Exclusive Excerpt: Tara Taylor Quinn’s His First Choice

Tara Taylor Quinn HIS FIRST CHOICERomance novels can do so much more than tell a great love story, they can also help us to understand and empathize with difficult situations. In Tara Taylor Quinn‘s Harlequin SuperRomance His First Choice, the author tackles the difficult subject of domestic abuse with a deft hand. We thought you might want to take a peek at the story, which stars counselor Lacey Hamilton, who meets the handsome Jem and his adorable son during an investigation. 

CHAPTER FIVE

Jem didn’t sleep. Not a wink. He’d start to doze off and every single time he’d jerk awake—his heart pounding with dread.

How could he prove that he wouldn’t hurt his son? Not ever? No matter what?

Who was saying that he had?

Or had that even been said? At three in the morning he made his third trip—he was allow­ing himself only one an hour, as if that small bit of self-control was going to prove something to someone—to his son’s room to look in on the sleeping boy.

Levi had always been a back sleeper. Open to the world had always been Jem’s estimation of his son’s slumber habit. And there he was, sprawled with abandon, arms and legs spread, covers tan­gled around his lower torso, giving his all to sleep just as he gave that same zest for life in whatever he approached while awake.

The thick white plaster on that tiny arm gave Jem pause. As it had every single time he’d laid eyes on it since the doctor had put it there. He wanted to take Levi’s pain, to slay every dragon that attempted to enter his son’s life.

He couldn’t even prevent a broken bone. The helplessness that came with that realization wasn’t welcome. Or to be tolerated.

Just as he’d told the Hamilton beauty, boys broke bones. Most by accident—the boy’s or someone else’s.

As a vision of the woman came to mind, her blue eyes beneath that tightly pulled-back blond hair, Jem quietly left his son’s room.

Taking thoughts of Lacey Hamilton with him. They’d been his constant companion since she’d left a short half hour after she’d arrived so unex­pectedly on his doorstep.

He had his rights. He knew that now. Knew, too, after the reading he’d done as soon as Levi had been down for the night, that the state of Cali­fornia was pretty stringent about removing kids from homes. It was done as a last resort. Period. There were a lot of options between a home visit and removal—unless, of course, abuse was ob­vious at the outset.

And in that case, Jem would be the staunchest of supporters for removal.

Still, one caseworker had a lot of power. Even ones who made you feel like you wanted to make dinner for them every night. Especially those ones.

He thought about calling Tressa. He wanted the support of their bonding together as they pro­tected their son. But didn’t want it to look like he was tipping her off. From what he’d read, they’d be visiting her, too.

Unless, of course, she’d been the one to file the complaint.

As much as he wanted to, he still wasn’t com­pletely ruling out that option.

With the child monitor he kept with him when­ever he was out of earshot of his son’s room, Jem popped the top on a beer and, opening the back patio door, sat outside by the stone fireplace he’d built next to the outdoor counter and grill. The sink and miniature refrigerator were flanked by a waterfall feature that lit up at night to show off the goldfish that Levi had picked out. Jem barely noticed any of it.

They hadn’t shown Lacey Hamilton the gold­fish.

Still, he’d had a feeling that she’d softened a bit before she left. That she’d maybe even started to believe him.

He would not hurt his son. And would also not stand idly by if someone else did.

Lacey had already worked on nine other cases by the time Jeremiah Bridges showed up with Levi just before ten the next morning. He’d said he’d take his son with him on his morning rounds, which started at seven, and then bring him in to see her before dropping him at preschool for the afternoon.

Levi had his own hard hat, he’d proudly boasted.

“He’s never around a construction site while there’s dangerous work going on,” his father had quickly asserted. He’d started to explain the safety procedures he’d enacted before ever bring­ing the little boy to a work site.

At which time Levi had interrupted with “I can’t leave the trailer unless all the machines is off.”

“There’s a job secretary in the office trailer at all times,” his father had added.

If Lacey had had her tablet out, she’d have typed something about those striking blue eyes—both pairs—looking at her so solemnly.

She’d wanted to trust them.

She still felt that way as she led the duo back to her office, Levi’s strides as long as his little legs could make them, attempting to synchronize with his father’s.

“You want to see my playroom?” she asked the little boy just before they reached her office.

With a glance at his father, who nodded, Levi said, “Sure!” She held out her hand. He took it.

“You can wait in my office,” she told his father, pointing toward the door. All case files, includ­ing his, were locked in her file drawer. Her com­puter was off and couldn’t be accessed without her password, anyway. But there were magazines for him to read.

“We won’t be long.” Why she felt the need to reassure him, she didn’t know. Her concern was Levi. And the possibility that someone was abus­ing him.

At the moment, nothing else could matter to her.

Jem played a trivia game on his phone while he waited. It was either that or think about his in­sides eating him up. He probably should have had some breakfast. Levi had offered to share the scrambled eggs and toast he’d had waiting for him when he’d shown up in the kitchen, sleepy-eyed and hair tussled, early that morning.

Jem was a fix-it kind of guy.

Kind of hard to fix what you didn’t know was broken.

He had six trivia games going—all with guys on his crews. He generally won, but now an­swered six questions wrong in a row. When he missed one about the pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he closed the game. Having been on the farm team when the pitcher in question had been pitching, having had beers with him and some of the other guys during a road trip, he knew the guy’s name.

But he just wasn’t in the game, so no point in wasting turns.

Hands in his pockets, he walked around the small office. It was as neat as a pin. No personal pictures on the desk.

But he took note of a message scrawled on a little sheet stuck to the side of the computer moni­tor. She needed a hero and so she became one.

Something about that note eased his tension and made him feel kind of sorry for the social worker who’d interrupted his life so abruptly.

Reminding him, as it did, that everyone was human.

And no one’s life was perfect.

“Do I scare you, Levi?” The minute the little boy had realized that she was going to stay with him in the playroom—and that his father wasn’t going to be there—Levi had begun to shrink in on himself.

There was no other way for her to describe the reaction. His shoulders hunched slightly as he kept his cast close to his stomach. “No. ’Course not,” the little boy said, that softened r grabbing at her.

It was okay for her to care about the children. They could never have too much love. Or so she’d told herself on those times when the professional boundaries she had to keep didn’t quite diminish those occasional heart tugs.

“You want to put this together with me?” The twenty-five-piece teddy bear puzzle was probably too easy for him, judging not only by what Mara, his preschool teacher, had relayed about him, but by the activities she’d observed in his room the night before.

She sat on the floor with him while he worked silently on the puzzle by himself, putting each piece in place without hesitation.

When he’d finished, she handed him another equally easy puzzle. She wanted his concentration.

“I need the box,” he said.

“What box?”

“For the other puzzle.” That r again. He was pointing to the teddy bear puzzle he’d just com­pleted. She’d expected him to leave that and do the second one. Instead, he cleaned up the first one before moving to the next. “Miss Mara says you have to pick up one before you can bring out a other,” he told her.

“You do a lot of puzzles at school?”

“Uh-uh.” He shook his head, not looking up from his task.

“Where’d you learn to do them so well, then?”

“Daddy and I got lots of ’em.”

“What about your mommy—does she do puz­zles with you, too?”

“Uh-uh.”

Lacey had stopped to see Tressa Bridges on her way to work that morning, but there’d been no answer at the door. Such was sometimes the case when you made unannounced house calls.

He was turning a piece around the wrong way. She wanted to help him, but got the distinct feel­ing that he didn’t want her to.

“Where were you when you fell and broke your arm?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you know, silly,” she teased. “You were there at the time, weren’t you?”

She was grinning at him. And earned herself a confused frown as well as a quick glance from those striking blue eyes. Then a shrug.

“Well, your arm didn’t run away from your body, did it?” she asked, her tone playful.

“Noooo.” He giggled and put the piece he’d been struggling with in place.

“So why don’t you tell me what happened. You aren’t going to be in any trouble. I just want to know.”

“I fell.” Another piece slid into place. His upper torso was bent completely over the puzzle.

“From where?”

“Mommy’s bookshelf.”

Relief flooded her so thickly Lacey sat back. She grinned for real. Then it occurred to her that his father could have told him to say that, could even have rehearsed it with him this morning on their way to see her.

“Was she in the room?”

He shrugged again, and she realized her ques­tion could be confusing. In the room when he first misbehaved by climbing where he’d been told not to go? Or when he fell?

“Before you started to climb, I meant.”

He shrugged again. And rather than upset him, she let the matter drop.

Levi finished the puzzle. At her invitation he wandered around the room, touching things. A plastic tic-tac-toe board. A car track with little cars—not as elaborate as the one he had in his room at home, but still worth a little boy’s notice.

Lacey put the puzzles back on their shelf, washed her hands in the sink and sat at a pint-size plastic picnic table. “You want a snack?” she asked, holding out a shortbread cookie she’d just taken from the cupboard.

He looked at the cookie, shrugged and pushed a car on the track.

“What kind of ice cream did you get last night?” His father had told him that they’d have some.

“Chocolate. I get chocolate. Daddy gets ’nilla.”

Leaving the cookie on the table, she sat down on the floor with him. “In a cone or a bowl?”

He shrugged again.

“Do you ever eat so much it hurts your stom­ach?”

Another shrug.

There were games she could play with him, activities designed to give her insights into his psyche. She had hoped she wouldn’t have to re­sort to something that formal. But…

“Let’s play a little game,” she said, leaning back against the wall. He seemed happier when she gave him his space.

He didn’t seem to have heard her.

“Levi, will you play a game with me?”

“Then can I go back to my daddy?” Those blue eyes were wide and sad as he looked at her.

“Yes.” It was the only answer she could give him. Her purpose was not to make him unhappy. Or to make him dislike her, either. They needed to work together, Levi and she, to make certain that he was safe. Even if he didn’t know that.

“Okay.”

“So this is a talking game,” she started. “You can still play with your cars while we do it.”

Picking up another car, he had one in each hand and circled one around the track.

“So in this game, I tell you one of the best things that ever happened to me, one of my hap­piest times, and then you tell me yours. Okay?”

He nodded.

“So, one of my happiest times was when…” She’d been ready to give him the rote—the mem­ory she’d chosen long ago for this exercise, the same one she used every time.

And then she stopped. He wasn’t exhibiting any need to confide in her, didn’t seem to need an ex­cuse to open up, and he certainly wasn’t going to care about her and her identical twin sister playing a trick on their fourth-grade teacher.

Not at that moment, at any rate.

“When I was little, my twin sister and I were picked to do some television commercials,” she told him. “The best one was when we got to ride on the hood of a sports car for a little bit, right on the track.”

He looked at her then. “Did you go fast?”

“No. We were on the hood. But when we were done, my sister got to ride in it.”

“All the way around?”

“Yes.”

He pushed the car around the track again.

“It’s your turn now. What’s the best time you ever had?”

She waited.

“My fish.”

“Your fish is the best time?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What did you do with your fish?”

“Daddy and me goed fishing on a boat and I got to pick out goldfish for my pond we builded.”

“You have a pond?” She’d missed that the night before.

He nodded and pushed the car in his left hand for the first time.

“Where?”

“With the stuff outside.”

“What stuff?”

“Chairs and cooking and stuff.”

Lacey would have picked up a little car, too, if she’d felt herself welcome. Instead, she watched the adorable little boy pushing his miniature ve­hicles with such precision while she leaned back against the wall.

“And you went fishing for goldfish?”

“No!” His giggle slipped inside her, lighten­ing the weight she carried. “You buy them in the store, where they dunk that thing in for ’em.”

She smiled then, liking this child—a lot—and knowing that, regardless of what she found out, he was going to be one of those she never forgot.

Copyright © 2016 by Tara Taylor Quinn

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