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Colters Lady

Maya Banks

Page 1

  Chapter One

  Seth Colter walked into the soup kitchen and was greeted by a chorus of hellos from several police officers from his precinct.

  “Hey man, I didn’t think you were going to make it,” Craig Sumner called.

  Seth cracked a smile, surprised at how glad he was to see the guys he’d worked with for the past few years. “I said I would be here. ”

  “How are you feeling?” Rob Morgan asked as he slapped Seth on the back.

  “Better,” Seth acknowledged, and for the first time in weeks, he realized it was the truth. He did feel better. He’d been sleeping easier lately, and his dreams weren’t so littered with the images of a faceless gunman and the exploding pain of a bullet tearing through his shoulder.

  “Hey, that’s great. You’ll be back before you know it,” Craig said.

  Seth nodded. Yeah, he’d be back. He hated being away from the job. He hated being away from the camaraderie of his fellow cops. For the first while, he’d sequestered himself in his house, refusing visitors. He hadn’t wanted their pity. He’d resented the hell out of the fact that they were still on the job and he was stuck in his house popping pain pills and hoping he regained the use of his arm.

  “What do you want me to do?” Seth asked.

  Craig threw him an apron. “Get behind the serving line. We open for lunch in fifteen minutes. And hurry. Margie runs a tight ship. ”

  “I heard that. ”

  Seth turned to see a small, gray-haired lady standing behind him, her green eyes bathed in warmth.

  “Hello, Seth. ” She stepped forward and pulled him into a hug. “It’s so good to see you again. Are you taking care of yourself?”

  She patted him on the cheek for good measure, and he smiled as he returned her embrace.

  “I’m good, Margie. How about yourself?”

  “Oh, I’m the same as ever. Busy. Just how I like it. Now you better get to your station before I open the doors. Looks like we have a lot of folks lined up to eat today. ”

  “Yes, ma’am,” he said with a grin.

  “See?” Craig said. “She’s a complete slave driver. ”

  Feeling lighter than he had in a while, Seth tied on the white chef’s apron and walked behind the buffet to stand in front of the baked chicken.

  “Smells good, Margie. Who did you harangue into catering for you this time?” Seth asked.

  She grinned. “I called in a favor. Or two. ”

  He laughed. Margie Walker was simply good people. She was a surrogate mother to many, but beneath the good-as-gold exterior lay a hard-driving woman who didn’t think twice about leaning on people to help her causes. Her pet project was Margie’s Place. Simply named, but it was appropriate. Every day, rain or shine, she opened her doors to the homeless, and she always had enough food to feed as many as filtered through her doors. No one was entirely sure how she managed it, but she always did.

  His precinct routinely volunteered and they worked in shifts. Seth and five others came in once a month to serve, although for him it had been three months since he’d last been in.

  “Okay guys, I’m opening up,” Margie called as she walked over to the doors.

  For the next two hours, a steady stream of people came through the line. Workers from the kitchen brought out more food as soon as the trays emptied, and the guys dished it up.

  The flow had dwindled when Seth looked up to see the most startling pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen in his life. In the process of extending the pair of tongs with a piece of chicken, he stared in shock at the woman standing in front of him, small hands gripped tightly around the lunch tray.

  There was something infinitely fragile about her and equally arresting. His gut tightened, and for a moment he forgot to breathe. Or maybe he was unable to.

  Dressed in a shabby, worn sweater and a pair of jeans so faded they were nearly white, the woman stared back at him, wispy midnight curls escaping the knit cap she wore.

  She was beautiful. And haunting. Her gaze looked wounded and faint smudges rimmed her eyes. A fierce surge of protectiveness welled up inside him, baffling him.

  Her fingers tightened around the tray, and she started to move forward without the chicken he still held in the air like an idiot. He thrust it forward onto her plate.

  Then she smiled, and it took what little breath he had left and squeezed it painfully from his lungs.

  “Thank you,” she said sweetly.

  She moved down the line as a man moved into the spot where she’d stood and looked expectantly at Seth. Still staring after the woman, Seth slapped the next piece of chicken on the man’s tray and wondered what the hell had just happened here.

  He watched as she sat away from the others, finding a corner where there were only two chairs at a tiny table that looked out a window.

  “Hey, snap out of it. ”

  Seth turned to see Craig standing beside him, his apron in hand.

  “Margie’s ordering us to stand down and eat. Grab a plate and join us. She has one of the kitchen workers taking over the line in case we have any stragglers. ”

  Feeling anything but hungry, Seth fixed a plate and followed his friends to a table on the far side of the room. There wasn’t a lot of talking going on. Most of the people ate in silence, though there were a few conversations from some of the regulars who knew each other or hung out together on the streets.

  He positioned himself so he could see the woman and tuned out the rest of the goings-on so he could watch her and take in every detail he could.

  She ate daintily and never looked up or made eye contact with any of the others. When she wasn’t looking down at her food she fixed her gaze out the window, watching the people pass on the busy street. There was something wistful about her stare, and again, that protective surge came roaring to the surface.

  “Who is she?” he blurted out.

  “Who is who?” Craig asked.

  Rob looked up and followed Seth’s gaze. “You mean her?”

  “Yeah, I haven’t seen her before but it’s been a few months. When did she start coming in?”

  Craig shrugged. “I haven’t seen her before. She wasn’t here last month. Maybe she’s new. Margie would know. She keeps up with everyone. ”

  Seth frowned, not liking the tired look on the woman’s face. She was young, early twenties, far too young to be out on the streets. Spring in Denver was often harsh with copious amounts of snow. She was so slight, and all she had was that sweater and a cap. She’d freeze to death.

  “What’s bugging you, man?” Rob asked.

  Seth shook his head. “Nothing. ”

  Seth forced himself to eat but watched the woman as the other people finished their meals and began to filter out. She remained, even after she’d finished eating. She pushed her plate to the side, and he frowned at the fact there was still a good portion of her food left. She rested her chin on top of her fist as she continued to gaze out the window.

  He cursed when one of the kitchen workers came over to collect her plate, because even though the worker didn’t say anything to the woman, the action prompted her to rise. She looked guiltily around as if she thought she’d overstayed her welcome, and then she hurried toward the door without a backward glance.

  Before he realized it, he was on his feet and hurrying after her. It wasn’t something he could even explain. He had to go after her. He had to know where she was going, if she was safe.

  Ignoring Rob’s and Craig’s startled exclamations, he strode out onto the street and looked left and right to see the direction she’d gone. Seeing her retreating figure to the right, he set off after her.

  He kept his distance, not wanting to spoo
k her. He felt like a damned stalker, and maybe that’s what he was. There was no reasonable explanation for his pursuit of her. It certainly had nothing to do with his cop’s instincts. He’d reacted to her as a man, and something about her called to a part of him that hadn’t ever awoken before.

  For six blocks he followed her. His hands were clenched at his sides. She had no sense of self-preservation. She never looked up, never looked back to make sure she wasn’t followed. She blended seamlessly with the busy downtown crowd, and he quickened his step so he wouldn’t lose her.

  He slowed when she turned into an alleyway. His approach was cautious. The last thing he wanted was to walk into a damn trap. He turned the corner and peered down to see her hunker down between two cardboard boxes. She disappeared from view, and he stood there a moment, battling between anger and…he wasn’t sure.

  He hadn’t wanted her to be homeless. He’d hoped that she was down on her luck and needed the free meal, but that she had a place to live, protection from the cold. Refuge from the streets that took lives every single day.

  What about this woman fired such a response in him? In his job, he saw all manner of people. The hungry, the homeless, the abused. There were plenty of young women in need, but none had infused a soul-stirring desire to help and protect.

  It was presumptuous of him. She might not need him. She might be just fine on her own, but something in her eyes told him that wasn’t so. She needed someone, and he wanted to be that person.

  Crazy talk. He wondered now if that bullet had hit him in the head. But that didn’t stop him from walking with determined steps toward the boxes at the end of the alley.

  When he was close enough to see over the edge of one of the boxes, he saw that she was sitting cross-legged on what looked to be old towels, and she was absorbed in a tattered paperback book. After every page, she moved one of her hands from the book and held it to her mouth while she blew to warm it, and then she returned to the book to turn another page.

  His chest clenched, and he moved a step closer. His foot glanced off a discarded Styrofoam cup, and her head jerked up. Alarm flashed in her eyes when she saw him, and she scrambled to her feet like a doe poised for flight.

  In a lightning-fast move, he snagged her wrist just when she would have bolted. He was careful not to hurt her, only prevent her from fleeing.

  A small cry of fright escaped her lips, and her eyes widened as she stared up at him.

  “I’m sorry. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you, I swear it. Do you remember me from Margie’s Place? I just served you an hour ago. ”

  Though she didn’t relax, she nodded, her eyes still solidly trained on his face as if judging the validity of his vow not to hurt her.

  “If I let you go, will you promise not to run?”

  She looked at him like he was crazy.

  He held up his other hand in surrender. “Let me amend that. Do you promise not to run as long as I don’t do anything to further scare you?”

  For a moment she studied him, and then slowly she nodded again. He relaxed his grip, carefully easing his fingers away, studying her body language for any sign that she meant to flee. He couldn’t blame her for not trusting him, but suddenly it was the most important thing in the world for her to do just that.

  “What do you want?” she asked with quiet defiance.

  The shock of her voice floated over him. It was pleasing. An electrical sensation that nipped at his neck and snaked through his body like a river current. He wanted her to talk again. To say his name.

  “I…” What did he want? And how to say it? He laughed softly and shook his head. “You’re going to think I’m nuts. ”

  She smiled then, and it made her so lovely that he ached.

  “I might already think you’re crazy. You stared at me so funny in the line. I worried I’d somehow made you angry. ”

  “No. No, of course not,” he rushed out. “Look, will you go somewhere with me?” At her look of surprise he hurried to amend his statement. “There’s a diner down the street. It’s warm and we can sit and talk there. ”

  She gave him a confused look. “But I just ate. So did you. ”

  He frowned because she hadn’t eaten much at all. “Do you like coffee? Hot chocolate?”

  “I love hot chocolate,” she said wistfully.

  He latched onto that like a dying man struggling for one more breath. “Then walk with me to the diner. We can have hot chocolate and you can talk to me. What do you say?”

  Puzzlement still shone in her blue eyes. She nibbled at her bottom lip as she clearly couldn’t decide whether to accept or decline.

  “I’m a police officer,” he said. He rummaged in his pocket for his badge. “You’re completely safe with me. ”

  She stared at the shield, and he could swear tears flashed for a single moment before she quickly gathered herself.

  “What’s your name?” he asked. “My name is Seth. Seth Colter. ”

  “Lily,” she said in a soft voice. “Just Lily. ”

  Lily. It suited her. Delicate and beautiful.

  “Well, Just Lily. Will you walk down and have a cup of hot chocolate with me?”

  She took a deep breath. “Okay. ”

  Relief coursed through his veins until he thought he was going to crawl out of his skin. He held his hand out to her, unsure of the gesture and how she’d take it. He only knew he had to touch her.