A soft groan raised the hair on Andrew Whiteangel’s neck. Ellen! Yanking the gun from his waistband, Drew whipped around and dashed from the master bedroom. Down the short hall, a blade of light cut across the satillo tile.
Drew’s stomach did a slow roll. He’d sworn to protect Ellen and her family. And he’d failed. Like always. The damn suburban ranch house had too many windows and doors. Too many points of entry for the enemy. And everyone was an enemy with crazy sweeping the Valley. He palmed his gun. The weight was reassuring and cold as hell.
If he lost Ellen…
His sneakers squeaked on the tile. Stopping in front of the open door to the attached garage, he raised the pistol.
Ellen stood in the middle of the empty bay. Shoulders hunched, arms in close, she swayed near a pile of litter seeping into the space reserved for two cars. A humid breeze darted in through the open side door and thumbed through the debris.
Drew ground his back molars. Dammit. He should never have accepted her excuse of seeing the body outside. He should have known it for the lie it was. He was an addiction counselor for God’s sake, and well versed in the art of bullshit.
Ellen had seen someone outside and not told him.
Ellen knew his record.
Did she think he was going to kill some random neighbor?
Not unless the bastard deserved it. And so many did. Drew rolled his shoulders. Cradling the grip of his gun, he sidled toward the door. He peeked out. Left. The hard wall of the garbage alcove. Right was the walk leading to the back yard. No shadow shifted in the shade of the afternoon sun. No one hopped a fence. “They’re gone.”
Lowering his weapon, Drew eased the door shut behind him. Hollow board. Two kicks and someone could enter through the door. He twisted the lock in the brass knob and swore. A child could pick that in ten minutes. He’d done it in five when he was six. Of course, he’d known there were crackers on the other side. Nothing like motivation. And speaking of motivation…
His gaze cut to Ellen.
She scrubbed her hand down her face and sighed. Frustration and sadness bowed her shoulders.
Maybe he’d been a little hard on her. Maybe he shouldn’t have reminded her that safety was an illusion. But then he hadn’t grown up with clean clothes, a bed, or a reliable supply of food. Drew returned his gun to his waistband. His palm itched with the need to touch her, contact with her calmed the whirlwind inside his head. He set his hand on her shoulder and allowed his fingertips to tease the silky skin just beyond her ribbed collar. “You okay?”
She straightened her arms at her sides. “Who in their right mind would do this?”
“We kinda established that most aren’t in their right mind.”
She pointed a finger at the mess. “That food is just going to waste.”
He’d eaten worse. Crouching, he poked the pile. A can of Dr Pepper rolled down. Motor oil dripped like a loogey from a cellophane packet of dehydrated chicken something-or-other. Picking up the pouch, he wiped it on his jean-clad thigh. Chicken enchiladas. Nice. “Looks like the packaging is waterproof.”
Kneeling on the floor beside him, Ellen selected the top packet. “We should be saving the water for drinking and bathing, not wasting it on washing the food.”
They should be packing the stuff into oh-shit bags to hightail it out of the Valley. But he doubted she was willing to leave while the plan was still in place. And then there were her AWOL parents… Yeah, he had his work cut out for him to convince her to leave. Story of Drew’s life. He never did things the easy way.
“We got running water now, Betty. I suggest you get busy.”
Her blue eyes narrowed and she pushed her blond hair out of her face. “If you must typecast me, then I prefer Julia. As in Julia Childs. Gourmet food for everyone.”
He’d known a Julia once. She was a stuck-up bitch. “Betty, it is.”
Ellen’s mouth opened.
He chuckled. He was growing on her. Soon, he’d get to do more than touch her casually.
A footstep whispered behind them.
Twirling around, he jerked the gun from his waistband and aimed it at the entrance to the house.
Ellen’s sister raised her hands and froze. “Whoa. Whoa.”
He wasn’t a damn horse. “It’s been a day. Rosa? Isn’t it?”
He quickly stuffed the weapon back in his jeans.
“Yeah.” Where Ellen was blond and blue eyed, her sister Rosa had brown eyes and hair. Her clothes were standard issue for a professional who valued comfort over fashion. “Lunch is served. If you all want to eat, you need to get a move on. There are four teenagers in the house.”
Her outfit would look better on Ellen. Hell, Ellen would look better with nothing on. Drew forced air into his lungs and chased away the thought. There was an apocalypse on; he needed to focus. His gaze swept the curve of Ellen’s breast. Then again, he wasn’t dead yet.
Setting her hands on her knees, Ellen pushed to her feet. Her stomach rumbled. “I think I’ll have a cup of soup. I’m not sure I’m up to eating tomato sauce.”
Drew rose and cupped her elbow. His first thought was she was sacrificing so others could have more. But she’d been sick this morning. God, was it really just this morning that the world had gone loco? “I’ll make it. And some crackers, too.”
Crackers were supposed to settle a stomach, weren’t they? Good Lord, he had watched one too many chick flicks. Next thing, he might develop breasts. He jerked his t-shirt down and checked. Nope. Not yet.
Ellen’s lips twitched. “Careful, or I might start calling you Buddy Crocker.”
Had she realized she’d linked their last names? Drew wouldn’t tell her until they were alone. He did have a nice comfy couch all to himself and her kids had to sleep sometime.
“I’m strong like bull. I can open cans.” He flexed his bicep. Chicks dug his muscles. A benefit of working out, to keep himself disciplined and beat back the drug cravings.
Framed in the doorway, Rosa rolled her eyes. “I’m going before I lose my appetite.”
Ellen watched as he made his bicep dance.
“We’ll be there in a minute.” Or two. Maybe three. Drew would push his luck.
Rosa shifted then stilled. “What in the world?”
Ellen blinked then shook herself. “We had a break in.”
“The guard.” Rosa propped herself up against the door jamb. “He had my keys. He must have gotten in here, to wait for me, to…”
Drew stepped forward.
Ellen cut in front of him, reaching her sister first and pulling her into her arms. “It’ll be alright.”
Drew’s nails dug into his palms. Rosa had killed the man, in self-defense. Nothing would be alright for a while. He’d added four more corpses to his tally today. Good kills. Righteous kills to save Ellen’s cousin and friends. But those faces were bound to haunt him. Things were bound to be worse for Rosa. She’d been sober. She’d remember all the little details. “When you’re ready to talk, I’ll be here.”
Straightening, Rosa pushed out of her sister’s arms. “Why would I need to talk? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Drew is a counselor.” Ellen smoothed the dark flyaway strands of her sister’s hair. “He can help.”
“I’m fine. Just fine.” Rosa stomped away.
Chewing on her bottom lip, Ellen stared at him.
Drew shifted closer and traced her jawline with his fingers. “I’ve had more reluctant clients.”
He really needed to learn when to shut up. His reluctant patients had either returned to drugs or killed themselves. Somehow, he didn’t think Ellen would find those outcomes acceptable.
She leaned into his touch for a moment. “I trust you, and am willing to help. She has a fondness for my chocolate chip brownies.”
A child’s shriek pierced the air.
Ellen stiffened. “We better go in. I want to see these cooking skills of yours in action.”
“Prepare to be amazed by me and my sidekick, Microwave.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. Her kids liked him well enough as the neighbor, but how would they react when he turned into something else? He’d hated the stream of ‘uncles’ his mother had paraded through their tenement. Most of them had hated him back. Drew rolled the tension from his shoulders.
He had more important things to do.
With his brother off saving the world with his magic detective’s shield, Drew needed an ally and he had a small pool to draw from—two teenagers, a geek and a neighbor who handled a dead body like yesterday’s fish.
Drew needed to assess their strengths and weaknesses.
Then he’d figure out how to use them best.
Or defeat them, if they turned crazy.