“Becca’s older brothers and some of their friends were waiting on Jeff by his car last night.” Jeff’s mother began to cry.
“Come on.” Dan broke out in a sprint, shocked that Jeff’s mother managed to keep up.
“He didn’t want to go to the hospital, but I think he probably should’ve.” She gasped for breath. “Can you heal him?”
“I’m certainly going to try.” Fury coursed through Dan. George Jr., Greg, and Brent Sapman were douchebags of whale-sized proportions as far as he was concerned. They were just a few years older than Becca, but they’d always been perfectly happy to lay around doing nothing but living off the governor’s prestigious salary.
When they arrived at Ms. Harrickson’s late model Buick, Dan braced himself. Wonder if the Sap-asses, as they were commonly referred to by Iodex officers, would care to take on me and Garrett Haydenshire.
Yanking open the passenger side door, he grimaced. Jeff was sporting two black eyes and a broken nose. As he stood, Dan realized that he had several cracked ribs as well.
“Becca…doesn’t know,” he wheezed through his pain.
“Her brothers are…” Dan halted, remembering that Jeff’s mother was standing beside them crying.
“I couldn’t…hold…them back. Shield's weak. There were…eight of them.”
“Yeah, I figured it was something like that. Your shield is weak because you’re exhausted. Try to relax for me, okay? I’m gonna do your ribs first.”
Jeff’s shield was pulsing trying to protect him. He tried valiantly to relax, but was in a tremendous amount of pain. His shield gave whatever it had left to keep Dan out.
“I can’t heal you if you don’t let me in.” There weren’t many times Dan had been injured in the line of duty. His shield was too powerful, but he’d healed more men than he cared to remember. There was one way that almost always got them to relax. “Just think about Becca. Get her face in your mind. Focus on her. A good memory. I don’t care what it is, but that’s all I want you to think about.”
His shield sizzled. He tried to calm it but kept flowing frantically, managing to block Dan at every turn. He didn’t want to overpower it.
One thing he’d never done was healing one of his men with their mother standing right beside him. Trying to discreetly edge Mrs. Harrickson out of the way, he summoned patience. “Come on, Jeff. A good memory. Probably several of your best memories. Anytime you had her in your arms, maybe even inside your shield.” He spoke through his teeth, praying his poor mother wasn’t having to think about this. “The feeling. That one moment. Concentrate on that and nothing else.”
“Oh.” Jeff managed a harsh swallow as he closed his eyes. “That.” A moment later, he relaxed enough for Dan to harness his energy. Working with a great deal of finesse, he guided Jeff’s rhythms and added in heavy doses of his own as he forced his body to heal.
When Jeff could draw full breaths without any pain, Dan dropped the cast. “You wanna go in my office so I can do your face?”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Is it okay if I come with you?” His mother pled.
Dan doubted Jeff wanted his mother hanging around babying him. “You go on to work. I’ll take care of him. I can drop him at home after my last class”
“You don’t have to do that, Mentor Vindico.” Jeff shuddered from speaking then tried to discreetly spit out blood. “I can just take the bus.”
“If you’d rather take the bus than my Ferrari, I guess I can’t stop you.” Dan mentally calculated all of the many ways he could get back at the Sapmans for being the shitholes they were. “Come on, let’s get you healed up before Becca gets here.”
A half hour later, Dan braced himself on his desk, exhausted from healing Jeff’s multiple injuries. “All right, you should be almost as good as new. Go get cleaned up.”
“Thanks again, and if you wouldn’t mention any of this to Becca…”
“You have my word.”
Jeff’s mother loomed at the door. She obviously wanted to talk to Dan in private. Jeff didn’t seem aware of that, but most of his energy had been going to try and heal himself. When he slipped out to the bathroom, she leapt.
“I’m sorry. I know I’m intruding. I begged him to let me take him to the hospital. He was worried about the money.”
“It’s fine. I’ve healed a lot worse. He’ll be okay.”
“Jeff has always looked up to you. He followed your career through, uh…” she fumbled.
“Yes. That’s it. I’m not Gifted,” she explained what Dan already knew. He hadn’t picked up on any energy from Mrs. Harrickson. Jeff’s father must have been Gifted.
“I wanted to thank you for talking with Jeff yesterday. I knew something was wrong. I just couldn’t get him to tell me what was going on. And I’ve picked up another job. I was trying to at least be able to pay for his books this year. He’s here on scholarship that the Haydenshires provide. I was trying to save them a little money. It’s so generous of them to pay for the Academy for Jeff.”
Dan smiled. “The Haydenshires are two of the finest people I’ve ever met. They wouldn’t want you picking up extra work.”
“I don’t mind. I was a little worried…well…with what’s happened…they might not feel so generous,” she confessed in a heartbroken whisper.
“Trust me, ma’am. You have nothing to worry about. His scholarship will stand until the day he graduates.”
“I feel like this is my fault. I wasn’t there as much as I wanted to be. His father left the day I found out I was expecting.” Shame etched her face.
“Ms. Harrickson, no one did anything wrong. Jeff is an excellent student. He’s a great kid and he loves Becca. Trust me, they just happened to have gotten a little ahead of themselves and now they’re going to have a little catching up to do. But it can be done, and me and my wife would like to help anyway we can.”
“I can see why he idolizes you. That’s so kind of you. I’m completely overwhelmed,” she finally admitted. Dan bristled. No one should idolize him. “I always felt like I was letting him down. He can do all of these things that I don’t fully understand.”
“I don’t think you let him down at all. Like I said, he’s a tremendous kid. I wouldn’t have secured him the internship if I didn’t believe that.”
“He told me a little about it. It’s tough when your babies grow up. I wasn’t quite expecting him to need a full-time job so quickly. And now he’s going to be a father, I guess.”
“Take a little time to process all of it, Ms. Harrickson. She won’t be giving birth tomorrow. I’ll do my best to make certain both Jeff and Becca land on their feet.”
She stared him down as she stood. “Have you ever had to trust your children with people you don’t fully understand who do things you have no idea how to do and just pray that they’re going to be okay, Officer Vindico?”
Never liking to be the one caught off guard, Dan shook his head. “No, ma’am, I don’t guess I have.” He cleared his throat, wishing he’d brought Fionna into work with him that morning. She would know what to say. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to be unkind. I can’t empathize with you, but I’ll try to be more sympathetic.”
“No, it’s all right. It’s just not an easy thing to do to let your kids grow up and move on, to realize they don’t really need you anymore.”
“I’m sure it is tough, but he does still need you. He’ll need all the support he can get.”
“If you get a chance to tell Jeff that I want to be there for him, would you mind? I don’t think he really believed me last night. They told me before they went over to the Sapmans. I was just a little shocked. I didn’t know what to say.”
“I’ll figure out a way to let him know.”
Dan watched a slightly awkward mother-son hug take place as Jeff entered and Ms. Harrickson left his office.
“Is my mom okay?” Jeff asked as he fell into the chair his mother had just been occupying.
“I’d say she’s worried about you and maybe a little surprised about your announcement, but she’ll be fine. Just give her a little time.”
“She took it better than Bec’s parents, that’s for sure.”
“What did Governor Sapman say exactly?” Dan pulled two Powerbars from his desk and instructed Jeff to eat as he inhaled one himself. He wasn’t a Gifted Medio and didn’t have the supply storehouses of extra energy used for healing. Currently, he was exhausted.
“They told Bec she could live at home if she dumped me and gave the baby up for adoption and tried to hide the pregnancy. She was amazing. Got in the Governor’s face and screamed that she wouldn’t do any of that.” Jeff shook his head in disbelief. “Mom said we could live with her, but it’s a one-bedroom apartment. I sleep on the couch. I can’t ask Bec to do that.” Shame darkened his weary eyes, slicing Dan in two.
“Your new job should afford you a decent apartment. I can front you some cash if you need it,” Dan offered.
“Mentor Vindico, I can’t take your money. You’ve done so much for me already.”
“I just swore to your mom that I’d make certain that you and Becca are taken care of. Fi and I both want to help you.” Dan left the offer on the table.
“Thank you, sir, but just getting me that internship was enough.”
“Now that I think about it, the Haydenshires own a few small rental houses out near their farm. If you don’t mind me calling them, I feel certain that you and Becca could rent one.”
“I’m not sure we can afford a house.”
“You’d be close to the Senate, and she’d be close to school. I don’t know what they’re asking for rent, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.”
“I’m pretty sure Governor Sapman’s gonna get Governor Haydenshire to pull my scholarship, so I don’t want to ask anything else from the Crown.”
“Governor Haydenshire wouldn’t do that, I don’t care what Becca’s dad asked for. And even if he did, which he won’t, Fi and I would front your scholarship.” Dan knew reassurances of another man’s actions wouldn’t offer Jeff any real comfort. They weren’t certain. But Dan’s vow was.
“Why are you being so nice to me? You don’t even really know me.”
“I can tell you’re a good kid, and I think you deserve a break. You know you screwed up, but instead of denying it or running away, you want to work through it. I admire that. And speaking of your internship, Portwood’s sending out a team to do a kind of interview just so all of our T’s are crossed and our I’s are dotted.”
“Oh, I didn’t bring any nice clothes. I don’t really own anything but jeans and t-shirts.”
“No need to dress up. I suspect you already know your interviewers. Go find Becca and make sure she’s okay. I won’t say anything to her about what her brothers did, but I’m going to arrange some training for you on taking out multiple opponents when you’re on your own.”
“Training with you would be amazing, sir. I’m up for anything.”
“Don’t tempt me, kid. Now get, and stay the hell away from her brothers. They’re nothing but a bunch of bitches who need to be taken down several pegs.”
For the first time in Dan’s presence, Jeff’s smile reached his eyes. “I’m so glad I’m not the only one that thinks that. Can I ask you one other thing?”
Shifting uncomfortably, Jeff tugged at the frayed edge of his t-shirt. “It’s just I don’t want Bec to ever worry that I won’t be there. I don’t want her to have to do anything on her own the way my mom had to with me. I never had a dad but I want to be a good one. When I was trying not to die last night, I kept thinking about the baby and Bec and how much I already love them. That probably makes me sound like a pussy, I know, but I just…I want…I want to be married to her now. I want to be there for her and the baby always. I don’t want the baby to think it’s the only reason we got married. I just don’t know how to go about asking her or how we’d even afford a wedding or anything. I know Crown Governor Haydenshire can perform ceremonies. You don’t seem to think that he’s going to hate me for all of this. Would it be weird to ask him just to do something up at the Senate?”
“I’ll call the Crown Governor. He’ll be pleased you’re wanting to make a commitment to her now. Let me see what we can figure out. If I were a betting man, I’d say he’ll want you to bring Becca to the farm and have the wedding there.”
“Bec would probably love that. She’s always wanted to have a big church wedding. I can’t afford anything like that, but if you and Mrs. Vindico would come that would really mean a lot to me.”
“We’ll be there,” Dan vowed. “I can even offer you a flower girl if you want.”
“That would make Becca’s day. She deserves a big deal wedding, and I ruined it for her.”
“Nothing is ruined, and it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage. Big weddings don’t mean you automatically get a happy life.”
“Thank you for everything you’re doing, sir.”
“No problem.” Dan shut the office door behind Jeff and made the first of his phone calls. “Hey, Governor Haydenshire, I was wondering if I could ask you a few things about Jeff Strenton.”
“Seems everyone wants to talk to me about Jeff today. Poor kid.”
“I’m guessing Governor Sapman’s already put in his requests.”
“You would be correct. You never heard me say this, Daniel, but there are days George Sapman makes me want to pull what little of my hair is left out of my head.”
“Yeah, I felt the same way when I was up there.”
“Yes, I remember you two going several rounds. Anyway, I explained to George that if Becca is going to marry Jeff and bear his children, it might be helpful if he graduated and had a job.”
“Thank you. I’ll let Jeff know you took up for him. All the kid ever does is thank me for what little I’ve done.”
“Well, gratitude is a good thing. George said Jeff and Becca have been dating for years. I understand they might’ve put the cart before the horse just a little, but I don’t feel like she’s, as he put it, ‘completely ruined her life with the sorry excuse for a man’.”
“He’s a good kid. I promise, sir.”
“He’s not a kid anymore.”
Dan attempted to bite back his chuckle.
“I know I’m going to regret asking this, but what’s so funny?”
“I was just thinking about how many times we all said that to you about Emily and Rainer.”
“Let’s just leave my baby girl out of this.” Governor Haydenshire joined Dan’s laughter. “I’m allowed to be hypocritical. I’ve raised eleven kids. I’m tired. And I love Rainer like he’s one of my own. You know that.”
“I know, sir.”
“How’s Fionna feeling? Lillian wants you all to come over for dinner soon. We missed you over the summer.”
“Fi’s doing all right. Tired and worried, but she won’t tell me that. Adeline’s going to check her at the house Friday.”
“Give her our love, and we do want to see you and little Aida.”
“Well, Jeff just asked me if I thought it would be all right to ask if you might marry him and Becca. And he’d like Fi and I to be there.”
“It seems Jeff’s really taken with you, Daniel. Be careful, you may have just become his role model, father, and big brother all in a few days’ time.”
“I’m a little worried I’m not with Fi enough, but she’d adamant that we help Jeff however we can.”
“It sounds like both of them could really use your and Fionna’s help. You know, Lillian never turned away anyone who needed our help, even when she was pregnant with one, while we still had two with bottles and were trying to potty train another two or three. There were days I had no idea how we’d survive, but looking back now I wouldn’t change one single thing.”
“I really want to be there for them. I have a lot to make up for and this seems like a great way to start.”
“I can’t think of a finer role model for him, Daniel. Why don’t you and Fi bring the kids by the house tomorrow night for dinner? We’ll see about getting them married and off on a good foot. Might be nice for them to get away from the Realm for a little while. And I know Keaton would love to see Fionna.”
Four-year-old Keaton Haydenshire had quite a crush on Fionna. “Hey, the kid’s got great taste. We’ll be there, but I had one other favor to ask. I was wondering if any of your smaller rentals were open. The Sapmans are kicking Becca out unless she breaks up with Jeff and hides the pregnancy and then gives the kid up for adoption.”
“Oh yes, because that makes sense. Pardon me while I bang my head against my desk.”
“Don’t hit it too hard. Sapman’s not that far down the list of people to take over if you knock yourself out.”
“Don’t remind me. Is Jeff starting at intern salary or is Landon going to start him at entry level Iodex?”
“I’m not sure. He’s still got to finish his senior year here, so it will depend on how much he gets done up there, I imagine.”
“Patrick takes care of all of our rentals. I’ll give him a call. After we eat, you and I can take Jeff and Becca out to a few of the houses. I know of two that would be suitable for digging yourself out, but they won’t be ready until the first of the month.”
“They both seem willing to sling the shovel.”
“Then that’s all it will take.”
“I’ll let Jeff and Becca know about tomorrow night. We’ll be there as soon as Aida gets home.”
“See you then, oh, and Daniel, the things I wanted to discuss with you about Venton, I’d rather not discuss them in front of Jeff and Becca or the Sapmans should they decide to come. Let’s just leave all of that to Friday’s lunch.”
“No problem, sir.”
Dan touched another name on his favorites list. “You feel like getting the shit beat out of you?” He laughed.
“By you? Bring it,” Garrett Haydenshire gave his customary cocky laugh.
“How are you?”
“Bored, currently. How are my girls?”
“You could’ve stayed at Elite, man. You know Portwood would welcome you back with open arms. He might even weep on your feet if you agreed to go back.”
“Yeah, well, Landon doesn’t need to be weeping on anyone’s feet. He’s got this, and I needed a break. Now, how are my girls?”
“Fi is good. Tired but good. Aida kind of likes school, but she misses you and misses her mama when she’s at school. Halia is amazing.”
“Can I pick Aida up from school sometime? I missed her like crazy this summer.”
“Fine with me, of course you might have to battle the front office staff.”
“Like I said, bring it.”
“Speaking of you bringing it, I have a student that could use a little tutoring taking on multiple opponents.”
“Danny boy, you aren’t allowed to beat the shit out of some kid that’s already on your nerves. And you aren’t allowed to ask your friends to help you.”
Dan gave a Garrett a brief rundown of what had happened to Jeff.
“I got a better idea. Why don’t we let the poor kid recover from his unfortunate incident, figure out how the hell to be a dad, and you and I go over to the country club and make the Sap-asses wish they’d never been born.”
“That thought crossed my mind several times, but it’s like when we were kids. We aren’t allowed to beat the crap out of other Governor’s children.”
“And that right there is a bunch a bullshit. But yeah, I’ll help you train him. Bet Rainer and Logan would jump in on that, too. Logan and Jeff were friends when he was at the Academy, I think.”
“I owe you.”
“Isn’t that always the case?” Garrett chuckled.
“Unfortunately, yes. Call Fi and ask about picking up Aida. She’d love to see you, too.”
“I will give my girl a call as soon as I go arrest this guy a warrant just came in for. Jesus, he just tried to sell smack to an undercover cop.”
“I have to go teach a bunch of brats how to shield cast a flame. Believe me, I’d give just about anything to go arrest most anyone.”
“Well, maybe Fi will let you cuff her. Might make you feel better,” were Garrett’s parting words.
Dan shook his head as he phoned his wife.
“Hey, good lookin’,” she drawled.
“At some point today, I’d bet my life on the fact that Garrett Haydenshire is going to call you and tell you that I want to cuff you. I never said that. I swear.”
Fionna’s hysterical laughter made Dan’s entire morning. “I usually only believe about half of what Garrett tells me, but I’m not opposed to the idea. I know you miss hearing your handcuffs clink, baby.”
“Are you trying to kill me? I have to go stand in front of impressionable children for hours before I can even see you. It’s tough to teach with an erection.”
“Good luck with that. Now, tell me what’s wrong?”
“Something was wrong.”
“You are too damned good. Jeff got beaten up by Becca’s brothers and several of their friends. I healed him up, but he was a mess. And the Sapmans kicked Becca out.”
“Oh, my gosh. Poor thing. What is wrong with her brothers, and her parents for that matter?”
“I do not have time to enumerate that very lengthy list for you right now. Governor Haydenshire wants us to come to the farm tomorrow night. Jeff and Becca are probably going to have a small marriage ceremony there.”
“That’s sweet, and I’d love to go. Where are Jeff and Becca going to live, Dan?”
“I asked Governor Haydenshire about one of their rentals.”
“But where are they going to stay tonight?”
“I don’t know, actually. I guess at his mom’s, but she only has a one-bedroom apartment.”
“Well, tell them they’re staying here until they can get moved into their rental. He hasn’t even started at Iodex yet. They can’t possibly have any money.”
“Fi, baby, that’s sweet, but I can’t move my students in with us.”
“You can and you will. They need us and I want to help. How much trouble could they be?”
“He can’t go to school all day, then go work at Iodex, then go home and do all of his homework, then try to figure out how to be a husband all while sleeping on the floor. They can just stay with us until their rental is ready. I bet he’s still exhausted from what those horrible Sapman boys did to him.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“I’ll get the guest room bed made, pick up a few things for dinner, go by Daddy’s and get some fresh tortillas, and then I think I’ll go by and pick up Aida. If they tell me I can’t have her, I’ll just cry,” she giggled.
“Let me know if that works, and if they try to do a body scan or they come at you with some sort of probe, I’m going to make them cry.”
“Aida will be thrilled. She loves to take care of people,” Fionna pointed out.
“Yeah well she gets that from her incredible mother. Oh, and Garrett wants to pick her up from school sometime soon.”
“Perfect. She misses him so much. I do, too, for that matter.”
Dan tried to fight it. He pushed the wash of jealousy outside his shield. Dammit, why couldn’t he get over this? Garrett was Fi’s best friend. He’d been there for her when Dan could never have been. He had to get over this.
“I love you, baby.”
“I love you, too.”
A broad grin spread across Dan’s face as he made his way back to his office after his second period class.
“Mentor Vindico, I like it,” Logan Haydenshire offered Dan his hand. “But, dude, I’m pretty sure you have to wear, like, sweater vests and be carrying around some stale coffee and be losing your hair to work here,” he harassed.
“You caffeinate him again or something, Lawson?” Dan shook Rainer Lawson’s hand as well. He unlocked the office door, allowing two of his favorite people inside.
“Adeline’s working nights. He’s been like this for days,” Rainer goaded. “That’s why Portwood sent us out here. No one knows what to do with him anymore.”
“Shut it, man. You know if it hadn’t been for my little sister you would have married me,” Logan quipped.
“Every single day I thank God for Emily.”
Dan shook his head. Nostalgia and a hearty dose of raw regret speared through him. He fought the desperate desire to beg Governor Haydenshire for his old job back.
He’d been so focused on taking down Wretchkinsides, especially the last few months of his post as Chief of Iodex, he hadn’t had any fun with his team. He’d almost forgotten how hilarious Logan could be when he wasn’t being worked to death and shouted at constantly.
“How’s Jeff?” Rainer asked.
“He’s had it rough,” Dan lamented.
“Garrett said the Sap-asses worked him over,” Logan rolled his eyes.
“You know, we need some new punching bags in the Iodex gym,” Rainer snarled, making Dan smile.
“I was hoping you two would help Garrett and I give him some training outside what he’ll be learning the first few weeks with Landon.”
“We’ll be there,” Logan and Rainer agreed at the same moment.
“Thanks, now I have to figure out how to convince Jeff and Becca to stay with Fi and I. She’s determined.”
“Why do they need to stay with you?” Rainer quizzed.
“His mom has a one-bedroom. Sapmans kicked Becca out, and he’s flat broke.”
“Hey, if he needs some money…” Rainer immediately volunteered.
“You can ask, but I didn’t get very far with my offer. Payday’s not ‘til next week. I think an offer of a place to stay might go down a little easier than taking cash from any of us.”
“He’s a good guy,” Rainer vowed.
A knock sounded on the door. “May I?” Logan begged, his eyes alight.
Dan gestured Logan to the door.
“Rainer, look.” Logan clutched his chest, dramatically batting his eyelashes and moving beside Rainer to lay his head to the side on his shoulder. “It’s our little Jeff-y. He’s just grown so much. Big senior now. Knocking up Governor’s daughters and shit.”
The entire office exploded in uproarious laughter as Jeff promptly cracked up.
“Geez, Logan, would you can it?” Rainer shook his head and slapped Jeff on the back.
“I missed you too, Logan.” Jeff was still laughing, much to everyone’s delight.
“Are you going to interview him or haze him?” Dan quipped wryly.
“I’d go with both.” Logan shrugged.
“Great.” Jeff seemed relieved Rainer and Logan weren’t upset or disappointed in him.
Logan proceeded to try and pace in the three feet of space between Dan’s desk and Jeff.
“Seriously, you are never drinking Red Bull again, ever.” Rainer kept the laughter going.
“So, let’s hear it. Life right now ‘A. Kind of sucks,’ ‘B. Is a shit storm,’ or ‘C. Is looking up because you’re getting to marry yo sweet Becca-boo tomorrow?’” Logan continued to taunt Jeff.
“Is that an interview question? Because I need to call Portwood if that’s the shit he sent you over here with.” Dan feigned concern.
“Becca boo?” Rainer rolled his eyes.
“I’d go with all three, although I didn’t know we were getting married tomorrow night, but I’m good with it. So, I pick whichever choice gets me the internship,” Jeff joined in the teasing, making everyone smile.
“Dude, you got it. We’re just here to make sure you haven’t gone nuts since we left,” Logan explained.
“Hey, let’s go get a quick lunch,” Rainer urged. “My treat. We need to talk to Dan off campus anyway.”