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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Paw of the Jungle

A Paw Enforcement Novel (Volume 8)

Diane Kelly

St. Martin's Paperbacks




The Poacher

Please say yes.

He knew it was dumb to cross his fingers, that the childish gesture wouldn’t change anything, but he needed any help he could get.

The man leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, sending a pointed look over his desk. “We’ve taken chances on ex-cons before. It hardly ever works out.”

The guy’s words weren’t exactly encouraging, but he wouldn’t have offered an interview to a felon if they weren’t desperate to fill their openings. Besides, he’d said hardly ever, not never. How can I convince this guy to give me the job?

“I got early release for good behavior,” the Poacher said. “I’ll do what I’m told. I just want to earn an honest living. I’m not the same man who—”

“Stole from his employers?” The man’s brows lifted, his forehead ridged like corrugated metal.

The Poacher’s gut tightened. He’d planned to say he wasn’t the same man who’d made those stupid mistakes years ago, but there was no point in arguing with the guy—especially when he was right. Even so, the Poacher had only been trying to provide for his family, to give them the things they needed and deserved. He hadn’t done it for himself. He wasn’t a bad guy. But trying to explain himself or excuse his behavior wouldn’t get him anywhere.

“I learned my lesson,” he said, quickly adding “sir” even though the guy interviewing him was his own age or younger. “Look. I really need this job. I’ve got a wife and three kids to take care of.” Well, he had the three kids, anyway. Despite a dozen heartfelt proposals, Vicki had never agreed to make their relationship official. Maybe she’ll change her mind if I land this job. “I promise if you hire me, I’ll work hard and won’t give you any trouble.”

The man grunted, still not fully convinced. “The job requires working outside in all kinds of weather.”

“No problem.” After eighteen months in a concrete cage, it would be a treat to be outside, even in rain or sleet or wind.

The interviewer narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “You willing to work weekends?”

The Poacher leaned forward earnestly. “Whatever you need. I’m your man.”

The guy sat back in his chair and released a slow, long, and loud breath. “All right,” he said finally. “You can start tomorrow. But one screwup and you’ll be out on your ass. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir.” For the first time in a year, his mouth spread in a sincere smile. Things are finally turning around. He stood and offered his hand across the table. “Thank you. You won’t be sorry.”

The man took his hand, but gave him a skeptical look in return. “We’ll see.”

* * *

Vicki’s narrow face wore that same skeptical expression when she opened the door of the tiny wood-frame house. Seemed he’d been looking at skeptical faces all his life. Ugh. In addition to the cynical scowl, she wore skintight jeans, high-heeled ankle boots, and a V-neck sweater that revealed another V formed by her cleavage. Some had called her trashy, but the Poacher had always called her beautiful. His groin tightened at the sight of her lean curves, her baby-blue eyes, and those wild copper curls. It had been far too long since they’d been together. The state of Texas didn’t allow conjugal visits. Talk about your cruel punishments. He hadn’t realized when he’d been sentenced to a year and a half in the slammer that he’d also been sentenced to a case of blue balls. He wondered if another man had since been meeting Vicki’s needs. The thought made him want to punch the siding. But he knew he wouldn’t win her back if he got angry.

“Hey, babe.” His breath fogged in the winter air as he offered her a grin. Hell, it was the only thing he had to offer her. He’d been given a mere fifty dollars on his release from prison, and he’d spent most of that on the cab ride to get here. He leaned against the door frame, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops and crooking his arms to emphasize the biceps he’d developed in the prison gym. “I’m home.”

A spotted cat twined around her ankles as she eyed his new muscles. She put her cigarette to her lips and took a deep drag before shooting smoke out the side of her mouth. “How can you be home? You’ve never lived here.”

True. When he’d left for prison, they’d been sharing a tiny two-bedroom apartment a couple miles away.

“Besides,” she added, “that’s my decision. Not yours.”

She had a point. This house belonged to her. She’d somehow managed to save enough of her tip money to put a down payment on the place and convince a bank to give her a mortgage. He’d never been able to save a penny, and there was no way he’d qualify for a loan. His credit score approximated his IQ. They’d even had to put his pickup truck in her name. The car dealer wouldn’t have sold it to him otherwise. The truck was parked in her driveway now. She hung on to my truck. That says something, don’t it?

“I missed you,” he said softly, locking his gaze on hers. “You were the first thing I thought about when I woke up every morning and the last thing I thought about when I fell asleep every night.” In between, he was mostly thinking of ways he could avoid getting the shit beat out of him … or worse. “I counted each second until I could see you again. It was the only thing that kept me going.” He ran his gaze down her sweater and jeans to her boots, and back up again. “Is it my imagination, or did you get even sexier while I was locked up?”

She softened ever so slightly at his sweet talk, the change perceptible only to one who knew her so well. Taking a chance, he took a step toward her. She turned her head away. He recognized the gesture. It meant she was giving in, but felt ashamed of herself for it. He reached out to touch her hair but she moved like a ninja, raising her arm to block his hand. Ashes fell from her cigarette to the porch. She dropped her cigarette after them, grinding out the butt with her heel.

“Come on, Vicki,” he pleaded. “Let me come in. It’s cold out here.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, making no move to let him past. “You’ve brought me nothing but trouble. Give me one good reason why I should let you in.”

“Because I love you,” he said. “I bet you still love me, too.”

She rolled her eyes. “Been there, done that. All it got me was heartache. You’re gonna have to come up with a better reason for me to let you back into our lives.”

Our lives? A hot spark flared in him. Their children were as much his as they were hers. Despite that fact, she hadn’t once brought them to see him in prison during the year and a half he’d spent inside. But now that he was out, he could enforce visitation if he had to. Still, no sense getting her all riled up. “I’ve got a job.” He’d been taught some job skills in prison, ones that would help him stay on the straight and narrow. “They’re starting me tomorrow. I’ll be able to pay you that back child support I owe you.” Eventually.

She issued a derisive huff. “I’ve heard this story before. It always ends in you getting fired.”

“Not this time!” He closed his eyes and took a breath to calm himself. When he opened his eyes, he said, “I’m going to work hard, make something of myself. Take care of you and the kids.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

A sweet little voice came from behind him. “Daddy?”

He turned to see the yellow school bus rolling off down the side street and his seven-year-old daughter standing on the cracked sidewalk. She wore a puffy white jacket with black sleeves. Black ears stood up from the hood, which featured the face of a panda bear. Pandas had always been her favorite animals. Her hands gripped the front straps of the backpack slung over her shoulders. His heart soared. He knew a father wasn’t supposed to play favorites, but he couldn’t help it. He loved his two little boys, but Harper, his firstborn, had always been his pride and joy, a daddy’s girl through and through.

When she realized the man on her porch was, in fact, her father, her lips curled up in a smile that revealed a big gap between her teeth. When he’d last seen her, she’d still had all her baby teeth, and both she and her hair were several inches shorter. He’d missed out on a big part of her life, another gap for the two of them. I’ll die before I let that happen again.

“Hey, squirt!” He bent down and stretched out his arms.

She ran full speed right at him, her backpack slapping against her small shoulders. She nearly knocked him over as she hurled herself into his arms, but he wouldn’t have minded if she’d broken every bone in his body. His heart filled with so much emotion it was a wonder it didn’t explode. The overwhelming emotion was joy, but regret was in the mix, too.

“I missed you so much,” he said into her hair, his voice breaking. He’d really messed things up last time. But when he’d been released, he’d vowed to be the kind of father his children needed, the kind they deserved. Seeing his precious daughter only made him more determined to get things right this time.

She tried to push him back and get a look at his face. “Are you crying, Daddy?”

“’Course not.” He was, but he didn’t want Vicki to know. She’d already made him feel like half a man. He discreetly turned his head, wiping his tears on the hood of his daughter’s black-and-white coat. “How was school?”

“Good!” She eased out of her backpack and unzipped it, reaching in to retrieve a piece of wide-lined notebook paper and thrusting it in his face. “Look! I got a hundred on my spelling test.”

He took the paper. The list included some difficult words for a seven-year-old. “Because.” “Caught.” “Bright.” That last word certainly described his daughter. Although he’d like to think otherwise, he was smart enough to know she didn’t get her brains from him. He’d never done well in school, even when he tried. His father had always said he’d been born stupid and had only grown stupider since. As if that man were some kind of Einstein.

Harper blinked her hazel eyes. At least she got something from me. “You done good,” he told her. “Made me and your mama proud.”

She beamed. “I made this, too.”

She pulled another paper from her backpack, this one green construction paper cut in the shape of a Christmas tree. Gold glitter drifted down to the porch like fairy dust. Harper must’ve used a whole jar of the stuff on her picture. The tree featured a bunch of plastic beads, too, strung on yarn to resemble lights. She’d written her name on the back, adding a curl to the tail on the letter p as she’d done since she first learned to write in kindergarten. She said the curl made the letter prettier, and that it wasn’t fair for the lower-case g, j, and q to get a curl but not the p. Luckily for Harper, the teachers didn’t seem to mind.

“Come on, Daddy.” Harper grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. “Let’s hang them on the fridge.”

Vicki frowned as they squeezed past her, but made no attempt to stop them.

He glanced around as his baby girl led him into the living room. The place was a cluttered but comfortable home. The scent of cigarettes and the morning’s cinnamon toast hung in the air. A space heater whirred in the corner, warming the small den. Cheap secondhand furniture filled the room, mismatched but functional. He recognized most of it from their old apartment. A playpen sat in the corner, blankets and teethers strewn about inside. Toys in all shapes and sizes littered the scratched hardwood floors. He knew instantly which ones were Harper’s—the stuffed animals, the plastic barn complete with a set of farm animals, the collectible horses.

Harper hung her backpack on a hook by the front door. As she pushed back the hood of her jacket, static electricity caused some of the shiny strands of her red hair to stick up in gravity-defying wisps. She unzipped her jacket, slid it off, and hung that on the hook, too. She’d always followed the rules, seen the world in black-and-white, just like the colors of the panda on her coat. She turned to him. “Are you going to live here, Daddy?”

He cut a glance at Vicki. Her expression said she still hadn’t made up her mind, but if anyone could convince her to let him stay it was their daughter.

“That’s up to your mother,” he said.

Vicki’s expression turned sour and she cut him an icy glare. “Thanks a lot. Now I’ll be the bad guy if I say no.”

He flashed his most charming smile. “Then don’t say no.”

“Pleeeeease, Mommy!” begged their daughter, tugging on Vicki’s sweatshirt. “Please let Daddy stay with us!” She turned to him. “You’re gonna be good this time. Right, Daddy?”

A lump of emotion clogged his throat. He gave his girl a single but definitive nod. Yes. I’ll be good this time if it kills me.

Vicki looked from him down to the little girl at her waist. “All right,” she said finally. She returned her gaze to him. “But you can only stay if you pay half the mortgage and bills, and you’ve got to pick up your truck payments. You owe me for the ones I paid while you were gone, too. And you’re sleeping on the floor in the boys’ room.”

“Fair enough.” He kept a straight face, but on the inside he knew he had her. I’ll be back in her bed in no time.

Copyright © 2019 by Diane Kelly