The buzzer installed at Table of Hope’s bulletproof security door echoed through the hallway signaling to Olivia Wyatt that she had a visitor. Somebody needed to get inside the homeless mission and out of the gusting wind, unusually cold for Waco, Texas even in November. The converted warehouse was perpetually locked from the inside since it was in a dicey, old part of town that was beyond the reach of revitalization.
“I got it Miss Livvy,” Velma called from the check-in desk.
Olivia was elbow deep in a carton of jeans donated for her shelter’s clients when Velma swept into the women’s sleeping quarters a few minutes later and swooned across a lower bunk with Scarlett O’Hara flair.
“If you’re already worn out it’s gonna be a long night for me.” Olivia doubted fatigue had anything to do with her buddy’s theatrics. Velma was a natural drama queen.
“Not tired, just need some smelling salts after bein’ up close to what just came through the front door,” she insisted, fanning herself and rolling playful eyes. Prone to exaggerations, this was excessive even for Velma.
“Let me guess, Brad Pitt needs a place to stay tonight?” Olivia continued sorting clothes.
“This man’s every bit that good lookin’ but more in a Johnny Depp with a shaved head kinda way. And he’s asking for you, so go take a look at those dangerous eyes for yourself.” Velma sat up, crossed stubby legs campfire-style and reached for a plus-size pair of second hand denims.
Olivia turned her full attention to the conversation.
“Really, he asked for me?”
“Said his name’s Stone but looks more like velvet,” Velma giggled and fake shuddered.
Olivia couldn’t help laughing at her friend, a key member of the core group accepted for Table of Hope’s resident program. Working side-by-side with her small team was changing Olivia’s life as much as it was changing theirs.
By the grace of God her dream of providing homeless outreach had become a reality when they’d served their first meal on a sultry summer evening five months earlier. The days had scattered like fall leaves and now a Thanksgiving wreath made of yellow and orange gourds decorated the front door. It was a perfect complement to the building she’d painted rooster red with green shutters to make it inviting in spite of the burglar bars on every window.
“If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’ Miss Livvy,” Velma insisted. “He’s all wrapped up in a black jacket with a hood probably to hide jailhouse tattoos. And this one even smells nice.”
“Girl,” Olivia slurred the word as Velma would. “You need to get a grip and stop carrying on every time a clean man walks through our door.”
Velma pointed toward the hallway. “Take a gander at that tall drink o’ water for yourself.” She fanned both hands before her chubby face.
“Okay,” Olivia gave in. “I wasn’t expecting Mr. Stone until tomorrow but now’s as good a time as any to get started. I need to stretch the kinks out of my legs and check on dinner anyway.”
She pushed to her feet and enjoyed the pleasant cracking of her spine as she arched her back. Twenty strides carried her out of the women’s sleeping quarters, down the corridor past the laundry area and around the corner to the front lobby. Just as Velma had described, a long slender male body was folded into one of the reception chairs, his shrouded head and a pencil poised over a clipboard questionnaire.
“Good afternoon, I’m Olivia Wyatt,” she extended her hand.
The man straightened in the chair, turning his face toward hers. As their eyes met she wanted to wince away from the powerful connection that sent a spark sizzling through her central nervous system. Velma’s description of his dangerous eyes was right on the money.
“Heath Stone.” He stood and reached to exchange the courtesy. “Detective Biddle said you’d be expecting me.”
Olivia took a split second to compare the reality before her with the computer hacker she’d agreed to take in while he worked off a hundred hours of community service.
If this guy’s an Internet nerd, I’m a Mexican drug lord.
From the way Heath Stone had been described to her, Olivia expected a geek complete with pocket protector. Detective Biddle had called earlier in the day to ask a big favor. Since the Waco computer crimes detective had become something of a benefactor to Table of Hope, Olivia was more than willing to repay his kindness. She agreed to accept Stone into her program while he worked off his sentence for hacking into the city’s intranet.
She’d been warned that beneath Stone’s quiet and somewhat sulking exterior there was a skilled and clever cyber criminal. Well, growing up around a lying father and then earning a degree in social work had taught Olivia a thing or two about recognizing the lies of men. She’d not only keep a close eye on Mr. Stone, she’d keep him busy with laundry, cooking, cleaning and Bible study.
She accepted the hand he’d shoved outward, squared her shoulders a bit and returned his stare.
Undercover officer Heath Stone locked eyes with the woman before him as she pressed her warm palm into his cold grip. He felt the pads of Olivia Wyatt’s fingers, dry and work callused. If the lady wasn’t afraid of physical labor she just might be bold enough to let her old man run recreational drugs through this innocent looking place.
“Welcome to Table of Hope,” she sounded sincere enough. “I’m glad you made it this evening. We can always use help with dinner service.”
The raven haired beauty assigned to his surveillance would put this year’s crop of Texas debutants to shame. Her baggy, pinkish sweater and faded jeans fell across feminine curves on a frame that looked to be about five foot ten. She reminded him of that girl who married Tom Cruise, but with more flesh on her bones.
Heath liked tall women, admired the few who realized stature was an asset. Instead of slouching and rounding her shoulders to camouflage an inch or two, this lady stretched her spine, held her head high, even lifted her chin to stare at him with confident eyes.
Her body language left no doubt that she was in charge.
First impressions count. He hadn’t anticipated such a positive one from a woman suspected of having connections to a Mexican drug cartel. But Heath learned early in his career as a cop that looking innocent didn’t make a dope dealer any less of a criminal.
“You can fill out that paperwork later.” She indicated the clipboard, and then jerked her thumb toward the corridor. “Come with me and we’ll put you to work.”
Obviously expecting he’d do as she instructed the lady turned about-face, headed down the hall at a fast clip and disappeared through an open doorway.
“Oh, and pull the lobby door closed behind you, please!” she hollered.
He slung a backpack over his shoulder and followed orders, looking left and right as he passed down the wide corridor that smelled of paint from the jumble of wild colors on the walls. To his right a large room was filled with several rows of barracks-style bunks covered in bright blue blankets. Most were empty but on a couple of mattresses men curled on their sides, sleeping. On another bunk a guy was stretched out, feet crossed comfortably, a book balanced on his chest.
“Hey, buddy.” He looked up from his reading. “Welcome.”
Heath lifted a hand, jerked his head and then turned away. He paused beside the next door marked MEN’S LOCKER ROOM, listened until he heard the flush of a toilet.
“You need some personal time?” Olivia Wyatt poked her head back into view.
“No, ma’am. Sorry to drag my feet. I was just lookin’ around.”
“No apology necessary. I’d normally give you the tour right away but we need to get busy in here.” She motioned for him follow.
“Yes, ma’am.” He lengthened his stride to join her in a room that turned out to be the kitchen.
“Please, call me Olivia. Ma’am makes me feel ancient and I’m only twenty-seven.”
“I hear ya.” He shucked off his jacket, hung it on a wall peg atop his backpack. Heath raised his voice to be heard over the rattling of pots nearby. “I know it’s a nicety mama’s teach their kids in the South, but when anybody calls me sir I can’t help lookin’ around to see if some feeble old geezer is right behind me.”
She handed him a white chef’s apron and grabbed one for herself. He followed her lead as she dropped the neck strap over her head and tied the strings behind her back. Then they moved past see-through shelves of canned goods and into a cavernous place painted in fall colors, like somebody had splattered the walls with pumpkin pie and caramel apples.
The kitchen was rimmed by ovens and cook tops with the middle reserved for butcher block tables. A scrawny gray-haired man and a guy about Heath’s age worked over piles of vegetables.
“Amos and Bruce, this is Heath Stone, our new addition to the resident program.”
The two might as well have ignored the introduction as they exchanged a glance. The younger one barely nodded, the older one grunted as they continued their duties.
Olivia caught Heath’s eye. “They’re busy getting the jump on tomorrow’s dinner.” She stopped next to a row of huge stock pots, lifted a lid and poked a long-handled fork at something inside.
“Thursday’s always vegetable soup day,” Bruce spoke matter-of-factly. “Best you ever ate.”
The other grumbled something under his breath, kept his head down revealing a bald spot and continued to add to his mound of carrots.
“We always make plenty. Some people come from the other side of town for a bowl of Miss Livvy’s recipe.”
“Bruce, you have three months before you need to start buttering me up for an extension.”
The two laughed. Even the old guy managed to contort his face into a grin of sorts.
“Will you wash up and give me a hand with this, please?” Olivia held a couple of quilted mitts toward Heath. “These potatoes are ready to be mashed, but I need you to drain the water off first. Over there.” She pointed to one of several deep sinks.
He quickly soaped and rinsed his hands, donned the mitts and then carefully dodged the blistering curtain of steam that rose off the potatoes as they drained into a wire colander. “Thanks for the gloves.”
“Good kitchen help is hard to find. We try not to injure a new recruit on his first day.” She placed a mixing bowl about half the size of the Astrodome on the counter before him.
“Now what?” Heath waited for instructions.
“We ain’t got time to hold your hand,” Amos barked.
“Sorry, sir,” Heath responded to the jibe. “I’m better with a MAC than macaroni.”
“Oh, a wise guy,” the older man bristled. “Well, if you’re gonna keep up with us for a while you better get acquainted with the business end of a potato masher.”
Olivia handed Heath a utensil with a zig-zag shape on one end. He brought it close to his face and studied the strange kitchen tool trying to recall if he’d ever seen anything like it.
“I was planning to leave you in Bruce and Amos’s capable hands, but I’ve got some time to help out since I’m already prepared for tonight’s Bible study.”
Before he could question her last comment Olivia got busy giving him a cooking lesson. She scooped a portion of the steaming potatoes into the stainless steel bowl and then squashed away like she was working off a grudge.
“I think my mother used instant potatoes or maybe an electric mixer. Wouldn’t that be faster?”
“Look, Bill Gates,” Amos snapped, “Money don’t grow on trees around here, we make do with what’s donated. We only have one big mixer and its busy smoothin’ the lumps out of Bruce’s pitiful excuse for gravy.” He pointed toward a machine humming away on a counter top across the way.
“So I used a little too much flour,” Bruce defended himself. “Lighten up, old geezer,” he emphasized the insult.
Amos snarled and cast a menacing scowl toward Bruce.
“Okay, you two. Give it a rest,” Olivia insisted. “Nobody will notice a few lumps in the gravy once it’s poured over the potatoes.”
Amos turned his glare toward Heath. “We’ll never know unless Miss Livvy gets some help.”
“Sorry.” Heath reached toward Olivia who handed over the masher. He dumped more boiled potatoes into the bowl as she’d done and began to mash with gusto, little gobs flying as he worked. He eventually got a tub of chunky, starchy gunk for his effort.
When he paused Olivia handed him a spoon and they each took a sample mouthful.
“Kinda boring and gloppy, huh?” he asked, pretty sure nobody would want to eat the stuff.
She nodded, her smile sympathetic as she reached for a cup of water to wash down the bite.
Heath stared down at the mess. “Ugly, too,” he admitted.
“I’ll take it from here, Miss Livvy.” Amos elbowed between Heath and the counter. “Out of the way, newby. I’ll fix it since you don’t have the kitchen instinct God gave a goose.”
Without measuring a thing, the older man upended bottles of strange seasonings, dropped chunks of butter and added streams of milk to the bowl. After a couple minutes of stirring with a huge spoon till he was red in the face, Amos swiped a taste and pronounced it passable.
“It’s time for me to go help in the dining room.” He handed the spoon to Heath. “Clean up over here, and then see if you can figure out how to open those plastic bags and put the rolls in the bread baskets. And try not to make any more mess than you already have, ya pig.” Amos jerked his head toward the potato-spattered counter top before he stomped from the room.
Heath slanted a questioning look at Olivia who shrugged in response.
“I admitted up front I don’t have any experience,” Heath explained, then turned to Bruce. “My mother didn’t like me in her way while she was cooking.”
“Is there a chance you ever insulted your mama while she was fixin’ you a meal?” Bruce asked. “Cause that might explain why she didn’t want your company in her kitchen. Same goes for Amos.”
“Huh?” Heath was tired, hadn’t slept more than a few hours in a row for a couple of weeks thanks to a stakeout where the good guys had come up nearly empty handed. He was exhausted and asked to delay this assignment until tomorrow. But Biddle insisted that Heath get on the case right away, and without any of the disguises he normally used during undercover operations. He’d been told to report as is, clean faced and bare headed, a situation he’d never encountered before.
The confusion just kept on piling up. He strained his brain to understand the comparison Bruce had just made between Heath’s mama and Amos. Obviously he’d done something wrong. “Are you saying I insulted the guy?”
“When you came into the kitchen with Miss Livvy we heard what you said about sir being code for feeble old geezer. When you called Amos sir two beats later I thought that big vein on the side of his neck might explode.”
“I was simply showing respect,” Heath explained.
“You can’t have it two ways. Everything’s black and white with Amos.”
Heath looked to Olivia who nodded agreement.
He hung his head. How he wished for a beard and horn-rimmed glasses to hide his naked face. There was comfort beneath camouflage. Being out in the world like this made him feel exposed.
The real Heath Stone wasn’t exactly a guy people took to right away. And who could blame them?
Most days Heath didn’t even like himself.
“Oh, don’t worry too much about it,” Olivia gave him a break. “It may take a while but Amos will warm up once he gets to know you.”
“How long you plan to stay?” Bruce asked. A smirk twisted one corner of his mouth. “I’ve been here three months and he’s still calling me Bryan.”
“Well, Bryan,” Olivia picked up the joke, “Things are under control in here so how about checking with Velma to see if she needs help? With these freezing temps I expect a capacity night.”
Bruce nodded, scrapped his pile of chopped vegetables into a container and stored it in an over-sized fridge. He hung his apron over a peg on the way out of the kitchen.
“Sorry I got off to a bad start,” Heath felt he should apologize though he wasn’t sure he’d done anything so awful.
“Most people have the same experience with Amos.” Olivia tore big sheets of tin foil from a roll mounted on the wall and tucked them over the giant bowl of mashed potatoes.
“Including you?” Heath grabbed paper towels and began to clean up the mess he’d made.
When she didn’t respond right away he glanced up. He was captivated for the second time that hour by the fair skin that rose above the neck of her sweater and the short crop of jet black hair framing her face. Something quickened inside Heath’s chest at the thought of this woman being guilty of trafficking drugs, especially if it was to support her thieving father who’d fled the country a decade earlier to avoid prosecution for tax evasion. The feds had never given up on finding Dalton Wyatt and they wondered if he might somehow be behind the recent influx of meth and ecstasy that seemed to be passing through this shelter.
Heath watched tiny lines crinkle the corners of Olivia’s indigo eyes where she squinted as if the answer to his question was a pleasant memory.
“God’s touch was all over my first encounter with Amos.” The event was a sweet memory for Olivia. “We hit it off right away. He needed a place to live and I needed someone I could depend on.”
“What about your family?” Heath dipped his chin and turned his attention to wiping down the counter top.
“I’ve been on my own since high school, so help from family hasn’t been an option for years.”
She wondered how his life compared to hers. Wondered if he could possibly understand what it was to be alone in the world, not knowing whether you’d have food to eat or a roof over your head from one day to the next? Heath Stone spent his life sitting at a computer while she went door to door asking for donations to feed the hungry. They probably didn’t have much in common at all.
Still, she’d been asked by Detective Biddle to let Heath repay his debt to the community through service at her mission. Maybe the time he spent at Table of Hope would have a life changing impact. Maybe he’d find even more than anyone expected.