Sam Young placed his backpack on the bed. Everything he owned was in it and even putting it down required an act of faith.
Could he trust these people?
They appeared nice, but he’d learned that first appearances were often deceiving.
The social workers had left, so he’d see how things were really going to be soon.
Sam turned to find the Rivera’s son, Nico, leaning on the doorjamb. He nodded a greeting, not sure what the other teen wanted.
Some of the real kids of foster parents hated having the fosters around. They were jealous and mean because of it.
Nico’s face didn’t reflect that. He made eye contact and his smile didn’t have any sharp edges. His welcome and handshake downstairs had seemed real too.
“Mom’s making tacos. They’ll be ready soon. Are you allergic to anything?”
Sam shook his head.
Nico smiled back. “That’s good. That makes life easier for everyone, especially you, I imagine. Mom and Dad are both good cooks and there’s always lots of food in the house. If you get hungry, help yourself to anything you can find. No one minds. Do you cook?”
Sam shook his head again.
“Me neither. Too much other stuff to do. You play sports?”
Sam shrugged. He hadn’t had much of a chance, certainly hadn’t had the chance to join a team. “I like basketball and football.”
“Ever tried hockey?”
In California? Eyes wide, Sam shook his head.
Nico laughed. “Not your typical sport here, but my buddy Joe’s grandfather lives up north in Vermont. He got him into skating and then hockey. The Joe talked me into it. Looks like our feet are about the same size. We’ll get you out on the rink with us one day and you can try it out. It’s a lot of fun after you figure out how to stay up.”
Nico’s mom called up that food was ready, so Sam forced himself to leave the backpack on the bed and followed the other boy down the stairs.
Sam’s stomach growled at the delicious smells coming from the kitchen. Would he be allowed to eat what they were eating? Or would it be cereal for him?
Lisa Rivera smiled as the two of them entered the kitchen and gestured to the table. Bowls of grated cheese and chopped vegetables filled the middle. Salsa, guacamole, and sour cream as well. It looked and smelled amazing.
He really hoped he would be sharing this banquet with the family.
Four places were set at the long table, but Sam waited. He knew not to sit in anyone’s favorite spot.
Nico moved to the fridge and grabbed a jug of milk and another of water. When he saw Sam still standing, he motioned with his chin to a seat.
“Mom usually sits at this end and Dad takes that one on her right. I’ll take this one today, but no one really cares. It’s okay to sit wherever you like.”
Sam nodded and took the indicated seat as Lisa came over with a bowl of hot taco meat mixed with spices that nearly had him drooling.
She passed him the bowl before she sat then looked at him in horror. “I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t think to ask if you’re vegan or vegetarian. Do you have allergies, special dietary needs? There’s lots of other food in the house if you don’t like tacos.”
Her obvious panic had him relaxing and smiling. “I love tacos and I’ll eat almost anything.”
She patted his hand and placed four taco shells on his plate. “That’s good. If you’re anything like Nico, those four will take the edge off. After you inhale those, you might actually taste the next ones.”
Not only was he allowed to eat, but as much as he wanted. He’d maybe landed in heaven.
Partway through the meal, the back door opened and a large man walked into the mudroom off the kitchen. A cop.
Sam flinched and shoved the last of the taco into his mouth. Had the cop come to take him away?
Nico grinned at the man. “Hey, Dad.”
“Hi guys.” The cop shrugged off his jacket and hung it up, then moved to where Lisa sat. She tilted her head up and he kissed her full on the lips. They smiled at each other for a moment like there was no one else in the room.
It should have been weird, but it was nice.
The man turned and smiled across the table. “Hi Sam. I’m Manny, welcome to your new home.”
The phrasing had Sam gaping. No one ever said it that way. It was always “our” home. Intentional or not, it always reminded Sam he was the interloper, the expendable one.
Manny offered his hand and Sam shook it. He managed to mumble a thanks.
Then Manny kissed Nico on the head and sat at the last place. “You guys leave me anything?”
Nico laughed. “This time. Better be on time tomorrow. You never know how hungry we’ll be after suffering through the first day of school.”
That sent nerves skittering through Sam. Another school. Another round of avoiding the jerks of the world who loved to pick on the new kid. The foster kid who never had anyone at his back.
Sam had started growing and he worked at getting stronger all the time. That helped. He was more advanced than most kids in his martial arts training, but that wasn’t something he’d use unless he was attacked physically.
“Sam and I are going to try out for football after school, so we’ll be on the late bus.” Nico looked up. “You said you liked football, so I assume you’ll try out with me?”
Sam nodded. He’d never joined a team because it was too expensive, but trying out wouldn’t cost anything. He might get to know a few people that way. Sports made it easier to pick out the good guys from the jerks.
While Manny filled up his first taco, Lisa smiled at Sam. “Better eat up, you’ll need your energy for tomorrow.”
Sam found it wasn’t hard to smile back.
A week later, Sam took his clothes out of his backpack and put them in the drawer.
The Riveras were genuinely nice people and he didn’t think they’d toss him out without giving him a chance to pack his stuff.
He’d never been this well-fed and he’d never felt this welcome.
He’d found out Lisa was a part-time lawyer. Not the kind you saw on TV in court rooms, but the kind that took care of businesses and contracts. Either she or Manny made the family breakfast every day and she was always home when he and Nico got off the bus.
Manny’s shifts were mostly in the day as well. He wasn’t anything like what Sam had expected. Most of his life, he’d lived with people who didn’t trust cops. He’d been told cops were bullies and always on the take.
Manny wasn’t anything like that. He was quiet and sincere. Looked Sam in the eye all the time and treated him like an adult.
This place was a slice of paradise and Sam had to figure out how to not screw it up. He wanted this placement to last. Living here until he aged out of the system would be incredible.
School was okay. The classes weren’t any different from his last school. Football practice was the best part of the day, but that would be ending soon.
Sam, Nico, and his buddy Joe all had the same Math class in last period so when it was done, they headed together to the gym. The team list would be posted there.
One of the older guys patted Sam’s shoulder as he passed him. “You guys are in. See you at practice next week.”
Sam had loved the practices. Learning to play linebacker was different from playing in the park, but it had been fun trying to read the plays and get in the best spots to stop the other squad.
Nico grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s check it out.”
And the list was posted with Sam’s name right there in black and white, along with Nico and Joe.
Nico pulled out his phone and snapped a pic, then moved to the side so the other guys could check the list. “Dad will love this.”
As they walked to the bus, Sam wondered again if Nico had any idea how lucky he was.
Waste of skin.
He shoved aside the echo of his father’s voice and tried to squash the disappointment.
About his useless dad.
Sometimes life sucked and you just had to deal.
Nico elbowed him and showed him his phone. Manny had replied to the text.
Congrats. Proud of you both. Celebration pizza tonight.
When they walked in the house, Lisa hugged Nico. “Congratulations. Your dad let me know.” Then she hugged Sam too. “Congratulations, Sam. Nico tells me you make an excellent linebacker. Can’t wait to cheer you on from the stands.”
He flushed with embarrassment. “Thanks, but I won’t be playing.”
Lisa touched his arm when he started to turn away. “Do you like football?”
“Are there any problems with the other guys on the team?”
He shook his head.
“So, I assume you think there’s a money problem?”
He felt his mouth drop open.
Lisa smiled. “Correction. There is no money problem. Permission slips have already been emailed. Fees have been paid. It’s part of you being here with us. You’re part of our family, Sam. You’re playing football.”
He couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. He was playing football. Part of the family.
Emotions roared through him and clogged up his throat, froze his body.
Lisa smiled and patted his arm. “Now, onto the more important stuff. Tell me if you like pineapple on your pizza.”
Tansy Cheveyo read through her code again, looking for ways to tweak it.
The toy dinosaur she was building was too jerky. She wanted the movements to be more natural. More dinosaur and less robot.
She wanted to improve it before her parents came home. Her mom was a university computer professor and could easily help, but this was all Tansy’s project.
Her mom was good about letting Tansy do it on her own and only answering questions with questions. Those questions usually pointed Tansy to a new line of research that would lead her to the answer she needed.
A peek at the time showed she had another hour at least before they got back from their afternoon date.
Adults were weird.
They’d been married for almost twenty years.
Why did they need to go out on a date?
But every weekend, they did a date. Her dad was a detective now, so he mostly worked day shifts, but even when he’d worked shiftwork, they’d made times for weekend dates.
Hikes, dinners, movies, carnivals, bike rides, picnics, bowling.
She couldn’t imagine doing that many people-filled activities every weekend. On purpose.
School was more than enough people for her.
Aside from her family, of course.
Joe was four years older, but he’d never treated her like a little kid. He liked sports more than he liked science, but he always jumped into her projects when she needed him. He liked the dinosaurs she’d been working on.
And just that fact that she was Joe’s sister made school a little easier.
The knock on the door surprised her.
She was the only one home, but Joe would be here after football practice. And he had his own key.
Maybe one of the neighbors needed something.
Tansy’s dad had drilled safety into her from an early age, so she peeked out the curtains to check the driveway.
A police cruiser sat there.
Tansy’s heart sped up.
If it was her dad, he would have called. Maybe they wanted him for a shift or there’d been a break in a case and they needed him.
But why wouldn’t they call?
Tansy’s fingers shook as she moved to the door and the person knocked again.
Dozens of reasons for an officer to be knocking on the door raced through her head.
None of the reasons were good.
Tansy ran her fingers over the door before she unlocked it but left the chain lock on.
Her dad’s partner, Keith Rose, stood there with another officer she knew, Juan Cortez.
Her entire body was shaking now and the sorrow she saw in the men’s faces made it worse.
It took three tries for her to get the chain off and to open the door properly for the two men.
Keith smiled softly but his eyes were sad. “Hi, Tansy. Is Joe home?”
Joe. Not her parents. “He’s at football practice but he should be home in a few minutes.”
Was that her voice? That broken whisper?
“Can we come in and wait with you, Tansy?”
There was only one reason these men would be here, not asking for her dad, but asking for her and Joe.
“They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“I’m so sorry, Tansy.”
Joe Cheveyo saw the police car in the driveway and pedalled harder. Tansy was alone in the house. His parents were out on their weekend date and wouldn’t be home for a little bit yet.
Who was there?
Was Tansy okay?
The front door was open and Joe flew up the yard, not even bothering to use the driveway.
His sister’s voice had his heart breaking as the realization of what he was seeing hit him.
Dad’s partner Keith.
His friend Officer Cortez.
Tansy with tears coursing down her face.
They were dead.
His parents were dead.
Joe dumped the bike and ran up the steps before hauling Tansy into him.
She clung to him and the tears turned into gulping sobs.
With tears falling from his own eyes, Joe turned his gaze to Keith. “They’re gone?”
Keith nodded and Joe felt his world shatter around him.
For the next few hours, Joe did everything he could to hold himself together.
Their parents were dead.
Killed when some asshole rammed into them with his car. High as a skyscraper driving a car with threadbare breaks.
The asshole had walked away with only a bruise or two. But their parents were dead. Killed instantly.
That was supposed to be a comfort and he knew it would be.
Right now, the relief of that knowledge couldn’t work its way through the shock or the pain.
Their grandfather Koko, their mom’s father, was flying in from Vermont.
During the video call, Joe had watched the man’s face crumple at the news. He was one of the strongest men Joe knew, one who had more corny jokes than the rest of the world put together. And he’d shattered.
Koko had let the tears flow while he spoke with Joe and Tansy on the call. He’d told them he loved them, that they’d figure it out, and that he was coming.
But Joe knew he had to hold on until Koko got there.
He couldn’t let himself fall apart. Not yet.
He’d gone into the backyard and kicked the shit out of the fence. That had helped for a minute.
How could they be dead?
They weren’t supposed to be dead.
The hours spun by filled with impossible questions and no answers.
This shit wasn’t supposed to happen.
Tansy had cleaned off the dining table, shoving her dinosaur robot stuff into an old briefcase of their mom’s. The one she used to cart her projects from place to place.
She’d barely said a word since he’d come home.
They’d clung to each other and cried but now she was quiet.
Quieter than normal.
And her eyes were filled with so much sorrow, he thought she might burst with it.
He worried the same might happen to him.
A knock sounded at the front door and then it opened. Joe’s buddy Nico and his dad, another cop, walked in.
Joe felt his control slip.
Nico still had a dad.
Tears filled Nico’s eyes as he walked over to Joe and yanked him into a full on hug. “I’m so damn sorry, Joe. I can’t believe it.”
The tears loosed again, but it was okay, because it was Nico, and he was crying too.
Manny pulled them both into a hug and cried with them. “We’re here for you Joe, whatever you need.”
He knew that, knew they would be. But they couldn’t give him what he needed.
What he needed was his parents to be alive again.
Nico slumped into a chair at his kitchen table. He felt like he’d had his guts removed through his nose and then shoved back down his throat.
June and Robert Cheveyo were dead.
That kind of bullshit wasn’t supposed to happen.
He wasn’t an idiot. Nico’s family had always taken in foster kids so he knew bad shit happened all the time. Knew it happened to good people all the time. Knew it left kids on their own all the time.
But it wasn’t supposed to happen.
Not to his best friend.
Not to people he knew and loved.
His mom sat in the chair beside him and wrapped him into a hug. More tears fell, clumps of them.
Because he still had her.
Because Joe didn’t have his mom.
Because none of them could fix it.
They’d stayed until Joe’s grandfather, Koko had arrived and then Nico and his dad had come home.
But he was restless, lost. He wanted to help but didn’t have a clue how to do that.
“You’re already helping, Nico. By being there all night. By letting him know you care, and that he can come to you when he feels like he’s losing it.”
He hadn’t even realized he’d spoken the question out loud. “It really sucks, Mom.”
“It really does.” Her own voice was thick with tears.
“Can Joe live with us? His sister too? If they want to? Or maybe they’ll go with Koko.” Way the hell up in Vermont. He’d hardly see his buddy anymore.
That was such a selfish thought.
What would Joe want to do?
What was the right thing to do?
“That’s for them as a family to decide, but we’ll let them know it’s an option. We’ll talk to their grandfather, let him know.”
Nico nodded, knowing it was complicated.
When Nico finally hauled himself up the stairs, the door to Sam’s room was open and Sam was sitting at the desk, looking at him. “Hey.”
Sam nodded back. “I’m sorry about Joe’s parents. How’s he doing?”
Nico walked in and sat down on the edge of Sam’s bed. “Okay, I guess. I don’t know. It just sucks, you know?” Then he froze. He didn’t know much about Sam’s background. He knew he’d been in foster care for years and that he’d been taken from his mom. He didn’t know about his dad. Didn’t know any details.
But Sam didn’t get uncomfortable or look offended.
“Do they have someone to stay with?”
Nico nodded. “I think so. Their grandfather flew in. Joe’s dad worked with mine, so they’ve got other cops there now.”
“If you want me to give up my space, so they can stay here, I’ll go.”
The shakiness of Sam’s voice alerted Nico to how hard that had been to say. “That’s a nice offer, but not needed. We’ve got extra rooms. If they want to stay, there’s room for them without you giving up your space. But they might go with their grandfather as well.”
What looked like relief showed in Sam’s eyes, reminding Nico that sorrow and fear were everywhere if you knew how to look for them.
Tansy looked around the room. “I don’t need anything this big.”
Lisa Rivera squeezed her shoulder and smiled.
“This is your room, Tansy. I know it’s not your room, not really, not yet, but it will be. We want you to think of this as your home now.”
Because she no longer had one of her own.
But she had Joe, and they’d had options.
Koko had stayed for a week while they figured out next steps together.
In the end, they’d decided to stay in Sacramento with Nico’s family. Koko’s apartment up in Vermont was a a studio with no separate bedrooms. He loved living above the small workshop he owned. A tiny home completely off the grid.
He’d offered to get a full-sized house and change his life. He’d offered with love, not obligation.
One option had been to move to an old fishing lodge he owned. One that had been in his family for generations but hadn’t been used in decades.
While that had sounded like an adventure, neither she nor Joe had been ready for it.
Not when everyone’s hearts were shredded.
Joe’s best friend’s parents were foster parents and Tansy had thrown her vote in to stay there because these people had always treated Joe like another son.
Originally, Tansy had offered to let Joe stay and while she moved to live with Koko because the Riveras had only ever fostered boys.
They hadn’t wanted the drama of boys and girls in the same space.
But no one agreed with that suggestion. And even while it had been her idea, she was glad it had been voted down. She needed her brother even more than she needed Koko.
So here she was with a bedroom in the Riveras’ home. Lisa and Manny were nice people and had been so generous to offer them a home. Tansy vowed she’d never cause them drama. She’d make sure they barely knew she was there. They’d never have to regret bringing her into their home.
The boys would all be off to college soon. The Riveras would keep her until she was eighteen. She knew them well enough that they’d let her stay as long as she needed after that as well.
But she didn’t want to be a bother. Didn’t want them to have to change their plans for her.
Maybe she’d move through school more quickly after all. If she entered college early, she could get a dorm room and let them have this one back.
But the thought of being with girls so much older was uncomfortable. Scary. While the school work would be fun, the social aspects of college scared Tansy. She wasn’t good at that part of life.
Maybe she should start taking online classes and do her degrees that way. There was so much she wanted to learn. Her mom and dad always said it was better to be in class with her same-age peers, but maybe she needed to rethink that as well.
It wouldn’t take long to get her highschool diploma if she only had to pass the final exams and not take the actual classes. Then she could start online college courses.
She could opt out of in-person learning completely, but that would cause more stress for Lisa and Manny. She’d just have to find a way to do both the physical high school and virtual college.
The boys wouldn’t head off for more than a year. She had lots of time to make a plan, to figure it out.
At least she was good at plans.
Sam leaned back against the pole holding up one of Lisa’s many bird feeders.
The stars filled the sky above him. One day, he wanted to be somewhere without all the light from the city. Wanted to see how the stars looked from there.
He’d almost considered astrology for a career, but he wanted something more.
More of what, he wasn’t quite sure.
Most of his life had been about survival, but here he was barely a month into his life with the Riveras and he wanted to make life plans.
They inspired that in people. Or at least in him.
Listening to Manny made him think he might want to be a detective like Joe’s dad.
Joe was a good guy, too.
Sam wasn’t sure if Nico had been telling the truth, that Sam didn’t have to worry about being kicked out because the Cheveyos had moved in, but he hoped so.
This was a good place. A place where maybe he could relax and not worry about the middle of the night or tomorrow. A place where he could believe that he could be more than what he’d come from.
The back door to the house opened and Sam watched Tansy emerge with a briefcase.
The girl closed the door quietly behind her and moved to sit in the middle of the patio with the briefcase in front of her.
She ran her hands over the edges softly and he heard her whimper before she clamped her lips together to keep in the noise.
Had the case belonged to one of her parents?
Eventually, Tansy opened the case and took out some items. Looked like electronics from where he was sitting.
The girl hadn’t said more than a few words, so he didn’t want to spook her by making his presence known. Instead, he watched as she put bits and pieces together.
Sam finally recognized it as a robot dinosaur.
When she did something with a tablet, the dinosaur moved.
He wanted to cheer at her accomplishment, but that would freak her out completely.
For a while, she made adjustments, and the movements smoothed out a bit and he found himself grinning at her success in the dark. A dancing dinosaur built by a girl not even in high school.
Eventually, Tansy sighed and shook her head. “I’ll fix it Mom, I’ll make it work. I promise.”
The strength of conviction in her whisper had Sam’s heart beating harder and tears filling his eyes.
This tiny girl fascinated him and he wanted to help her somehow.
Instead, he watched as she disassembled her dancing dinosaur and packed it back in the briefcase before picking it up and returning quietly to the house.
Sam watched the night for a while, but his mind wasn’t on the stars. Instead, he wondered if he’d be able to stick around the Riveras’s house long enough to help Tansy deal with her grief.
Nico watched from his window as Sam sat studying the night sky.
The first night he’d seen him out there, Nico had thought he was planning to run. To take his chances on the street.
But Sam simply sat in the dark corner of the yard and looked at the sky and the house. He’d been doing it every night for a month now.
Nico wanted to ask him what he was searching for, but didn’t want his friend to know he’d been watching.
Sam’s body shifted slightly, not that he would have noticed if he hadn’t been watching.
Knowing the reason for the reaction, Nico wasn’t surprised when Tansy emerged to sit on the patio stones. As usual she caressed her mom’s briefcase before she opened it and took out her bits and pieces.
He’d known Joe for years, so he’d already known his friend’s little sister was a super-smart kid. He also knew she was shy around people and liked to hole up.
He wondered what it was about the night-time that called to the two people in the yard.
For an hour, Tansy tweaked the robots she was building. She might be four years younger than the guys, but her brain was worlds quicker than all of them put together.
He’d like to see her play chess. Or Monopoly. She’d probably have them all bankrupt before they got around the board. Might be a good way to make her feel more comfortable. Had to be weird with so many boys in the house.
Especially when she was still dealing with the deaths of her parents. The thought still made his chest ache.
Nico wished there was a way to ensure that didn’t happen to anyone. No one deserved that kind of crap.
And it worried him.
His dad worked a dangerous job every day.
His mom’s job wasn’t dangerous, but it wasn’t like the Cheveyos had been killed because of Robert’s job as a cop. They were dead because some stoned asshole had got behind the wheel.
That could happen to anyone.
Including his parents.
Any of the kids staying with them.
Sometimes the world sucked donkey balls.
A soft knock sounded on his door and then the handle turned. Joe walked into his room. “Hey.”
Nico smiled, wondering what his mom would think if she knew that the four kids in the house were all awake at one a.m.
Then he wondered if she already knew.
Joe shut the door behind him and walked to join Nico at the window. “He still watching over her?”
It shouldn’t have surprised Nico that Joe knew, but it did.
Joe’s huff of laugh didn’t hold a lot of humor. “I’m not sleeping much either. And I knew your room would have a better view of what she’s working on.”
Nico had to ask. “You’re not worried about Sam watching her?”
Joe shook his head. “It’s not creepy. It’s like he’s protecting her, making sure nothing disturbs her. You don’t think he’s a creep, do you?”
Nico shook his head. “No. Sam’s a good guy. He’s been sitting out there at night since the first day he arrived. I think you’re right about him wanting to keep her safe. He asked me if it would be weird if he offered to teach her some martial arts. Told him I’d like to learn too.”
Joe nodded. “Sounds good to me as well.”
For a while they all watched Tansy build her dinosaurs, make changes, and try again. She had a vision and was relentless about making improvements.
Joe’s soft voice broke the silence. “She’s smarter than the rest of us put together, but she doesn’t have a clue any of us are watching her or watching out for her. She’s oblivious to everything except whatever has her focus for the moment.”
Nico nodded. “I wonder if that’s part of her superpower.”
Joe laughed softly. “Maybe. I guess it’s up to the rest of us to make sure she’s safe.”
When Tansy started packing up, Joe nodded and took off for his own room, not wanting his sister to know he’d been watching. Not long after Tansy’s bedroom door closed, Sam got up and stretched. He flowed through what Nico now knew was a Tai Chi routine, then he too came inside.
From previous checks, Nico knew Sam would lock up the door behind him.
With a soft sigh, Nico slid back into his own bed.
He’d never had trouble sleeping before Joe’s parents had died. Now, the weight of the pain around him sometimes seeped in and kept him awake and worrying.
The world was full of assholes waiting to hurt each other.
But it was also full of people like his parents who looked out for others.
And brilliant people like Tansy, who were going to do amazing things.
And people like Joe and Sam, who were going to protect the ones who didn’t look out for themselves.
As he slipped into sleep, Nico wondered about his own place in the world. It was easier to see where others fit, harder to find his own spot.
One day, he’d figure it out.
Thank you so much for reading!
I hope you enjoyed this prequel to the Small Town Heroes (Midnight Security) Romantic Suspense series!
The first book in the series, Built Of Secrets, spotlights Tansy and Sam. You’ll find out just what kind of adults they’ve become!
Copyright @ 2022 Jemi Fraser
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