Protecting What's His Page 41

She should’ve dropped off the money and been halfway back to Chicago by now, but the General, picking a convenient time to surrender, had blown its fan belt outside of Springfield, delaying her for three frustrating hours until the mechanic could complete the repair. She sat in a truck stop diner sipping coffee and studiously ignoring her phone the entire time. It might make her a coward, but she couldn’t afford to lose her resolve. Besides, if Derek really wanted her as he’d said, accepting her stubborn nature would be step one.

No, Ginger corrected herself, he did want her. She needed to stop thinking in terms of ifs and maybes. The sooner she stashed the money under Valerie’s pillow, the sooner she could get back to Chicago and into his arms to reassure herself of that fact.

The sun began to rise outside, lighting her way into Valerie’s bedroom. She hadn’t set foot in her mother’s room since childhood, afraid of what she would find. She felt little shock at seeing the syringe sitting on the nightstand or the blackened spoon lying next to it. Sighing, she took a step toward the bed.

A car screeched to a stop outside and two doors slammed, followed closely by a third. Two male voices called to each other, but she couldn’t make out what they said.

The next closest house was condemned and had been for quite some time, which meant whoever it was had come to see Valerie, or had her mother with them. Ginger’s heart accelerated as she ducked behind a chest of drawers. A moment later, the front door opened and crashed against the wall. She covered her mouth and nose with her hand to prevent herself from screaming.

“Where you want her, Haywood?”

A deeper voice spoke. “Anywhere’ll do.” A heavy object dropped onto the carpet, followed by a slapping noise. “Time to wake up, Valerie. We’ve got business, you and I.”

Ginger’s mind raced. Maybe Valerie had passed out somewhere drunk and these men were just bringing her home? Yes, that would be a definite possibility, and not the first or last time it happened. But something about the man’s tone sent a warning shivering up her spine.

Valerie groaned.

“That’s right. Come on, now. I don’t have all day.”

“Haywood?” She sounded alarmed. “What do you want?”

He laughed. “You know what I want. I gave you specific instructions: Drop off the package, and bring me back the envelope. Only half of the job got done, so I’m here to remedy that oversight.”

“I told you what happened. You should be looking for Ginger. She stole it right out of my goddamn hands while I was sleeping.”

“And why were you sleeping, Valerie?” Haywood’s voice grew stern. “Perhaps you dipped into the package and took a little product for yourself? You see, I knew you’d have trouble resisting, which is why I told you no stops were allowed between the pickup and drop-off.”

Without issuing a denial, Valerie started crying. “Well, what are you gonna do?”

“I suppose I’ll have to track down this industrious offspring of yours. But first, I’m afraid my associate here will be messing up that face of yours worse than the drugs already have.”

Heavy footsteps crossed the carpet, muffling Valerie’s sobbing.

Tears rolled down Ginger’s cheeks when the she heard the first blow. She’d caused this. Whatever Valerie’s shortcomings as a mother were, this situation was on Ginger’s head. She couldn’t stand there and let her mother take a beating for her actions. Furthermore, if this Haywood character succeeded in tracking her down in Chicago, she would lead him straight to Willa. And Derek.

Maybe she could walk out there and give Haywood the money, chalk it up to a big misunderstanding. They’d laugh and toss back a cold one. No harm done.


Ginger took a deep breath. It was time to end this. She stood and marched into the living room, the bag of money clutched in her hand. “All right, I’ve got your money. You can stop hitting her now.”

Haywood immediately drew his gun, pointing it in her direction. Without flinching, Ginger put both hands in the air, bag and all. She couldn’t bring herself to look at her mother, nor could she take her eyes off the gun, but Haywood signaled for the other man to step away from Valerie. Her mother slumped to the floor, choking Ginger with guilt.

Haywood’s eyes tracked down her body and he raised an interested eyebrow. With black hair and a goatee, he appeared much younger than his cultured voice indicated. “Well, if I’d known you were the thief, I’d have looked for you sooner.”

“No need for that now.” Ginger tossed the bag onto the floor. “I didn’t know who it belonged to and I made a mistake. Take it and leave us be.”

His eyes never left hers. “Count it, Winston.”

Winston lumbered forward and Ginger shuddered seeing the blood on his knuckles. Her mother’s blood. He picked up the bag and dropped it on the couch.

“You think this makes us even? It don’t,” Valerie slurred. Swallowing, Ginger faced her mother. Face already swelling, her blood-matted hair hung in dull hanks over her eyes. Valerie looked far worse than the last time Ginger saw her, but she could still glimpse the beautiful woman buried beneath prematurely aged skin and sunken eyes, making it twice as tragic.

“I’d have to agree with you there. We’re the furthest thing from even.”

“I know sarcasm when I hear it.” Blood dribbled down her chin. “I know what you two girls think of me. Willa made it clear as crystal over the phone she don’t ever want to see me again.”

Ginger straightened. “Willa called you? When?”

“Shit, I can’t remember. Last month? Yesterday?”

She shook her head. Why hadn’t Willa said anything? She looked back at Valerie. Tears tracked down her bloody cheeks, her body shaking with the force of her sobs.

“You know, it ain’t easy raising two little babies on your own.” She swiped a filthy hand across her cheek. “I was going to get myself together one day, and then twenty-some-odd years came and went before I could blink, you know? It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

Suppressing the need to reach out and place a hand on her beaten-down mother’s shoulder, Ginger swallowed her sympathy. “Well, it is. It damn well is like this, Valerie.”

Ginger took one last look at her mother before turning away. Haywood, however, was watching them closely.

“It’s short, boss,” Winston said from where he sat with the rolls of cash.

Haywood’s face pulled into a wide smile. “Short, you say?”

“By twenty-eight hundred.”

Ginger’s mind raced. Oh God, the security deposit on the apartment. She’d completely forgotten. “I can get it for you. Just take me to an ATM and I’ll withdraw what’s missing.” Her checking account could likely cover that amount. She’d barely spent a dime of the money she’d earned at Sensation.

“Sure, that won’t be a problem. I’m assuming you can cover the interest as well?”

Her heart sank. “Interest?”

Haywood sauntered toward her, one clammy hand reaching out to caress her cheek. Ginger steeled herself so she wouldn’t flinch. “You’ve put me in a bad position with quite a few people. I can’t let that slide.”

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