Award Winning Author Gwyneth Bolton
                                    
Booklist

Protect and Serve

Reviewer's Pick Affaire de Coeur Magazine
5 out of 5 Top Shelf Review from Urban-Reviews

Hightower Honors
Four brothers on a mission to protect, serve, and love...

Protect and Serve Kimani Romance, Harlequin
ISBN-10: 0373860757
ISBN-13: 978-0373860753
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Hightower Honors #1
Format: Mass Market Paperback
July 2008

Read an Excerpt

The Law of Attraction

Police detective Jason Hightower is flooded with memories when Penny Keys comes home to New Jersey. After fifteen years, he still wants to understand why she loved, lied to and left him. And he needs to know before she disappears from his life again....

Penny came home for family reasons, not to face her difficult past... or the man she still loves. But Jason is determined to have answers, answers that it breaks her heart to give. And it seems that nothing will keep Jason from the truth this time. Or, hold him back from what he wants to protect and serve the most... their chance for a future together.



Read the Reviews

Protect and Serve"PROTECT AND SERVE shows that true love is a force to be reckoned with. Gwyneth Bolton is an awesome romance writer. This is the first of a series with the same characters, and I am so looking forward to the sequel!"
— Marcia Brevard Wynn, RAWSISTAZ Reviewers, 4 Stars

"This book really hits home and rekindles hope in those who have been brokenhearted, or to the one who has broken someone's heart. The author conveys to her audience of readers the optimistic message that in discouraging situations, no issue, no span of time, or difference can break two people who are truly in love."
— Sistah Shauna, Sistah Friend Book Club, 5 Sistah Hugs

"PROTECT AND SERVE is the first book in the Hightower Honors series by Gwyneth Bolton. This sexy, sassy story was fun to read… The Hightowers are a family of policemen and firemen that is sure to make for an exciting premise in this series that will follow the four Hightower brothers."
— Tammy, Fallen Angels Reviews, 5 Angels

"Gwyneth Bolton has a style of writing that just flows on the pages. She is able to bring the characters to life in her books. PROTECT AND SERVE had several subplots that added to the dynamics of the storyline. It will leave you longing to learn more about the other Hightower men. Ms. Bolton has done it again!"
— Tenecia for Urban-Reviews, 5 Stars

"Gwyneth Bolton presents with the first installment of a powerful love series of hunky service men in PROTECT AND SERVE of the Hightower Series... Gwyneth Bolton has done an extraordinary job at thrilling her readers with tender romance, unsuspected suspense and truly unforgettable characters as she has written a delectable tale with powerful undercurrents of truths, desires and love."
— Eleanor Shields, Black Butterfly, Five Flutters

"PROTECT AND SERVE is the first book in Gwyneth Bolton's HIGHTOWER HONORS series. There's no way you can resist falling for any of the Hightower family—with the exception of the uppity aunt. They're a close knit group with a lot of appeal. It's so easy to relate to Penny. She's made mistakes which she's fully aware of and would rather do anything than admit to the error of her ways. There's no shortage of interesting characters to keep readers engrossed in this story and I'm hoping will see more of Terrill and Penny's business partner Maritza in one of the other books in this series. Their ongoing verbal battles are just too funny. Joel, Patrick, and Lawrence Hightower are all extremely different and honorable so I'm really looking forward to each of the other brothers stories. Gwyneth Bolton definitely knows how to make an impact with her strong storylines and loveable characters."
— Christine Dionne, Romance Junkies, 5 Blue Ribbons

"Though PROTECT AND SERVE has a well-developed plot, I did have an issue with some aspects of Penny's secret that did not go over well with me; however, the other plot twists more than made up for that. Of course, the love scenes were steamy hot and only added fuel to the fire. The secondary characters were hilarious. I love the other Hightower brothers and can't wait for their stories. I would have loved to grow up in a neighborhood with some fine brothers like these. They are policemen and firemen and there is just something about men in uniform that puts a smile on my face. You can't leave out and don't forget Carla, Penny's mother who was a hot mess, but is so funny and Sophie who is always in the center of somebody's business and definitely needs to be put in her place. Bravo, Ms. Bolton, on a job well done. PROTECT AND SERVE is definitely a book worth reading. I can't wait for MAKE IT HOT, the next story in the Hightower Brothers series."
— Keren Childers, Romance In Color, 4+ Stars

"Bolton proves why she is an award-winning author in this captivating story. She stirs in dangers of the hood, mixes in a little dysfunctional family spice, and peppers the story with the breakdown of friendships which cooks up a sensual love story. The characters add to the recipe by using strong emotions that will unveil family secrets that will either tear them apart or bring them together. As in most African American families, Big Mama's spirit helps them—to forgive each other, overcome prideful spirits and love as families should. PROTECT AND SERVE is the first part in the Hightower Honors series and if this is any indication of future installments...they are must haves for any romance lover."
— Deltareviewer, The Real Page Turners Reviewers, 5 Stars

"Protect and Serve is a powerful story about truth and drama in the 'hood.' Ms. Bolton captures the primal essence of the hopelessness prevailing in the inner city while showing the strengths of family, spirituality and love that is essential in overcoming that hopelessness. A truly beautiful love story that will keep you captivated until the end."
— Lani Roberts, Affaire de Coeur Magazine. 5 Stars

"A well written book with thwarted love and a little mystery thrown into the mix, PROTECT AND SERVE is a sensual romance with which to while away a pleasant afternoon. The romantic tension and sizzle when Penny and Jason are in the same room make this a book a romance that readers won't want to miss."
— Marilyn Heyman, Romance Reviews Today

"Protect and Serve was a real life story that answered the question of whether home is really where the heart is. Bolton addressed many issues that suddenly pop up while preparing for a funeral and some issues that families simply try to hide and not discuss. The story was funny, a bit of a mystery and romantic. Once you meet the Hightower family, I am sure you will look forward to reading the other books in the series."
— Priscilla C. Johnson, APOOO Book Club 4 Stars

"Nobody does enduring romance better than Gwyneth Bolton…You'll never have to skip a love scene in PROTECT AND SERVE, providing the Sensual Heat Level is in your comfort zone as a romance reader. And maybe even if it isn't... No author writes a better sensual love scene than Gwyneth Bolton, in my opinion... If you asked me last week which one was my favorite, I would have said SWEET SENSATION. Today, I just don't know. PROTECT AND SERVE is right up there with it."
— Kimber An, Enduring Romance

"Gwyneth Bolton masterfully handles some serious social issues in Protect and Serve without allowing them to overpower the romance."
— Debbie R. Sims, Romantic Times Book Review



Read an Excerpt

Protect and Serve

The worst part about funerals was you had to make nice and be cordial to people you either despised or couldn't care less about. There was something about death that brought out all the clichés: Life is short. You never know when you're going to go. Treat each day like it's your last. As if coming to face to face with mortality would make a person want to "get right" before they had to explain to Saint Peter why they didn't do better.

Penny Keys understood all of this in theory. But with Big Mama gone, she could care less about the niceties and what she should be doing.

Sophie Hightower embraced Penny as if the woman had been Big Mama's closest friend and ran off at the mouth about how good it was to see Penny again. And it was all Penny could do not to haul off cussing in the funeral home and shake up the stayed and calm wake.

"Thanks, Sophie." Penny couldn't bring herself to fake proclamations of any kind to the old evil mouthed hateful woman. She could barely register a smile. Ever since getting the call from her own mother, Carla, telling her Big Mama had passed away, Penny hadn't been fully thinking or feeling. She functioned. She organized, planned, and took care of everything. But feeling? That was gone.

Heartbroken, dejected, lost...

Those words didn't even begin to describe her mood. They certainly couldn't cover the large hole that seemed to stretch on and on in her spirit. She only remembered feeling this empty one other time in her life. She had no idea the hollowness in her heart left over from that loss had any room for expansion. Yet, there it was growing and threatening to take her over at any moment if she dared let go of her tenuous grip on control.

Giving the funeral home another once over, Penny couldn't find Carla or anyone else who might save her from cursing

Sophie out and making a mockery of Big Mama's wake, anyone, that is, but the man who caught her gaze immediately. Jason Hightower.

She also knew the very minute Sophie Hightower caught the passing glances between Penny and Jason, because the old woman's fake smile dried up and her well wishing facial expression took on a slightly hard glare. Sophie's lips twisted up as if she'd bitten into something bitter and her shoulders reared back causing her overly large bosom to poke out even more than the pointy cones already did. The tall rich-mocha complexioned woman with the full-figure would have been considered foreboding on a good day. Once she had her panties in a bunch over her one of her precious nephews possibly falling victim to an unworthy-hood-girl like Penny, forget about it… Attitude overload.

Penny straightened her own back and swallowed. She felt her hands clenching together at her side. She resisted the urge to take a scrunchie out of her purse, put her long sisterlocks in a ponytail, dig out the Vaseline, and take off her earrings in preparation.

I will not cause a scene. I will not...

"So, when are you going back to California, Penny? You know there's nothing for you here." Sophie's right eye slanted and her lip tilted in a bit of a snarl.

Get thee behind me Satan. I will not cuss this old woman out at Big Mama's wake. I just won't do it. I don't care what you have this old biddy say to me.

As if on cue, Jason came walking over with his confident swagger and cocky demeanor.

Was it her or did the people in the crowded room of the funeral home seem to part and make way for Jason as he zeroed in on her? Penny hadn't seen him in fifteen years and didn't want to face him now. It didn't appear she had much choice.

She tried to focus on anything else in the room besides him and kept her gaze on the metal folding chairs in the corner, the stack of church fans piled on the wooden table along with a big white guest book and carefully folded programs. Even with those things to gaze at, her eyes still managed to find Jason's again.

The dark brown pools full of accusation and allure would surely be the death of her or, at the very least, the end of her sanity if she continued to look into them.

"Hi, Aunt Sophie." Jason gave his aunt a big hug all the while keeping his eyes fixed on Penny.

He had changed some from the eighteen-year-old love of her life. His athletic build appeared stronger, more substantial, if that were possible. He was still tall. And his deep mahogany complexion was still flawless. For some reason however, this grown up Jason seemed larger than life and his presence filled the room and left her feeling a barrage of things she didn't dare try and label. The dark navy blue designer suit he wore fit like it was custom-made for him.

They must be paying police detectives good these days, Penny thought wryly as she let her eyes roam Jason's appealing but also very off-limits body.

She was there to bury Big Mama and that was it. As much as she despised the meddling Sophie Hightower, the woman was right. There wasn't anything there for Penny, anything or anyone.

"Penny." The stiff and stilted tone of voice as well as his clipped manner let her know Jason was only speaking to be polite and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Fine with me.

He kept those sexy, daring brown eyes on her though. The straight and serious line of his mouth made her long for the days when those lips held only smiles for her.

Protect and Serve

Even though she secretly longed to see him smile just once so she could see if the sight of those perfect teeth, full lips and the dimple in his right cheek still had the capability to make her heart stop, she knew it was a lost cause.

And she didn't have time for things she couldn't change, wrongs she couldn't correct.

She only needed to bury her grandmother and get out of town so she could have the nice private breakdown she had been putting on hold since she got the news.

"Jason." He wasn't the only one who could give a one word greeting. She would have been willing to forgo speaking at all. She could very well do without the just under the surface bad feelings threatening to bubble up and explode.

"Sorry about Big Mama. She'll be missed. I used to stop by and check up on her a couple of times during the week. I never would have thought we'd lose her. Seemed like she would be here forever." His eyes softened a little and just as quickly hardened again.

Big Mama never told me she was visiting with Jason twice a week.

But Big Mama wouldn't have. When Penny called, it was all about Penny. And Penny was sure when Jason visited Big

Mama made those moments just for him. That was her way.

The huge lump taking up residence in her chest since she had gotten the news of Big Mama's passing began to throb.

Big Mama was really gone and there was nothing she could do about it. The thought of it made her want to curl up in a corner and just weep until she ran out of tears.

But there was too much to do now. She could cry when she went back to Los Angeles. Right now, she needed to get the wake and the awkward reunion with Jason and his evil aunt over and done with.

With no time to get choked up, Penny took a deep breath. Taking another, she relished the calm that overcame her body.

Sophie cleared her throat and stepped back. "Yes she will be missed dearly. The Deaconess board at Mt. Zion won't be the same without her."

Giving Penny a quick and cutting glare, she added, "I'm going to leave you to greet the rest of your guests dear. Come along, Jason. Penny can't be rude and spend all her time talking to us."

Subtlety had never been Sophie's strong point.

"You can go ahead, Aunt Sophie. I'll catch up with you." Jason nodded at his aunt and then returned his intense stare to Penny.

No, you go too. Follow your dear sweet aunt. I can't deal with you right now Jason Hightower. Urgh…

Penny inhaled and exhaled.

Remember, calm, girly, calm.

She wondered what kind of visualization technique she could use to ease her nerves and get her through the wake and the close proximity of the former love of her life. The image of Sophie Hightower's head being compressed in a metal vice held some appeal.

A bright, gleaming, false smile covered Sophie's face just before she cut her eyes at Penny. "Fine. I'm going to go and find my baby brother." She turned to her nephew. "Be sure not to tie up too much of Penny's time." She draped her scarf across her shoulder and haughtily took off across the room.

Penny watched Sophie waltz away, all the while mentally crushing the woman's head until Jason's smooth baritone interrupted her concentration.

"It's good to see you back in spite of the horrible circumstances, Penny. Too bad you couldn't have visited when Big Mama was alive."

How did his cocky, tell everyone what they need to be doing personality not bother me all throughout high school? Oh wait… it did until he made me fall in love with him...

Penny swallowed. Being home again dredged up enough of her feelings of guilt. She didn't need Jason to remind her of all the reasons why she was a horrible person.

Protect and Serve

She knew she should have visited more. During the time she had been away, she had spoken to Big Mama five, sometimes six times a week. Penny had flown her grandmother out to Los Angeles for visits at least once a year once she had finished school and could afford the costs. She never neglected the woman who had raised her.

Penny pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. "Big Mama understood better than anyone my reasons for moving away and staying away. And most important, she knew I loved her."

"Are you sure about that? Because from what I could see that woman missed you and mourned you the entire time.

And for you to stay away that long shows what a cruel, heartless, selfish—" Jason took a deep breath, glared at her and cut himself off.

She knew he was about to say something that couldn't be taken back and it wouldn't be the first time.

The two of you deserve each other, a backstabber and a slut. I can't believe I ever trusted either one of you. The harsh words he had spoken fifteen years ago echoed in her mind as she took in his handsome mahogany face. The ruggedly handsome and manly face glaring at her right now had residual traces of the anger that had covered his handsome but more boyish face fifteen years ago.

She braced herself as best she could, given the fact she had just lost the only person in the world who understood her and loved her unconditionally. And the only other person she had ever loved with her whole being was standing in front of her blasting her out in a creepily déjà vu manner.

She inhaled and exhaled several times in succession. "You need to calm down, Jason. This is not the time or the place.

If you cared about Big Mama as much as you claim you did, then you wouldn't disrespect her wake like this."

A hand rested on her shoulder and stopped her from saying more. Praying it wasn't her mother Carla, Penny turned around.

Terrill had finally made it.

Penny let out a sigh of relief.

"Everything all right?" Terrill spoke the words to her but his serious hazel eyes remained fixed on Jason.

Giving one of her oldest and dearest friends a heartfelt hug and greeting, Penny felt herself shake just a little. She had no idea how much longer she was going to be able to hold-up. But at least with Terrill there she wouldn't have to go it alone.

"Everything is fine, Terrill. I'm glad you were able to make it."

She had just seen her friend before she left Los Angeles. So, she knew Jason's presence was what made her extra happy to see Terrill. She leaned on Terrill's sturdy shoulder and clasped the arm of his suit jacket.

Terrill smiled at her and winked, his way of letting her know he was there for her no matter what.

Most of the people in the room were checking Terrill out. Success seemed to exude off of him like ripples and those who knew him when he and his mother lived in a small one-bedroom attic apartment were either happy for him or jealous. The way eyes darted and conversations took place behind hands, showed Terrell had given many of the folks in the room something to talk about.

In fact, given the history of the three of them, the room was probably abuzz with gossip.

She was very proud of Terrill because she knew what it meant for both of them to make it from their inner-city neighborhood in Paterson to their positions as movers and shakers in Los Angeles. Not many people from Warren

Street who attended PS #10 and then Eastside High School ended up where they were. The two of them were kids from the hood who'd done well for themselves.

Shocked by how much she needed someone to lean on in this moment, she let out another sigh. Shooting a hesitant glance at Jason, she couldn't help but notice the intense anger in his glare.

Whoever said time healed all wounds told a big lie.

It seemed like everyone in the funeral home had their eyes on the trio. Penny lifted her hand to her right eye and rubbed it across the tiny scar she had gotten when she was twelve. Although barely noticeable now, whenever Penny felt uncomfortable or put on the spot, her hand found and worried the small mark. She circled it with her pointer finger for a minute before she forced herself put her hand down at her side.

So what if everyone in the funeral home was probably waiting to see if the three former best friends would cause a scene? She refused to turn into a ball of nerves for their entertainment.

Protect and Serve

As an image consultant, she knew the importance of appearances. The only thing a person really had any control over was the image they put forth. The perceptions of others might have been out of her hands, but that didn't mean she had to play to anyone's expectations.

"Hey, Jason. How's it going?" Terrill made an attempt to reach out to his old friend and met a harsh stare and a sneer for the trouble. His warm-honey complexion took on a tint of red when his former friend snubbed him. He slanted his hazel eyes and nodded.

"You're right, Penny. This isn't the time or the place." Jason gave her a once over before walking away, and didn't even bother looking at Terrill. "It wouldn't even be worth it anyway."

Her heart stilled and a pain so sharp it could only be the reopening of an old, barely healed wound throbbed in her chest. Chancing a glance at Terrill, she couldn't help noticing he had been seriously stung by Jason's words as well.

The two men hadn't been able to say a kind word to one another in fifteen years.

Terrill squeezed her shoulder and she knew he was trying to let her know he didn't blame her for losing his best friend.

His attempt at comfort made the pain even worse.

Looking at them now, no one would be able to tell people used to jokingly call them the three musketeers and tease them about being joined at the hips. They had been best friends since grade school and the three-way friendship hadn't changed when Jason and Penny became high school sweet hearts. They hadn't thought anything would be able to come between them. But they had been wrong.

Jason hated Penny and Terrill now and it was all her fault. The realization it was too late to correct the past caused a sharp pain in her chest.

Penny cringed.

If Jason Hightower could still hurt her with his words in the same way he had when she had left Paterson, New Jersey years ago, then she had no business being back there.

As soon as the funeral was over and done with, she was getting out of there as fast as her feet could carry her.

* * *

As Jason walked away, he mentally chided himself for losing control the way he did. There was something about seeing Penny again after so much time that brought back all his emotions about what had happened when they were seniors in high school and thought they had had their entire lives in front of them.

Seeing the man responsible for ruining all his dreams come up and comfort the woman he would always see as his did nothing to soothe Jason's raging emotions.

Neither of the two people who had betrayed him in the worst way possible had been home in years. Terrill had come back more often than Penny, who hadn't been home since she left. He had run into Terrill off and on through the years, but could never bring himself to speak to the man.

Of the two of them, Jason didn't know whom he blamed more.

Thinking of Terrill's betrayal made the blood run cold in his body. Numbness came over him when he saw his former best friend, the man he had thought would one day stand with him at his wedding. Any emotion he felt seemed to be layered with ice and he liked it that way. He didn't think he would ever thaw out when it came to Terrill.

And Penny? Well, seeing her in person again for the first time in fifteen years caused his blood to boil and his body to run hot.

Anger. Hurt. Attraction?

His conflicting feelings made for jacked up combination as far as he was concerned.

How could he still be attracted to her?

Seeing the two of them together made him run hot and cold at the same time and Jason wasn't comfortable with the impact their presence had on him.

It didn't help that Penny still looked gorgeous. The simple black dress she wore clung to her curves in ways that brought scandalous thoughts, certainly thoughts he shouldn't have been having at a wake, to his mind. The designer sandals with lots of straps and stiletto heels did things to her calves that caused his pulse to quicken.

But none of that compared to what it did to his heart to see the toasted cinnamon face, bold copper eyes and beautiful sandy-brown hair all in the form of a woman whom had grown up to be just as beautiful as he'd always known she would be. Her hair was styled in those thin sisterlocks and hung loosely around her face and down her back. The sandy-brown sisterlocks had soft blond and bronze highlights that shimmered and beckoned to him to reach out and caress them.

"I heard Terrill saw the light and got rid of that little slut soon after they left town." Aunt Sophie snuck up behind him and tilted her head towards the corner of the crowded funeral home where Terrill sat with Penny.

Jason didn't know how he felt about the fact his aunt had probably seen him watching the couple make their way to a set of folding chairs in the corner. He knew for sure he didn't like his supposedly saved and sanctified aunt calling

Penny a slut no matter how much the name seemed to fit.

He had even called her one himself once upon a time.

Now, in spite of how she had hurt him, he regretted lashing out at her. Years and some distance had him rethinking everything that happened back then. Maybe it was his cop's instincts, or his cold-case training, but something about those past events still nagged at him.

"Is that anyway for the president of the Deaconess Board to talk, Aunt Sophie? I swear, your mouth is worse than some of the criminals I arrest." Jason pinned a disapproving gaze on Sophie in hopes it would halt her bad talk about Penny.

"I'm just calling it like I see it. I'm just letting you know your friend Terrill had the sense to let her go. You should too.

A girl like that is bad news. Just look at her mama?" Aunt Sophie paused and hissed as she sucked her teeth in disgust.

Protect and Serve

"And Doreen, God bless the dead, as hard as she tried to make sure that Penny didn't end up like Carla, look at her.

She threw away the best thing that ever happened to her and went off to California dancing in music videos. It's a wonder Doreen didn't drop dead from the shock of it."

Sophie offered a dramatic pause and threw her head towards the heavens for effect. "Her daughter whoring her body for crack cocaine and her granddaughter whoring her body for God knows what to the tune of that God-awful rap music. Lord, have mercy."

Jason counted to ten before saying a word to his aunt. The woman meant well; he knew she did. She had been the one who had comforted him when Penny had broken his heart.

He also knew as well as anyone Penny had used those few videos she'd modeled in to help pay for college. She was a successful businesswoman now who didn't trade in on her looks, her still gut-wrenchingly beautiful looks, to make a living.

He chanced another glance at Penny and found himself lingering again over her soft cinnamon-toned skin. She had always been shapely and what had been a knockout body as a teenager had turned into to-die-for body in the woman.

Her curves spoke to him from behind her black wrap-style dress, and he silently reminded himself they were in a space for mourning, not his salivating. Captivated, he tried to get past the in-your-face realization his copper-eyed girl had turned into a gorgeous woman.

Just as he was about to open his mouth to let his aunt know what he thought of her snide remarks, he stopped himself and wondered why he felt so compelled to stand up for Penny. She had no loyalty and she certainly didn't deserve his.

Shaking his head, he walked away from his aunt instead.

Deciding he needed some air, he walked outside of Lee's Funeral Home and took big gulps. Taking in the vibrant street life happening all around him on Rosa Parks Boulevard, he had to wonder why he'd bothered to show up at the wake at all.

Sure he had loved and respected Doreen "Big Mama" Keys as much as anyone. But he could have just attended the funeral and paid his respects the next day, from a distance. As it was he'd now be seeing Penny two days in a row.

Glancing across the street, he noticed his brothers, Lawrence, Joel and Patrick exiting their vehicles. Lawrence stopped to talk to four teenagers hanging on the corner who immediately hustled to hide away their dice and cash.

Jason kept his eyes focused on them in case they gave Lawrence any trouble.

Lawrence, a well-known narcotics detective, actually worked this part of town, so Jason doubted his brother would have any trouble. Lawrence saw a lot more action as a narc than Jason did as a forensics expert and cold-case detective.

The teenagers cleared the corner and within seconds Jason's three older brothers were standing in front of him.

All three shared the trademark, Hightower good looks. They were tall, had skin in varying shades of mahogany, and trademark rugged good looks that had been known to drive women wild. Joel and Patrick were both firemen with the Paterson Fire Department. And he and Lawrence were both detectives with the Paterson Police Department.

"Hey, lil' bro." Joel reached out and gave Jason a quick hug.

Lawrence and Patrick followed with the same greeting and they all just stood there.

He could tell they were trying to feel him out and they wanted to ask if he'd seen Penny yet.

"We came to pay our respects," Patrick offered clearly sick of the silence. His older brother normally had little use for small talk or other common niceties. He was a shoot from the hip kind of guy whose brash manner normally didn't go over well with the ladies.

"Yeah. That's good. You should. Big Mama was a great woman," Jason responded.

"She here?" Never one to mince words, Joel seldom bit his tongue. However, he usually tempered his demeanor with wise cracks and his playboy charm. He was definitely the lady's man of the family.

Jason caught Lawrence giving Joel a why-did-you-bring-that-up look.

"She's here," was all Jason could say in response.

"Well it was a long time ago, Jason. You need to just let it go. You guys were young. You've moved on. She's moved on. It was the past. Don't be all sulky about it fifteen years later. And for Pete's sake, don't cause any drama at the wake." Joel was only a couple of years older than Jason. But Jason swore when it came to getting in his business and trying to boss him around, Joel had the older brothers beat.

"Joel is right, Jason. This isn't the time. And besides, women are scandalous, anyway. We all know this. Don't let her deceit get to you." Patrick, still bitter from his own cheating ex-wife and divorce, wouldn't give any woman the benefit of the doubt.

Catching his woman in bed with another man must have been hard on Patrick. Even five years later he still hadn't really gotten past his bitterness.

Jason could sympathize with his older brother in more ways than he had ever let any of them know. He had never told his family the full story about his break up with Penny.

He took a deep breath. After years of distance, he now suspected the things he was made to believe back then might have been false. Determined, he knew he would find out one way or the other, once and for all.

"I agree. Shake it off, baby bro. Be the bigger person. Let it go." Lawrence slanted his left eye when he spoke as if it would help make his point more clearly. Lawrence was suspicious of just about everyone and it probably had a lot to do with the things he had seen working in the narcotics division of the police force. But he was a stand-up guy who always tried to do the right thing. The only problem was he always encouraged others to do the same.

Since Jason didn't want to have this conversation with his brothers, especially not on the front steps of the funeral home, he just nodded.

His brothers accepted his nod as confirmation Jason would let it go. But Jason wasn't certain he really could. Watching as they entered the funeral home, Jason let the pep talk his brothers gave him stew for a moment. Yes, he could be the bigger person and not confront Penny, but he needed to know a few things. He still had some burning questions.

Pieces of the puzzle didn't fit.

Since solving old crimes and mysteries had become his job, he looked forward to having the chance to apply his cold-case detective skills to this very personal area of his life.

He would have to work on his approach if he were going to solve this case. He hadn't meant to approach her with such an attitude. But there was something about seeing her again. And when Terrill showed up… well… that had been the last straw.

"This is a tough time for Penny you know. Big Mama was the only person who had always been there for her no matter what. She's taking it hard so you really need to lay off about the past."

Terrill! Speak of the devil.

Jason turned to see his former best friend and it was all he could do to contain himself. He had already mistakenly showed them he still felt hurt by their betrayal and he didn't want to let them see any more of his vulnerability.

"Shouldn't you be inside with her then, if she's so torn up? Isn't that what lovers are supposed to do for one another? Comfort? Console? Why are you out here talking to me?"

"I'm out here because despite what you think, I want what's best for everyone involved. She doesn't need the stress.

It's bad enough she has to deal with Carla and you know how that can be." Terrill ran his hand through his close-cropped naturally curly and sighed. "You don't need to be all hung up on a past you barely understand. There's a lot you just don't know, Jason. If I could tell you without breaking confidences, I would."

Jason watched the kids ride their bikes down the crowded street along with the other hustle and bustle activities of an urban city on a spring evening. Paterson's streets were full of life and pulsed with energy once the days became warmer and longer. There might not have been a lot of flowers in bloom or trees blossoming in the tenement jungle, but spring was definitely in the air. While observing the heartbeat of his beloved city, Jason counted to ten.

It didn't work.

The fact still remained Terrill was the same pretty-boy who went off to Los Angeles with Jason's girl. He was the same former record company intern who had made it possible for Jason's girl to dance in rap videos, thereby torturing Jason for years because he could still see her everywhere but she was no longer his.

Protect and Serve

If anyone in the world knew how much Jason had loved Penny, it was Terrill. For those reasons alone, Terrill's betrayal was unforgivable.

"Oh! Now, you have morals. Where were they fifteen years ago when you stole my girl?"

Terrill threw his hands up and shook his head. "I give up man. I tried but you're stuck in the past. You need to let it go.

And like I said, lay off with the guilt trips on Penny. She doesn't need that right now."

Watching Terrill walk away, Jason was almost tempted to chase him and finish the fight. It was a fight fifteen years in the making and he was sure they would have it eventually.

Maybe the wake wasn't the time and place. But he would get answers this time, especially from the woman who'd broken his heart.