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Death is Not Enough (Romantic Suspense #21)
Author:Karen Rose

Death is Not Enough (Romantic Suspense #21)

Karen Rose




Prologue


Nineteen years earlier . . .

Chevy Chase, Maryland,

Sunday 10 January 10.30 P.M.

‘Sherri, give me the damn key.’

Rolling her eyes at her boyfriend’s growl, Sherri Douglas closed the driver’s-side door, locked up, and tossed the key to her old Ford Escort over its peeling roof. ‘There you go.’

Thomas’s scowl was interrupted by the grimace of pain that twisted his bruised face as he reflexively caught the key in midair. He froze for a second, then hissed as he lowered his arm. ‘Shit,’ he muttered.

Sherri sucked in a breath, instantly regretting her thoughtlessness. ‘Oh, Tommy, I’m sorry. That was stupid of me.’

He schooled his battered features and swallowed hard, pursing his lips then quickly opening his mouth because his lip was split too.

She wanted to cry. His beautiful face was . . . still so beautiful. But hurt. Her chest ached as she catalogued every wound. She wanted to hit something. Someone. Four someones, actually. She narrowed her eyes, thinking about the boys who’d done all that damage. Hating them. Her fists clenched and she shoved them in her coat pockets. Hitting them wasn’t going to help Thomas.


And her father would kill her if she got in trouble too. Her dad wasn’t terribly keen on her dating a white boy to begin with. Ha. A white boy. It would have been funny had it not been so frustratingly sad. Thomas’s dark skin wasn’t white enough for him to fit in here at school, but he wasn’t black enough for her father. At least he hadn’t forbidden them from seeing each other. Because Sherri would have disobeyed her father if he’d tried. But if she got expelled along with Thomas? Her father would make sure they never saw each other again.

Expelled. They’d expelled him. She still couldn’t believe it. It was so unfair.

‘Don’t you ever call yourself stupid,’ Thomas said quietly.

She blinked in confusion, then realized he was referring to what she’d just said. But it had been stupid to make him move so quickly. ‘I should have thought.’ Because it wasn’t only his face that was battered. They’d kicked his arms and legs too. She clenched her teeth, willing the tears back.

They’d hurt him. Those bastards. They’d hurt him.

Thomas shook his head. ‘It’s all right. I’ll live.’ He walked around to where she stood and held out the car key, his expression one of weary defeat. ‘Sherri, please. Give me the right key. I’m too tired for games. I just want to get my bass and get out of here. Get back in the car and keep it running. You should stay warm.’

Her eyes filled with tears she couldn’t hold back. ‘I’m going with you,’ she whispered fiercely.

His dark brows lifted, his split lip bending down. ‘No. You’re not.’

‘I’m . . .’ Her voice broke and she looked up at him helplessly. He was so big and strong and . . . good. Better than any of those bastards. One on one, it would have been no contest. At six-three, he was the tallest, strongest boy in their class. But there’d been four of them. Four. They’d beaten him and yet he’d been blamed. He’d been punished. He’d been expelled.

Because Richard Linden – even in her mind, Sherri hissed the entitled bastard’s name – thought he had the right to touch any of the scholarship girls. Just because we’re poor. And he’s not. And because Thomas couldn’t ignore poor Angie’s terrified face as Richard held her against the wall and groped her. And because when Thomas pulled Richard off Angie, Richard and his posse of thugs attacked him and beat the crap out of him.

The principal had blamed Thomas. What a shock. Dr Green did whatever the Linden family said because they were rich. And white. And Thomas and Angie and I are not. And to make it all even worse, somehow Richard or one of his crew had gotten to Angie, because she was denying Richard had even touched her.

So they’d expelled Thomas. He’d worked so damn hard to look good to the colleges. He’d needed a scholarship or he wasn’t going. Now? He’d have to go to his local high school, the expulsion on his permanent record. Would the colleges even want him after this?

Richard Linden and those bully friends of his had stolen Thomas’s future. She was going to make damned sure they didn’t touch anything else of his. A blink sent the tears down her cheeks. ‘I’m going with you,’ she repeated. ‘It’s just the band room. It’s not dangerous.’

‘If you get caught, you’ll be expelled right along with me.’ He cupped her jaw in his huge hand, gently swiping at her tears with his thumb. ‘I won’t let that happen to you.’

‘It shouldn’t have happened to you. It’s so unfair, Tommy.’ She bit her lip hard, trying not to cry anymore. She knew her tears ripped him up.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Yeah.’

‘We need to fight this. You need to fight this. You did the right thing. You protected Angie. You were the hero.’

‘Fighting it won’t do any good.’

She held his gaze, desperately hoping to make him see reason. ‘We can sue.’

He laughed, a huff of disbelief. ‘What? No!’

She took his free hand in hers, twined their fingers together. Her skin dark, his a few shades lighter. ‘We can get a lawyer.’

‘With what?’ he scoffed. ‘Willy counts every bite of food I put in my mouth, for God’s sake. You think he’s gonna pay for a lawyer?’

Thomas’s stepfather was a nasty, abusive man. Sherri didn’t like being around him. He made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. He didn’t make any secret of the fact that he thought Thomas was inferior. Thomas, who was better than all the other men.

Thomas, who Sherri loved with all her heart.

‘We can call the ACLU,’ she said.

Thomas blinked down at her. ‘No way. I’m not suing anyone. Nothing ever gets solved in court.’

‘That’s not true.’ Her voice was trembling again and she closed her eyes to fight back tears. ‘Tommy, this is your life.’

Wearily, he leaned down until their foreheads and noses touched, a gesture he’d learned from his real father, with his Maori roots. His real father, long dead, whose memory Thomas quietly worshipped.

Sherri, only five feet nothing, leaned up on her toes so that he didn’t have to bend down so far. She barely caught his whispered reply.

‘I can’t fight the Lindens, Sher. You know it as well as I do. Nobody is going to stand up for me. Nobody but you.’

‘But some of the teachers might. Coach Marion or Mr Woods . . .’ The soccer coach loved Thomas, and their history teacher did too.

He closed his eyes, shook his head, pivoting against her forehead. ‘They won’t stand up for me either.’

‘How do you know?’

He drew in an anguished breath. ‘Because they didn’t,’ he snapped, then sighed. ‘They had a chance on Thursday.’

‘They pulled the boys off you,’ she murmured. ‘Then walked with you to the main office.’

Except that Thomas hadn’t been walking, not really. He’d been too badly hurt, dizzy from the kicks to his head and limping because one of the boys had repeatedly stomped on his knee with a heavy boot. Coach Marion and Mr Woods had actually been holding him upright.

‘They had the chance to tell Dr Green what happened, but they didn’t.’ Thomas shrugged. ‘Woods started to, but Green called him out into the hall and said something about contract renewal.’

Sherri’s eyes widened. ‘He threatened Mr Woods’s job?’

‘Yes. I assume he said the same to Coach, because he didn’t speak up for me either. And they were the best allies I had.’ Another defeated shake of his head. ‘Hell, Miss Franklin could have let you take my bass with you on Friday, but here we are, breaking into the school to get it. I bet Dr Green threatened her too.’

It would have sounded paranoid, except that it was true.