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Authors: Sherryl Woods

Mending Fences

Mending Fences
Also by
New York Times
bestselling author

SHERRYL WOODS

FEELS LIKE FAMILY

A SLICE OF HEAVEN

STEALING HOME

WAKING UP IN CHARLESTON

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER

THE BACKUP PLAN

DESTINY UNLEASHED

FLAMINGO DINER

ALONG CAME TROUBLE

ASK ANYONE

ABOUT THAT MAN

ANGEL MINE

AFTER TEX

SHERRYL WOODS
Mending Fences

Dear Friends,

 

I’m always being asked what sparks the ideas for my books, especially after more than 100 of them. A glimpse into how
Mending Fences
came about will give you some indication of the process that my sometimes quirky mind goes through.

 

For many years now I’ve worked with the same accountant, and during those years have also gotten to know his wife. Carl and Dianne Margenau are terrific folks, who’ve recently made a move from Miami to North Carolina, so much of our contact is now by phone. During one of those calls, Dianne mentioned how much they missed their longtime neighbors, how close the families had been over the years and what wonderful people they were.

 

So I began to think…. What would happen between two families who’d shared so many important events, so many hopes and dreams and such a deep friendship, if something tragic occurred with the potential to split them apart? From that conversation,
Mending Fences
was born. Please keep in mind that beyond making me wonder what if… there are no similarities between the Margenaus and their longtime neighbors and the characters in my book. Still, Dianne gets the credit for kicking my imagination into overdrive and Carl, as always, gets credit for keeping me out of financial hot water. I’m grateful to them both.

 

I wish all of you neighbors you can count on and friends who enrich your lives.

 

As always,

Sherryl

1

Present

G
rady Rodriguez had been a police officer for nearly twenty years, but he’d never gotten used to interviewing young women who’d been the victims of date rape. It wasn’t quite the same as talking to those who’d been assaulted by strangers. For those women, there was little ambiguity about the attack. It was usually random, unexpected, violent and degrading. It could happen to any woman at any age who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Date rape tended to happen to young, often inexperienced women who knew their attacker. They were left with a million and one questions about what they might have done differently, how their judgment about the guy could have been so wrong, why saying no hadn’t been enough. He’d responded to too damn many of those calls, listened to too many brokenhearted sobs, seen too many injuries.

In either case, the women questioned everything about themselves. They dealt with unwarranted shame, sometimes made a thousand times worse by the well-
meaning reactions of the people who loved them. In all instances, it changed who they were, made them more cautious, less trusting. Sometimes it destroyed relationships or even marriages.

From everything he could see as he and his partner, Naomi Lansing, walked into the off-campus Coral Gables apartment where tonight’s attack had happened, Lauren Brown was typical. A pretty college student with shiny, long blond hair, she barely looked old enough to date. A kid that young shouldn’t have had her innocence stripped away in a manner that left her eyes glazed with pain and disillusionment. Seeing her huddled in a corner of the bed in her room in tears, Grady wanted to punch his fist through a wall, but Naomi was cool and calm, the kind of soothing presence the situation required.

Naomi’s compassion allowed him to remain in the background, to study the scene in a coldly analytical way. They were the perfect team for this kind of investigation, something he’d never have predicted back when they’d first been assigned to work together and every encounter had been a test of wills.

“She was like that when I came in,” Lauren’s roommate, Jenny Ryan, told them in an undertone. “Just rocking back and forth and crying. She said her date had hurt her, but she wouldn’t say anything else. She asked me not to, but I called nine-one-one anyway. The creep shouldn’t get away with this. I don’t care who he is.”

Something in her words gave Grady a chill, the hint that Lauren’s attacker was well known, perhaps well-respected in the University of Miami campus community.

“You did the right thing,” Naomi assured her. “We’ll take it from here. Could you wait in the other room?”

For a moment, Jenny hesitated. “I’m not sure I should leave her.”

Naomi sat on the edge of the bed, careful not to crowd Lauren. “You’ll be okay, right? You’re up to talking to me?”

Lauren’s head bobbed once, but she didn’t look up.

As Naomi began murmuring the most intrusive questions in her quiet, matter-of-fact voice, Grady studied the bedroom. Painted and carpeted in the bland beige of inexpensive rentals, it was decorated in a style that was too shabby to be chic. There were mismatched pieces of furniture, a few snapshots—family pictures, it looked like—stuck into the dresser mirror, a laptop computer next to a stack of textbooks and an antique rocker he would bet had been a prized possession from home.

Other than the tangled spread and sheets on the bed and a few pieces of clothing that had been tossed on the floor, the room was neater than most coed rooms he’d seen. Carefully gathering the clothes she’d apparently been wearing, he noted the buttons missing from her blouse, the torn strap of her bra and a rip in her panties, all consistent with someone intent on having sex, perhaps with an unwilling partner. He found three buttons scattered around the carpet and added those to the evidence.

Leaving it to Naomi to retrieve the sheets and spread and whatever trace evidence they might contain, Grady walked into the living room to join the roommate. “Any idea who Lauren was out with tonight?” he asked her.

“Evan Carter,” she said without hesitation. “You know who he is, right?”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” he said, struggling to maintain a neutral expression.

Carter was a star football player at the University of Miami. Only a sophomore, there was already speculation about him becoming a top NFL draft choice before graduation. News reports, however, also cited his excellent grades, good enough for the career he hoped to have in the legal field representing professional athletes. He had brains, talent and charm—the kind of trifecta that made it easy for people to miss any hints of a darker side, the sense of entitlement and immunity that came with being a celebrity of sorts.

A local boy, Carter was already used to the spotlight by the time he entered UM. He’d been courted by both the Florida Gators and by Florida State Seminoles, top UM rivals. When he’d opted to stay close to home, there’d been a sigh of relief from the Miami fans, who’d followed his stellar high school career.

“Is that the crowd Lauren hangs out with—the jocks?” he asked Jenny.

“No way. To tell you the truth, Lauren’s never dated much. She’s basically pretty shy and quiet. She’s here on a scholarship, so she studies a lot. Evan’s the first guy she’s really talked much about. They’re in the same biology class—I’m in it, too—and they’ve been working on this project together for a couple of weeks now. When he suggested dinner and a movie, she couldn’t believe this superjock had asked her out. She was so excited.” Her lower lip quivered and her expressive dark eyes filled with anger. “Damn him for doing this to her!”

“Were you here when they left? Did you see them together?”

Jenny shook her head. “I had to go to the library to do some research for a paper that’s due on Monday. I didn’t get back till about two minutes before I called you.”

“So you can’t be sure they actually got together tonight,” he suggested.

Jenny practically quivered with indignation. “Are you trying to say she made it all up or something?” she demanded. “Lauren would
never
lie about who she had a date with or about what happened. Lauren doesn’t lie. Period.”

“Maybe a girl who doesn’t date much developed a crush on this unattainable guy, built herself a whole fantasy scenario,” he suggested.

“No, absolutely not!” Jenny said emphatically. “She’s the most honest, grounded person I know. Her dad’s a minister, for goodness’ sakes. She has this whole moral code she lives by. Most of the time the rest of us fall way short of meeting her standards, but she never judges any of us for that.”

Satisfied, Grady backed off on any suggestion that Lauren could have exaggerated anything that happened with the Carter kid. Instead, he focused on what Jenny herself knew firsthand. “But you yourself didn’t witness any part of the date, correct?”

She sighed. “No. I never saw them together, but I imagine there are plenty of witnesses in the building or on the block. It’s mostly college kids living in this area, so there’s always somebody going in or out, especially on a Friday night. And Evan’s the kind of guy who attracts attention. He makes sure of it.”

Grady knew the type. They thrived on being the center of attention, being recognized. They also thought they were above the law. Maybe tonight Grady would get lucky and that tendency would seal the case against Evan Carter.

“If Detective Lansing looks for me, tell her I’m going
to knock on a few doors, see what I can find out from the neighbors,” he told Jenny. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. You’ll stay put, right?”

“Of course. I’m not leaving Lauren.”

The white stucco building on the fringe of the UM campus only had four units, two upstairs, two down. He tried the downstairs doors to no avail, then loped back upstairs and knocked on the door across the hall from Lauren’s. When it swung open, the sound of classic jazz flowed through the air. The long-haired kid wearing boxers, a T-shirt and flip-flops stared at him with blurry eyes and a bewildered expression.

“Is the music too loud or something?” he asked Grady. “I try to keep it low.”

“The music’s not a problem,” Grady assured him. He showed him his ID. “Mind if I ask you a couple of questions?”

“Am I in trouble?”

The kid sounded nervous, which made Grady wonder what he was up to. Then he caught a whiff of marijuana and knew. That, however, was a problem for another night.

“No, no trouble,” he assured him. “This is your apartment?”

“I have a roommate, but he’s out on a date.”

Grady made a note. “What’s your name?”

“Joe Haas.”

“And your roommate’s?”

“Dante Mitchell.”

“He plays football, doesn’t he?” Grady asked, trying to envision the huge defensive tackle sharing a place with this skinny, unassuming kid.

“We’re from the same hometown. His folks think I’m
a good influence on him.” He shrugged, his grin self-deprecating. “As if he’d ever listen to me. Still, we get along okay.”

“Have you been home all night?”

“It’s Friday night,” he said as if that was answer enough. “I’ve been here just chilling out.”

“Seen anybody? Heard anything unusual?”

He stared at Grady with a blank expression. “Like what?”

“Anything that seemed out of the ordinary?”

“Did one of the apartments get robbed? Is that why you’re asking all these questions?”

“No. I’m just trying to get a feel for what was going on around here tonight.”

“I think everybody’s out, except me. Dante left around seven. Jenny headed out about the same time with a bunch of books. She always goes to the library on Friday night. She says it’s quieter then. The guys downstairs, they always head straight for happy hour after their last class on Friday. I don’t think they’ve come in yet. They’re usually pretty noisy, so I would have heard them if they’d come back.”

“What about Lauren? Have you seen her?”

He shook his head. “I know she had a date with some jock, a friend of Dante’s.”

“Did she tell you that?”

“No, Dante mentioned it. He thought it was pretty hilarious for some reason.”

“Why was that?”

“I guess because Lauren’s really shy and this guy thinks he’s some big hotshot.”

“You know a name?”

Joe shook his head. “I’m not that into football. Dante probably said, but it didn’t stick.”

“And you never saw Lauren with this guy?”

He shook his head, then frowned. “Lauren’s okay, isn’t she? Nothing happened to her tonight, did it?”

Grady ignored the questions. “Thanks. If you think of anything else, give me a call.” He handed him his business card.

Joe followed him back into the hall, his expression filled with concern. He bypassed Grady and headed straight for Lauren’s door. Grady intercepted him. “Not tonight.”

Alarm shadowed the boy’s eyes. “I just want to check on Lauren. She’s a sweet kid, you know?”

“Talk to her tomorrow, okay? She’ll need a friend then.” He leveled a look at the kid. “And you might want to lose the weed before I come around again. Next time I won’t look the other way.”

“Shit!” Joe said, his expression immediately guilt ridden. He all but ran back to his own apartment and shut the door.

Grady shook his head. For a fraction of an instant he was grateful he didn’t have teenagers, but then he thought of his beautiful little Megan and his heart ached. She would have been sixteen now and he would give every last breath in his body to have his daughter back, no matter what sort of foolish mistakes she might make.

Tonight wasn’t the night to travel down that dark path, though. Another young girl needed him.

Inside Lauren’s apartment, Jenny was exactly where he’d left her, blindly thumbing through a magazine, her attention directed toward the room where Naomi was still questioning Lauren.

“Did anybody see anything?” she asked when she realized he was back.

“The kid across the hall was the only one home, and he confirmed she was supposed to go out with some jock tonight, but he didn’t see him and didn’t have a name. He says his roommate had told him that.”

Jenny smiled. “Joe’s a little spacey most of the time, but he’s a good guy. It might not seem like it, but he’s practically a genius. He’s studying physics, but most of the time he’s bored, because he knows as much as the professors. He puts up with a lot from Dante, who thinks he’s God’s gift to the universe. Will it help that Dante knew about the date, too?”

“It might,” Grady conceded.

“What happens next?”

“We’ll need to get Lauren to the hospital, get her checked out,” he said. “Can you come along? It might make her feel better to have a familiar face around.”

“If she needs me, I’m there,” Jenny told him.

A few minutes later, Naomi emerged with Lauren and the four of them made the trip to the Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital for the necessary indignity of a physical examination.

As they waited outside while a physician gathered evidence and offered counseling to Lauren with Jenny at her side, Grady sat beside Naomi and compared notes. “You think she’ll go through with this? Will she press charges against the Carter kid?” he asked. “It’s a tough road, especially with his high profile. The publicity could be pretty devastating, even if her name’s kept out of it.”

“She’s scared,” Naomi said. “But she’s starting to get angry. If she weakens, something tells me her roommate will make sure she fights back.”

He nodded. “Jenny’s mad enough for both of them. I wish all the girls we come across had someone in their corner like that.”

Naomi nodded. “Me, too.”

“We need to do this one by the book,” Grady said wearily. “I want an arrest warrant in hand before we go anywhere near that kid.”

“That could take time,” Naomi warned. “It’s almost morning now and half the judges are going to be on the golf course and the rest are probably out on their boats.”

“We’ll call the state attorney’s office and leave that problem up to them. I don’t care how long it takes, I want that warrant before we say boo to that kid. The media’s going to be all over this case and I’m not losing it because we didn’t cross every
t
and dot every
i
.”

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