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Authors: C. C. Koen

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BOOK: Unlikely Allies
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Thank goodness on Sundays Maggie prepared egg-and-cheese sandwiches, quiche, or some other breakfast item they could heat up in the microwave to eat on their drive into the city and made their lunches each evening before going to sleep. The routines helped them get out the door much faster.

After snapping Cece into the booster, no sooner had Maggie gotten in the passenger seat than Kat shifted into reverse and peeled out of the driveway. “It’s about time. What the hell took so long?”

“Hey, what did I tell you? Don’t swear in front of her.” Maggie tilted her head toward Cece, whose brain catalogued everything.

“She can’t even hear me over the insane kiddie tunes.”

“God, Kat, she only listens to it on the way in. Other than that it’s your choice. In fact, I remember it being
your
rule, sister dear,” she said sweetly, turning the volume a tad louder for the hundred-song CD to annoy her even more.

“Ha, I have no rules. Don’t be blamin’ me,” Kat countered.

“Mama, we gonna see Max?”

Kat’s gaze darted to the passenger seat, held for several seconds, much longer than she should have since she was driving, and then back onto the road. Long enough, though, for her squinty eyes to lodge twenty questions without speaking a word.

“He in your class?” Kat turned down the music, her inquisitive brain on overdrive.

“No.” Cece stretched out her response like her aunt wasn’t very bright for asking such a simple question.

“Max, my new friend . . . and Mama’s.” Cece pointed to her. “Can we get a hot dog with him, Mama?”

Maggie cringed. Three, two, one . . .

“Who the hell—heck is Max?” Kat looked at Maggie and then up to the rearview mirror. When they were little, she hadn’t minded Kat’s protective nature. Now though, she didn’t appreciate the hassle.

“Nobody.” To avoid her sister’s scrutinizing glances, she turned toward the passenger window and read the useless billboards lining the highway.

“He lemme push his buttons,” Cece shouted, kicking both of their seats.

Maggie inhaled, holding in a groan along with her frustration, anticipating an extensive and excruciating trip. For as long as she could remember, her control-freak sister wanted to become a private investigator. The independence suited Kat’s don’t-tell-me-what-to-do persona. At the first opportunity, her sister accepted an investigator position at Westlake Security, the leading personal, commercial, and entertainment protection agency in the nation. Detecting a story and sniffing out the clues were Kat’s priority, and the “Max” subject wouldn’t be dropped soon. Since intel came easier from a four-year-old, Kat tilted her chin up and spoke to the rearview mirror. “What buttons?”

“On his 'puter.”

A punch at the top of her arm shoved Maggie into the conversation. She shifted in her seat and rubbed the aching spot. Nowhere else to go, she bit her tongue and wished they didn’t have thirty minutes left in the commute. Since Kat nor Cece would let up, she figured it would be better if she got the interrogation over with.

“He works in the office next to ours.”

“Huh, I have Gateway’s account and do the background checks before they hire. I don’t remember a Max though. He might’ve worked there before I got the job.”

Maggie stared at her hands twisting in her lap and recalled the engraved CEO title. Mr. Stone embodied the role well. A T-shirt and jeans more her style, a man in a suit hadn’t appealed to her before. Yet, when she’d entered his office, she couldn’t miss him. A wall of windows with a mirrored sheen reproduced and reflected his powerful persona. A cherry wood desk provided a dividing line between the haves and have-nots. At the helm, Mr. Stone’s wealth and no-nonsense demeanor exuded a halt-right-there scent, bringing her to a stop at the entrance and barring her from his elite domain.

Determined to retrieve her wandering daughter who’d cozied up to a complete stranger, she held firm and prepared for any challenge. His scrutinizing examination of her clothing wasn’t missed. If she didn’t have the Westlake Security emblem showing, he probably would’ve called them to have her removed from his office. Since her boss managed video surveillance for the entire building, she comforted in the fact Matt would have gotten a chuckle out of the comical request.

As Mr. Stone gave her the once over, she’d done the same. His crisp, white dress shirt had one sleeve rolled up to his elbow, which accentuated and exposed his prickly arm hair, and the other had come unrolled and settled an inch above his wrist, reducing him a notch from her standpoint. Disheveled dark brown hair, as if he’d been stewing over something and fisted the short strands multiple times, gave him a sloppy, casual appearance. His frustrated sexiness called out
rescue me
and appealed to her sympathetic heart.

“He nice, huh, Mama? He likes Herbert. He holded my hand. We rided in his car. Don’t ya think he nice, Mama?”

Ugh. She squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her knotted up neck. This day wasn’t getting any better. A headache would make the trying morning complete. At the zoo and all weekend long, Cece asked questions about Max, the same ones over and over again. Kat had been in and out Saturday and Sunday and must not have heard Cece talking about him. Otherwise this discussion would’ve happened a lot earlier. Now she’d have to confront this head on, otherwise the inquisitions would just get worse.

“What the h—”

“Don’t.” Kat needed her potty mouth sewn shut. Maggie constantly reminded her not to cuss. It didn’t help that they worked with a bunch of foul-mouthed men at the security firm. For the most part, she tuned out their raunchy discussions, but Kat fired them up and kept them going. At worst their banter bordered on sexual harassment, at best, off-color political jokes that had the majority of them laughing their butts off.

Matt had assigned her to a private workspace away from distractions and other employees. Her data-entry job involved inputting confidential and time-sensitive information into the computer system and answering service requests. On the opposite side of the office, a centralized space housed forty or so investigators and a handful of call center employees. Most of the agents were bodyguards, conducted field research, or inspected off-site locations. In her exclusive spot, she didn’t see Kat or the others too often and didn’t get involved with the rowdy crowd.

“That’s not his name.” Before Maggie could say anything else, Cece cut her off.

“Uh ah. Is too,” Cece insisted, crossing her arms and aiming her squinted eyes at her mother, convinced she told her aunt the truth and nothing but the truth.

Maggie shoved her fingers through her hair and raked her nails along her scalp, blowing out a sigh of frustration. “His name’s Rick.” She got that far before getting interrupted again.

“Stone? Is that who you’re talkin’ about? When the H-E-double hockey sticks did you meet him? And why am I just findin’ out about it? I heard he’s smokin’ hot, Mags. The ladies at Westlake gush over him, but I haven’t had the pleasure. Matt raves about him too. Best bros, nobody better, and all that man-crush crap.”

Drowning out her sister, Maggie turned the music up and glanced over her shoulder. Cece had already lost interest and had a library book propped in her lap. That girl loved to read and had a head start for a kid her age, recognizing basic sight words and sounding out a lot of the others she didn’t know. Thank goodness, her daughter got at least one positive trait from her mother. Early on, she bought a collection of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and other classics they enjoyed at bedtime.

“Your niece didn’t listen when I told her to wait outside the bathroom stall. She ended up in his office looking for Herbert, the escape artist, who tagged along against my wishes. Go figure.”

Kat flashed a grin in the mirror at her rebellious niece in training. “How’d you end up in his car?”

She picked at some nonexistent lint on her pant leg. Kat wasn’t falling for her diversion technique and grabbed her flicking hand.

“Mags.”

A Virginia tag with MOVEOVR became fascinating reading material as she formed an explanation. “He insisted on taking us home when he saw us at the bus stop. Even called Matt and had him tell me not to worry.”

“Um hmm.”

The telltale undertone ticked Maggie off. She twisted around in her seat, hot under the collar and primed for a confrontation. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Kat shrugged, picking up on the beat of the bumble bee tune, buzzing in the correct spot right along with Cece.

“Sing, Mama, sing,” Cece shouted, feet pounding against the seats in rhythm with the thumping bass.

Hard to resist her daughter’s cheerful request, she took the easy out. “Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.”

They entered the lobby with fifteen minutes to spare, the only good thing about the morning so far. Kat planted a big smooch on Cece’s cheek and broke off from them, waving on her way to the elevators.

Maggie yanked open the door to the preschool and almost slammed face first into the center director. Cece ran for her classroom, throwing off her backpack and coat as Maggie signed her in.

“Miss Tyson, do you have a few minutes? I’d like to talk to you about Cece.”

Maggie groaned, expecting unpleasant news. The first week after she enrolled Cece, the director, Miss Sally, cornered her when she came in to have lunch. Cece somehow snuck out of the house with a pack of gum, and instead of throwing it away when caught, she hid it. At some point she stuffed the pieces in her mouth and stuck the messy goo on tables, chairs, and shelves rather than her typical swallowing it. The second week, she brought Herbert in without permission, scaring teachers and kids when the rodent scrambled around the classroom. And on and on it went, one thing after another. Even with privileges revoked, as much as Maggie could take away from a four-year-old, Cece continued to break the rules. She really wasn’t a bad kid, just didn’t adjust well to change sometimes. The move, even though Cece got to see her aunt more, hadn’t gone as smoothly as Maggie hoped. Three months in their new home, routines established and less frequent “bad” reports, she thought Cece had adjusted much better than those first few weeks. It wasn’t unusual for adults to need time to ease into life changes too, so she hadn’t been all that upset about the incidents and handled them in stride like she normally did.

“Sure.” What else could she say?

“Let’s go to my office.”

Maggie nodded and followed the director across the hall. After they were seated, door closed, which also hadn’t been a good sign, Miss Sally wasted no time.

“We have a new girl starting tomorrow.”

Okay, that was a strange beginning. Maggie sat on the edge of her seat, waiting for the ball to drop.

“I’d like Cece to be assigned as her buddy. All the new kids get one for a few weeks, to help with their transition.”

Yeah, Sean, a cute blond boy, had taken an immediate shine to Cece. She still spoke about him even though they weren’t partnered anymore.

“All right.” Her response dragged out, waiting for a punch line or some other addendum. After the bumpy start, she didn’t think the director liked either one of them, let alone trusted her daughter to be anyone’s role model.

“There’s something else you should know.”

Yep, she knew there had to be bad news coming.

“The little girl is deaf.”

Maggie sat up straighter, this time surprised for a different reason. “Uh . . . are you sure?”

“Well, of course I am. I met with her mother and we discussed her needs at length. I don’t talk about the children with other parents, but when I told Robin’s mom she’d be given a buddy, she gave me the okay to share these details with you.”

“No. What I meant was, are you sure you want Cece?”

Miss Sally giggled and sat down in the chair next to Maggie. “You have a special little girl. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that.” Her smile widened, and it didn’t look disingenuous. “She’s one of the brightest, friendliest children in the class. She’d be a great buddy. You should see her take charge and direct everyone around the room, reminding the other kids of the rules when they step out of line.”

The wooden frame of the chair rammed into Maggie’s spine when she fell against it. “You’re kidding me, right?”

Miss Sally tilted her head, humored delight pinching her brow. “Why are you surprised?”

“Uh, you do remember she didn’t get off to a great start. I’d think you’d want someone else.”

“Oh, that. Goodness, that was months ago and not the worst that’s happened. She’s been trying her best ever since, and she loves helping people. In fact, I think you may have a future teacher on your hands.”

Maggie’s mouth fell open and shut and open again. After a few seconds, she blurted, “She doesn’t follow my rules.”

“A lot of kids don’t. You shouldn’t be concerned, that’s normal. She will eventually. When they’re young they try things out. The structure and limits in school, peer pressure, and a lot of other things help them conform. When they go home, kids like to let their hair down, so to speak. Don’t we all need that, even as adults?”

Hmm, when she put it that way, it made sense, sort of.

BOOK: Unlikely Allies
5.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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