Chapter 1

Allie

 

Coffee.

There was nothing on earth quite like it. Leaning back against the counter, I focused on the few seconds I had to myself. My step-father was down in the laundry room, probably looking for a clean shirt, and I could hear the shower running upstairs, which meant my mom was running a bit late. The usual banging noises came from my brother’s room that told me he was up, which was a miracle. A quick look at the clock told me that if he wasn’t down there soon, I’d have to go hurry him along, but for now…coffee.

Humming with appreciation, I savored another sip and sighed.

Few things in life matched a good cup of a strong brew, but coffee was even better in solitude. At least in my opinion. Privacy was in short supply in this house, though, so I had to take it whenever and wherever it offered itself.

At twenty-one, I still lived at home, and while the house wasn’t small, it certainly wasn’t the kind of place where I could wander around braless in a tank top and panties if I got the munchies in the middle of the night. My parents let me come and go as I wanted, but I still felt more like a child than I did an adult. I couldn’t even bring myself to bring guys home even though I could’ve probably gotten them in and out without anyone noticing. Hell, I could barely allow myself the freedom to get myself off even though I was certain no one would hear me.

One of the reasons for my lack of alone time barged through the door, dragging his backpack in one hand and hitching up his jeans with the other.

TJ, my little brother. Tyson McCormack, Jr. Twelve years-old and thought he could conquer the world.

He signed, “good morning,” and I smiled back at him, waggling my fingers in greeting but not forming actual words. Not yet. Right now, coffee was king.

He buried himself in the fridge, most likely looking for the most sugar-filled breakfast he could find. He ate a leftover donut while I finished my coffee. Once I was done and had the appropriate amount of caffeine running through me, I started with the same questions I asked every school day.

“Are you ready? Books? Homework?”

He rolled his eyes at me and signed with fluent sarcasm, “Yes, mother.”

Making a face at him, I grabbed my coat and pulled it on. He was almost out the door when I caught the back of his shirt and yanked him back. I shoved his coat at him, raising my eyebrow. It was early March, and although that might’ve meant spring in some places, it wasn’t in Philadelphia. The sun was deceptive, and I knew that the wind would be brutal. TJ gave me that look kids his age perfected, but he put the coat on without complaint.

The ten-minute walk to his school would do as much to wake me up as the coffee, although not quite so pleasantly. The moment I stepped outside, I grimaced. I didn’t mind the cold in general, but I hated wind like this. I shoved my hands into my pockets and hunched my shoulders, trying to get my coat to warm me up.

TJ tugged a worn baseball out of his pocket and started to toss it up, catch it, and repeat. It was a nervous habit, one he’d inherited from our dad. Well, technically, Tyson was my step-father, but he’d been in my life for fourteen years, and he’d always treated me like his daughter. We weren’t close, but I always knew that I could go to him with anything I needed.

After TJ tossed the ball once more, I caught it before he could, waiting for him to look at me. “Are you okay?” I asked, signing the words.

He jerked a shoulder in a typical moody response. Without offering anything else, he held up a hand for the ball. Teenagers.

Sighing, I handed it to him, signing again. “They won’t bother you today, TJ,” I told him, guessing what was on his mind.

He’d been dealing with some bullies at his school, and last week, it’d reached the boiling point when they’d chased him halfway home. Somebody had seen him running and interfered, so he hadn’t been hurt, but it’d been enough to make my parents and me worry. It hadn’t happened on school grounds so the school’s hands were tied, of course. They hadn’t bothered to respond to TJ’s claims that no one had done anything about the stuff that had happened on school grounds. Since they weren’t going to do much, we knew we had to handle things ourselves. And by we, I meant me. Protecting my little brother had always been my self-imposed responsibility.

I continued, “I’m walking you to school and picking you up. You’ve got friends sitting with you at lunch, and you don’t see them between classes. Pretty soon, those assholes will get tired and give up.”

TJ didn’t even crack a smile at the cuss word. It almost always made him laugh. Mom hated it when I cussed around him. TJ heaved out a sigh and started walking again, tossing the ball into the air. I caught up with him and hooked an arm around his neck, hugging him. He hunched a shoulder and made a face, but I caught the faint smile before he elbowed me in the side.

“It could be worse,” I signed my words automatically. My mom had started to have hearing issues when I was younger than TJ. By now, it was instinct to sign when I spoke. I had to force myself to remember not to do it with hearing people. “You could have Mom walking you to school. She’d give you a big sloppy kiss right in front of your friends, and if she saw the kids who’ve been hassling you, she’d let them have it.”

He clapped a hand to his forehead, and I laughed at his expression. He knew I was right. We both loved our mother, but she was notorious for embarrassing us with physical affection, as well as her overprotective streak. I knew I was the reason she bristled at the smallest implied slight, so I never asked her to back off. TJ didn’t know the whole story, so it bothered him more. I knew we’d have to tell him someday, but that was Mom’s decision to make, not mine.

He threw the ball at me, and I tossed it back.

It bounced off his fingers, and I swore as it went into the road. TJ went after it, and I swore again, lunging after him as I heard horns honk. Brakes screeched as my baby brother bent over to pick up the ball. I grabbed his arm and yanked him back as the car skidded to a stop. TJ spun around, glaring at me, still unaware of the car that almost hit him.

I started to sign at him, but at the sound of a car door slamming and a raised voice, I stopped. TJ and I were on the side of the road, in between two parallel parked cars and the driver who’d just barely stopped in time was coming toward us, his lined, weary face red with anger – and probably some fear.

“You idiot kid, are you trying to get hit?!” he shouted, his eyes locked on TJ.

I rested a protective hand on my brother’s shoulder. I’d been about ready to ask TJ the same question – and I still planned on letting him have it as soon as we were back on the sidewalk – but TJ was my brother. I could call him an idiot. No one else could.

“Hey!” the man shouted again as he came closer. “Are you deaf or something?”

“Actually, yes, he is,” I snapped as my temper flared. “So please, keep on shouting. It won’t do you much good, though.”

The man stopped, embarrassment washing away some of the anger. “Uh…”

“Trust me, I’ll make sure he gets yelled at.” I signed the words this time, wanting TJ to know that he wasn’t getting out of this without any sort of consequence.

TJ looked at me, then swung his head around to look at the driver. People behind the now-parked car were honking their horns, some even shouting obscenities. He signed something at me, but I only caught part of it out of the corner of my eye. My attention was still on the driver. I didn’t trust him not to do something stupid.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said firmly. “I apologize for what happened. He can be careless.”

The guy still looked pissed, but he just gave a short nod and stomped back over to his car. I gave TJ a dark look and signed, “Come on.”

The rest of the walk to school was spent with me lecturing him. I knew it wasn’t going to help him get off to a good start, but he’d almost made himself into a pancake, and I was as much shaken as I was angry. “You’ve got to start paying attention,” I said as we came to a halt right in front of the school.

He didn’t respond, and I wondered how much of what I’d been signing had even gotten through to him. His eyes scanned the exterior of the old brick building. I could see the anxiety as clearly as if it was written on his face. My stomach clenched, love and empathy overpowering the negative feelings I had. I knew all too well how it felt to be bullied.

“It’s okay, buddy,” I told him. “I’ll be back here at the end of the day to get you. You’ll be okay.”

He nodded and started forward. As he passed by, he bumped his shoulder against me. The closest I’d get to goodbye. I wanted to say something else, but I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to make things better for him. TJ refused to give us the names of the boys so we could speak with their parents. The most I could hope for was that someone who cared would finally see something at school and get involved.

He was almost in the building when I saw a couple of boys nudging each other and pointing toward him. Before they did anything else, a teacher stopped TJ to ask him a question, and the two boys disappeared into a sea of students.

“Bastards,” I muttered, shaking my head.

They’d done everything short of shoving him in a locker. Chasing him home had been the final straw, but it never should have gotten that far. The “accidental” bumps in the cafeteria that sent him to the floor, the textbooks that had ended up on the bottom of the gym’s swimming pool, his locker vandalized, the word retard written on it in big, ugly black letters. The principal had assured me on more than one occasion that they’d tried to find the culprits, but that no one would give names. The last time she’d said it, I’d less-than-politely suggested that maybe the faculty could pay a little more attention and that might give them some idea of who the bullies were.

I was pretty sure the principal wouldn’t want to talk to me any time soon.

Blowing out a breath, I turned away from the school and started down the sidewalk. I had about twenty minutes now to get to work. My nose and cheeks were already numb, and I could barely feel my fingers – definitely one of the drawbacks to having to sign when it was cold. Not for the first time, I wished I had a bit of extra money so I could grab a taxi instead of walking.

“I’m so ready for summer,” I grumbled.

As I strode down the sidewalk, shoulders hunched against the cold, I thought through the appointments I had for the day. A couple of regulars and a couple of empty slots that I knew would be filled by walk-ins.

Once I was done, I’d be back here to pick my brother up, but tonight I was thinking about going out. I needed something more than just a few minutes alone in the kitchen, enjoying my coffee or a few minutes of freezing my ass off as I hurried to work. It’d been nearly two weeks since I’d been anywhere but work and home, unless I counted my little detour to take TJ to school, and I didn’t.

Maybe I’d luck out and get a new client who’d slap me with a sweet tip, and I could splurge on something fun.

That would be nice.

And it was about as unlikely as snow in summer. I might work at one of the most exclusive salons in town, but one thing I’d learned about rich people as a rule: they were some of the most tight-fisted, greedy creatures ever created.