Sydney was a little confused as Derrick drove them past another dilapidated, burned-down building before finally turning down a dirt road. In the past twenty minutes, they’d gone farther and farther off the main roads. Their route seemed to be taking them on a journey to nowhere land instead of a nice park. A few miles down the dirt road, a rusted out chain-link gate stood open, revealing a road that seemed to lead to nothing. After a mile or three, there was a parking lot. The park Derrick brought Sydney and Angel to was not the type of park Sydney had pictured. She had envisioned something with a playground, a couple of walking trails, and maybe a little pond. Nothing art worthy.
Sydney had agreed to come to the park with Derrick because she wanted to. Plus, with Angel along, there would be no chance or temptation for anything else to happen. Stonebridge Park was a wild thing, with trails that looked like hikers had fought against Mother Nature for every inch of space. In spite of the rough appearance, the park hummed with life. Birds sang, dragonflies came and went, and lizards—which Sydney loved—peeked out from the trees and scurried under sun-warmed rocks. The cry of a wolf or some very large dog rang out, paused, and sounded again, as if waiting to be answered. Derrick stopped for a moment, listening.
“Don’t worry,” he assured them. “He’s really far away. Totally harmless. But if you see any rabbits, don’t touch them. They’re, uh, feral.”
Sydney laughed at the way he shuddered a little. “Should we watch out for dangerous frogs and butterflies too?” Quicker than she would have thought a man could move, Derrick grabbed up a bunch of dry pine needles and tossed them into her hair.
“Ha-ha, Momma.” Angel snapped a picture with her purple plastic digital camera.
Sydney shook out her thick hair only after Angel took several different photos of Sydney’s head full of pine needles. There was no point in getting annoyed. Besides, Sydney had some great ideas about what she could do to tease Derrick. She was picturing bunny-themed birthday cards. Maybe she would terrorize him with a rabbit’s foot key chain. The possibilities were endless. She must have been smiling, because Derrick elbowed her gently in the ribs before freeing a pine needle from the back of her hair. She was a little alarmed at how fun it was to be around him.
Also surprising was how Angel held Derrick’s hand and didn’t leave his side. Sydney needed a monumental amount of self-control to not stare at the man. She didn’t want to want him in a way that she shouldn’t. They walked the trail Derrick told her about playing on when he was a kid. “Our parents used to drive me and Jack here on the weekends. Jack and I would chase each other and ride bikes on this very trail.”
“How long have you known Jack?”
“Since Mrs. Lang’s fourth-grade class. On the first day of school we ended up next to each other at lunch and traded snacks. I gave him my Oreo cookies.” Derrick looked mildly disgusted.
“Who doesn’t love Oreos?” She knew he didn’t care for sweets, but Oreos? Surely he could make an exception for Oreos.
“The middle part is the most disgusting slime. The cookie part is pretty gross too. My dad packed my lunch that day, though, and he loved cookies.” Derrick shrugged. “So I traded my disgusting Oreos for Jack’s chips, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Knowing that Jack and Derrick had been friends for a long time did give Sydney some reassurance. Jack was a good guy, and he made Carly happy. If Jack knew Derrick as more than just an acquaintance or fraternity buddy, then maybe, perhaps, there was the distinct possibility that Derrick was a decent guy. Really, Sydney would have known more about him if she had just asked Jack or Carly a couple of questions, or she could have been a little less antisocial every single time she was around Derrick. Why couldn’t the man just be a dick? That would make things so much easier.
“I know you and Carly are good friends. How did you guys meet?” he asked.
“I met her during our junior year of high school. We lost touch when she went off to college in Virginia, but we found each other on social media a few years later. It was like nothing had changed.” Being thrown into foster care had been rough for both girls. It was sometimes scary, but finding a friend in Carly had kept Sydney’s time in the system from being hopeless.
Sydney and Carly had found joy in the little things in life. Sometimes those little things had been wrong and maybe somewhat illegal, but nobody had gotten hurt. Much.
Waking up in the middle of the night to decorate neighboring yards with thousands of plastic utensils had been pretty harmless. They’d also put packets of ketchup in all the shoes left out on the bench in the girls’ locker room and then laughed until they cried at the girls’ screams and the big, fat red mess the janitors had to mop. They’d never been caught at their pranks, but their foster mother suspected they were trouble together. After a rough couple of weeks with exams and new foster housemates who were absolute bitches, they’d smoked a few joints in the woods. Then, of course, they were hungry and were caught stealing all the snacks in the house. Sydney and Carly blamed it on the dog because they were still so high they’d forgotten the dog had run away weeks before.
Standing on the red-clay trail and being warmed by the sun as it filtered through the trees, Sydney was pretty sure she had found the place she wanted to paint for her auction piece for Virginia Nature and Wildlife Preservation fund-raiser. The quest for the perfect landscape seemed to have been awfully easy, but it could be Sydney had a break coming to her, especially after just last week having had to pay the pest company to get a boatload of squirrels out of her attic. The furry monsters had chewed through everything.
Sydney got out her camera and started taking pictures from every angle. Derrick and Angel were in some of the pictures, but Sydney didn’t mind. She didn’t want to paint an exact replica of the scene. She just needed a visual reminder. The beauty Sydney saw in this wild park wasn’t the simple glorious sight of a fiercely rushing river or a field covered in brightly blossoming, new spring flowers. What she saw in the park was more of an unexpected and untamed gift. Derrick’s gift to her.
Shut up. Not going there.
“Sydney, were you a foster kid like Carly?” Derrick asked her softly, almost as if he were afraid she wouldn’t answer him.
I guess he reads people for a living but damn.
“Yes,” she admitted grudgingly. Sydney rarely discussed it. She did not want the pity people seemed to dole out after hearing she had been stuck in the system. Besides, there were probably lots of fabulous foster parents out there. There were just bad ones too. There was a big difference between not great and bad, and Sydney and Carly knew the difference, having experienced both.
“That’s how Carly and I met. I ended up in a foster home—well, several—after my aunt died when I was fourteen. Her stupid doctor called child services, so instead of just staying in Aunt Joan’s house, I got sent into the system. Carly and I both ended up in the same house when we were sixteen.” Sydney tried not to sound pissed, but she didn’t like the memories of the endless moves into different, crazy foster homes. The old, falling-apart juvenile detention center—aka “the Warehouse”—she’d been sent to for three months for shooting a firearm to save Carly from their foster mother’s pervy son hadn’t been very pleasant either.
Derrick looked at her as if he’d finished putting together a puzzle whose pieces had been misplaced and forgotten over time. “Not long after Jack introduced me to Carly, I remember she was working on her degree in social work. She said she’d started a career in fashion design and then changed her mind and went back to school. She said she loved sewing and creating patterns, but social work was where she needed to be.”
Carly was incredibly talented. She’d left Chicago for Virginia to study design in college. Carly made her own curtains and tablecloths and a lot of her own clothes too. In high school, Carly had coaxed Sydney out of her go-to wardrobe of sweatpants and baggy shirts. Sydney shared with Derrick about how Carly had helped her find new clothes and how they had kept each other company. She left out the embarrassing part of her past, about taking comfort in food and becoming a fat, poorly dressed, and antisocial dork for a while. Besides, she had a good idea about what question was coming next.
“Carly told me about a girl from one of her foster homes—I think she called her Red—who pretty much saved her life. Carly said she chose being a social worker over being a fashion designer because she wanted to be there to stand up for those kids in the system because there wouldn’t always be somebody there like Red to step in.”
Sydney had long ago stopped dying her hair fire-engine red, but it was still red enough, not to mention the fact that Grant publicly called her names like “Red-Hot” and “Little Red Running Brat.” Sydney illustrated a comic call Red versus Crooked Blue, for goodness sake, so she was pretty sure Derrick knew Sydney was Red. No point in denying or closing up about it.
Sydney looked at Angel, who was happily blowing bubbles and looking for lizards, not paying their conversation any mind, or not seeming to anyway.
“Yeah, that was me,” she admitted. “So you’ve heard the story, I take it?”
“The basics.” Instead of pity, the look on his face was one of respect. That, she could deal with.
DERRICK TOOK SYDNEY’S arm because he didn’t trust himself to speak. Sydney might be shy, but she was strong. She had fought to save Carly from their foster mom’s sleazy son when the girls were teenagers. Sydney had grown into a kind, talented, and incredibly beautiful woman. She was strong in body and soul, which meant she would be strong enough to become a shape-shifting wolf if he attempted to make her his mate. Derrick guided Sydney toward the trail to the lake he wanted her and Angel to see.
There were a few secrets he would have to share with Sydney in the future, but for now he wanted to share one of his favorite places with her. Together, they looked out at the clear water and smooth, flat rocks. Sydney stood on one side of Derrick. He wrapped his arm around her waist, and she made no attempt to move. Angel stood on the other side of Derrick, her small hand grasping his.
The breeze picked up, blowing flower petals and blooms into the water. With her free hand, Angel drew circles in the air as if she were a conductor making the wind and the water dance. She giggled, and Derrick chanced a look at her. Angel looked back at him with a secretive smile. Her brown eyes had turned a deep, dark shade of red.
Was it possible? Weather shifters were rare—nearly all gone. Derrick sensed no worry or fear coming from Sydney. She seemed to have no idea that Angel might have some strange gifts, therefore no fear of discovery. Angel might not even know what she was. Derrick could be wrong, but he doubted it. He vowed to keep Angel and Sydney safe. Nobody would take them from him. Derrick was falling hard for Sydney, and there was nothing he could do to stop it, so he made the first step toward putting his heart on the line.
“I’m not a bad guy, Syd,” he whispered in her ear.
“Will you give me a chance?”
“Maybe.” She leaned into him, letting her head rest on his shoulder. Maybe was better than no or no fucking way, but Derrick needed a yes from her. Soon, before he lost his mind.