Chapter One

Jenna pulled on the suit jacket that was the last piece of her ensemble and cringed at the way it restricted her freedom of motion. She was proud of her promotion. At twenty-five years old, she was the youngest supervisor for Child Protective Services in the region, and it had taken dedication and long hours to achieve. But the pride came with a healthy dose of anxiety. Now she had to live up to the title, and her new boss was notoriously hard to please. Even with a host of new responsibilities to master and superiors to answer to, something much simpler had become a fixation: complete dread that the dream job she’d worked so hard to obtain was accompanied by a requirement to wear formal business attire.

It had taken hours of frowning at the discomfort of pantyhose, skirts, and heels before a salesperson had finally talked her into an expensive suit. At the time, she’d had to admit it was indeed the most comfortable option, and now, looking in the bathroom mirror, she also had to admit she looked good. She straightened her wavy hair and put mascara on her lashes. She knew many women who did this every day. In fact, they tended to be the type she preferred to date, so she’d witnessed the ritual a thousand times. Still, stumbling through the process, she felt like a kid who’d snuck into her mom’s bedroom to play dress up.

“Wow, you look like a girl!”

Jenna jumped at the unexpected voice and turned to her sister, Callie. “I feel ridiculous.”

“You shouldn’t. You look amazing.”

“It feels like too much.”

“Isn’t it required?”

“Business formal.” Jenna blushed. “Whatever that means.”

“It means what you’re wearing is perfect.”

“They’re going to laugh.”

Callie scanned her again, reassessing. She could always be trusted to be honest, even if it meant hurting feelings.

“They’re not going to laugh,” she finally said. “You look like a grownup now is all. Be confident. I know I would be if I was half as beautiful.”

Jenna tilted her head, a rush of sadness flooding through her. She touched Callie’s face, feeling the bumps and valleys of the scarring from her burns. “You are beautiful, Callie.”

Callie shifted away. “Yeah, whatever. You better get out of here if you’re going to be on time.”

Jenna wanted to say more, something more powerful, more convincing, but they’d had this conversation a thousand times, and she never made any headway.

“All right,” she said. “Have a good day then.”

“You too,” Callie said. “Knock ’em dead.”

Jenna picked up the purse she’d purchased and draped it over her shoulder. She kissed Callie on her good cheek and headed for the door. “See you tonight.”

“Bring me home a milkshake.”

“Uh-huh.” Jenna sighed and closed the door behind her. She passed by her old Volkswagen that sat unused in the driveway collecting sap under the scarlet oak trees and continued to her Acura. She loved her new car, but she wouldn’t have bought it if she’d known Callie would never touch the VW. She pushed the irritation aside. Today was too important for her to be lingering on old problems. She sped through the quick drive to work and parked on the side of the building so she could enter through the door no one used. That was the only comfort she’d allow herself. She wouldn’t slink through the halls like some kind of criminal. Callie had one thing right; confidence was key. She could do this.

She took one last look in the mirror and confirmed she didn’t look like a clown, then opened her car door before she could chicken out. Her purse felt ridiculous bouncing against her side and trying to slide off her shoulder, but she grabbed the strap and kept moving at the swift pace she always did. Soon she was knocking on Paula Caliery’s door without having come across another human. Perfect.

“Come in.” Paula’s voice rang out.

Jenna went in and closed the door behind her. “Good morning,” she said.

Paula stood. She was a striking woman with pale eyes and hair so blond it was almost white. Her limbs were long, slender strips of muscle that made it hard to tell if she was fit or just so thin her skin betrayed every sinew. She’d been the manager for years, yet Jenna knew her more by her intimidating reputation than their limited face time. Paula shot her hand across the desk in a brisk jab.

“First of all, congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Jenna said. “I’m very excited about the opportunity.”

Paula sat down and motioned for Jenna to do the same. “You already got the job. You can relax now.”

Jenna laughed but knew she sounded stiff. Paula leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, revealing a long, wiry thigh that seemed to never end. She scrutinized Jenna with a disarming scan down her body. Jenna imagined it was a motion that had made many men squirm before her, though she wouldn’t call it flirtatious.

“You look great,” Paula said.

“Oh, thanks.”

Paula nodded and sat forward again. “So your training will be as streamlined as possible. A lot of it you already know. Supporting the caseworkers, answering questions, handling complaints. I have no concerns about your abilities with any of that.”

Jenna nodded.

“One concern that was brought up when we were discussing your application, however, is that we know you’re close friends with quite a few of the caseworkers.”

Jenna knew something to this effect was coming, but she still felt her cheeks getting warm at the suggestion she couldn’t be an unbiased supervisor. “Is that a problem?”

“I hope not,” Paula said. “There isn’t a rule that expressly prohibits it, but you can obviously see how a conflict could arise. It’s common practice to distance yourself a bit to discourage anyone from putting any sort of inappropriate pressures on you.”

“If you mean with evaluations, I plan to be completely fair and honest. I don’t think any of my friends expect otherwise.”

Paula nodded. “I don’t doubt you. Nevertheless, we thought it would be a good idea to hand-select the caseworkers that will be assigned to you rather than just passing down Jordan’s old crew. We’ll start small at first. Let’s say five caseworkers, and I’m doing my best to assign people to you that are not in your social circle. I think it will make it easier on everyone. However, if you start to receive any unethical requests, I’d like to know about it. I know that will put you in an uncomfortable position, but it will be in your best interest.”

Jenna thought about her best friend, Sasha. They’d been hired as caseworkers together, along with another good friend, Adam, and they’d clicked instantly. Sasha knew how important this job was to her, and she couldn’t imagine Sasha asking for anything compromising, but she had to admit she’d have a hard time turning her in if she did. The rest of them, Cole, Val, Suzie, they were more drinking buddies than close friends. She doubted they would dare to ask, but if they did she could handle it.

“I understand.”

“Adam will be the one exception,” Paula said. “He’s in need of a new supervisor, and he has an excellent track record. We’ve all agreed he will be a good candidate to be matched with you while you transition to your new role.” Paula uncrossed her legs and crossed them again the other direction. “Unless you believe otherwise.”

“Of course not. I’m happy to have him,” Jenna said.

“Great. I’ll help you with the first few evaluations. After that you’re free to fly. I’ll be here if you have any questions, but I think you’ll see my style is pretty hands-off.”

“Sounds great.” Jenna felt she was already in trouble before she’d even started.

“Last order of business.” Paula sat forward again. “Your open cases. We’ll need to pass them off to the others so you can focus on your new responsibilities. I’m dividing them up between everyone. Here’s a list of who’s getting what.” Paula slid a paper across the desk. “You’ll need to pass on any pertinent information to the correct people.”

Jenna reached for the paper with numb fingers. She hadn’t prepared for this. The thought of giving her cases away made her stomach turn to iron. She knew each of these families intimately and cared for the outcome of each. She scanned the list. The Stevensons and Craigs were going to Suzie. The Crenshaws and Saltoris to Adam. She looked up without reading further.

“Can I not finish out my open cases? I’d really like to see them through. They’ll thin out soon enough as long as I don’t take any more.”

Paula threaded her fingers together and rested her hands on the desk. “You’ll have a lot to do as it is. I don’t think it’s practical to expect you to learn your new responsibilities and continue with your previous workload.”

Jenna knew she was wearing her feelings on her sleeve and tried to stifle them. She looked at the paper again, scanning for the name that mattered most. The Clarks. They were matched up with a name she’d never seen before.

“Who’s Danielle Corey?”

Paula smiled. “Glad you asked. She’s our new caseworker. She’s filling your old position, and she’ll be one of the members of your team.”

“Oh.” Jenna looked at the paper again. “That’s great, her being on my team. I don’t know if she should handle the Clarks, though. It’s a complicated case, a lot for a new hire to take on. I’ve been working with them for two years.”

“Sasha will be training her. She’ll have support.”

Jenna leaned back in her chair, weighing her words before she spoke.

“Problem?” Paula asked.

“They’re difficult boys,” Jenna said. “They don’t warm up easily, and they’ll be upset if I disappear on them. Sasha is fantastic, and I’m sure Danielle is too, but the kids know me.”

“I understand it’s difficult,” Paula said. “Really. But you’re going to have to get comfortable with delegation. Being a supervisor is a very different job. If it’s not for you—”

“No!” Jenna interrupted. “It is for me. Promotion was always the plan. It’s just…” Jenna sighed. She was losing ground. “It’s a special case. I’ll pass on the details of all the others, but it’s really important to me to finish this one myself.”

“It’s been two years already. You know it could go on much longer. You want to keep it indefinitely?”

“What if I train Danielle on it? She’ll get a chance to learn, and the boys will get to know her before I bow out. Once they’re comfortable with her, if the case is open that long, I’ll let her take over.”

Paula tilted her head right and left as she thought it over. “It’s unconventional, but a reasonable compromise. We’ll go ahead with that, but if I see you struggling with your new duties because of it I’ll have to pull you and give it to Sasha. Fair?”

“Fair.”

 

Chapter Two

Danielle hated the social pressure of a new job. It wasn’t that she hated people; she didn’t, but her first instinct in a new work environment was to quietly observe and study until she felt confident with the job. Then and only then did she feel comfortable goofing around with people. The problem was, by that time she’d already be labeled as a standoffish loner. It was a pattern she’d been battling since elementary school, and as much as she wanted it to be different this time, she was falling back into the familiar awkward and meaningless small talk that kept people at a distance. Her new trainer, Sasha, probably already thought she was dull.

“Let me show you where your locker is,” Sasha said. She had sparkling blue eyes and hair that wasn’t quite blond or brown. She led Danielle down a flight of stairs into a harsh yellow locker room that looked like it had been in need of fresh paint for at least a decade and smelled like citrus. Sasha pointed at number forty-six. It was probably only a foot wide and tall, not good for much except maybe a change of clothes, though she couldn’t picture herself wanting out of the simple CPS polo bad enough to change at work. Danielle opened the locker anyway and was surprised to find a picture of a half-naked Victoria’s Secret model taped to the door.

“Sorry.” Sasha giggled and trotted over. “This locker used to belong to someone else. I guess she didn’t quite finish cleaning it out.”

Danielle laughed. “Did she quit?”

“No, got promoted, actually. Has a whole office for her pictures now.” Sasha winked. “She’d probably die if she knew you saw that. I think it was a practical joke from one of the guys anyway.”

Danielle shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me.”

“That’s good. There are a lot of shenanigans around here. People with a sense of humor tend to do better. Anyway, if you want to leave anything in there, we’ll hit the road in a few.”

Danielle threw her jacket inside and followed Sasha back up the stairs and down the long hallway to the front doors. They still had about fifty feet to go when a woman in a gorgeous black designer suit rounded the corner and headed toward them. Danielle didn’t make a habit of scrutinizing people’s bodies, yet she was uncharacteristically aware of this woman’s form beneath the loosely draped cloth.

“Damn, Thompson, that you?” Sasha called down the hall.

Danielle caught a glimpse of the woman’s eyes and was almost startled by the brilliant shade of green that jumped across the room. The woman cut her curious gaze short as she shifted her attention to Sasha, who cleared her throat.

“I mean, Ms. Thompson. If I could introduce you to our new caseworker, this is Danielle.”

Ms. Thompson’s shoes clicked across the floor until she was standing in front of Danielle holding out her hand.

“Jenna.”

Danielle accepted the handshake and was pleasantly surprised to find it effortless. She’d fumbled through more awkward handshakes than she could count.

“Danielle.”

“Ms. Thompson will be your supervisor,” Sasha said. “She’ll be the one you want to go to with questions once you’re out of training.”

Danielle hoped the surprise didn’t show on her face. Jenna was certainly dressed for the part, but she looked too young to be a supervisor. “Nice to meet you,” Danielle said.

“I was just about to take her out on the road,” Sasha said. “Unless you need her for paperwork?”

“Not quite, I do need her, though.” Jenna spun toward Danielle. “I’m actually going to be taking you out on the road with me.”

“Okay.” Danielle could barely hear her own voice.

Jenna turned to Sasha again. “We’re just going to check in with the Clarks. Then she’s all yours.”

“Oh, okay then.”

Danielle caught both the look of confusion and the silent exchange between the women that said all would be explained later. The thought ran through her mind that the two might be lovers, but she blamed the idea on the locker incident and waved it away.

“This way,” Jenna said. She turned and headed for the door at a pace that surprised Danielle and left her a few strides behind before she’d even started moving. She hurried to catch up and followed Jenna to a sleek Acura that looked brand new. Between the suit and the car Danielle couldn’t help but wonder if her new boss was very well off, but there was something about her demeanor that seemed to indicate she’d seen rough times.

The moment they each closed their doors Jenna maneuvered out of her jacket so she was only in a silk cream-colored blouse.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said. “Humidity kills me.”

“Of course not.” Danielle caught herself looking at Jenna’s arms in some kind of aesthetic admiration that she wouldn’t label attraction, but that she couldn’t explain. The temperature gauge showed seventy-five degrees, enough to be uncomfortable, but nowhere near the heat a bad Memphis summer could bring. Jenna started the car and zipped out of the parking lot. Soon they were cruising at a smooth sixty miles per hour along a winding road surrounded by lush green woods on either side.

“So,” Jenna said. “How’d you end up at CPS?”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to work in this field, help kids. I finished my degree and was lucky enough to get hired on my first try. It almost felt too easy, come to think of it. I kind of thought I’d have to work a bunch of other jobs I didn’t like first.”

“Don’t count your chickens.” Jenna opened the sunroof.

“What do you mean?”

“This could turn out to be one of those jobs you don’t like.”

Danielle’s nerves jolted. “You don’t like it?”

“No, I do. A lot of people don’t, though.”

“Why is that?”

“You’re going to get called a baby snatcher a lot. People think you get commissions for every child you remove. And the kids you’re helping, they won’t all want help, you know? Maybe you’re taking them from an abuser and putting them with a loving family, but they won’t understand that for another decade sometimes. All they know now is you’re taking them from Mom.” Jenna glanced over at her. “It’s just not for everyone.”

“Sounds hard.”

“Sure, but the ones that really break your heart are the ones you have to leave behind. The ones you know are being hurt but you can’t put together a strong enough case.”

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Depends on the caseworker. We’re going to do our best to train you well enough it never happens.”

Danielle nodded and looked out the window. She’d been warned about most of this already, but it was somehow different to hear it from someone who actually did the job.

Jenna’s gentle voice brought her back to the moment. “I’m not trying to scare you off,” she said. “I’m sure it’ll be a great fit. I just wanted to warn you it’s harder for some people than others. If it’s hard for you, don’t panic. You can always talk to me or one of the other supervisors.”

“Thanks.”

“Probably not the best welcome aboard speech I could have made.”

Danielle laughed and glanced across the car again. “No, it’s good to know up front.”

“So what about outside of work? Significant other? Kids?”

“Nope.”

“Ah.” Jenna adjusted the air conditioning. Danielle held back a chuckle, discreetly glancing at the open sunroof. “Well, that’s simple.”

“Yeah,” Danielle said. She cringed as the conversation threatened to go stale. She forced herself to smile. “What about you?”

“No girlfriend. No kids. I live with my mom and my sister right now. It’s not exactly a lady-killer kind of situation.” Jenna flashed a dazzling smile and winked.

Danielle felt a rush of heat and knew she was blushing. She looked away and tried to stifle the surprising reaction. She very much doubted Jenna had a hard time with women with those eyes and her killer body.

“It’s nice you’re close with your family,” she said.

Jenna shrugged. “I’m not sure how close we really are. It’s more out of necessity.”

“Really? Necessity? But you must make good money as a supervisor.” Danielle said it before it occurred to her how inappropriate it was to bring up Jenna’s income, but Jenna didn’t miss a beat.

“I haven’t been a supervisor long enough to even know what that paycheck looks like yet, but it’s not a money issue. My mom is schizophrenic. She can’t really live alone, and my sister is twenty, hasn’t quite made it out of the nest yet.”

“Oh God,” Danielle said. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed. That was…” Danielle trailed off and Jenna started laughing.

“Don’t worry about it. No big deal.”

Danielle hadn’t expected such a personal revelation, and she felt strange now she hadn’t offered more of an answer about her own family. She searched for a natural way to circle back around to a better answer, but Jenna was pulling over before she settled on anything. She stopped in front of a three-story apartment complex. The grass was littered with kids’ toys, bicycles, lawn chairs, and beer bottles.

“Ready?” Jenna asked.

“Sure.”

“We’re just checking in on them, observing the conditions, making sure the kids are in good health.”

Jenna spun toward an urgent tap on her window. She smiled and opened the car door.

“Hey, Raylon! How’s it going, my friend?”

“Ms. Thompson! What’d you bring me?”

Danielle smiled at the genuine warmth in both their voices and hurried out of the car to get a look at their visitor. She circled the car and saw Jenna fanning out a collection of candy bars for a young black boy to choose from. His clothes were much too big for him, most likely hand-me-downs, but he looked otherwise clean, nourished, and happy. He grabbed a candy bar and started to pull, attempting to discreetly slip a second one out of Jenna’s hand with it.

“No way, José.”

“Aw, come on Ms. Thompson. Please?”

“You been doing well in school?”

“Yes.”

“No, he hasn’t,” another voice sounded from behind them. Jenna and Danielle both spun. A second, older black boy was approaching.

“Hey, Deon.”

“Hey, Ms. T.” The boy walked over and casually pulled Jenna into a hug. Their obvious closeness surprised Danielle and made her feel out of place.

“That true, Raylon?” Jenna turned back to the younger boy who couldn’t be more than eight.

“No. He’s a liar.”

“Nuh-uh. You never do your homework.”

“Do too!”

“Copying your friends doesn’t count.”

“I don’t!”

“All right, all right,” Jenna interrupted. She fanned the candy bars in front of Deon for him to choose. He shook his head.

“Nah.”

“Grownups like candy too, Deon.”

He scanned the candy and reluctantly grabbed one. “Thanks.”

Jenna nodded and waved Danielle closer. “Guys, this is Ms. Corey. She’s going to be coming with me from now on.”

Danielle felt blinded by the sudden spotlight, but she stepped closer to Jenna’s side and waved at each of them. “Nice to meet you.”

“Why?” Deon asked sharply.

“She’s in training.” Jenna smiled at Danielle. “Teaching her everything I know.”

Danielle detected nervousness, maybe even fear in Deon’s dark glare. His body said he was no older than fifteen, but his gaze felt years older. He broke the eye contact and looked back to Jenna.

“You dumping us on the new girl?”

“Of course not,” Jenna said.

“You sure?”

“Yes.” Jenna stared at him. “How are things?” The question was casual, but her quiet, deep tone communicated the more serious implication.

Deon waited a long second before answering. “They’re okay.”

Jenna nodded. “Come on. Let’s go see your mom.”

Raylon skipped toward the stairwell while Deon stood staring at Jenna another long moment. The contrast in their reaction was intriguing, and Danielle felt paralyzed by whatever was transpiring between Jenna and Deon. Jenna seemed to communicate with her eyes a lot, and Danielle wondered if she’d ever learn to speak the language. Jenna glanced back at Danielle and discreetly nodded at Raylon’s disappearing silhouette, then led them after him. Danielle fell in stride next to Deon, a few paces behind Jenna.

“She walks fast,” Deon said.

“I’m noticing that,” Danielle said with a smile.

“This your first day or something?”

“It is, actually.”

Deon smirked. “Thought so.”

“Manners,” Jenna said over her shoulder. They came to a thin wooden door that had fresh damage at the bottom. Whatever caused the impact hadn’t gone all the way through, but splintered and cracked the wood.

“What’s this?” Jenna asked.

Deon shrugged. “Don’t know.”

Jenna tilted her head in silent admonition.

“I don’t. Came home and it was like that.”

Jenna nodded at the door. Deon opened it and let them in. Danielle felt the poverty the moment they stepped inside. It wasn’t the old television or the broken table or the stained surfaces, it was the anxiety in the air. It was the way the whole house seemed to hold its breath. Danielle felt the need to exercise discretion as she evaluated the home, but quickly noticed Jenna did not. She openly surveyed every corner.

A clatter and series of thumps sounded at the door. “God damn it, son of a bitch. Deon!” A husky female voice dripping with the syrup of a thick Southern accent filled the apartment.

Deon skimmed over Danielle for a reaction before he hurried toward the door.

“That’ll be his mom,” Jenna said.

A short, heavy woman waddled into the room. Her weight rocked back and forth as she battled the grocery bags in her arms. Deon trailed after her with the last of the groceries.

“What are you doing here?” she snapped at Jenna.

Jenna glanced at her watch. “We were scheduled for a nine o’clock visit.”

“You shouldn’t be in my house without me here.”

“I apologize for startling you,” Jenna said. “I didn’t realize you weren’t home. The boys just let us in a moment ago.”

“You shouldn’t be in here without me,” the woman repeated.

“Neither should the boys, Ms. Clark.”

Her brows dug into her face in anger. “You need to leave.” She gave up on the grocery bags and dropped them on the floor. “I called down there and told them I wanted to reschedule.”

“I tried to call you back and discuss the problem, but you never answered.”

“So you just show up uninvited?”

“Again, I apologize for the inconvenience, but you know we can’t just come over on an invitation basis. It’s required you adhere to these visits.”

Ms. Clark’s eyes burned into Jenna with a fury. She finally shook her head. “I’ll never understand why you all have to treat people this way. I just don’t understand it.” She started to gather the handles of the grocery bags. When no one answered, she let go of the bags again. The plastic slowly drooped with the weight of the contents and lazily slouched to settle on the floor.

“And who the hell are you lurking over there?” Ms. Clark turned her fiery gaze to Danielle.

Jenna was speaking for her before Danielle could even shake off the shock. “Ms. Clark, I’d like to introduce you to—”

“Yeah, yeah, nice to meet you. Can we get on with it?”

There was a slight tremor in Danielle’s hands, a sudden layer of sweat on her palms. She hated that something so simple had triggered an adrenaline response. She couldn’t be so easily shaken and had never thought she was that way before.

“How have Raylon’s and Deon’s school reports been?” Jenna asked evenly.

“Raylon has an F in math,” Deon said from the corner.

“Do not!” Raylon yelled from upstairs.

“Do so!”

“And you’re not doing any better, are you?” Ms. Clark snapped.

Jenna turned to Deon and waited.

“Yeah, but my math teacher is a prick,” he said.

Ms. Clark’s gaze locked on to Deon with intimidating intensity. “Boy, you watch your mouth. Go put these groceries away.”

Deon grabbed a single bag and silently left the room. Ms. Clark circled around to the couch and looked over her shoulder at the cushions a couple of times before she fell back and landed with a loud creak. Jenna was quiet until Deon was out of earshot, then directed her attention back to Ms. Clark.

“Have you considered a tutor?”

“They’re not stupid; they’re lazy,” she said. “And I don’t have money for that anyway.”

“There are programs we could help them get started in.”

“Won’t help if they won’t go. Deon wants to drop out when he turns sixteen.”

“I see. He didn’t mention that.”

“Don’t know why he would,” Ms. Clark said. “You’re not his mother.”

“Of course not.”

“Ms. Thompson, I’ve had a very long week, and I haven’t been feeling well. If we could please make this a short visit. As you can see, the boys are in perfect health. They’ve got a roof over their heads and food in the fridge. Hell, they’ve even got a PlayStation. But they’re young boys in the projects. Getting them to care about school is a lost cause, and it’s hardly grounds for you to camp out in my front yard like I’m some kind of criminal.”

“I’m not calling you a criminal, Ms. Clark. I’m here to put you in touch with resources that will help Raylon and Deon thrive. I don’t doubt they’re fed and clothed, but they’ll need an education to be successful.”

“Can’t force them to learn.”

“How’s their attendance?”

“How should I know? They leave in the morning, and they come home in the afternoon. I guess they’re going to school.”

“Has the school notified you of any unexcused absences?”

“Phone was shut off.”

“We can help you with that too.”

“You going to cut me a check?”

“No, there are pro—”

Ms. Clark’s shoulders were rounded heaps that started bouncing up and down as she laughed. “Another program. We don’t want your programs. Then you’ll be coming over here until the end of time. We just want to be left alone.”

“There’s also the matter of the damage to the front door,” Jenna said.

“What about it?”

“It needs to be fixed.”

“What makes you think I have money for that?”

“Ms. Clark, I understand money is tight; that’s why I’ve offered to put you in touch with resources that can assist you. Whatever you choose to do, though, you are responsible for providing a safe and secure home for these boys. Not having money is not an acceptable answer.”

Danielle was captivated by the display, watching Jenna shift back and forth between understanding and firm. Even having no experience watching anyone else work, she had a feeling she was watching someone with considerable skill.

“It is secure.” Ms. Clark sat forward, resting her arms on her knees and glancing at the cigarettes on the table in front of her. “Still locks, just ugly is all.”

“It’s broken nearly through.”

“It’s as safe as any other door. Someone wants to break it they’re going to break it, fixed or not.”

“It needs to be fixed by our next visit. It’s a requirement.”

Ms. Clark shot to her feet with agility her gait moments before suggested she did not possess. “Or else what? Why are you doing this to me? You don’t even have a reason to be coming over here anymore. Those boys are perfectly fine.”

“After the seriousness of the accusations that brought us here, we’re required to carry out recurrent visits.”

Ms. Clark grabbed the edge of the coffee table and flung it across the room like it was made of paper. Liquid from a cup that was on it sprinkled Danielle’s face, and she flinched at the unexpected crash.

“Those accusations were bullshit! My boys already told you so! Nobody laid a hand on ’em!”

“The conditions we found were unacceptable,” Jenna said. “And this is not the way to get the visits to stop, Ladona.”

Ms. Clark looked jarred by the use of her first name and closed the distance between herself and Jenna. She moved so she was inches away from Jenna’s face like she was going to fight her. Danielle reached in her pocket and produced her phone. Jenna silently motioned for her to wait.

“The visits are never going to stop anyway,” Ladona said. “You’ll make sure of that, won’t you? You’ll always find something to bitch about! This time it’s the door. Next time it will be something else. You’re never going to leave us the fuck alone! You’ve already decided you’re taking my boys from me one way or another, haven’t you? Just because we’re poor? You think telling me I have to come up with the money is going to make money fall from the sky? You don’t know shit about not having money, little girl!”

Jenna held her ground, not moving an inch despite Ladona’s lips nearly touching hers. She waited. Ladona’s eyes were wide and bulging. She was still leaning forward, as if to make sure she’d have leverage if it did become physical, as if the extra hundred and fifty pounds she had on Jenna wasn’t enough. Finally, her posture seemed to relax slightly even though she didn’t back away.

“Mama, Ms. Thompson could have taken us away a long time ago if she wanted.” Deon’s voice came quietly from the door frame that connected the living room to the dining room. She spun toward him.

“Get your butt upstairs, Deon!”

“Ladona.” Jenna drew her attention back. She waited until Ladona made eye contact again. “I don’t want to take your boys from you. I know you love them very much, but this will not do. You can’t throw things and try to start a fight.”

“You’ll know when I try to—”

“Ladona,” Jenna cut her off. “This behavior is a fast track to those boys being taken away, and we need to get off it before we can’t. Don’t do something you’re going to regret just because you’re mad at me. It’s not worth it.”

Ladona’s face wrestled with rage and tears. “You have no idea what it takes to raise them,” she finally said. A tear spilled over. “You don’t know what I do for them, and then you come in here telling me it’s not enough. Telling me they were hurt when they weren’t.”

“I know it’s a lot,” Jenna said. “I understand you’re angry we have to keep doing this, but I’m here to hear your side. I’m here to beon your side. I don’t expect you to make money fall from the sky, but I do want you to take advantage of the opportunities I can put in front of you. Iam money falling from the sky. I want to help you get your phone back on. I want to help you get the boys engaged in school again, at no expense to you so that you canafford things like the door. I know the boys want to be here. Help me make that possible for all of you.”

“I just don’t see why you have to act like I’m hurting them. I love those boys more than anything. They look hurt to you?”

Jenna quietly opened the folder she was carrying and fished out a business card.

“The boys don’t appear to be in any immediate danger, no.” Jenna held the card out to Ladona. “This is the number you’ll need for that tutor. I hope you’ll consider it. We’ll check back on the twenty-third, nine a.m. again. The door does need to be fixed by then, but you can call me any time with questions if you need help. We’ll find a way to get it done.”

Danielle watched the standoff between them. Ladona was still a swirling array of emotions with tear streaks down her face and resentment building a barrier between her and the help Jenna offered. Jenna held out the card with steadfast patience. Danielle only realized she was holding her breath when Ladona finally snatched the card, and then she could breathe again. Jenna nodded.

“Hope you have a nice rest of your day, Ms. Clark.” Jenna turned for the door.

“Bye, Ms. Thompson!” the boys called out in unison.

 

Chapter Three

Jenna could feel Danielle watching her as they walked back to the car. She carefully avoided eye contact until they were inside, knowing the boys were probably watching from the window, listening. She started the car and headed back to work, then looked over her shoulder at Danielle. Danielle’s dark, almond shaped eyes were pools of curiosity.

“What did you think?” Jenna asked.

“That was fantastic!”

Jenna laughed in surprise and relief. She’d been afraid she had exposed Danielle to too much too soon.

“Surprising,” Danielle added.

“Which part?”

“I thought people were on their best behavior when we visit.”

“You would think,” Jenna said. “That’s true most of the time, but Ladona isn’t really like that. She pretty much says what she’s thinking.”

“I’ll say. I thought she was going to hit you.”

“Yeah, about that.” Jenna took a breath. “I don’t want you to think you have to put up with that. I chose to try to de-escalate her instead of leaving because I’ve been working with that family for a long time. I was confident I knew where she was with everything, but you’re not required to take any form of abuse. If you ever feel like you’re in any kind of danger you leave and call a supervisor, and the cops if it’s warranted.”

“I thought it was great you stayed,” Danielle said. “You really turned it around.”

“Thanks.” Jenna felt a warm tingle travel through her skin despite the unease that still gripped her stomach. She’d hate for Danielle or anyone else under her supervision to get hurt trying to follow her example. She didn’t consider her tactics reckless, but she handled the Clarks differently than any other family.

“You can always call a mental health counselor to help you too if you think they need that kind of intervention,” Jenna said. “They’re on the fourth floor of our building. I’ll take you by sometime to meet them. We work with them a lot. Especially Tina.”

“Tina.” Danielle nodded. Jenna could see her mentally logging the information.

“Tina Richards. They all know what they’re doing, of course, but I always get Tina if I can. I even asked her to work with my mom once. She’s the only one I’ve ever seen really make a difference with her.”

Danielle nodded again. Jenna could tell Danielle didn’t know what to do when she brought up her family, and she couldn’t help but be amused by it. Silence settled while Jenna waited for Danielle to find words.

“You think they’re really best off with her?” she finally asked.

“Ladona?” Jenna sighed. “Sometimes she’s a model parent; other times she’s like this or worse. She’s bipolar, so there are fluctuations. I care a lot about Raylon and Deon. There are a lot of things I wish I could change for them, but they want to live there. You have to be careful bringing what you think is best into the picture. I always start with whether or not they’re safe and provided for, then move on to what they want. If those things are covered, I don’t think I have much business pushing what Ithink is best on anyone.”

“Sure,” Danielle said. “That makes sense, but if she’s that way to our faces I can only imagine what she’s like when she’s alone with them.”

Jenna’s stomach twisted at the suggestion. “Deon will tell me if she crosses the line.”

“I hope so,” Danielle said, doubt coloring her inflection. “They seem to really like you.”

“They’re great kids.” Jenna felt her mind crawling back through the street toward the rundown apartment. Despite Ladona’s accusation, she knew exactly what it was like to not have money, to open empty cupboards fifteen times a day.

She liked to think she knew Deon well enough to recognize the truth in him when he said they were fine, but she had been a skilled bluffer at his age, hidden horrible realities because she and her sister would rather suffer together than be placed in wealthier families apart. But she had to believe Deon was telling the truth. She had to trust that no matter how much he wanted to stay with his brother, he would know where to draw the line if the time came. And if he couldn’t, at least he’d feel comfortable enough to open up to her so she could draw it for him.

“So,” Danielle broke the silence and pulled Jenna back. “You said no girlfriend, right?”

Jenna felt a smile tugging at her face at the subject change, curious where Danielle could be going with such a question. “Uh-huh.”

“Does that mean it’s your locker I inherited, then?”

“Why would you say that?”

“Beautiful mostly naked girl on the door?”

Jenna burst out laughing. “Oh, God, did I really forget to take that down?”

Danielle beamed. “Apparently.”

“Well, that’s embarrassing. Hardly supervisory.”

Danielle shrugged. “She’s pretty, if that’s what you’re into.”

Jenna grinned. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she asked. “What kind of girls do youlike?” Jenna looked over and was surprised to see Danielle’s cheeks flush. “Sorry, that was presumptuous.”

“It’s okay.”

“Are you not out?”

The tension in Danielle’s face evaporated, and she laughed. “Still presumptuous.”

“Well?” Jenna looked over Danielle’s slightly loose clothes, the way she was sitting, her simple hairstyle that said she never touched a hair dryer. It wasn’t an exact science, but she was confident nonetheless. Danielle’s deep brown eyes met hers and stuck there.

“Yes, I’m out.”

“But you don’t like talking about it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not a secret, but I don’t advertise it either.”

Jenna nodded. “Got it. Don’t worry about me. I might seem like I have a big mouth, but I don’t talk about people’s business.” Jenna pulled into the work lot, a little disappointed to cut the conversation short. She realized too late that bringing up Danielle’s orientation was a far cry from the way she ought to behave as a supervisor, but they’d slipped into it so naturally she couldn’t bring herself to worry about it.

“I’ll help you track down Sasha,” she said and turned off the car. Jenna reluctantly pulled her suit jacket back on and headed inside.

They tracked Sasha down in the break room. Her face lit up when Jenna rounded the corner.

“Hey, boss!”

“Ugh, don’t do that,” Jenna said. She chuckled when she glanced at the pile of empty creamer cups Sasha was accumulating. “No wonder you need ten cups a day, Sash; there’s no coffee in there.”

“Is it a frickin’ crime to want my coffee to taste good?”

Jenna shook her head and took a seat, motioning at the empty chair to prompt Danielle to join them. Sasha finished stirring the twelfth creamer into her coffee and joined them at the table.

“So how was your first trip out?” Sasha asked Danielle.

“It was good,” Danielle said. She raked her fingers through her long black hair.

“Anything noteworthy?”

Jenna glanced between them as silence stretched. Jenna knew Sasha was used to people warming up to her quickly. She was friendly and almost always happy, a natural conversationalist who rarely had to work to get people talking, yet Danielle seemed ill at ease around her.

“Ms. Clark was a bit feisty today,” Jenna said when the silence became uncomfortable.

“Ah,” Sasha said. “Thompson’s throwing you right to the sharks, huh? Learn anything?”

“Yeah,” Danielle said. “I think so.”

Sasha looked at Danielle expectantly for a handful of seconds before she seemed to realize Danielle had no intention of elaborating. Jenna couldn’t help but be amused by the way Danielle closed up. She wondered absently if she should be concerned, but something told her she didn’t need to worry about Danielle.

“She got to see some de-escalation techniques,” Jenna jumped in again.

“You? De-escalating?” Sasha teased her.

Jenna playfully scowled at her. “Yes, I am capable of a soft touch sometimes.”

“You can tell me the truth when she leaves,” Sasha said to Danielle.

Danielle cracked a smile and her shoulders relaxed. “We talked about the line between undesirable and unsafe circumstances, too.”

Sasha threw up her hands. “Well, hell, that’s pretty much the job. You’re ready. What do you say we cut her loose, boss?”

“I’d say it sounds like you can spend the rest of the day showing her how to write reports in that case.”

“Evil woman,” Sasha said. “Been a supervisor for ten minutes, you’re already one of them.”

Jenna smiled and checked her watch. “Speaking of that job I got ten minutes ago, I’d better go do some work. You’ll have to finish complaining about me behind my back like a normal employee.”

“It’s just not the same.”

Jenna left the room, then lingered just outside the door until she heard the sound of conversation pick up again. Once she heard Danielle’s low chuckle, she smiled and headed for her office.