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Here in My Heart

Anna DeStefano

An Echoes of the Heart Novel


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Also by Anna DeStefano

CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE Christmas on Mimosa Lane (A Seasons of the Heart novel) Three Days on Mimosa Lane (A Seasons of the Heart novel) Love on Mimosa Lane (A Seasons of the Heart novel) A Sweetbrook Family (previously available as A Family for Daniel) All-American Father The Perfect Daughter The Prodigal’s Return The Runaway Daughter A Family for Daniel The Unknown Daughter

SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY Secret Legacy Dark Legacy ROMANTIC SUSPENSE The Firefighter’s Secret Baby (Atlanta Heroes series) To Save a Family (Atlanta Heroes series) To Protect the Child (Atlanta Heroes series) Because of a Boy (Atlanta Heroes series)

NOVELLAS/ANTHOLOGIES “Weekend Meltdown” in Winter Heat “Baby Steps” in Mother of the Year “A Small-Town Sheriff”


3 To parents. To the unconditional love and acceptance that transforms a child’s future.


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Chapter One “Here comes trouble,” Dru Hampton said to herself, as she watched the police officer stride toward her. She’d never been handcuffed, shackled, unable to move. This had to be how it felt. She sized him up, knowing it was a slippery slope: long legs; mysterious gaze shaded by mirrored sunglasses; dark blue T-shirt stretched over an impressive upper body, doing justice to the police insignia stenciled over his heart; navy cotton pants, loosely covering parts of him a woman would kill to see more of. Off-duty clothes had never looked less casual. He could have been a father dropping off one of the youths attending her radKIDS graduation program. He could have been a local officer, there to change for a workout or a pickup basketball game, the way Dru’s foster brother, Travis, did at the end of a shift. There were a lot of harmless things the man approaching her could have been. But Brad Douglas’s shoulders seemed too wide for the YMCA’s beige-painted corridor. He had the nerve to look better every time he came back to town, tempting her not to ignore him the way she had for seven years. Now the bad-boy former crush, bane of her teenage memories, was making his way to her side like a medieval knight returning from the Crusades. She shuddered. No doubt about it. His reappearance this time was going to be anything but harmless.


6 She loved her life in Chandlerville, Georgia, a charming suburb northeast of Atlanta. Twenty-three years ago she’d been born somewhere on the outskirts of town, attached to nothing and no one. As an infant, she’d been blessed with the Dixons, a loving foster family who’d gifted her with a community and friends and a world where she would gladly stay forever. She’d never tire of doing whatever she could for the people here. So why was she suddenly fighting a compulsion to flee this place that had become her dream come true? Brad passed the last of the kid-made fall decorations on the walls and stopped an arm’s length away. She squared her shoulders. “What are you doing here?” she asked. He studied her in silence from behind his reflective lenses. She’d called him, of course. It had been her responsibility to say he should get home as quickly as possible, and plan on staying for as long as his job at the Savannah Police Department would allow. But what was he doing there, now, at the YMCA, her YMCA, making an awkward mess out of one of her favorite places? This afternoon’s celebration with her kids would be a blast. She was counting on it, to get her through the rest of the evening. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, checking for crumbs left from the peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich she’d inhaled after working through lunch. It shouldn’t matter that up close Brad looked even taller and stronger and more protective than the striking pictures his grandmother, Vivian, kept all over her house. Dru


7 shouldn’t care about his plans until their meeting later. His personal life was his own business. Except every time he was back—only twice a year now, for Vivian’s birthday and Christmas—a weak part of Dru managed to care a little more. And this trip, he’d homed in on her like a detective casing a crime suspect. They usually kept out of each other’s way until he returned to the other side of the state—agreeing without ever speaking about it that there was nothing left to say to each other. They no longer had that luxury. But did he still have to make her feel like she was sixteen, and he was eighteen, and he’d just rejected her after she’d thrown herself at him? “Brad?” She raised an eyebrow. Their past bit at her, a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes closing in for the kill. “I told you I was tied up until eight.” “I know.” He half-smiled his way back into her life. “I got away from Savannah early. I’m your punching bag for the night.” “Excuse me?” She’d fantasized about taking a swipe at him. Instead, they’d stuck to their version of you’re dead to me—which could have rocked on indefinitely, if it weren’t for Vivian Douglas. Vi, to those closest to her, was a town matriarch. She was as outrageous and difficult for most people to fathom as she was generous to a fault. And she’d asked for the grandson she’d raised from the cradle. It was time to tell him things she’d put off letting even Dru know until last weekend, though for years now Vi had depended on Dru’s help.


8 Dru owed Vivian more than she could possibly repay. The eccentric woman was as responsible for what Dru had now as Dru’s foster parents were. So she’d sucked it up and summoned the last person on earth she’d intended to be this close to again. Brad shifted his oversize workout bag higher on his shoulder. Her attention snapped away from admiring how the fabric of his SPD T-shirt stretched across his pecs. His bag’s familiar shape registered. Her pulse skidded to a halt. He absolutely couldn’t be— “I’m your radKIDS partner tonight.” He whipped off his sunglasses, revealing even bluer eyes than hers. His full lips flattened to a grim line. “Travis said he’d talk to you. He reached me on my cell when he heard I was heading home. He wrenched his back on a call this morning, so I’m your target tonight while your kids test their selfdefense skills. I picked up his gear. These are my sparring pads. The kids’ are in my Jeep.” Travis. Her foster brother wasn’t going to make the final night of her six-week radKIDS course—the most important session for students training to avoid and, if needed, defend themselves against bullying or dangerous situations or even physical attack. And without talking with Dru first, her brother had sent Brad as his stand-in. “You’ve wasted a trip,” she said, smelling a rat. “You can’t be part of my class. The program doesn’t allow adults to work with the kids unless they’ve gone through—” “Training,” Brad said. “Yeah, I know.” He grinned, and she liked it.


9 She loved it; she always had. He could laugh at himself or anything else and make her forget the world around them—until Brad alone was there, in her thoughts, filling them up, lightening them, calming unsettled parts of her no one else saw. They’d been childhood friends, because he’d first hung out with Travis and Oliver, another of her foster brothers. At age sixteen, she’d convinced herself Brad had wanted more with her than being buddies, after months of his fingers brushing hers, his hanging around the Dixon house even when she was the only one there to talk to, and dancing with her at the spring dance that another boy had asked her to—holding her close, leaning in, acting as if he’d wanted to kiss her—until Oliver had shown up, and he and Brad had gone off somewhere, drinking. She’d been so sure he’d been feeling the same pull she had. She’d been mortifyingly wrong. She realized she’d inched away from him. “You have no business here.” She stepped closer than before, to prove that she wasn’t afraid of him. “I’ll deal with Travis later, and I’ll see you and Horace tonight at Vivian’s house.” Vivian hadn’t wanted to speak with her grandson until he’d discussed her recent hospice placement and estate plans with her lawyer, at the Douglas house, where Dru now lived. Vi had asked Dru to be at the meeting, too, standing in for Vivian, who was resting in her room at the Harmony Grove Hospice Center, growing weaker by the day. So Dru and Brad would spend a few hours together tonight focusing on what was best for a woman they both loved. And then Dru could bow out of the situation, except for keeping the Dream Whip, Vivian’s restaurant, running for the time being; and


10 keeping the house in order, until Horace and Brad ultimately decided what to do with it, too. Dru’s reality was about to shift dramatically, away from the comfortable life Vivian had made possible for her. She’d have to find a new place to live and most likely a new job. But she was more than capable of figuring out her next step. Being a foster kid who had aged out of a system that left most kids ill-equipped to support themselves had taught her how to handle anything. Anything but Bradley Douglas blowing back into her life before she was ready. He was standing there watching her, waiting, while feelings she’d never completely buried for him poked holes in her heart. “You shouldn’t have told Travis you’d cover my class,” she said. Brad sighed. “I certified as an instructor a year and a half ago, Dru, around the same time you did. I’ve taught five groups of kids myself. Stop worrying. You couldn’t be in better hands.” <space>

Watching Dru confidently square off against him, Brad was smitten all over again. He’d admired her spunk when they were kids, and she’d tagged along after him and her brothers. He’d helped Travis and Oliver protect the gentlest, sweetest spirit in their lives. At eighteen he’d fallen for Dru, knowing it was a mistake. But he hadn’t been able to pull out of what was building between them, until it was too late. After moving to Savannah and cleaning up his act, he’d written her and e-mailed and called a few times, hoping to explain and start over. Nothing had made a dent. He’d gotten the message loud and clear. Being friends again was a nonstarter.


11 So whenever he returned to Chandlerville, he bunked at Travis’s apartment instead of his childhood home, where Dru had moved. He steered clear of the Dream Whip whenever she was on the clock—she now managed his family business, the best burger joint in three counties. He ignored the way she crossed the street before their paths could intersect. He’d become a stranger to a woman who’d once been like his kid sister. A woman who at sixteen had kissed him as if being sisterly was the last thing on her mind. Golden hair. Bright, crystalline blue eyes. Dru’s curvy, athletic body had once been all skinny arms and legs and sharp angles. As a teenager, she’d been forbidden fruit he should have steered clear of. Now, just under six feet tall and wearing a sweatshirt in her favorite pink, she seemed just about as perfect for him as a woman could be. Except for the emotional chasm that still yawned between them. Adding insult to injury, he’d invaded her turf. She was close to telling him to get lost. Damned if he was going to let that happen. “You need someone strong enough to take the beating your radKIDS will dish out,” he reasoned. “You know it’s the only way to give them confidence in what they’ve learned.” She shook her head. If she kept at it, she was going to finish pissing him off—at himself. And then he’d have to kiss her, just to show her what his being intent on ruining her afternoon would really look like. And feel like. And taste like. He ordered himself to behave. “I’m a good guy, Dru.”


12 He’d busted his ass to be, after his grandmother had turned him out at eighteen and told him to deal with himself and his life on his own for a while. To make rent, he’d worked three part-time jobs in Savannah. Eventually, he’d landed a spot at the police academy. He’d graduated top of his class and distinguished himself on the force. The last few years, he’d returned to Chandlerville as often as he could, keeping in touch with Vivian over the phone the rest of the time, caring for her the only way his steadfastly independent grandmother had expected of him—by finally growing up and learning to care about someone besides himself. “I’m the only guy trained in the program who’s coming to help you,” he added. “Travis wouldn’t have asked me to sub for him if I didn’t know what I was doing. If you can’t trust me, trust him.” She blinked. “Trust you?” “At least stop looking at me like I’m here to make trouble. It’s going to be hard enough later, once we get out of here. If I can do this for your kids, and we can both feel good about it for a couple of hours, what harm will it do? Or you can call me off out of spite, cancel the program for your students, and keep me out of your hair for the afternoon.” “I don’t do things out of spite.” “Okay.” “I don’t.” She sounded like she wanted him to disagree, so she could sink her teeth into him some more. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have contacted you when Vivian asked me to.” “Or have waited so long to let me know how sick she’s gotten?”


13 The fight fizzled out of Dru. She uncrossed her arms. Her eyes glimmered, tears threatening. And she wasn’t a crier. He held up his hand. Being told of the seriousness of his grandmother’s illness at the eleventh hour was a sore spot they’d deal with, but not here. “That was out of bounds,” he said. “We’ve got later tonight to make each other miserable, while we discuss what’s best for Vivian.” His grandmother had become Vivian or Vi to him. She remained a force of nature in his life, an inspiration, a mentor who’d expected better of him than the reckless kid he’d once been—so he’d gone and made that better man happen. But grandmother? They would always be family, and they cared about each other. But they hadn’t shared more than a handful of soft, nurturing moments in his life, and none of them since he’d moved away. “For now,” he said, “your radKIDS are what’s important. We’ll help them together. Piece of cake.” “Hey, Dru!” A teenage girl ran up and wrapped Dru in a hug. “Ready to rumble? I love graduation day. Can I help show the students how to get into character this time? Travis says I’m ready. He’s been working with me, and I’m dying to kick some bad-guy butt. It’s going to be blast to see what everyone’s learned. And this time I helped!” Dru squeezed back. Frowning, she caught Brad’s gaze over the top of her young friend’s head. “Let me care about what you care about one last time,” he said to Dru. He reached out his hand to the teenager’s father. “I’m Brad Douglas.”


14 “Dan Beaumont.” The taller man shook. He smiled, first at Dru, and then at Brad, clearly intrigued. “Let’s head inside, Sally, and see if we can’t keep the kids from tearing apart the gym before class begins.” Dan turned to Dru. “Charlotte’s coming later with the pizza and cake. We figured it was safer for the pack not to smell food until it was closer to feeding time.” “See you inside,” Sally said, staring over her shoulder at Brad and Dru while Dan dragged her away. “Was that absolutely necessary?” Dru’s eyes were slits. “What?” “Acting like we’re . . .” “What? What are we that you don’t want people who’ve never met me to know about?” She stared daggers at him. “Nothing,” she said. “We’re nothing.” He shouldered his bag higher. “Then let’s get in there. My gear weighs a ton, and I’ve still got to cart the kids’ stuff in from the Jeep. You wanna finish before pizza and cake, or not?” He turned away before Dru could answer, and followed the Beaumont family into the gym. Her distrust in him still hurt. Lord knew that the Brad she remembered would have been nursing a beer in some no-name bar right now, softening the blow of what was happening to the grandmother he still loved to distraction. But the truth was, he’d needed to be near Dru more.


15 It had been too tempting when Travis called, this chance to help her one last time and prove that she could depend on him again. To watch her shine in person, instead of hearing secondhand about what sheâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d accomplished with the program his grandmother had financially supported. But he wasnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t there to earn her forgiveness, or to erase the heartbreak in her eyes when she looked at him, or to convince her to spend more time with him after their meeting tonight. He had a job to do later for Vi. And first, he would rock the radKIDs graduation for Dru. It was time to make amends and get her out of his system for good. Then when Vivian was gone and he headed back to Savannah, he and Dru would both have the clean break they needed.


Here in my Heart