He was silent for a time, looking off into the distance before his gaze came back to her. “I was nine when Dad died. Tough age to lose your father—but no age is a good one. He was the assistant coach of my softball team and taught me the usual stuff: how to ride a bike, how to swim.”

He blew a breath, then continued, “My father had this thing about giving back to the community. Perhaps because he’d grown up as a working-class kid in South Boston himself and had gone on to become a cop.”

“Hmm,” was all she said. She’d finally gotten him going and she wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to get sidetracked by her commentary.

“Anyway, even though we could have afforded to live out in the suburbs, he wanted to stay in South Boston. He even angled his way to a job there.”

“In other words, he was into ‘community policing’ even before the term was coined,” she put in.

He nodded. “Exactly. He believed not only in police patrols, but police involvement in the community.”

“Getting to know people,” she supplied. “Coaching softball as a way to keep kids off the streets.”

He nodded again. “Right.”

She waited for him to go on.

He took a swig of his beer, then squinted into the distance as if he was trying to make out something among the trees. “One day the doorbell rang and I thought it was him, back from the evening shift. Instead it was the sergeant from his district, looking so serious I immediately got a queasy feeling in my stomach.” He shifted his gaze back to hers. “You can guess what came next.”

“How did it happen?” she asked softly. They’d known each other for years but this was the first time she’d felt comfortable enough to ask him about the circumstances of his father’s death. She ached for the boy who had opened the door to a nightmare so many years ago.

“He was responding to a break-and-enter. He caught one guy, cuffed him. What he didn’t know was the guy had a partner who was packing a .38 special.”

Allison flinched at the image he evoked.

Connor grinned crookedly. “You wanted to know, princess.”

“What I want to know is why you bury that story.”

“Ever combative and feisty, aren’t you?”

She frowned. “Maybe, but there’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of in that story. I have no idea why you keep quiet about it. In fact—”

“In fact,” he finished for her, “people might have felt sorry for me and gone out of their way to help, is that what you were going to say?”

“Well, yes—”

“And that’s exactly what I didn’t want,” he said, his look almost combative. “That’s exactly how the people who did know—at my father’s precinct and in the neighborhood—did act.” His brows drew together. “I didn’t need their sympathy. It wasn’t going to bring my father back. And I sure as hell didn’t want anyone thinking I was trading on a tragedy.”

His words were startling. And, yet, they were in keeping with what she knew him to be: proud, tough, private.

“Curiosity satisfied, petunia?” he asked, rising with his empty plate. His tone wasn’t mocking, just matter-of-fact.

“Thank you for telling me,” she said simply, picking up her own plate and utensils and following him inside, where she deposited her load in the sink. “I can’t even imagine how hard it was for you and your mother.”

He leaned back against the kitchen counter, legs casually crossed at his feet. “Yeah, it was devastating for Mom. She went back into nursing to earn some money, but South Boston was all she knew, so that’s where we stayed.”

“You must have been lonely.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I was a terror. My father had been killed and I was mad as hell at the world. I fought, I skipped school and I took unnecessary risks. What finally turned me around was a combination of my mother and some well-meaning high-school teachers meting out tough love, and my own realization that I had a brain and I might as well use it in a way that got me somewhere.”

She went to perch on a bar stool. “Which brings me back to my original question. Why go back to South Boston after all that? You could have gone anywhere after Harvard, and you had every reason to.”

“Like I said, you’re tenacious.” He gave her a once-over with his eyes, then smiled at her scowl. “When I started my business, I was looking to keep overhead low. The neighborhood is changing, but the rent on a rinky-dink apartment in South Boston at the time was the right price. It was as simple as that.”

She nodded. Suddenly, turning down a cushy big law firm job for the DA’s Office while living in a townhouse in exclusive Beacon Hill didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. “Every time I come across a profile of you in the newspapers or in magazines, they always mention that you headed back to South Boston to start your business.”

He quirked a brow. “You read all the bios of me, princess?”

She felt herself grow red. “Just when the only alternative is reading the instructions on medicine bottles.”

He grinned. “You don’t give an inch do you?”

“You don’t either,” she retorted. “Anyway,” she said, going back to the subject at hand, “Rafferty Security still has an office in South Boston, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, you could say that….”

His hesitancy puzzled her. She knew her information wasn’t wrong and the question had almost been rhetorical. “Well, what else would you say?”

He coughed, then folded his arms.

“Yeees?” she prompted. If she didn’t know better, she’d say he looked uncomfortable.

“It’s not really an office. It’s more like a community-relations clearinghouse.”

She frowned for a second, then laughed. “You mean you operate a charity there?”

He shifted. “That’s about right.”

The urge to tease was irresistible. “Don’t tell me the oh-so-tough Connor Rafferty has a soft spot. Or should I just call you Connor P.—for philanthropist—Rafferty?”

“We don’t call them philanthropists in South Boston, petunia.”

She cocked her head. “Oh, really? What do you call them, then? Benefactors? Charitable donors? People so rich they give their money away?” She was so enjoying this. “Face it, Connor, you’re just like those well-heeled do-gooders you dislike. You know,” she said, throwing his words back at him, “like those debutantes who organize charity auctions.”

He acknowledged her teasing with a raised eyebrow but then shook his head. “I wasn’t born rich. There’s a difference.”

Rather than argue with him, she asked, “What does this charitable organization do? And, by the way—” she held up a hand “—while I’m enjoying this enormously because I like tweaking your nose about your closet philanthropy, I’m delighted you’ve seen fit to try to do good in the world.”

“This ‘charitable organization,’ as you put it, sponsors programs for neighborhood kids.”

“Very good.” She nodded. “I’m just surprised you’re not doing something more tied to Rafferty Security’s line of business.”

He looked surprised for a second.

“What?”

“We are. Good guess.” He added, “We offer self-defense classes and classes on home security.”

“Ah,” she said.

“I can see that light bulb going on in your head.”

“Well, it does explain a lot after all. Your father was into giving back to the community and you grow up and move back to South Boston and set up a charity. Not only that, but your father died thwarting a burglary and you go into the security business.”

He shoved away from the kitchen counter. “Connecting those dots is easy, petunia. Just don’t read too much into it. I don’t.”

“Why? Are you saying your father’s death had nothing to do with it?” she persisted.

“What I’m saying is you ask too many questions,” he grumbled. “But, yeah, I’ll concede the influence.”

Despite his casual tone, she knew she’d finally penetrated a bit below the facade that Connor Rafferty presented to the world. She’d also gained some insight into the source of Connor’s protective instincts.

She really should give him some slack, she thought, even though she disliked the way he had come barging into her life. Having suffered one tragic loss, he was obviously protective of those close to him—and that protective instinct even extended to helping his former neighbors.

“What are you thinking, princess?” he asked. “I can almost see the wheels turning in that head of yours.”

She gave her head a slight shake, her lips curving upward. “It’s hard to believe, but I was feeling almost inclined to like you.”

He stared at her intensely for a moment, then said, “You should smile more often.”

Their eyes caught and held before she looked away, feeling suddenly uncharacteristically shy and awkward.

“What about you, petunia?” he said, leaning back against the kitchen counter and breaking the mood. “Your mother is a judge and you’re a prosecutor. Seems to me you’re just as guilty of some semi-conscious influences.”

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