Her Secret Family

Behind every code of silence…

Detective Jolene Preston has the right to expect backup from her partner, but the sexist attitude from the rest of the force is something the narcotic squad’s lone woman fights on her own. Until she discovers a thirty-year cover-up, exposing her Cherokee heritage—and a prejudice she can’t take on alone.

…lies a multitude of sins

Mason Blackfox grudgingly helps the rookie trace her family history because he knows personally that lies cause only hurt. But then his own daughter demands to know the truth about her grandparents, and Mason needs the lady cop. She’s the only one who can possibly understand.

Count on a Cop . . . when there’s nowhere else to turn.

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(copyrighted material)

Chapter One

Friday night. Date night. For most women, that meant Manolo Blahniks, slinky dresses, and fine dining. For Jolene Preston, it meant steel-toed boots, her trusty 9 mm Beretta, and a cold hot dog wolfed down on her way to a stake out—just the way she liked it.

Trying to see through late-night shadows, she pushed her back against the cold brick wall of an abandoned store lining an alleyway in one of Tulsa’s older neighborhoods. Fifty yards away, a single light burned in a fenced-in yard, giving off just enough light for her to see people milling around.

“Hey, Jo-Jo. You in position yet?” Her partner’s voice, little more than a breath in the earpiece she wore, broke the silence. She and Ryan Fielding had been working together since she transferred into the Special Investigations Division eighteen months earlier. He was a good cop and a decent guy—one of the few men in the department who didn’t feel threatened by women on the force.

“I’m here,” she whispered, “but it’s black as pitch. I can’t see much.”

“Yeah? Well maybe you should have stayed out here and let me take the back.”

Coming from anyone else that suggestion would have felt like a challenge, but from Ryan it was just twisted humor. Grinning, Jolene inched around a stack of rotting cardboard boxes.

“Forget it old man. You’d hurt yourself trying to get through the obstacle course back here. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.”

Ryan chuckled as she’d known he would. The five-year difference in their ages had been a running joke between them since the one and only time he tried to cushion her from a harsh situation. She’d accused him of gender bias. He’d denied it, claiming instead that he thought she was too young to handle the job. It was as close to an apology as she was likely to get, but she’d been okay with it. Afterward, they’d settled into a working relationship that suited both of them.

“Any sign of Zika or his boys at your end?” he asked now.

Jolene sobered and took another look at the men milling around the warehouse. Two years ago, Raoul Zika had moved into Tulsa and set up a drug operation that Tulsa’s finest hadn’t been able to shut down…yet. He was cunning and dangerous, and so far he’d been able to slide under the radar every time they got close.

“There are a few of them back here,” she whispered. “Can’t tell what they’re doing yet. How close are you to the warehouse?”

“I’m there now, but it’s like a morgue out here.”

Gauging the distance between her position and the fence, Jolene barely breathed her next words. “I’m still fifty yards away, give or take. Give me a few minutes to get closer.”

“You’re still that far away? What the hell have you been doing? Your nails?”

“Yeah, well, you know me, always dolling myself up.” Jolene checked the ground in front of her with one foot and moved carefully around a stack of old newspapers. “I stopped off to do a little shopping at that second-hand store on the corner.”

“Figures.” Ryan fell silent for a few minutes and she took advantage of the time to move a few feet deeper into the alley. “It’s awfully quiet around here tonight,” Ryan said as she slid behind a battered white van parked in back of Capriotti’s Sandwich shop. “You think Big Red gave us the wrong information?”

“I don’t know,” Jolene admitted. She didn’t trust Red, but who did? He was a junkie who’d do anything for a fix, and even more to get himself out of trouble. They had him dead to rights on charges of possession and distributing to a minor, and he’d been offering information on everyone he knew, trying to get them to lessen the charges. “He sounded pretty sure that Zika would be moving the shipment tonight.”

“Yeah, well, he might just have been playing us,” Ryan said, voicing her own thoughts aloud. “He’d give up his own mother if he thought it would save him.”

Jolene started to agree, but a whisper of sound floated up from somewhere nearby and froze the response on her lips. “I think there’s somebody back here,” she said, dropping her voice. Clouds covered the moon and stars, making it hard to see, but the sound came again, and this time she was able to identify it as human.

“Come on,” a young-sounding male voice urged. “Just try it. What are you worried about? Your dad’s never gonna know.”

Kids? Here? Now? Of all the rotten luck!

A second person spoke, this voice high-pitched and feminine. “He might be able to tell. He’d probably see it in my eyes or something.”

“If you’re that worried,” the boy said, “just hang with me for a few hours until you come back down again.”

“He’s not going to let me do that. He barely let me come to the party at all.”

Smart father. Jolene tried to guess how far the kids were from Zika’s operation, but she couldn’t see them and the way sounds echoed in the alley made it hard to judge. No matter, really. Wherever they were, they weren’t far enough away to be safe.

Jolene could almost see the case they’d been slowly building against Zika—late nights watching his operation, uncomfortable interviews, and countless hours spent associating with the scum of the earth—swirling down a drain in front of her eyes. Big Red had given them a huge lead, and there was no telling when they’d get this close to Zika again. Even so, she couldn’t just act as if she hadn’t heard the kids talking.

“So call and tell him you want to stay longer,” the boy bargained. “You can talk him into it, can’t you?”

“You don’t know my dad.”

Something or someone banged into metal and Jolene decided they must be near the Dumpster not far ahead.

“C’mon,” the boy taunted. “Your old man can’t be that smart.” He laughed, his voice dropped, and whatever he said next was lost. In its place came the stench of burning marijuana.

Frustrated and angry, Jolene searched the shadows for the tell-tale red glow that meant somebody was inhaling. Every time a kid lit up, swallowed a pill, or used a needle, someone like Raoul Zika was responsible. The joint Jolene could smell burning right now had probably been filtered through Zika’s operation and onto the streets. She ached to get him off the streets, but if he and his men were moving a drug shipment tonight, they’d be heavily armed, probably high, and definitely edgy. Ignoring those kids—much as one part of her might want to—would be reckless and irresponsible.

Biting back disappointment, she spoke into her mouthpiece. “Hold on, Ryan. I’ve got a couple of kids back here.”

“Say again?”

“Kids. Two. Maybe more. Not very old from the sound of it. I need to get them out of here.”

Ryan swore. “How close are they?”

“Too close to ignore. If something goes wrong, they’ll be right in the line of fire.”

“Well, get ‘em out of there fast, before Zika and his boys figure out something’s going on.”

That might be easier said than done. A couple of kids with a joint weren’t likely to lie down and give themselves up if they saw her. Wiping away a trickle of perspiration, Jolene moved around a plastic trash can and picked up the conversation again.

“Quit being such a baby,” the boy pressed. “It’s not like it’s going to hurt you or anything. It’s just a little weed.”

“I know, but—”

“But.” The kid laughed harshly. “That’s all you’ve said since we came outside. Well, you know what? Just forget I asked. I thought you were cool when I first met you, but I was wrong.”

“No! Wait! I want to. I’m just a little nervous.”

The girl’s desperation set Jolene’s teeth on edge. She and Ryan frequently traveled to area schools and talked to kids about drugs. They told the kids what to expect, what peer pressure looked and felt like and, most importantly, how to resist it. Every month, she left hoping they’d done some good, but let some “cool” guy mock a young girl too eager to be liked, and all the logic and lessons flew right out the window.

Realizing she couldn’t wait much longer to rout them, Jolene stepped carefully around a recycling bin, but she wasn’t careful enough. Somehow, she managed to hit a loose board with her toe and the clatter echoed up and down the alleyway.

The kids froze, the red glow disappeared, and one of the kids took off at a dead run toward Zika’s warehouse.

Damn! Tossing a warning at the girl to stay where she was, Jolene set off after him. She raced full-out after the boy, but her eyes still weren’t completely adjusted to the dark and the kid had the advantage. Halfway down the alley, she rammed into a garbage can and crashed to one knee. As she hit the ground, she heard the rattle of chain link, which meant the boy had reached the fence surrounding Zika’s warehouse.

Shouts from a couple of deep male voices went up as Jolene staggered to her feet again, and she knew their chances of catching Zika doing anything tonight had just gone up in smoke. Why couldn’t the kid have run the other way?

“Jo?” Ryan’s voice sounded urgently in her ear. “What’s going on?”

“The kids heard me and one of them took off,” she panted. “He went over the fence into Zika’s turf.”

“Dammit! Have Zika’s men seen him?”

“He ran right into their arms.” Jolene took a second to catch her breath, then muttered, “We might as well shut down and get out of here. There’s no way Zika will move that shipment now.”

“Eisley’s not going to be happy,” Ryan grumbled.

“Tell me about it.” And he’d blame Jolene. He always did. Captain Eisley had been trying to get Jolene out of his previously all-male unit since the day she transferred in. She’d file a grievance for gender discrimination, but he always flew just under the radar, making it impossible for her to prove he had a bias.

As she turned back toward the open end of the alley, pain shot through her leg and nearly knocked her off balance. Her palms burned where bits of dirt and gravel had been embedded in her flesh, but none of that came close to matching the irritation she felt with herself. He’d just been a skinny kid, she should have been able to catch him.

To her surprise, a blur of soft white still hovered behind the recycling bin. She smiled grimly, wondering if the girl was too high to know she was in trouble, or too frightened to move. Either way, Jolene planned on having a few words with her.

Brushing wind-tossed hair from her eyes, she strode toward the alcove where the girl was hiding and tried to make out her features in the dim lighting. “Hey—are you all right?”

“M-me?”

“Yes you. Why don’t you come on out of there?”

“That’s okay. I’m fine right here.”

Jolene rolled her eyes and moved in closer. “Well, I’m glad to know that you’re okay, but I really need you to come out where I can see you.”

The girl hesitated for a second or two as if she thought Jolene might change her mind, then sidled out from behind the bin, eyes wide, one corner of her lip clamped in her teeth. She couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve—a mere wisp of a thing with wide eyes and long dark hair that fell to the middle of her back. “Am I in trouble?”

“Well, that depends. What are you doing out here at this time of night?”

The girl lifted one thin shoulder and glanced toward an apartment building at the end of the alley. “I was at a party with some friends.”

“Yeah. I saw the party you were having.”

“Not that one!” Somehow, the girl’s eyes grew even wider at that. She nodded toward the apartments. “My friend lives over there.”

“Then what are you doing out here?”

“Just taking a walk.”

“Yeah, me too. Why don’t you tell me your name?”

Those big wide eyes narrowed in a hurry. “Do I have to?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“It’s a little late for that.” Jolene spotted a patch of dirt on her elbow and brushed it away.

The girl shifted from one foot to the other, cast one long glance at her only escape route then lifted her chin defiantly. “You can’t get me in trouble if you don’t know who I am, and I don’t have to tell you.”

“You don’t think so? You might be surprised what I can find out.” When the girl didn’t say anything, Jolene pushed a little harder. “Look, miss, you have two choices. You can tell me yourself, or let me find out on my own. I’ll be a lot happier if you just answer my questions.”

The girl stared at her for a long moment, then let out a heavy sigh. “Okay. Fine. My name’s Debra. Blackfox.”

Blackfox, huh? Native American probably, although Jolene could tell at a glance the girl wasn’t full-blooded. “You just made a good decision, Debra Blackfox. Did you smoke the weed?”

“I don’t have to tell you that.”

“You’d rather have us run tests down at the station? Okay. That’s fine with me.”

Debra’s dark eyes flew wide again. “Does that mean you’re going to arrest me?”

For what? Being too young, too naive, too trusting, and too needy? None of those traits were crimes, although judging from the number of lives Jolene had seen ruined by the combination, they ought to be. She shrugged and said, “If you won’t cooperate, I’ll have to take you in for questioning.”

“I never said I wasn’t going to cooperate.”

“Well, that’s good. So did you smoke the weed?”

“No.”

Jolene couldn’t see any obvious signs of drug intoxication, but the girl could be experiencing a contact high. Still, maybe she’d interrupted in time. “Then that’s your second good decision of the day.” She jerked her head toward the end of the alley. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“I— I dunno. I just met him.”

“Then what are you doing out here with him in the middle of the night?”

A blast of warm wind tousled the girl’s dark hair. She brushed a lock from her cheek and shrugged with her mouth. “He wanted to take a walk.”

And she’d been so flattered by the attention, she’d jumped at the chance. What was it with some girls? Their mothers ought to teach them not to be so needy, and somebody ought to care enough to keep them off the streets. “How old are you, Debra?”

“Sixteen.”

Right, kid. And I’m Mother Theresa. “Sixteen, huh? Do you have your driver’s license with you?”

“No, I— I left it at home.”

Jolene was in no mood for lies and evasions. “Listen up, Debra. You and your friend just caused big problems for my partner and me, and I’m really not in the mood for games. Understand? So now tell me, how old are you really?”

The girl popped out with a grudging, “Fourteen.”

“You don’t look fourteen.”

“I look young for my age.”

“Apparently.” Jolene swept a glance across the littered ground. “What happened to the joint?”

“What joint?”

“The one your friend was trying to get you to smoke. Did he drop it?”

“I don’t know.”

Jolene thought about searching for it, but decided to let it go. Even if she found it, she couldn’t prove Debra had ever been in possession, and they already spent too much time in the court system, prosecuting cases against the little guy while the real criminals went on about their business. “Where will I find your parents?” she asked.

“My parents? Why do you want them?”

“Because I’m not leaving you here alone and I’m not taking you back to that party. You’re a minor, so that leaves just two choices—the police station and then your parents, or straight home. Which would you prefer?”

“But you can’t—” Debra broke off and wrapped her arms around herself. Tears pooled in her huge brown eyes, but Jolene couldn’t tell if they were genuine or just very convenient. “Just let me go back to my friend’s house, please? I promise I’ll stay there.”

“I’d rather talk to your parents and make sure they know what’s going on. Are they at home right now?”

Debra sniffed and shook her head. “I don’t know where my mom is. I haven’t seen her since New Year’s.”

That explained a lot, poor kid. “You must live with somebody. What about your dad? Is he around?”

Debra nodded miserably. “Yeah.”

“You live with him?”

“Yeah, but we live way out on Riverside Drive. The Riverview Apartments. It’s a long way from here.”

Jolene gave the girl a long, slow once-over. She’d moved into the Riverview Apartments—a huge, sprawling complex—a month earlier, but she had no idea if Debra was telling the truth this time. She’d spent more hours at work than at home, by a long shot, and she’d never even set eyes on her closest neighbors, much less anyone else who lived there.

“Well, Debra, it looks like this is your lucky night. I live way out on Riverside Drive, too. Is your dad at home right now?”

Obviously disappointed, Debra shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. He wanted me to spend the night at my friend’s house, so I don’t know what he’s doing.”

“If that were true,” Jolene pointed out, “your friend wouldn’t have been trying to talk you into calling him. I need the truth, Debra.”

“I don’t know where he is. He doesn’t tell me where he’s going.”

Jolene wondered how much of this was true. Did Debra really have a missing mother? An uncaring father? That’s not what she’d said earlier, but had she lied to her little boyfriend, or was she lying to Jolene now?

Frankly, Jolene thought the world had too many missing and uncaring parents in it, and far too many kids running around wild as a result. It was kind of a thing with her, and she’d thought about moving into the Family Violence Unit or the Juvenile Division for a while, wanting to do something about the kids without families. She’d changed her mind and moved into narcotics instead. Slimy as pushers and users were, they were still a few rungs higher on the ladder than parents who neglected or abused their children. Those people had no business even having kids.

Slipping an arm around Debra’s narrow shoulders, she steered her toward the end of the alley. “Let’s go see if your dad is home. Maybe I can even convince him to pay a little more attention to what you’re doing.”

Debra looked skeptical, but she fell into step. “Okay, but it’s not going to matter what you say. He doesn’t care what I do. You’ll see.”

Jerk. “Then we’ll just see what I can do to change his mind.” Jolene sent the girl a smile that she hoped looked reassuring and led her around the corner and onto the street. Ryan stood on the sidewalk ahead, tall, fit, dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans and a black leather jacket so he could blend into the shadows.

Body language practically shouting, “annoyed,” he strode toward them. “Who have we got here?”

“Debra Blackfox,” Jolene said. “Claims to be fourteen.”

Ryan ran a quick glance across Debra’s face. “I doubt that. What are you going to do with her?”

“Take her home.”

“We can drop her at the station on our way back,” he said. “Let her folks come and get her.”

The muscles in Debra’s shoulders tensed and Jolene could almost feel her fear. “At this time of night? You know what kind of creeps are at the station now.”

Ryan leaned closer to Debra and sniffed. “She’s hanging out on the streets and smoking pot,” he pointed out, stepping off the curb and walking toward the car. “I think she’ll survive.”

Jolene pulled her arm away from Debra’s shoulders and took her arm as they started across the street. “I never said she wouldn’t survive. But she’s a kid, and she wasn’t the one holding. What would you want us to do if this were Chelsea?”

“If she were my kid?” Ryan glanced over his shoulder. “I’d want her to know she was in serious trouble.”

“He wants to take me to jail?” Debra asked.

Jolene shook her head and kept walking. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Everything will be okay.” She didn’t speak again until she’d helped Debra into the back seat of the car and shut the door. Keeping her voice low so the conversation wouldn’t carry, she rounded the front of the car and leaned against the hood beside Ryan. “She’s a kid,” she said again. “I think she’s scared enough already.”

Ryan ran an assessing glance across her face. “What are you doing, Jo? Getting all maternal on me?”

Jolene glared at him. “That’s a stupid question.”

“So what’s the big deal? Let’s just take her downtown and let the boys there call her parents. She’ll be fine.”

“We’re twenty minutes from her subdivision. If you don’t want to take the time, I’ll drive her there on my way home. Apparently, we live in the same complex.”

Ryan gave her a look, but he stopped arguing. “Fine. Whatever. Just don’t let Eisley find out about this. You know what he’ll say.”

Jolene had a pretty good idea, but she wasn’t getting personally involved in a case. If they didn’t take Debra to the station, there wouldn’t even be a case. Ryan slid in behind the wheel, and Jolene hurried to the passenger door.

She wasn’t feeling maternal, she told herself again. She’d just been around long enough to know that behind every kid making a stupid decision, there was a parent making one first.

(copyrighted material) 


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