10-Code, Rock Point, Book Four
As a forty-one-year-old mother of three boys, working two jobs, Marya Berger doesn’t have the time or energy to consider a relationship.
Especially after a lifetime of poor choices in the romance department. But when the disappearance of a young boy strikes a little too close to home, and a younger man she’s tried to ignore offers his help, she doesn’t stand in the way.
Single father, Dylan Barnes, the junior member of the La Plata County FBI team at thirty-three, has his focus firmly on his job and his son, Max. He’s certainly not looking to complicate his life, when he finds himself at his son’s soccer game, sitting beside the spirited brunette he can’t get out of his mind. Fate, however, appears to have different plans.
When an unspeakable crime draws the attention of the FBI, Dylan finds himself torn between his job and his instinctive need to protect Marya and her boys.
“I’ve changed my mind.”
I look to my side where Liam is slouched in the passenger seat of my ancient Jeep Cherokee. We just dropped off his brothers at my mom’s place. They hadn’t been too excited with the prospect of sitting in the bleachers at their brother’s first soccer game of the season at eight thirty on a Saturday morning. Since I’m not comfortable leaving an eight and a thirteen-year-old unsupervised, their grandma’s place had been their only option.
Let me tell you, getting my three boys out of bed at six on a weekend, so we can hit the soccer field in bloody Bloomfield fifteen minutes before game time, as instructed, is no mean feat. Theo, my oldest, had to be enticed with a soaked sponge over his face. It did the trick, got him out of bed, but with a foul temper. Harry, I couldn’t even wake up, and I spent ten valuable minutes wrangling him in clothes without his cooperation. I had to carry him to my car and again into my mom’s house, where I dumped him on the couch. He may only be eight, but that’s still a ton of deadweight to lug around.
Liam, my middle child, was a little easier, seeing as he’d been excited about his first game, but apparently that shine is wearing off.
“Suck it up, buttercup,” I tell him. “Out of the eight games on the schedule, you only have two early ones, the rest are at a more civilized hour. You’ll get used to it. You worked hard to make this team, don’t tell me you’re giving up before you even get started.” I bite back a reminder that I’d taken on a second job with a cleaning service so I could afford getting him enrolled, which was more than my regular tight budget could handle.
He mumbles something I can’t quite make out and his posture still spells his displeasure, but he doesn’t make a fuss.
I’ll take it. He’s been moody as of late. That is, moodier than normal. Of all my kids, Liam is the one who was most affected when Jeremy bailed five years ago. He was six at the time and idolized his father, so he felt that betrayal deepest.
Theo was eight and had been too aware of what was happening in our sham of a marriage. He just seemed relieved the constant tension we lived under at the time was over.
At three, Harry had been blissfully oblivious, perfectly content to be wherever I was.
But Liam, he felt it deep. It’s one of the reasons I worked hard to make his dream of joining the soccer league come true. The other two have not expressed any interest in organized sports, but Liam craved it. I thought he might benefit from the team bonding, not to mention the male influence of a coach. He doesn’t get much male exposure, other than his brothers. His teacher is a woman and then there’s his grandma and me, and we’ve turned avoiding men into an art form.
“Eat your Pop-Tart, kid. You’re gonna need the energy,” I urge him.
My lofty plans to make the kids egg sandwiches for breakfast flew out the window this morning, and I barely managed to throw a few quick things in plastic a bag for Liam. Parenting fail. Luckily, Mom can be trusted to take care of the other two with something far more nutritional.
I know by the tearing of the wrapper he’s doing as asked, and I wish I’d thought to throw an extra one in the bag for me. My stomach is rumbling. No coffee and an empty stomach make the prospect of sitting on the hard bleachers for a couple of hours even less appealing. I hope to God there’s a coffee shop nearby, so I can pop out and grab myself a little reinforcement.
The hour-drive is otherwise quiet, since Liam seems to have dozed off beside me. By the time we pull into the parking lot of the Chamblee Soccer Complex, I can see from the volume of cars we’re probably one of the last to arrive. Shit.
“Grab your gear, we’re going to have to hustle.”
Apparently the nap has done my boy well, since he doesn’t argue and pulls his bag from the back seat before setting off for the field on a steady jog. I follow behind at a much more sedate pace.
Parents and families fill the small bleachers on the sideline, and I scan the benches to look for an empty spot when my eyes land on a familiar face and the impressive body it belongs to.
Dylan Barnes. A hard man to miss; not that I’ve been trying.
Since my friend, Kerry, who owns the bookstore slash coffee shop I manage, met and married his boss, Damian Gomez, Dylan’s been in to grab a coffee from time to time. Dylan is an agent with the La Plata County FBI field office and looks at least as imposing as his title implies.
Aside from the fact I’ve sworn off men completely, he’s probably ten years too young for me anyway. It doesn’t mean I can’t look, which I do every opportunity I get.
I’m surprised to see him here, and briefly wonder if he’s one of the coaches, when I see a boy about Liam’s age jog up and toss a baseball cap at him. His spitting image: same dark floppy hair, same dimpled smile, same melty chocolate eyes. Holy shit.
I realize I’m still standing at the foot of the bleachers, gawking at Dylan with his obvious son, and notice more than a few faces turned in my direction. The flush I feel on my pale cheeks burns into a full blush when Dylan turns to look at me as well. Not only that, the only open space seems to be on the bench beside him.
Where’s the goddamn coffee when you need it?
“Dad, can you hang on to that? Coach says we can’t wear baseball caps on the soccer field.”
I catch the cap he tosses my way and bite down a grin. I told him that five minutes ago when he ran off, eager to join in the warm-up starting on the field. Max is at the age where I’m no longer recipient of his blind faith, but apparently his coach is.
“He says I can have the right-winger spot,” Max says with a toothy grin. Last year he played defense and wasn’t too enamored with that. He prefers being in the thick of the play, getting more opportunities to score.
“Good stuff, buddy. Just make sure you listen to Coach and don’t hog the ball.
“I won’t, Dad.”
He runs off and I catch a glimpse of a woman standing ten feet away, staring at me. It takes me a minute to place her. The oversized hoodie, ripped jeans, and hair in a sloppy bun are not her usual look when I drop in at Kerry’s Korner for a coffee on my way to work. It’s usually a stern ponytail, reading glasses on a chain, nondescript work clothes, and sensible shoes.
Marya Berger sure as fuck looks a lot more approachable this way.
I know the woman’s story, I was in Denver at the time, but I heard when I came back. She’d fallen victim to some sleezeball, who was using her to get to Kerry. The guy didn’t succeed, but Marya got hurt pretty badly in the process.
I throw her a smile and pat the empty space beside me. When she doesn’t move, I call out.
I watch as she takes a few hesitant steps closer and points at the coffee in my hand. “I’m gonna need one of those,” she shares. “Where’d you get it?”
“Sonya’s Diner. It’s just up 2nd Street, left on Ash, and…you know what, I could use a top up myself. You sit down, I’ll go grab us some coffees. You stay here and keep our spots.” I get up and indicate for her to sit down.
“It’s okay, I—”
“Marya, sit down,” I cut her off. “I’ll be no more than five minutes. What do you take in yours?”
She looks like she’s going to protest again but then shakes her head sharply and plonks down on the bench. “Cream, one sugar.”
She lifts her face and slowly raises an eyebrow.
“Large it is. Anything else?”
“Yeah, something to eat. Anything.” She digs through her purse as she mutters, “A muffin or a Danish, I don’t care. I’m starving. Please?” She pulls out a twenty-dollar bill, offering it to me but I wave her off.
“Be right back.” Without giving her another chance to protest, I turn on my heel and head for the parking lot.
When I get back ten minutes later with a tray of coffee and a paper bag with food, she’s still sitting in the same spot, her eyes peeled on the soccer field where the game has just started. She looks up when I sit down next to her.
“So who’s your kid?” I ask, handing her a coffee.
“Tall, dirty blond hair, his socks already slouching around his ankles. That would be Liam.”
I scan the field and pinpoint the boy she describes. “A forward,” I note.
“Yeah, that’s what he told me, but I have to admit, I’m not sure what that means.” She looks down when I start pulling containers from the bag. “What on earth? That’s no muffin.”
“Nope. Can’t start a day on a muffin, so I got us a decent breakfast.” I hand her plastic cutlery and a container with scrambled eggs, bacon, and home fries. “You’re not a vegetarian are you?”
Her eyes squint at me. “Raising three boys and looking like this?” she points out, indicating her pleasantly rounded body. For emphasis she shoves half a strip of bacon in her mouth. I grin and dive into my own. “Your boy?” She points at the field where Max is dodging around the defense on the sideline, the ball glued to his foot.
“Max,” I confirm. “Winger.” Things get tense when Max feeds the ball to Marya’s boy, who lands a solid kick, but the ball misses the crossbar by a hair. “Nice shot,” I mumble.
“I’ll take your word for it,” she counters, making me grin again.
She surprises me. Very different from the stuffy and slightly grumpy librarian persona she displays in the bookstore. I already knew she was pretty, but I didn’t know she was funny to boot. I’m liking this more relaxed version of Marya a fuckofalot better.
We finish breakfast in silence, taking in the game, before she speaks up.
“Thanks, I needed that. Feeling almost human now.”
“Good.” I grab her empty container, along with my own, toss them into the garbage next to the bleachers, and return to my seat beside her. “Where are your other two boys?”
She glances over before her eyes drift back to the field. “My mom’s. They weren’t too hip on getting up at this ungodly hour to watch their brother run around a soccer field.”
“How old are they?” I ask, figuring her son, Liam, would be about the same age as Max who turns eleven in five weeks.
“Harry is eight, Liam eleven, and Theo is thirteen. Don’t know what I was thinking having one after the other,” she grumbles cutely. “Hormones are hitting my household hard, and the prospect of another ten years of that is giving me nightmares.”
I chuckle at the horrified look on her face.
Yeah, I definitely like her much better like this.
“Their dad any help?” I probe.
“Ha!” she barks out loudly. “Haven’t seen or heard from him in five years. Not that he was any help before, mind you. Too busy plotting his desertion with his new pregnant plaything.” She glances over, takes in my shocked look, and shrugs apologetically. “Sorry. Too much, I know.”
“I asked,” I remind her.
“Not for my life story.”
“It was hardly that,” I assure her. “But insightful all the same.” I lean closer and bump her shoulder with mine. “Besides, sounds like we have more in common than our sons playing on the same team.”
She looks at me curiously. “Yeah? How so?”
“Six years ago, my ex walked out on us without as much as a glance back,” I share.
“For real? She walked out on her own child?” She shakes her head sharply. “I just don’t get some people. I mean, Jeremy was an ass, and I really shouldn’t be surprised he bailed, but a mother abandoning her baby? That is just mind-boggling to me.”
I stifle a smile at the vehemence in her tone and the angry set of her jaw. I don’t bother pointing out that a father abandoning three children is no less incomprehensible. At least to me.
Loud cheers go up around us, drawing my attention to the field where I just catch Max high-fiving Marya’s son, who apparently scored. On my feet in a flash, I stick my fingers in my mouth and whistle my approval. Max’s head instantly swivels in my direction, a big grin on his face, and the other boy follows suit, his smile more subdued.
“What just happened?” Marya asks in a soft voice as I sit back down beside her.
“Your kid just scored a goal.”
Her face breaks open in a bright smile. “For real?” She turns to the field, where the boys are already resuming the game, jumps up and cups her hands around her mouth. “Yay, Liam! You rock!” she yells, just as the crowd settles down again. Her son whips around before ducking his head quickly, a look of mortification on his face. Oblivious to the attention she’s drawn, she drops back down in her seat, the smile still on her face. “Righteous,” she whispers.
Oh yeah, I’m liking this Marya. Seriously fucking cute.
When the game is over—the Chargers win with that single goal—Liam and Max walk over like they’ve been buds forever.
“Great job, boys,” I tell them. Liam looks up with a cautious grin.
“Proud of you, kidlet.” Marya ruffles his hair, and he hides a smile as he ducks her touch.
“Dad, Liam is WillIAm103 in my Fortnite group,” Max announces breathlessly.
Like his dad, my son likes his PS4 games, Fortnite being his top favorite. Instead of forbidding him to play the game, I decided to join him. Better to monitor what he’s up to and who he interacts with, than to have him play it on the sly without any supervision. WillIAm103 is the handle of one of the kids he sometimes plays with online.
“No kidding? Cool to meet you, Liam. I’m Max’s dad.” I stick my hand out, which the boy hesitantly takes.
“Is that the game you and your brother spend most of your time playing downstairs?” Marya asks her son.
“Yeah.” The bored tone of his voice doesn’t match the sharp side-look he darts her way.
“Dad is 10-CODE,” Max babbles on happily, sharing my handle with his new friend. I assume he’s already shared his: BitMax1.
“Max, maybe you wanna say hello to Liam’s mom first?”
My kid is borderline ADHD, which means he rarely takes a breath to think. My reminder registers in the bashful look he shoots my way before turning to Marya.
“Hey, Liam’s mom,” he says, sticking out his grubby hand. It doesn’t seem to bother Marya as she grabs onto it. “Marya,” she corrects. “Nice to meet you, Max.” She lets him go. “So I’m guessing you guys didn’t know you were playing on the same team?”
“Nope.” This from Max. “I’ve seen him around at school, but I’m in the fifth grade and Liam is in sixth. I never even knew he was WillIAm103.”
“Go figure,” Marya says on a smile.
“That’s what I said.” Max grins back. “Hey, you guys wanna go get a burger? There’s this awesome diner Dad always takes me to after the game.”
“Bud,” I caution him in a soft voice. Like I said, he leaps before he looks.
“I mean, if that’s okay?” He turns his trademarked look of innocence my way. Little late, Kiddo.
I’m about to answer when Marya jumps in. “Not this time,” she quickly responds with an awkward smile at me. “We have to go pick up Liam’s brothers at their grandma’s before they decimate her fridge again. Maybe some other time?”
“Cool,” is Max’s response. “Hey,” he turns to Liam as they start walking. “I didn’t know you had brothers. Wicked. I don’t have brothers or sisters.”
Liam, who remained quiet throughout most of the exchange, seems to have no issue talking to Max as they make their way over to the parking lot. Marya and I follow behind.
“He’s a talker,” she notes.
“That he is.”
“My youngest is like that. Came out flapping his lips. Not a moody bone in his body, unlike his older brothers.”
“Yup. That’s Max,” I confirm, watching as the boys stop beside a beat-up Jeep. Presumably hers. I find I’m not quite ready to let her go so easily. “Look…” I stop her with a hand on her arm. “Not sure what next week’ll look like—my work can be a bit unpredictable, which means it’s possible my mom and stepdad show up with Max—but if I’m at the game, why don’t we try for that burger then?” I can tell before she even opens her mouth she’s going to blow me off, so I quickly add, “It’s just a burger, the kids’ll love it, and they have seriously fucking good milkshakes too.”
A battle wages on her face, before she finally settles on resigned. “Okay. I guess we can do just burgers.”
“Great. Look forward to it.”
“I do…” She hesitates and then says, “I’ll see you later,” before joining the boys by her car.
I call out to Max, who comes bounding to my side as I unlock my new Ford Bronco. Casting one last look over my shoulder, I just see Marya’s round ass disappear in her Jeep before hopping behind the wheel myself.
I barely hear Max’s chatter on the way to Sonya’s Diner, my mind is on that sentence the pretty brunette left unfinished. I do too.