Winter’s Daughter

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Disguise. Subterfuge. They were not Tannis Winter’s forte’. But she was determined to finish her Thesis, and that meant immersing herself in her subject–the homeless culture. But when a mysterious derelict begins to stalk her, she shoves him into the path of a police car and flees into the safety of suburbia and her family.

Newly elected City Councilmember Dillon James leaves the police station bruised but determined. His run in with a quick-witted, skittish bag lady convinces him that his undercover work to save programs that protect the poor and vulnerable is a worthy endeavor.

Can these two emotionally wary people learn to trust each other? Is healing even possible? Or will their predilection for disguise sabotage a love based on far more than simple desire?

REVIEWS:
“Ms. Creighton gets more depth into the short love story than many an author does in a full-length novel.” ~ ROMANTIC TIMES

 

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Chapter 1

The January sunrise touched the derelict with gentle fingers, warming him. He stirred, scratched himself, then took a small flat bottle from inside his jacket. Painstakingly he unscrewed the cap and filled his mouth with amber liquid. While he was rolling it around on his tongue, he splashed some onto the lapels of his coat, and more onto the dirty sweatshirt underneath. Then, with a furtive glance around him, he leaned over and spat the whiskey from his mouth onto the grass.

As he was tucking the bottle into his coat, he noticed a bag lady coming along the concrete walkway, pushing her shopping cart. The early morning sun was at her back, glinting off the metal cart and throwing an elongated shadow ahead of her onto the path. Over wisps of nondescript hair she wore a purple knit cap. A ski cap, the kind with a big, fuzzy pompon on the top. The derelict settled his shoulders more comfortably against the side of a concrete planter filled with pungent pink, white, and purple stocks and watched the pompon’s shadow bob toward him. He wondered how long the woman had been on the streets; he hadn’t seen her around the park before.

“Good mornin’ to you.” The shadow had draped itself across his legs and stopped there. The derelict thumbed back the brim of his filthy baseball cap and squinted up at the bag lady.

She was smiling at him. Her face was weathered and wrinkled, but her eyes were the clearest, bluest blue he’d ever seen, minute reflections of the winter sky. Something went clunk inside him; he felt an odd sense of recognition, as if he ought to know her, somehow. He could see that she had once been beautiful. He wondered if, in a younger, happier incarnation, her face might have graced his boyhood fantasies, those endless Saturday afternoons in darkened movie theaters…

Unexpectedly charmed, the derelict muttered, “Good morning,” and lurched to his feet.

“My name’s Win,” the bag lady said, leaning across her cart to offer him a hand clad in a ratty brown wool glove. As he took the hand, the derelict saw the blue eyes cloud over. Small wonder, he thought, she’d probably gotten a whiff of the booze.

But the look on the bag lady’s face was one of compassion, not disgust. From somewhere in the depths of her shopping cart she produced an orange, which she pressed into his hands. “Have some breakfast,” she said. “You’ll feel better.” She smiled at him and started on her way.

“Wait,” the derelict said, reluctant to lose her company. He felt as if he’d spotted a precious jewel glittering in shifting sands; if he didn’t grasp it now, it would be lost forever.

The bag lady paused and turned, her brows raised expectantly. Impulsively the derelict leaned down and plucked a sprig of lavender stock from the flower bed. “Here,” he said gruffly as he handed it to her. “For the breakfast.”

Her smile became radiant. The derelict heard a little catch in her breathing as, murmuring thanks, she wove the flower’s stem into the knit cap, just above her left ear. And then, with a wave of her gloved hand, she went shuffling off down the path.

Dillon James watched her go, absently turning the orange over and over in his hand. Under the bill of his old Dodger cap his eyes were narrowed with the complexity of his thoughts. It had been a long time since he’d been on the streets, and his cop sense was pretty rusty. Rusty, but not dead. He’d been touched by the woman’s act of kindness and knocked out by her inherent charm, but now that she’d gone and taken that potent charisma with her, every instinct and sixth sense he’d ever had was screaming at him. His scalp was prickling. He had that old, familiar creepy feeling, as if something alive and probably carnivorous were crawling down his spine.

Whoever she was, that bag lady didn’t track.

Methodically, following half–forgotten procedures, he went over a mental checklist beginning with the woman’s appearance: Clothes—that purple knit cap, a long wool coat of some indeterminate tweed that looked as if it had once been expensive—probably from a charity box or thrift store. Run–down shoes a few sizes too big for her; she’d padded them with several pairs of socks but still walked with an awkward, sliding shuffle. Nothing out of the ordinary about any of that. The cap and gloves were a little warm for Southern California, maybe, but on the other hand, the nights could get chilly in January here on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

It bothered him that he couldn’t determine her age. The limp, graying hair meant nothing. Some people grayed early, and poverty had a way of speeding up the process. The lines in her face could be the result of exposure to sun and wind and the dry desert air, elements that wouldn’t affect the clear blue of her eyes or the whiteness of her teeth. There had been a certain puffiness in her cheeks, but it was hard to tell, with the coat buttoned to her chin, whether her bulkiness was fat or extra layers of clothing.

All in all, Dillon thought, her appearance, the aimless, shuffling walk, the overburdened cart, all seemed right on target. No different from any of the hundreds of homeless people he’d come in contact with during his years as a vice cop in downtown L.A. Her appearance was right. It was her manner that was wrong. She was too open, too friendly, too trusting. Everything about her looks indicated she’d been on the streets for a long time. So where was the defensive posture, the glare of suspicion and hostility? Without a good, healthy dose of paranoia, no one, man or woman, would survive long on the streets.

For the benefit of anyone who might have been watching, Dillon dropped the orange into his coat pocket and stood for a moment or two, swaying, blinking, absently scratching. Then, with one hand placed protectively over the bottle in his coat pocket, he shuffled off after the bag lady.

He didn’t know who she was, or why she’d made such an impression on him. He just had this feeling she needed protecting. He’d sensed a kind of innocence about her, a childlike naivet é that both charmed and angered him. For God’s sake, didn’t she know the streets were a jungle? There were wolves out there. And nobody knew that better than Dillon James.

 * * *

“Oh—shoot!”

Muttering under her breath, Tannis Winter braced herself and managed to wrestle the teetering shopping cart off the curb. A bus that was just pulling away from the stop honked at her, then roared on by, belching clouds of diesel fumes in her face. Ignoring the bus, Tannis wedged the cart’s wheels against the curb and bent over to retrieve the items that had fallen off into the gutter: a rolled–up newspaper yellowed from lying unclaimed on someone’s front lawn; a brown paper bag containing a bunch of wilted carrots and some brownish bananas; a pair of child’s tennis shoes tied together by the laces.

All the items were precious to her. The newspaper would be handy for sitting on when the grass was wet or the sidewalk grimy. The groceries were from her friend Binnie, who worried about whether Tannis was getting enough vegetables and always shared her gleanings from the trash bins behind the Food Fair market over on Pacific Street. The shoes were practically brand new and had once belonged to Tannis’s five–year–old nephew, Joshua. His mother, Tannis’s sister Lisa, had a tendency to buy things just the right size, forgetting how rapidly small boys grow. Which was all right with Tannis. She knew she would find a good home for those shoes.

Something winked at her from the gutter filth, something shiny and metallic, spotlighted by the morning sun. Investigation unearthed unexpected treasure—a quarter. Tannis happily picked it up and tucked it away in the handbag she wore hidden inside her voluminous coat. Her delight in the serendipitous discovery was tempered by concern; someone had obviously dropped part of his bus fare. She hoped whoever it was hadn’t been too badly inconvenienced. She especially hoped it hadn’t been a child.

The quarter wasn’t the only treasure Tannis found at that bus stop. A few feet away from the quarter she found a perfectly good pencil, and, beyond that, a flattened soft drink can and nearly half a pack of cigarettes. She tossed the cigarettes back into the gutter—she had no use for them since she didn’t smoke—but the pencil went into her purse along with the quarter, and the can joined her collection in a plastic trash bag tied onto the handlebar of the shopping cart. She could get cash for them at the recycling center. Pleased and cheered by the modest windfall, she straightened, tugged the cart around, and prepared to cross the street.

A hand at her coat sleeve arrested her. Startled, she turned and, in an unconscious, almost reflexive gesture, lifted her hand to touch the flower in her hat. “Oh,” she said, smiling, “hello again.”

It was the derelict from the park. She hadn’t noticed before how tall and thin he was. As he stood in the street blocking her way, he seemed to sway like a tree in the wind. The initial rush of pleasure she’d felt on seeing him again faded; suddenly, and for no reason she could name, Tannis felt stirrings of unease. She told herself he was harmless, that he was only drunk, poor man. Much more drunk than she’d thought, obviously; more drunk than he’d seemed when he’d given her the flower.

The derelict swayed toward her, loomed over her. Standing in his shadow, she felt chilled and uncertain. She was suddenly conscious of the hand on her arm; brown, long–fingered, and very strong, the wrist sinewy as rawhide. It occurred to her that the dirty brown jacket that hung from those broad, raw–boned shoulders must conceal a body just as strong, just as supple, just as hard. She didn’t know how she knew; there was something about the lines of his body that reminded her of a cocked bow.

“Hey,” the man said softly in his cracked and ruined voice, “you dropped something.” He held up the pack of cigarettes she’d just discarded, waving it between two long fingers. He was smiling, but it seemed to Tannis there was something almost wolfish, now, about the way his teeth gleamed in his hollow–cheeked, dark–stubbled face.

“Those aren’t—ain’t mine,” she rasped, belatedly remembering to disguise her voice. Jerking her arm from the man’s grasp, she hunched her shoulders and pushed on her cart with all her might, sending it rattling and clanking across the pavement.

As she crossed the street, a new and unfamiliar fear pursued her, so potent it felt like a tangible thing, like a dog, snarling and snapping at her heels. Finally safe on the other side, she turned and looked back. The derelict was still standing where she’d left him. And suddenly she felt ashamed.

How could she have treated him so rudely? He’d only tried to be friendly, and after all, wasn’t that what she was here for? To make friends with the street people, to understand them, to find out who they were and how they’d come to this?

And yet—Something deep inside her, something vulnerable and uniquely feminine understood instinctively that this man was different. There was something about him, something that set him apart from the other homeless people she’d befriended—people like Binnie, The Showman, Crazy Frankie, and poor sad, hopeless Clarence. And because she was a psychologist, she understood the differentness she found frightening now was the very thing she’d found so compelling about him in the first place. It was something intangible, something not even a quarter inch of dark stubble, a drunken slouch, and an aura of cheap booze could hide. Because, incredibly, in spite of all those things, the man was attractive.

He was attractive the way a predator is attractive, Tannis thought. The wolf, the leopard, and the hawk—and a certain kind of man, the type with quiet, watchful eyes and a cruel twist to his sensual lips; the one with a body like a bullwhip, full of leashed power and sinuous grace. The kind of man who calls to something wild and primitive in a woman’s soul, even though she knows he spells Danger with a capital D.

Small wonder, then, that when he had called to her there in the park the wild and primitive side of her had responded automatically, instinctively. And small wonder those same instincts were warning her now of the danger.

But there was something else too. In the park she’d had the impression she’d taken him by surprise, caught him in an unguarded moment—rather like coming upon a tiger asleep with his paws in the air. His spontaneous gesture of giving her the flower had been so endearingly charming, it had taken her breath away.

Just now, though, when he’d placed his hand on her arm, he’d seemed harder, darker, more alert, more focused. Focused on her.

The tiger awake.

And for some reason he’d followed her. His intense interest was enough to send a shiver of fear down her spine, but it had also occurred to her he must have seen her pick up the quarter. She knew full well that street people had been murdered for the shoes on their feet, let alone money.

People had been telling her all along she was crazy, that there was danger in what she was doing. Now, for the first time, Tannis knew they were right.

With her heart pounding and cold sweat trickling down her ribs, she hoisted the shopping cart over the curb on the far side of the street. After a moment’s indecision she headed south, toward Cleveland Street. The derelict had followed her; possibly he was still following her, and there was no way she could outrun him or give him the slip without abandoning her cart. But she had friends on Cleveland Street. The butcher at Sam’s Deli had given her scraps of cold cuts and had even let her use the bathroom once. And, of course, there was Gunner, the handicapped man who ran the newsstand on the corner. If there was anyone she could count on to help her, it was Gunner.

Dillon stared after the bulky, shuffling figure and looked thoughtfully at the cigarettes he still held in his hand. It was another incongruity, her passing up a good clean pack like that. Even if she didn’t smoke, most of the street people he knew would consider them as good as money in trade. If she hadn’t figured that out yet, she hadn’t been on the streets very long.

And yet, the cart and the clothes said otherwise. Odd.

Stuffing the cigarettes into his pocket, Dillon rubbed his hand across his mouth, waited for a break in traffic, and crossed the street. On the other side he paused, then turned south. His loose–jointed stride was deceptive; it looked aimless and unhurried but wasn’t. In no time at all he had the bag lady’s purple knit cap in sight again.

No doubt about it, there was something haywire about that woman. Here it was, a gorgeous January day, with clear skies and the mercury moving toward a high in the upper seventies, and she was still wearing the coat, cap, and gloves. Moving along as fast as she was and pushing that cart to boot, she had to be working up a sweat. Dillon was beginning to feel sticky himself, and all he had on under the jacket was a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and a pair of his oldest, rattiest jeans. He was beginning to itch too; the jacket’s former occupant had had company.

He was getting too old for this, Dillon decided, indulging in a good scratch while his quarry waited fretfully at a stoplight. It had been a long time since he’d done any of this undercover stuff. Like his instincts, the old moves were coming back to him, and he hadn’t lost much in the way of reflexes. He just didn’t remember minding the discomforts so much.

Of course, he’d been a lot younger then. Younger, and idealistic enough to think he could make a difference. In the old days he’d known the seamy underside of the city as well as most people know their own living rooms. And he’d known the people—the hookers, the pimps, the winos and wierdos, the bag ladies, runaways, addicts and dealers—better than most people know their own kids. Eventually, though, he’d gotten to feeling like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, and the time had come when he’d known he had to get out or wind up being sucked into the sewer himself.

* * *

The newsstand was closed. Tannis had forgotten Gunner’s habit of slipping away to the deli for coffee and a bagel once the morning rush was over. It was past ten o’clock. She should have remembered. Sometimes, if her timing was right, she could get Gunner to bring back a cup of coffee for her, balancing it in the caddy he’d rigged up on the arm of his wheelchair.

As she leaned against the side of the newsstand to catch her breath, Tannis stole a quick look back. Yes, the wino was still coming, still following her, only half a block away now. He was impossible to miss. The blue baseball cap easily topped every other head in the crowd.

With a dry mouth and pounding heart she looked around her, studying the lay of things, considering her options. About a block away she saw a police black–and–white rolling slowly toward her. Briefly she considered flagging it down but rejected that except as a last resort. It would mean questions and explanations, and the odds were that before she was through, her cover would be completely blown. Word traveled fast on the street. There had to be a better way of attracting the patrolmen’s attention, one that wouldn’t focus it needlessly on her.

“Hey!”

Tannis jumped as if she’d been stung as a dark, saturnine face was thrust around the corner of the newsstand, practically at her shoulder.

“Hey,” the wino said, “where you goin’ in such a hurry, huh?”

Tannis ducked her head, tucking her chin into the collar of her coat as she pushed away from the plywood wall. “I’m not goin’ anywhere,” she muttered, and added with one eye on the advancing patrol car, “I’m waitin’ for a friend.”

“I’ll be your friend,” the wino whined in his soft, whiskey voice.

Tannis’s breath caught. Her heartbeat accelerated as she looked up into the derelict’s face. Friend? It didn’t seem likely; there was something about that face, something dark and dangerous.

A small movement drew her eyes downward. Deep in his coat pocket the wino’s hand was turning the orange over and over, almost, she thought, as if he were caressing it. Oh, dear, Tannis thought, bitterly regretting the impulse that had led her to give it to him. Now what had she done? How in the world was she going to shake this poor guy? She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she couldn’t have him following her around, either.

There was something about him that unnerved her.

Out of the corner of her eye Tannis saw the patrol car cruise closer, only ten or fifteen yards away. She sucked in air. It was now or never.

“I have to go,” she said, and aiming the cart at the derelict’s midsection, gave it a mighty shove. It caught him just below the place where his belt would have been if he’d been wearing a belt.

Air exploded from the wino’s lungs. Hurtling backward in a half crouch, he struck a trash can a glancing blow. There was the sound of breaking glass. The trash can careened into the gutter and overturned, followed immediately by the wino, who landed on his backside squarely in the middle of a pile of spilled refuse.

Tannis clamped her hand over her mouth and stared in horror at the wino’s contorted face. Well, she hadn’t meant to hit him there. Too late for regrets though. It hadn’t been pretty, and she wasn’t proud of herself, but the maneuver had provided her chance to escape. As she was pushing her cart hurriedly down the sidewalk, she heard a screech that could only be the police car braking to a stop at the curb.

Dillon heard the screech too. It was followed by the slam of two car doors almost simultaneously. He heard a voice say disgustedly, “Jeez, Louise, ten o’clock in the morning. Isn’t it a little early for this shit?”

Another voice answered, “Five’ll get you ten he doesn’t know what the hell time of day it is.” Two pairs of khaki–clad legs planted themselves, one on each side of Dillon. The second voice went on, jacked up a notch or two now in volume. “Okay, buddy, having a little trouble keeping our feet, are we?”

Dillon could only shake his head. He was getting his wind and probably even his voice back, but he didn’t waste either one on explanations. It wasn’t going to do him any good, these guys weren’t about to believe him. Hell, he thought morosely, I wouldn’t believe me.

One of the cops squatted down beside him and picked up a fragment of the broken whiskey bottle. “Whoo–ee!” he said, waving his hand in front of his nose. He glanced up at his partner. “Couldn’t have wasted much of this stuff, by the smell of him.”

Dillon groaned and closed his eyes. “Hey, guys, this isn’t what it looks like.”

“Yeah?” The cop seemed interested. “What does it look like?”

Knowing it was pointless, Dillon said, “I know you think I’m drunk, but I’m not.”

“Of course not,” the squatting cop said in a soothing tone, “you’re just a little under the weather, right?”

“More than a little, actually,” Dillon muttered darkly. “Listen, I know you’re not going to believe this, but I haven’t drunk a drop of what was in that bottle.”

“Right.” The cop ducked his head to hide a grin. “Uh—you got any identification?”

Dillon just sighed and shook his head.

“Come on, buddy,” the cop said, slipping a hand under Dillon’s elbow. “I think you’d better come with us.”

“What charge?” Dillon grunted as he was hoisted to his feet. And then, sourly, he said, “Never mind. Let me guess. Public intoxication? Disorderly conduct? Creating a public nuisance?”

The older of the two cops, the one who’d remained standing, gave a low whistle and drawled, “You are familiar with the drill, aren’t you? Been here a few times, I’ll bet. So you know how it goes, right, my friend? You come along nicely, you get to spend a couple days indoors, maybe dry out a little, get a couple square meals, compliments of the city of Los Padres. How’s that sound?”

“Great.” Dillon straightened and stretched experimentally, and discovered the damage done to his anatomy by the shopping cart probably wasn’t permanent. “Just—great.”

Resigned to the hassle, the inevitable indignities he knew he’d have to suffer before this whole mess was straightened out, Dillon settled into the back of the patrol car. He wasn’t really thinking about his own situation at all. He was thinking about the woman, wondering who she was and what she was doing on the streets. Because for darn sure she wasn’t any ordinary bag lady. Those eyes of hers—the clearest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Fire and ice. Looking into them had made him feel as if he’d just swallowed a hefty slug of white lightning. Maybe she was somebody he ought to recognize, and maybe she wasn’t, but there was one thing he knew for sure: He’d know her if he ever saw her again. He’d know those eyes.

As the patrol car pulled away from the curb, Dillon turned to look back down the street. He didn’t see any sign of the bag lady, but it didn’t matter; he knew he’d be seeing her again, and a lot sooner than she thought if he had any of his old skills left at all. He was going to be looking for that woman, whoever she was and whatever her game was. And he’d find her, too.

With a laugh that was more pained than amused he realized he owed her one for what she’d done to him with that shopping cart.

“Lord, I hate this,” the younger cop grumbled as he picked up the radio’s hand unit, wrinkling his nose fastidiously.

The veteran gave his partner a look that was part amused, part cynical, and maybe a little sad. “Get used to it, kid.”

Dillon knew exactly how he felt. He’d felt that way often enough himself.

He had no rancor for the two cops, even though they’d put a temporary crimp in his program. He hoped Logan didn’t come down too hard on them, that’s all. Dillon was fairly certain the fertilizer was going to hit the fan when Los Padres’s finest discovered the wino they’d busted was their own newly elected city councilman.

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