scream rattled the walls.
“And the baby who never sleeps wants her hug.” Ellie appeared at the end of the hall. In her robe and slippers, she looked ragged. “You might want to change first.”
“How long has she been up?” Grant asked.
“Half hour,” Ellie said. “I gave her some Tylenol.”
Stretching her grubby hands toward Hannah, Faith tottered down the hall.
“Oh, my God. She’s walking.” With one arm around Carson, Hannah reached for the baby. “What is that on her hands?”
Carson eased away. “Ew.”
“Looks like dog food.” Ellie sighed. “I thought the bowl was empty. AnnaBelle must have filled up on macaroni and cheese. I swear more of Faith’s food ends up on the floor than in her mouth. She’s the Tasmanian Devil baby.”
Faith reached Hannah, squealed, and grabbed her aunt’s slacks with two disgusting fists. Hannah scooped her up. Definitely dog food. “Girlfriend, let’s wash those hands.”
The baby babbled as Hannah carried her into the kitchen. Propping Faith on her hip, she turned on the faucet, tested the water temperature, and leaned the baby toward the stream. She soaped up one chubby hand.
“Watch out!” Ellie said.
Faith grabbed the pull-out nozzle and pointed it at Hannah’s face. Water soaked her sweater and dripped off her face.
Laughing, Grant shut off the water. “Sorry about that. She discovered the pull-out feature last week.”
“You are a little pistol.” Hannah kissed the baby on the top of the head. Sniffing her baby shampoo–scented hair, she felt the tension inside her loosen further. The love that crowded her heart when she was with the kids filled her with equal parts joy—and terror.
Faith kicked her feet and twisted.
“Can I let her down?” Hannah scanned the room. Everything appeared to be barricaded except the kitchen and hall.
“Sure. The kitchen is babyproof.” Grant picked up the dog’s bowl and set it on the counter. “Are you hungry?”
“No, just tired.” Hannah mopped at her drenched sweater with a dish towel.
“Let’s get you settled, then.” Upstairs, he led her into a guest room that smelled faintly of fresh paint. A white iron bed faced the window. White curtains framed a view of the dark woods behind the house. The soft green walls and white linens looked serene. “I’ll bring your luggage up. Ellie took your clothes from the trunks in Lee’s attic and put them in the closet and drawers.” Grant headed for the door.
She ran a finger across the glossy white window trim. “What?”
After she and her brothers had moved their father to a nursing home, Lee had convinced her to keep her few belongings, mostly off-season clothes, at his house. The cost of living in New York City is outrageous. Save your money, and you’ll be able to purchase a unit with less debt later, he’d said. At the time, she hadn’t known his anti-debt spiel was coming from personal experience, but he’d been right. She had a nice down payment in her brokerage account. After Lee’s death, Grant offered her his new place as her official address. But she’d never asked for a room of her own.
Her protest had to wait for him to return with her luggage. A few minutes later he lined her bags up in front of the closet.
“Ellie didn’t have to go to all that trouble,” Hannah said. Having her personal belongings in the dresser and closet felt . . . permanent. Her brother was playing hardball. He knew how much she feared attachment, and he was forcing her hand.
“You don’t have that much stuff. This is your room. You might not be here very often, but it’s yours whenever you want to be here.” Grant dug into his front pocket and pulled out a key. “I had a house key made for you, too.” He put it on the dresser. Pointing to a doorway, he said, “You have your own bathroom, too.”
“Really? How did you get all this done since I was here last?”
“Two months is a long time, and we want you to feel at home.”
The address on her license was a formality. She’d never intended to actually live in Scarlet Falls again. She floated from city to city, with no permanent ties to any particular place. In the beginning, she’d liked the feeling of freedom. But Lee’s death had changed everything. Hannah’s world was tilted. Instead of free, she now felt lost. As soon as her promotion came through, she’d start looking for an apartment. It would be in the city, not her hometown, but she couldn’t hurt Grant’s feelings. “Thank you.”
“I’m going to help Ellie get the kids back to bed. You should try to sleep, too.” Grant left the room.
Had it really been two months since she’d visited? How could she let that happen? She stared up at the freshly painted ceiling for a minute, then got up and went into the new bathroom. Grant and Ellie had kept the vintage feel of the house with a modern pedestal sink and a mosaic tile floor in the same pale green and white they’d used in the bedroom. A deep, modern freestanding tub invited her for a soak, and the shower had more jets than an airport. Had this been a bedroom or a closet before her brother had reallocated the space for her? Guilt lay in a thick layer on her skin. She needed to visit more, no matter how painful it was to leave.