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Authors: Linda Winfree

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Hearts Awakened

BOOK: Hearts Awakened
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eBooks are
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transferable.
They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520
Macon GA 31201
Hearts Awakened
Copyright © 2008 by Linda Winfree
ISBN: 1-60504-186-6
Edited by Anne Scott
Cover by Anne Cain
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First Samhain Publishing, Ltd. electronic publication: September 2008
www.samhainpublishing.com
Hearts Awakened
Linda Winfree
Dedication
In Loving Memory of Mable Wilson Potts Quarles (1937-2008)

Special thanks to Tami Palmer, for your enthusiasm and expertise, and for helping with the realistic aspects of Tori’s story. I couldn’t have done this without you.

Chapter One
“I told you what happened. Why won’t you believe me?”

The fear in the tremulous voice tugged at Tori Calvert’s heart. She leaned forward, careful not to touch Maggie Stinson’s hand. Maggie would only pull away.

Tori clasped her hands in her lap. Not long ago, she’d been unable to bear a casual touch too. “I want to help you, but I can’t do that if you won’t talk to me.”

In the silence between them, the hospital’s PA system dinged and paged Dr. Mackey. Behind the curtain separating the emergency cubicles, another patient moaned and a female voice whispered reassurances. The lingering scent of disinfectant and Betadine hung in the air.

Maggie’s swollen mouth trembled and firmed into a thin line. She winced. “It’s like Jed told you. I opened the cabinet, and the cans tumbled out. One of them caught me in the face and busted my lip. That’s all.”

Must’ve been a pretty big can. Tori eyed the red bruise that extended from the left corner of Maggie’s mouth to her eye. A big can with a right-handed fist and a nasty temper.

“I want to see my wife!” Jed Stinson’s voice boomed through the small ER area. Maggie jumped, a visible shiver traveling over her frame. This time, Tori did take her hand, and for just a moment, Maggie clung to her before letting go. With a shaky sigh, she pushed her thin brown hair away from her face, hooking the strands behind her ears.

“Hold your horses, Jed.” That resolute no-nonsense tone belonged to sheriff’s investigator Mark Cook, and Tori relaxed. As long as Cookie was outside the curtain, Jed wouldn’t get in until they were ready. “We have to finish your statement and Layla’s waiting for the local to take effect before she puts in Maggie’s stitches. Now tell me again what happened? I didn’t get it all last time.”

Jed repeated the story Tori had already heard three times. She’d give the Stinsons one thing—they always had their version of the facts straight. The only problem was their version never jived with the physical evidence. And Maggie Stinson would never sign a complaint against her husband.

At the other end of the cubicle, a slender hand swept the curtain aside and Layla Jackson stepped inside. Turquoise surgical scrubs highlighted flawless skin like dark honey. Pulling on a fresh pair of gloves, she smiled at Maggie. “Well, let’s see if we’re ready for those stitches.”

During the few minutes it took her to deftly close the wound at the corner of Maggie’s lip, Layla kept up a light, comforting monologue. Under Layla’s smooth voice, the tension gradually drained from Maggie’s posture. The male voices outside the curtain drifted away. Once Layla finished, Maggie fidgeted, clutching her prescription for antibiotics. “Can I go home now?”

Tori glanced up and met Layla’s resigned gaze, her large eyes like liquid ebony. Layla nodded. “Sure.”

As Maggie slid from the table and straightened her oversized, blood-spattered T-shirt, Tori stood. “I’ll walk out with you.”

“No!” Maggie shook her head and slid the crumpled prescription in her pocket. “That’s okay. I’m just going to find Jed and go home.”

“Wait.” Tori dug in the pocket of her jeans and came up with a card bearing the phone number of the women’s crisis center. She smoothed out one bent corner against her thigh and snagged Layla’s pen to scribble her cell number on the back. “Take this. Call if you need anything.”

Maggie crammed the vellum rectangle into her pocket without looking at it. “Thanks.”

She slipped out between the curtains and was gone. Tori sighed and turned to Layla. “This is, what? The third time since May?”

Layla nodded, clearing away her supplies. She pulled off her gloves and dropped them in the wastebasket. “Broken wrist in May. The burns to her hands in August. Now, this busted lip. And those are just the ‘accidents’ that bring her here. No telling what she handles at home by herself.”

Tori swallowed a frustrated growl. More than the administrative duties of her position as the crisis center’s director, she hated this part of her job—knowing someone needed help, but meeting resistance when offering assistance. “We’ve got to do something. I’m going to talk to Cookie.”

“I’ll come with you. Jay’s getting the toothache in cubicle two and I’m due a break.”

For a Friday night, the emergency room remained relatively deserted. Only a couple of people sat in the waiting room—a young man dozing in front of the television and a woman with a short skirt and too-blonde hair. She leafed through an old
Cosmopolitan
, her expression bored. Jed and Maggie were gone and Cookie was nowhere to be seen.

Tori lifted her hands and let them fall against her jeans. “Where
is
he?”

The automatic door slid open, admitting a brisk gust of wind and Mark Cook. His green sheriff’s department windbreaker topped jeans and a Florida State T-shirt, and with them, he wore an expression of extreme disgust. Tori’s stomach lifted and fell with the odd little flutter it had developed whenever she saw him lately. She started to tunnel a hand through her hair, remembered she’d pulled it into a messy ponytail earlier, and stopped.

“Hey,” she said, tucking her hands in her back pockets. “Did you get anywhere?”

Cookie’s mouth tightened and he passed a hand over his close-cropped brown hair. “No. She swears it was a can falling out of the cabinet and he sure as hell isn’t going to say otherwise.”

“Can’t you do anything?” Frustration curled in her chest, making breathing difficult. She glanced at the other occupants of the waiting room and forced her voice to a low tone. “Come on, Cookie. This is the third time she’s been in here in five months. He’s hurting her and if we don’t do something about it, she could end up dead.”

Unwrapping a piece of gum, he didn’t rise to her agitation, not that she expected him to. In the past couple of years, she’d worked countless assault and domestic abuse cases with him, and he always remained utterly cool, completely unruffled. “What do you want me to do? I can’t arrest him unless she files a complaint or we get called out to the house on a domestic. And there aren’t any neighbors out there to complain.”

Then their intervention plan meant nothing? When she’d developed the idea and written the grant for it during her domestic-violence course, her professor had raved. No one had pointed out how cold, hard reality would grind her idealism into the dust.

She sighed. “Thanks for coming anyway. I know it’s your night off.”

“No problem.” The corner of his mouth quirked up in a grin and her stomach performed its silly little somersault again. He glanced over at the blonde. “Angel, you ready to go?”

Angel tossed the magazine on the chair beside hers and rose. She smoothed the snug denim skirt and sashayed to Cookie’s side. Her breasts, obviously not bound by a bra, bounced inside the skinny tank top she wore under a corduroy jacket. “More than ready, baby.”

Her blonde head barely reached his broad shoulders. Tori hunched a little bit. Petite women always made her feel like a huge, clunky Amazon. Cookie stood a couple inches taller than she did, but in her low-heeled boots, they were eye to eye. Catching his cynical gray gaze, she looked away before he saw the insecurity in hers.

Glancing away might have been a mistake. Now her gaze lay on his hand patting Angel’s hip. Tori bit her lip. Geez, this was ridiculous. She wasn’t twelve and this wasn’t middle school. She shouldn’t be getting her feelings hurt because Cookie was interested in someone else. It wasn’t like he’d even think of looking twice at her. Angel was his type—blonde, lushly endowed, overtly sensual. Everything Tori wasn’t.

“Well, I’m outta here.” He sounded relieved, and with his smile, the slight slashes by his mouth deepened. Tori pulled her attention from the angles of his face—the serious set of his brow, strong jaw, the cleft chin. His observant gray eyes saw too much and the last thing she wanted was to be caught staring at him. “Call if you need anything else.”

“Sure. Have fun.” The words hurt her throat, but she watched until he and Angel crossed the street and he helped her climb into his ancient Blazer.

“Huh.” Layla snorted. “Only one kind of fun they’ll be having. Did you see that skirt?”

“Layla, that’s mean.” She didn’t have to ask what kind of fun Layla meant. Heck, that kind of
fun
Cookie was famous for. “She was cute.”

“Tori, please. The woman was wearing pink glitter on her eyelids. She looked like a third grader’s art project.”

“Boy, am I glad you’re my friend. I’d hate to have you talking behind my back.”

Layla tugged at the sleeve of Tori’s long-sleeved T-shirt. “I could start on your fashion sense, but I won’t. Come on. I only have ten minutes and I need a caffeine fix.”

They grabbed sodas from the vending machines and took them outside. The insistent breeze picked up leaves from the gutter and tossed them across the parking lot. Bright light spilled from halogen security lights and kept the shadows at bay. Tori leaned against the wall, not sure which one she didn’t want to think about more: Maggie Stinson going home with Jed or Cookie having “fun” with his Angel. She set her soda on the brick ledge by the steps, depression settling on her.

“There’s that look again.” Layla took a long sip of her own drink. “Like the weight of the whole world is on those skinny little shoulders of yours.”

Skinny? Tori shot her a look and refrained from asking when was the last time Layla had an eye exam. She was too curvy up top and too fond of her mama’s homemade biscuits, which went straight to her butt, to qualify as skinny. “I’m afraid next time Maggie won’t turn up in the ER.”

“Honey, I know you want to save the world, and I admire you for it.” Layla rolled her soda can between her hands. “But someone has to want to be saved before you can help them. And right now, Maggie wants Jed more than she wants help.”

“I don’t get it. Why would she want him? He hurts her and this is going on with the kids in the house.”

“You’re the one with the psych degree. You tell me.”

Tori shook her head. Oh, she held a master’s degree in psychology, was working on her doctorate and could rattle off the textbook reasons why some women remained in abusive relationships, but that didn’t mean she understood it. Maggie’s insistence on protecting Jed, on staying in the marriage, just didn’t make sense.

Layla gripped the ends of her stethoscope, looped around her neck. “So are you hanging out here or going home?”

Smothering a yawn, Tori stretched. She retrieved her almost-full soda and tossed it in the waste can by the steps. “I’m going home to take a hot bath and read twenty pages on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

“Sounds like fun.” Layla made a face. “I’ll trade you a chapter on infectious diseases.”

“No, thanks.” Laughing, Tori tugged her keys from her pocket and moved toward the parking lot.

“Want me to walk with you?” Layla called after her, concern wrapping around the words.

Tori did, but the desire to appear normal was stronger than the fear and weakness. She shook her head. “That’s okay. I’ll see you later.”

Forcing herself to walk, she headed for her Miata, its silver paint gleaming under the bright lights. She kept her gaze moving in a constant scan of the parking lot until she was in the driver’s seat. Once the doors were locked, the painful stress in her stomach let up some. She flexed her fingers on the wheel and took a deep breath before starting the engine.

During the short drive home, she focused on the pools of light cast by streetlights, unable to look at the shadows waiting beyond the sidewalks. Driving at night remained one of her greatest obstacles, and even though she refused to let it cripple her life, it always made her feel sick before, during and after.

She slowed to take the left into the parking lot of her apartment complex. The three buildings stood away from the road in a horseshoe shape around a sparkling heated pool. Although it was October, a handful of her neighbors sat around the water and a couple were swimming. She pulled into her parking space, directly in front of the stairs and looked around. No one on the sidewalk. Nobody under or at the top of the stairs. Her living room lights remained lit.

The dark beyond those lights pressed in on her, suffocating in its heaviness. The sense of panic twisted in her throat and she shoved it away. She wasn’t alone. The Bolingers and Braswells were at the pool, a scream away. No one waited for her in the dark. Not tonight.

Keys ready, she swung out of the car.

“Hey, Tori!” She jerked at the male voice calling across the lot. Her fingers tightened on her keys, attached to a small karate bo, and adrenaline surged through her body in an uncomfortable rush. She forced herself to breathe at a normal rate—in, out, in, out. She knew the voice. It was only Randy Braswell, calling from the pool area.

She turned, schooling her expression into a polite mask. “Hi, Randy.”

He gestured toward the pool area and his wife waved. “Why don’t you come join us? It’s a real nice night.”

Sit outside at night? In the dark? Uh, no. She shook her head. “Thanks anyway. I have a lot of studying to do.”

“Maybe next time,” Patty Braswell called. “Don’t study too hard.”

With a wave, Tori jogged up the stairs to her apartment door. The lock turned smoothly and she was inside, the door closed and locked. Still grasping the wooden finger bo on her key ring, she moved through each room of the small apartment, opening closet doors and checking every possible hiding space. The lack of a dust ruffle on her bed let her see beneath the bed from any angle in her room. Sheer drapes over vinyl blinds eliminated another opportunity for camouflage. Her shower curtain was a sheet of clear plastic.

BOOK: Hearts Awakened
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