RUSTY sighed and wondered again if she’d done the right thing in hiring the kid part time. They didn’t need the help in the store. Frank kept busy despite objections from the family about overdoing it after his heart attack a few years earlier. Rusty helped out when she was home from school, and there were any number of Kellys willing to drop everything and help anytime they were needed.

And yet . . . She hadn’t been able to refuse the kid. Maybe it was the quiet desperation in his eyes. It was a look—and a feeling—she was well acquainted with.

“But by the grace of God—and the Kellys—go I,” she murmured, a half smile curving her lips upward.

There was little doubt she’d still be in a run-down trailer living with her shithead of a stepfather, scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence, if Marlene Kelly hadn’t taken Rusty in. Oh, she wouldn’t still be with her stepfather. She would have run away. Eventually. And she’d likely be on the streets somewhere. Prostituting herself just to survive.

A shiver overtook her as long-suppressed memories crowded to the surface. Painful, humiliating memories. Marlene Kelly was a saint. An angel’s angel. Rusty thanked God for her and Frank every single day.

Because of them, she was in university. She’d graduate in a year’s time! With a degree. A life. Prospects! All the things she’d never imagined having. But the best part of it all?

She had a family. An honest-to-goodness, huge, loyal, fiercely loving family. She was a Kelly. Marlene and Frank had even hired a lawyer so Rusty could legally change her name. She’d been reissued a birth certificate and social security card and everything. Rusty Kelly.

Oh, her first name sounded corny and awful with the last name of Kelly. But then she’d had a perfectly normal, mundane name of Barnes before it had been legally changed. Marlene had wanted to adopt her, even though Rusty had already been a legal adult. She didn’t want anything to make Rusty feel as though she weren’t truly a part of the Kelly clan.

But it hadn’t been necessary. Just knowing she was loved and accepted by all of the Kellys—big-ass surly, overprotective brothers and all—was enough for Rusty. That she could go to school and be known as Rusty Kelly still overwhelmed her, and, at times, remembering caught her off guard and she verged precariously on tears. And she’d sworn never to cry again. She left that life behind. All the pain and embarrassment that she’d lived with for the first fifteen years of her existence.

Gone the moment Marlene tenderly enfolded her in the blanket of the Kelly name.

Rusty sighed as she glanced down the aisle at Travis Hanson—if that was even his real name—and wondered again what she’d gotten herself into.

He was the same age as Rusty had been when she’d broken into the Kelly house wanting nothing more than something to eat. He had the same darkness in his eyes. Sadness. But worst of all . . . fear.

As if sensing her scrutiny, Travis looked up from where he was stocking shelves, and unease registered. Poor kid was absolutely inept at keeping his emotions from being broadcast all over his face. That told her that he wasn’t experienced, and so whatever had brought him into this store and put that fear in his eyes was recent.

“Is there something wrong?” he asked in a quiet voice.

He might be fifteen—that was what he’d told her—but he looked a lifetime older. He was much taller than most fifteen-year-old boys. Muscled. Filled out. Not as gangly as so many other boys his age were. He’d aged fast. Grown up. Was old beyond his years.

It was something Rusty could definitely relate to because she’d been forced to grow up when she was only ten years old. For that matter, when had she ever truly been a child?

“Nothing at all,” Rusty said cheerfully, hoping she wasn’t being as obvious as the kid was about her uncertainty. “Was just thinking that after you finish that shelf we could have lunch. There’s a sandwich shop just a few doors down. You hungry?”

The instant flare in his eyes told her that he was indeed hungry. She wondered when his last good meal had been. But she didn’t want to ask because he’d probably just run.

“I, uh, left my wallet at home,” he stammered. “But I can pay you back tomorrow. That is, if you want me to come in.”

Rusty grimaced. Frank didn’t open the hardware store on Sundays. That was church and family day. But Travis didn’t need to know that Frank would have a fit if any of his employees worked on Sunday. Rusty had already decided she’d pay the kid cash under the table from her own pocket if she had to.

“We stock on Sundays,” she said, hoping God would forgive her for that blatant lie. “Store’s not open, but I could definitely use you for a few hours in the morning if you can come in.”

Relief washed through his eyes and his shoulders sagged. “Sure. No problem. I can come in at eight and stay as long as you need me.”

Rusty took a chance and watched his reaction closely. “Sure your mom won’t mind that? I mean, most folks around here go to church and spend time with their family. I’d hate to lose a good employee because your mom was upset over you working.”

His expression became tight, his eyes impassive, but they flickered just once as he replied.

“I don’t have a mother. My sister takes care of me and my younger sister. I like to help out. Eve—I mean she—works too hard. She won’t mind if I work a few hours. We could use the money.”

Rusty tucked that bit of info away and quickly moved on. Travis was extremely uncomfortable and she didn’t want to risk him bolting. Not that she was sure why it mattered. Hell, it would probably be better if the kid didn’t hang around too long because when Frank found out what Rusty had done, he’d probably wonder if she’d lost her mind.

“Okay, then. What would you like to eat? They have a great club sandwich. But they also serve up a pretty mean choke-and-puke burger. A boy your size probably needs the protein.”

Travis grinned. Just a brief smile that erased some of the shadows in his eyes. But just as quickly it faded, leaving a much-too-old-for-his-age man staring back at her.


She laughed. “Yeah. It’s a good thing, though. It’s what my brothers call a really good burger with lots of grease and cheese. Homemade. Not the processed crap you get at fast-food restaurants. Around here, home cooking is a matter of pride. How’s a good choke-and-puke bacon cheeseburger grab you? And it’s my treat. It’s the least I can do to thank you for taking so much work off my shoulders.”

“That sounds great,” he admitted. “And thanks, Rusty. For everything, I mean. This means a lot to me and my sisters.”

It was so tempting to grab him and squeeze. To hug him and tell him everything would be all right. But she resisted because she knew that when she was his age, such a move would spook her. It had taken Rusty a long time to realize that not everyone in the world was out to hurt her. And that love was unconditional and given freely. No strings. No repercussions.

But her heart ached for him. She knew what it was like to be afraid. To go hungry. To have far too much responsibility for someone so young. Thank God for Marlene and Frank Kelly. Thank God for them all.

“Hey, no sweat, kid. Like I said, if it wasn’t you stocking all this stuff it would be me. Frank puts in way too many hours as it is. He had a heart attack a few years ago, and his wife stays after him to take it easy. But he’s stubborn as a Missouri mule, and so we try to make sure he doesn’t overdo it. You’re doing me a huge favor.”

He grinned and then went back to pulling out tools from the box on the floor, carefully arranging them in their respective places.

With a sigh, Rusty turned away and checked her watch. Frank wasn’t due in until two. It had taken a lot of arguing on her part to convince him that she was perfectly capable of managing the store until he came in to work from two to closing time at six. By then she would have fed the kid, paid him cash and sent him on his way, and Frank would be none the wiser. Hopefully.

When she got back up to the front of the store, she went behind the counter to get her purse. If she called in the order ahead of time she wouldn’t be gone but a few minutes. She didn’t like leaving the kid, but the cash register would be locked and she’d lock the door on her way out and flip up the “Closed” sign. She’d be back in a flash.

After phoning her order in, she hoisted her purse over her shoulder and headed for the door after calling back to Travis that she’d be back in five. She nearly collided with a male body on her way out and pulled up, barely able to stifle the curse that blistered her lips. Marlene was forever trying to make a lady of her.

But when she saw who had nearly run her over, she promptly regretted calling back the obscenities.

Sean Cameron stood in front of her, his gaze narrowed as he stared back at her.

“What now, Sean?” she asked in exasperation. The cop had always rubbed her the wrong way.

“Who’s the new employee?” Sean demanded. “Frank didn’t say anything about hiring someone new.”

Rusty sighed. There was nothing new about Sean breathing down her neck. Life in a small town definitely had its drawbacks. The kid hadn’t been here but two hours and already super cop was coming to check on him.

“I didn’t realize you moonlighted as Frank’s HR manager,” she said dryly.

His frown deepened. Not that that was anything new for her. Sean lived in disapproval of her. It was like he was just waiting for her to fuck up so he could run her out of town and out of the Kellys’ lives.

“Cut the crap, Rusty.”

She scowled at him, her patience snapping. “Really, Sean? Can’t you be a little more original with your insults? We’ve known each other how long now? Five years? And yet that’s your standard reply any time we’re in hearing distance of one another. ‘Cut the crap, Rusty.’”

She shook her head.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have lunch to pick up and then I have work to do. I’m sure you have something more important to do than to be looking over my shoulder every minute of the day.”

Sean scowled back. “Who’s the kid, Rusty?”

“If you want to interrogate me, then you’ll have to come with me to pick up lunch for me and ‘the kid,’ as you labeled him.” She’d referred to him as “the kid” too, but not as derisively as Sean had put it.

And then another thought occurred to her. One that had her locking the door as she shoved past Sean. She turned the key, ensuring that he wouldn’t get in while she was gone, and then she whirled, finger up as she leveled it at Sean.

“And you stay away from the kid. Got it? He’s none of your business. You don’t speak to him and you damn sure don’t interrogate him. I can take your shit. God knows I’ve been dealing with it for years. But you leave him the fuck alone or I swear to God I’ll make your life miserable.”

Sean’s eyes flickered, and for a moment she thought she saw actual regret.

“What’s his story?” Sean asked quietly.

Rusty took off in the direction of the sandwich shop, knowing that Sean would follow along. He was too stubborn to just let stuff go. He’d want to hear the kid’s life history before he backed off.

“He’s a kid who desperately needs a job and money,” she said as they walked down the sidewalk.

“And let me guess. Frank doesn’t know you’ve hired him,” Sean said.

Rusty shook her head. Sean cursed beside her.

Rusty paused at the door to the sandwich store and stared hard up at Sean. She always felt smaller around him, but then the beating force of his disapproval could weigh down even the biggest person.

“No, he doesn’t. Yet,” she amended. “I have no intention of keeping it from him. Contrary to what you may think, I love Frank and Marlene. I’d never do anything to hurt them. He just came in today. He’s hungry and broke, and he has sisters to support. And don’t worry, Sean. I’m paying him out of my own money. Not that it’s much. But I figure anything will be better than nothing and it’s a safe job. At least here I can look out for him.”

Sean’s eyes softened, and for a moment he remained silent.

“Look, Sean,” Rusty said, hating how entreating she sounded. Like she needed his goddamn blessing. She sucked in a deep breath before she continued. “He’s me when I was that age. He’s where I could still be if it weren’t for Frank and Marlene and the rest of the Kellys. He needs help and I can give it to him. Just like no one until the Kellys was ever willing to give me. So back off, okay? I know it grates on you for me to ask you to trust me, but do you think you can set aside your personal dislike of me long enough to give me a chance here? I’m not stupid. I can help this kid and I’m going to do it with or without your blessing.”

Something that looked remarkably like regret flickered in Sean’s steady gaze.