Book 3 in the Billy Jo McCabe mystery series is here! THE COLD CASE is now available at your favorite eRetailers. Plus, don’t miss your FREE bonus short story that goes along with this latest release (see below)!
Billy Jo pulled the keys from her bag and shoved them in her mailbox, hearing the chatter around her and doing her best to ignore everyone. She couldn’t help but look over her shoulder again before looking back to the empty mailbox, though.
When she closed it up and turned, she took in the dark-haired woman opening the box behind hers, wearing a deputy’s uniform. She knew who it was, Carmen, a woman she’d had many reservations about but now understood so much better, as often happened when she took the time to understood what had happened to make a person the way she was and why she did what she did.
She should leave her alone, knowing that was all the woman really wanted, yet Billy Jo found herself waiting for Carmen to close her mailbox. When she turned, her unsmiling dark eyes unnerved her.
“Hi, Carmen. Thought that was you,” she said, though she wasn’t known for being chatty.
Carmen said nothing at first. “Can I help you with something?” she finally replied. Right to the point, something she appreciated, but she figured Carmen was just as likely to walk around her and out the door.
Billy Jo nodded to the postal worker behind the counter, who was looking their way, then turned back to Carmen. “I just wanted to ask you about Brice Martin. Heard he was released the other day. I expected some news about his little girl, Gabriele. I know social services in Astoria had her, but I wonder if Brice is coming back here or…”
She could have asked Mark, but Mark was being Mark again, and she hadn’t seen or heard from him since their coffee at the hotel. She couldn’t shake a feeling that had scared the shit out of her, the feeling that they had suddenly and unexpectedly crossed the line from friendship, shifting into something different. It was nothing she could put her finger on.
“I have no idea,” Carmen said, giving her nothing. She shook her head and started walking to the door, away from her.
Billy Jo took in the postal clerk, who was watching them and likely picking up on what wasn’t being said. She made herself take a step, seeing Carmen already outside, walking away. She was fast, and Billy Jo had to hurry before she crossed the street.
“Carmen, wait!” she called out. She could see the woman wasn’t interested in having personal time with anyone, but she only shook her head when Billy Jo fell in beside her as she started across the street.
“What is it? What do you want?”
“Look, Carmen, I’m not being nosy. I’m just…”
“Yes, you are, so what do you want?”
Just then, Mark drove past them in his Jeep and pulled in front of the station. So much for discretion!
“Mark told you, didn’t he?” Carmen said, her anger spewing.
It took Billy Jo a second to understand what she was saying.
“Mark? No, he told me nothing, and I wasn’t eavesdropping—but I couldn’t help but overhear. I presume we’re talking about your kid, who’s now living with your sister? Mark doesn’t talk about anyone, you know. Of all his faults, that’s not one. Besides, you forget what I do. Seriously, Carmen, if there was a way I could help you extract your pound of flesh for what
happened, what was taken from you, I would. The system screwed up, and you got screwed. If you want help with anything on that front, just ask.”
Carmen dragged her gaze over Billy Jo before making a rude noise under her breath and looking away. “I don’t need or want your help.”
“Fine, I get it,” Billy Jo said. “What are you doing for dinner tonight?”
In response, Carmen froze just as they had crossed the road. She turned and looked down on Billy Jo, who figured Carmen was inches taller than her. Talk about keeping her cards close to her chest. Billy Jo had thought she held the corner on that.
Mark had climbed out of his Jeep and dragged his sunglasses off, not pulling his gaze from them.
“You want to have dinner with me?” Carmen said. Why did it sound like an accusation?
“Unless you have plans or are busy?”
This was generally where someone filled the silence by saying yes, she did have plans. But Billy Jo would’ve been surprised if Carmen did, considering she was more of a loner than anyone she’d ever met.
“What’s going on here?” Mark said, striding over.
Carmen hesitated and then looked up as if trying to think of a way to tell her no. More than likely, she’d just walk away.
“Carmen and I were just making plans for dinner tonight,” Billy Jo said. “I’ll put a casserole in the oven. Why don’t you come over after your shift, say, six?”
Mark dragged his gaze from her to Carmen and back. His expression was priceless.
“Fine,” was all Carmen said before walking away.
Mark actually turned and watched her head inside the sheriff’s office before looking back to her. “Didn’t know you two were friends,” he said. He was kidding, right?
“We’re not, but I figured since I’m staying on the island for now, I’d like to know more about some people here.”
Mark squinted one eye. The sun had peeked from behind a cloud. He was evidently thinking too much, and there was that distance between them again. One step forward, five back. “Listen, I know I’ve been kind of scarce lately…”
She waited for him to say something about the fact that she hadn’t called him and he hadn’t called her, because the way he smiled at her, the way he looked at her, was not the way a friend did.
“We’re not dating, Mark,” she said. “You don’t need to explain something that isn’t my business.” There she went, closing the door completely—and there was that smile, the humor at her expense.
“So why Carmen?” Maybe it was the way he said it that had her wondering whether he thought this was something else.
“Is there something you want to ask me, Mark?”
He stilled and pulled his gaze, gave his head a shake, and went to step back. “Nope, not asking anything, not my business. You have a great day, Billy Jo.”
She didn’t know why, but this felt so much like the door being slammed shut, as if she’d been the one to close it. He took another step back to walk away.
“Before you go, you hear anything about Brice Martin?” she said. “Is he planning on coming back to the island? I know child services in Astoria have Gabriele. Has he said anything about taking her, getting custody of her?”
Mark turned back to her.
“I was just asking Carmen, but Carmen being Carmen, she isn’t too interested,” she continued. “When I reached out to child services in Astoria, they said she’s been placed with a family, and no one has any information on the father.”
They had also told her that it wasn’t in her jurisdiction to ask.
Mark leveled his gaze on her, and it softened even though she could still feel the wall being resurrected between them. He shook his head. “No idea. Not sure he’d want to come back here, considering, and as far as the little girl, she’s not even his.”
“On paper she is, on the birth certificate. Mark, really? If you raise a little girl, even after being separated this long, you can’t turn your feelings off, or I hope you wouldn’t.”
There was something about Mark. When he looked at her with those blue unsmiling eyes, the way he was right now, she didn’t know what was coming. He was not an easy man to read. “So is this more about you, then?”
She fisted her hands and pulled at her cardigan, wondering how Mark could make her feel so on edge at times. “If it is? I just want a happy ending for that little girl, because out of this fucked-up mess, everyone seems to forget about her. She was just a baby, a toddler, when her dad was taken from her. Then she was living with her grandmother, suddenly no longer called Gabriele but a new name, Shauna.
“Now the only woman she’s ever known, the one she’s bonded with, is gone, taken from her, because she was part of that sick mess of faking her death so Brice Martin would be out of the picture. Gabriele is innocent, so yes, maybe I want to know that she’ll have someone and not become another statistic. Because as hard as I fight for them, this system isn’t known for turning out well-adjusted kids. All too often, they become a meal ticket for some adult. So yes, Mark, this is about me and the fact that I’d like to know at least one kid has some chance at normalcy.”
Billy Jo could feel her insides shaking, the passion oozing. She was still thinking, too, of Jay Turner, the little boy she hadn’t been able to find anyone for here on this island. No one would give a damn and just do the right thing for him.
“You ever find someone to take that little boy with the medical condition?” Mark said. How was it that he seemed to know what she was thinking?
She just shrugged and shook her head. “Sometimes I really hate this job.”
He reached over and touched her shoulder. It was kind, the Mark she was familiar with. He sighed and looked over her head. “Why don’t I do some digging and find out what plans Brice has? Let’s say I’ll show up for that casserole you’re planning for Carmen, so make extra.”
It was something she hadn’t expected. Then he was walking away, and he glanced back to her just once before opening the door to the sheriff’s office and walking in.
Damn, there it was again, that awkwardness, that look she didn’t think she could handle when all she wanted was for the line of friendship to stay firmly entrenched, where it was. Because anything more than that with a man like Mark would be a sure-fire way to a broken heart.
“She knows something,” Carmen said.
Mark hesitated only a second as he poured coffee into his favorite green mug. Carmen stood right there, dumping sugar and milk into hers, and by the way she said it, she was rattled.
No, she was furious.
“Who are we talking about?” Mark slid the coffeepot back on the burner.
Carmen reached for it and poured, slopping a bit over the side onto the counter. Then she slammed it back on the burner with a clatter, not her usual reserved, calm self. “That nosy friend of yours, Billy Jo.”
“Maybe you should elaborate, because it seems I missed the first part of this conversation. What are we talking about? She knows something about what? Did she say something to you? I was kind of wondering what that was about out there between you two.”
Her eyes widened, and she stilled, looking at him. He realized he’d missed more than a little. He’d thought it was odd to see Billy Jo and Carmen together as he drove up. Evidently, something was going on behind the scenes.
“I shared some pretty personal stuff with you, which wasn’t an invitation for you to open your mouth,” Carmen said. When he pulled his mug away to reply, she lifted her hand, giving him the flat of it like a punch to the face. “And don’t even start about how you shared nothing with no one.” Her voice was low, but the bite was there.
She glanced once over her shoulder to Gail, who was going through files, reading something, but then lifted her gaze to them. Evidently, she had her eye on them and was likely wondering what they were talking about.
“I’m very well aware that she was listening when I spilled my guts at your house. You think I like having someone dig around in my past, my business?”
There was the hurt. This was something he hadn’t expected from Billy Jo.
“I’ll talk to her,” he said. “I didn’t expect her to say anything. That’s not like her. So why did she bring it up? We’re talking about your kid, right?”
She pulled in a breath, and he was positive he saw her hand shake. “Yeah, and for the record, I don’t need her help.”
Apparently, Billy Jo had treaded into Carmen’s no-go territory. Maybe he would have a talk with her.
“So she offered to help you with…” He let it hang, lifting his mug, keeping his back to Gail as he took a swallow.
“Anything to do with my kid, but I don’t want any more spotlights shining there. And now I’m supposed to show up at her place for dinner?” She made a rude noise.
He could see that Carmen lived in the shadows, hiding from everyone. He wondered whether her unease was more about the fact that Billy Jo was dragging her from that place where she hid from everyone.
“If you don’t want to go for dinner, don’t go. But if Billy Jo offered to help in some way, you have nothing to lose, Carmen. She has the resources, and she wouldn’t go in and do something to hurt you. She has a way about her, and she understands more than you’d think. She has her own experiences of living through the worst kinds of things, things no one should have to. So she knows. You should talk to her. She may surprise you with what an ally she can be.”
Carmen had a way of not smiling when she was looking at him. He could see the hurt that was buried so deep, which kept everyone away from her. “You’re trying to sell me on her, seriously? Don’t. She’s your friend, but whatever’s going on between you two, I don’t want her sticking her nose in my personal life.”
He wasn’t sure what to make of her comment. Carmen was anything but chatty, and it seemed Billy Jo had managed to scrape open a very raw wound, one she wasn’t ready to reveal to anyone.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” Mark said. “Billy Jo and I are only friends. I’m not her keeper, Carmen, so you may want to tell her all that yourself.”
As Carmen stirred her coffee, she gave a shake of her head, and after taking another second to dump her spoon into the sink, she looked up at him. “That is bullshit. You want to keep telling yourself that you two are just friends, fine, but we all see it even though you both try to pretend there isn’t something there. I’m sure you could find another coffee girl to mess around with until you burn that bridge, as well, all the while trying to deny there’s something between you and Billy Jo.”
He should’ve said something to clear the air, like that she wasn’t his type, that it wasn’t that way between them. Except when the rug had been yanked out from under him, and when he found himself with his back against the wall, it had always been Billy Jo who was there.
“You’re mistaking a partner in crime and good friend for something more. She has her stuff she’s dealing with, and I have mine. By the way, about dinner at Billy Jo’s tonight, don’t look so worried. I already invited myself, too. Besides, she wants to know about what happened to that little girl, to make sure her life isn’t suddenly going to be worse because doing the right thing meant taking Gabriele from her grandmother, the only home she’s known, and sticking her somewhere with a bunch of strangers. I told her I would check into it, see what I can find out, check whether Brice plans to take her or leave her in the system.”
Mark found himself looking over his shoulder to Gail, who was writing something in a file.
“You two done gossiping over there?” Gail called over. Evidently, she didn’t miss anything.
“Nope. Just need to cover the weather, the latest dirt on the island…”
The chief’s wife didn’t seem impressed as she looked up. “Well, Tolly is on his way in, so I’ll be leaving soon. Mark, you still need to make sure your reports are finished and turned in. Carmen, you need to get out there and do rounds.”
There were the orders. Carmen took a swallow of her coffee and walked back to her desk, reached for her coat, and shrugged it on. She was quiet, only nodding to Gail as she reached for her keys. So she was just going to walk out.
“See you for dinner tonight, Carmen,” he called out.
She paused at the door, and he didn’t miss the way Gail looked over to him. Good. So apparently she hadn’t heard, by the way she dragged her gaze back and forth between them. Carmen only shook her head as she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
“Didn’t know you and Carmen hung out together,” Gail said. “Thought that was just something you and Billy Jo did.”
He’d just taken a swallow of his coffee, and he choked and coughed. His fisted his hand and pounded his chest, taking in the mischief that appeared in Gail’s expression as she held her mug of coffee between two hands.
“Oh, boy, you really have it bad,” she said.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She smiled, and for a moment he didn’t think she’d answer. “You and Billy Jo…”
He just shook his head. “There is no me and Billy Jo. Why does everyone keep insisting there’s something between us when there isn’t? We’re friends, that’s all. Actually, we’re more like work buddies. I help her out with a problem and vice versa. We occasionally have coffee. We’re friends, that’s it, nothing more.” He actually gestured, cutting his hand through the air.
“Uh-huh. You know, Mark, you may keep telling yourself that, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. I saw it the first time I met the girl, and I see it every time I see you two together. You know how some couples work and some don’t.”
He couldn’t believe she was still talking about it. He just jabbed his finger at her, at a loss for words.
She put her mug down and lifted her hands. “Just saying, Mark, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing.”
Then the station door opened, and the chief walked in, and Gail started packing up. Great, a change of guards. The conversation about Billy Jo was over. Yet Mark was still stuck on the fact that it seemed everyone was talking about him and Billy Jo when there was nothing between them.
She didn’t think Carmen wore anything other than a deputy uniform, but there she was in a pair of blue jeans and a baby blue sweater. Her hair was tied back as it always was, though. She was slender, not curvy.
“You sure I can’t get you a drink?” Billy Jo said. “Wine or beer? I picked some up because that’s what Mark likes.”
Carmen just waved her hand in response and pulled out a stool to sit at the island. “I don’t drink,” she said. “Water works for me.”
Billy Jo filled a glass and slid it across the island in front of her, then lifted her own glass of red and took a swallow. “So I made a shepherd’s pie because it’s fast and easy. Hope that’s okay, because I’m not making anything else.”
Carmen only shrugged.
Billy Jo could see how uncomfortable she was, well aware that Mark still wasn’t there. “So I presume Mark is on his way?” she said.
Carmen was staring at her with those dark eyes of hers, and she could see the minute the woman had taken her question the wrong way. “I would think so. He said he was coming over. He also told me to give you the benefit of the doubt, said you’d likely have some understanding of my situation, as if you’ve lived through worse. He didn’t elaborate, but I have to wonder what he meant. You know, you two dance around each other, pretending you’re not involved, but you behave more like a couple than any I’ve ever seen. You know too much about each other. It was like he was trying to smooth over the fact that you stepped into my personal business, which no one ever does.”
She paused before taking a swallow of her wine and resting the glass on the counter. So Mark had defended her. The thought should’ve made her happy. “You’re still angry about what I said. I guess I could have never brought it up. That would probably have been the best option, right? We could both pretend we don’t know anything and continue ignoring each other. You said Mark told you I understand your situation because I’ve lived through worse. Did he really say that? He didn’t share anything?”
Carmen lifted her brow. She was messing with her. “No, apparently, he doesn’t share our personal stories. Whatever he knows about you, he didn’t tell me. Am I curious? Of course, but it’s your business, not mine.” She pulled her arms over her chest as she sat straighter on the stool, the awkward guest.
“He’s right, though,” Billy Jo said. “I know well how fucked up the system is. You said your sister has your kid. So you haven’t seen him, then?”
Carmen only shook her head. “No. He’s no longer mine.”
She wondered what that meant. “You’ve given up your rights to him?”
“So you didn’t go poking around in my file?” Carmen said. “I’m sure it’s there, everything. It happened on this very island.”
She heard a vehicle, Mark’s Jeep. She should’ve been relieved, but instead she felt nervous in a way she couldn’t remember ever feeling before. She wondered if that was why Carmen was watching her so intently.
“As you said, it’s your business, not mine,” Billy Jo said. “I told you before that I know only what I heard you say to Mark. I could have looked, and I suppose anyone else would have, but I had already heard enough. I imagine it would’ve been a hundred times worse, living it. I have my
own past that isn’t anyone’s business, so I’m not about to start sticking my nose in yours. I only offered. You don’t have to take me up on it. I invited you over to dinner because you remind me too much of myself. Being alone isn’t always easy.”
She heard the Jeep door close and knew it would be only seconds before Mark was in her place, and maybe that was why she could feel her heartbeat kicking up.
“My sister and I were taken from our mother when we were kids, pulled from the reservation,” Carmen said. “My mother was taken from her parents, too, and she was never able to be a parent after living in the place they sent her—the place she was taken to have the Indian removed from her. What happened to her…some just never recover from it. She didn’t. You know what I remember of her? Nothing. Drunkenness, empty bottles, and starving.
“I didn’t even know I had a sister until I was trying to get my Native rights, and then I found her. She was adopted to a nice white family, as she said. I wasn’t as lucky. So when everything came down on me the way it did, I knew I wasn’t going to get a fair shake.
“I couldn’t afford to pay for the kind of lawyer who’d have been able to make a difference and straighten out the perceptions of the people I was dealing with. My sister took my son, and it was conditional. I had to sign over my rights to him and stay away. She and her husband adopted him, and I promised never to call again. So no, you can’t help me. No one can.”
She heard the stairs creak, then a knock on the door. “Come in,” she called out without pulling her gaze from Carmen, knowing Mark wouldn’t have known any of what she’d just said.
The door opened, and he stepped inside.
“I picked up wine,” he said. “Dinner smells good.” He was dressed the way he always was, in that ratty jean jacket. She could hear his cowboy boots on the floor as he strode in.
“Thanks for the wine,” she said, then gestured toward the fridge. “I picked you up some beer. It’s in there.”
He rested a really nice bottle of red, which happened to be one of her favorites, on the island before pulling open the fridge behind her and reaching for a beer. Carmen’s brows lifted.
“So I made some calls for you about that little girl,” he said, “and I spoke with Brice. He’s out now.”
Billy Jo turned as he leaned on the island not far from her and popped the top of his beer can. “Oh. And…?”
Carmen dragged her gaze between the two of them, and she didn’t want to analyze that too closely.
“He’s moving back here—to his house, as he put it, the one Nia stole from him. With the charges against her, Dylan, and Harry and Beth, it seems everything will eventually work through the courts. He’ll likely receive a settlement from the state for being wrongly convicted. He’s angry, has every right to be, and said he’s planning on taking Gabriele. He has some hoops to jump through still with the state. I guess once they have a kid in the system, it’s never a matter of just turning her back over. But that’s your department.”
She realized he had done everything she’d asked and then some. “Thanks for digging,” she said.
He only lifted his beer and took a swallow.
Carmen was looking at him before dragging her gaze over to her, a pointed look that only added to her unease. “You know what?” she said. “I’m going to leave you two to have dinner. I have things to do.” Then she slid off the stool and took them in, and Billy Jo was positive an odd smile touched her lips.
“You’re bailing?” Mark called out as Carmen started walking to the door, simply lifting her hand.
Billy Jo started after her in her slippers. She hadn’t worn these blue jeans in a long time, and even the comfortable red shirt she wore was a little on the dressier side than normal. “You know, dinner is almost ready,” she said, “and I invited you for dinner.”
Carmen pulled on her light fleece jacket. Mark was still in the kitchen, and Carmen looked past her to him and shook her head. “Being a third wheel isn’t my thing,” she said. “This thing between you two, the thing you both keep denying, you can tell yourself it’s nothing, but we all see it. So enjoy your dinner together, and since we’re not sticking our noses into each other’s business, you should know that Mark may want everyone to believe he’s not such a great guy, but that’s why he is one. Then there’s the way he looks at you.” Her gaze was imploring for a moment.
Billy Jo had to remind herself to breathe.
Carmen opened the door and glanced past her. “Goodnight, Mark,” she called out, then walked out the door.
Billy Jo closed it and turned to see Mark pulling open her oven and lifting out the casserole dish, making himself at home. She strode back over to the island, where he was resting the dish on potholders.
“So what was that really about, her leaving?” he said. He was perceptive, too.
“Oh, I think Carmen needs smaller steps. Maybe next time she’ll make it through dinner. So are you going to dish up, too?”
He let his gaze linger, and she took in the wine he had brought over. He pulled open the cupboard and reached for two plates. “Well, tell me about your day,” he said as he reached for a large serving spoon. When she laughed softly, he glanced back to her and said, “You should do that more often.” He gestured with the spoon toward her.
“Well, look at us, sitting here, about to have some simple comfort food and converse like normal people.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing, Billy Jo. We’re anything but normal.” He slid her plate on the island and dished up another for himself, and she took in his back.
She didn’t want to like this man, but she could feel her heartbeat kicking up as he backed over, holding his plate and two forks. She reached for one and took in the way he was looking at her, feeling that fear but doing it anyway.
“Mark, just promise me one thing.”
He rested his plate across from her on the island and went to dig in as he looked over to her. “Sure, what is it?”
She jabbed her fork into the casserole and considered it for only a second. Then she nodded. “That no matter what, we’ll always be friends first.”
He said nothing for a second, then nodded as well. “Yeah, I can do that.”
Congrats to Lou C., winner of this month’s giveaway, the NEW WATERPROOF KINDLE PAPERWHITE! Thanks to all who entered and voted for their favorite O’Connells title. Stay tuned–another great giveaway is coming soon!