Happy weekend, all! It’s Preview Friday, and I’ve got your sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery, ABOVE THE LAW! This upcoming title will be released next week, but you can pre-order your copy AND read the first five chapters here today. Plus, DON’T HIDE FROM ME is now on audio; claim a free Audible code while supplies last. Enjoy & have a wonderful weekend!
“You ready to go?” Mark called out the minute he stepped into her place.
No “Hi.” No “How are you?” It was always “Hurry up, already.”
Billy Jo stared at the makeup she’d been about to put on, then tossed it back in her makeup bag, untouched. What had she been thinking, forking over her hard-earned cash on a whim for something she never wore?
“Seriously, Billy Jo, what are you doing?” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she flicked her hands through her plain and boring shoulder-length brown hair, noting the freckles that dotted her nose.
She’d never be the supermodel type. So, again, why was she doing this?
“Hey, didn’t you hear me? What are you doing in here?” Mark said as he strolled in.
She stared up at the tall, rugged, arrogant cowboy. His new jean jacket didn’t quite match his faded blue jeans, and his wavy red hair was short and appeared freshly cut. The way he talked to her, it was always as if he didn’t have a clue what she was thinking. He rested his hand on the doorframe and took in her small bathroom.
“I’m doing what a girl does: getting ready,” she said. “You said dinner at that new Mexican place. You made a reservation?”
He stepped back from the doorway, dragging his gaze down, taking in her new sleeveless black blouse and dressy capris, a gift from her mom. He had her feeling both uncomfortable and awkward.
“What?” She knew it came out quite sharply.
There was the pull of his lips, the smile that wasn’t really a smile but rather a sign of his amusement at her expense. Maybe that was why she could feel the frown knitting her brow.
“Didn’t say anything,” he said. “And no, didn’t get around to making a reservation. We don’t need it.”
She wondered at times what it was about him that had her wanting to pull her hair out. “It’s new and it’s busy. We need a reservation or it’s going to be fish tacos at the stand again—and I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
He only angled his head, those blue eyes flickering, too good to look at. She knew he would rather argue than just go along with what he was supposed to do. But that seemed to be who they were and how this thing, whatever this was between them, worked.
“You worry too much,” he said.
At the jab, she felt her hands fisting at her sides. “And you seem to think we can just walk right in there and…what, we’ll be given a table?”
He flicked his jacket back as if trying to make a point, resting his hand right beside his badge, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He said nothing.
“You seriously think you can just show your badge and they’ll bump us right to the front of the line?” she said.
He made a rude noise, one she’d heard from him too many times when she just didn’t go along with his way of thinking. “You make it sound like a bad thing. Everyone knows who I am…”
She could tell exactly what he’d been thinking by the way he trailed off. “And you don’t think there’s anything wrong with that? Walking right in, past all the people who actually thought ahead to make reservations, past anyone else waiting their turn on the list? You seriously think that just because you’re a cop here, you get priority?” She flicked off the light in the bathroom and stepped out.
He suddenly seemed at a loss for words. “Now, wait a second. That wasn’t what I meant.”
She angled her head. He stepped back, and she walked around him to the island, where her cell phone was plugged in and charging. She took a second to check that it was in the green, at one hundred percent. As she looked over, she thought he dropped an F-bomb under his breath before pulling his cell phone from his pocket and dialing.
“Yeah, this is Detective Mark Friessen. This is probably short notice, but do you have a table available for dinner for two? I was planning on coming now and just showing up, but it was pointed out to me that you’re likely busy, and…”
She could hear someone talking on the other end.
“Uh-huh,” was all Mark said. As he flicked his gaze over to her, his blue eyes seemed to simmer with something. “Sounds great. We’re on our way,” he said, then hung up and tucked his phone in his pocket.
She stared at what seemed to be smugness in his expression.
“Apparently there’s always a table available for me,” he said. Then he shrugged. “I called like you said. You should be happy now.” He gestured as if she’d made a big deal out of nothing.
“Yet you just couldn’t help yourself from using your detective title before asking for a table,” she said. “Mark, it’s the same as if you’d walked in there and flashed your badge. Ever heard of abuse of authority? There shouldn’t always be a table for you. That is very much someone giving you something for a favor.” She tucked her phone in her bag.
He narrowed his gaze. “I am the last person to use my position to get something. Seriously, I don’t work that way. I can’t be bought and don’t give out special favors. You’re making it sound as if I’m taking a kickback or something. I pay my own way. I don’t take gifts or bribes.”
She pulled her arms over her chest, taking in how defensive he suddenly sounded. “I hate to tell you this, but a table in a crowded restaurant is a kickback, whatever you want to call it, if you got it using your position in the community.”
“Do you want me to cancel? Is that what this is?”
She realized in that second that he didn’t get it. He stared at her with what she thought was the usual frustration that happened in their discussions, where she had one idea and he seemed to pull counterarguments from his ass.
“No, I’m hungry,” she said. “Let’s go.”
He stood there for a second as if he didn’t believe her. “There’s a test in here, right?”
She didn’t smile. She didn’t say anything. She simply took in her three-legged cat, Harley, as he hopped up onto the sofa. Mark looked down at her with the same kind of apprehension with which he might have looked at a ticking timebomb.
“Don’t look so worried,” she finally said. “Let’s go. But hear me on this: If we get there and there’s a crowd waiting, and, sure enough, they’ve bumped you to the front of the line because of your phone call, you say no to the table and ask them to put us in the queue, where we should have been to begin with.”
He lifted his hands as if surrendering. “Fine. Point made,” he said, then gestured to the door.
Billy Jo had to remind herself that it wasn’t healthy to enjoy this butting of heads that seemed to come naturally between her and Mark.
The sun was going down. Mark took in his watch, noting that it was approaching eight thirty. He had to remind himself to fight the instinct to go back over to the hostess just inside the door, who still had a spooked expression.
Billy Jo had been right. Maybe that was why he was so uncomfortable as he sat outside on the bench, because he’d done what Billy Jo had expected and asked the hostess whether she’d bumped him to the front of the line, ahead of the dozen or so people already waiting, just because he was Detective Friessen.
What had her answer been? She had stared in horror, because apparently he wasn’t supposed to have asked that. Nevertheless, she had replied that all but two of the waiting couples had called and been there before him.
His stomach rumbled again. Waiting at a restaurant for over an hour for a table was something he had never done. His gaze continued to dart over to the nearby taco stand, which was now closing up for the night.
Billy Jo smacked his arm. “Okay, two more are leaving their tables. Come on, hurry up, people.” She tapped his arm again. She was staring through the big picture window, nothing discreet about her.
“You sure they’re not leaving because of the way you’re staring them down, making them feel as if you’re about to walk in there, rip their plates away, and tell them they’re done?”
She made a rude noise.
He took in her impatience, the way she fidgeted. She looked rather nice tonight. Her clothes were unlike the baggy things she normally wore. Girly was one thing Billy Jo wasn’t, but tonight was different. He found himself really taking in everything about her, though there was nothing flirty or teasing there.
What was wrong with him? He seemed to always be drawn to the wrong kind of girl. But then, he trusted Billy Jo more than anyone. He pulled his hand over his face, wondering why he wasn’t like his brothers.
“Yup…yup,” she said. “Look, that’s our table, and we’re taking it. Come on, get up.” She kept tapping his arm.
For a moment, as he took in her impatience, he thought she might even go in and yell at them to hurry up and pay the bill. “You know, just saying, that could have been us. We could have already had dinner and been on our way, but no. You insisted I make everyone feel uncomfortable and go to the back of the line because…”
“Oh, stop it, already. If you’d actually called and made a reservation earlier today like you were supposed to, we wouldn’t be sitting out here, starving. What the hell is up with some of these people, though? They’ve been sitting there forever, done eating yet not leaving. Those two must have been married forever, because they’re just staring off into space.”
The way she said it, he half expected her to walk in there and over to the people at the tables in question and tell them to leave. She was staring down with the kind of look he wouldn’t want to have been on the receiving end of. Complicated, difficult. Being with her was just like treading over a minefield.
He stood up beside her as she stared through the big window, leaning in.
“Could someone get up any slower?” she said. “Come on, people. Move it, already.” She clapped her hands this time.
He wondered whether people could hear her from inside.
“Let’s go. We’re taking that table.” She gestured sharply as she strode to the door and pulled it open, and he had no choice but to follow her. He gripped the edge of the door, looking right and left, really taking his time. She was already up in front of the hostess, gesturing quite sharply. Would that hostess ever forget them? Likely not.
Two couples walked out past him as he carefully took a step inside, looking around.
“Come on, Mark. Let’s go,” Billy Jo called out.
The hostess already had two menus in her hand, and she led them into the open restaurant, which had about twenty tables. It was well lit, with lots of windows that offered an amazing view of the now darkening sky.
“I have a window seat here,” the hostess said. “Can I get you two anything to drink to start?”
Mark reached for the chair at the table for two, which had just been cleared and wiped down but was not yet set for anyone, and pulled it out. “I’ll have a pint of your lager on tap.”
Billy Jo was still standing, her hands resting on the back of her chair. “A glass of your house red,” she said.
The hostess left the menus on the table and walked away. Billy Jo was still standing there, not sitting, and Mark didn’t have a clue what she was doing.
“You’re not seriously expecting me to pull your chair out for you?” he said.
She shot him a look that told him to drop dead, a look she’d mastered, and then looped her purse over the back of the chair before pulling it out. “Don’t be an ass,” she said as she sat, then nodded behind him. “You have any idea who those people are over there?”
He glanced around to where she was gesturing, seeing a restaurant full of people he didn’t really know.
She wiped her hands over the damp table and then rubbed them together. “Don’t look,” she hissed under her breath.
He turned back to her and wanted to point out how ridiculous she sounded. “You asked me if I knew who they were. If I can’t look, then how am I supposed to tell you?”
One of the servers brought a basket of breadsticks along with two rolled napkins with utensils. Not exactly Mexican, but hungry was hungry. Mark reached for one and took a bite.
“Do it conspicuously,” she said. “Come on. You’re a cop. You should know how to watch people without them knowing you’re looking at them.” She was serious.
He reached for the menu and leaned on the table before glancing behind him. Then he looked back to see her standing. “No idea who you’re talking about. What are you doing? I thought you were hungry.” He gestured to her chair.
She reached for her purse, not pulling her eyes from his. He could see the edge to her, which was always there. “Table of four women who’ve been watching us, or rather you, since we walked in here. But even earlier, when we were sitting outside, they kept looking over.” She leaned in again. “Come on, Mark. The table of four women at two o’clock? Please tell me they aren’t women you dated and have forgotten about?”
Now he had even less interest in looking. “Okay, you know what?” he said. “I’m hungry. If they want to look, let them. And, for the record, I remember every woman I’ve dated. What are you doing?”
She was now standing, her bag over her shoulder. “I have to go to the bathroom. Order something to start while I’m gone,” she said, then started to the back of the restaurant.
He just shook his head. Being with Billy Jo was anything but easy. He stared at the menu, the choices, as a lanky server wearing a black shirt and pants appeared with Billy Jo’s wine and his beer.
“Do you have any starters before we order?” Mark said. “Chips, salsa…?” He looked up to the waiter as he took in the menu, which had so many options.
“Sure. I can bring you a basket of chips and salsa, or we have nachos with shrimp con queso.” He pointed at the long list.
Mark didn’t have a clue what Billy Jo wanted. “You know what? You choose,” he said.
“Hi, Mark. I thought that was you,” said a woman behind the waiter. She was attractive, leggy, slender, wearing a hat over a mix of dark and light hair. “I guess you don’t remember meeting. I’m a friend of Sybil Gillespie. We met at the coffeehouse when she was closing up a while back.” Her smile was perfect.
He could feel the unease, a knot in his stomach. He looked up to the waiter, who was still standing there, and said, “Whatever you bring is fine.”
The waiter had been staring at the woman, whom Mark didn’t remember meeting. “Okay then…” was all he said before he left.
Mark leaned back, wondering why the woman was smiling down at him. He took in the perfect smile of someone who seemed too familiar with him, and he wondered whether this was where he was supposed to ask how Sybil was.
“Sorry, your name is?” He gestured toward her.
She shrugged. She wore skin-tight jeans, a crop top, and a jean jacket, with heavy eyeliner and hoops in her ears. He was pretty good with faces and names, so he didn’t know why he didn’t remember. He thought of Sybil, super hot, exactly the type he gravitated to. Yet he hadn’t stepped back in that coffeehouse since things went sideways.
“Lynn,” she said. “So you don’t remember me?”
He pulled in a breath, wondering what it was about the way she was staring down at him, watching him. “Sorry, I meet a lot of people. You’re having dinner here with friends?”
He wondered now whether that was who Billy Jo had meant, the people watching him. He found himself glancing back over his shoulder to see the three other women, who smiled and waved. He didn’t have a clue who they were—young, attractive, exactly the type that was unhealthy for him.
“Yeah, just over there,” Lynn said. “We saw you walk in with that social worker, and I thought I’d come over and say hi. Sybil was just mentioning you the other day, oh so cool and forever single. She didn’t mention you were seeing someone else…”
He reached for his beer and took a swallow. Something about this seemed too familiar, playing games, dancing around subjects, women sticking their noses in his business. “Well, again, Lynn, sorry I didn’t remember you, but enjoy your dinner.”
She hesitated, as he’d made it clear they were done, before saying, “Sure, sorry. Great to see you again, Mark. I’ll let Sybil know you said hi.”
He didn’t pull his gaze from her as he shook his head and settled his beer down on the table, not even trying to stop the rough laugh that slipped out. He hated these games. “Please don’t, Lynn. Not sure what this is, coming over here. I’m sorry I don’t remember meeting you, but I’m having dinner with a friend. Whatever has you walking over here and getting in my business…”
“Oh, no,” she said, cutting him off, a hint of pink in her cheeks. “I hope you didn’t think that’s why I came over. Of course not. I just… Well, this is embarrassing now. That’s not what I meant. It was just careless small talk, really. I’m just…”
He could see how flustered she was, yet he didn’t know why she was still standing there. She took two steps to Billy Jo’s chair, pulled it out, and sat down. He wondered whether his eyes bugged out.
“What are you doing?”
“Look, one thing Sybil always said about you was that you’re a great guy and you’d be her first call if she was in trouble, even though things aren’t good between you. Mark is who you call if you’re in trouble, she said.”
Something about the way she was talking had him glancing over to the back of the restaurant where Billy Jo had gone. He still didn’t see her. “What’s going on? Are you in trouble or something?”
She hunched a bit and leaned on the table, moving the wrapped cutlery to the side. She looked away. “Look, before you came to the island, people knew not to bother calling the police if something happened. Depending on who you were, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. But Sybil said you wouldn’t look away if someone you knew did something. She said you’d actually look into it and do something rather than protect someone because he was family or a friend. Is that true?”
He felt uneasy, taking in her ball cap and wondering if that was her way of hiding. “Why don’t you just get to the point, Lynn? Did something happen?”
She firmed her lips and fisted her hands on the table as she sat back, looking around, then lifted her hand to the side of her head as if she didn’t want anyone to see her. “Look, there’s a man who comes into the coffeehouse and makes her uncomfortable. The way he looks at her, the way he acts… She took it to the chief once, but he wouldn’t do anything about it.”
He let out a sigh and leaned forward. “Did he do something to her? I’m kind of at a loss here. Is it just that she’s uncomfortable, or is it something more? Has he threatened her in any way? Is he harassing her? You need to be a little more specific. Does she have reason to believe he’ll hurt her? Who is this, anyway?”
“Look, it’s not what he says but what he does, the way he ogles her. She says it’s creepy. He hasn’t exactly asked her out, but he takes things as if he has every right, little things, like he helps himself to a cookie and doesn’t pay for it. The last time he came in… You know that basket of muffins she keeps by the register? She went to move it, and he grabbed her arm so hard he left marks. I told her to report him, but she already did twice, before you came to the island, and all the chief said was that he’d talk to him.”
“So why is it you are coming to me and not Sybil?”
She stood up from her chair and pressed her hands to the table. “Because she said things ended badly between the two of you, and I know she’s super hurt that you’re interested in someone else. Call it ego, call it whatever. But the fact is that the last time she talked to the chief, the guy walked back into the café the next day, lifted the glass lid off the cake plate, and dropped it so it shattered right beside him. He didn’t look away from her. All he said was oops, then told her not to take it to the chief next time she had an issue with him.
“Then he walked behind the counter, helped himself to a sandwich, and took a bite out of it before dropping it on the floor too. Of course, no one was there. Yesterday, when I stopped in, she said she wanted it to stop. He doesn’t take anything worth more than a few dollars. But the fact is that he’s Roland Shephard—you know, the chief’s brother? I told her to call you regardless of what happened between the two of you. She just wants him to stop coming in and knows the chief won’t do anything.”
The last thing he wanted was to be dragged back into Sybil’s world, but if someone was harassing her, he wouldn’t look away. The chief’s brother? “Okay, I’ll talk to her,” he said.
This time, Lynn didn’t pull her gaze, her light brown eyes. She gave him a smile and rested her hand on his shoulder. “That’s great. There. I guess that wasn’t so hard after all.” Then she pulled her hand away and walked off just as the waiter reappeared with a platter of steaming cheese-covered nachos.
Still no sign of Billy Jo.
What was it with women and bathrooms?
As she washed her hands, Billy Jo took in the woman at the other sink, who wore a baby blue bandana around her dark hair as if to contain it. She had a round dark face and was wiping mascara that had flaked under her eyes.
Billy Jo didn’t have to fix anything on her makeup-free face except for the freckles over her nose and cheeks, which she had always wished would disappear.
“You’re that social worker, right?” the woman said.
Billy Jo rinsed the soap from her hands and turned her head, unsure what was coming next, knowing she’d never seen the woman before. “I am a social worker. Have we met?” She turned off the water and reached for a paper towel to dry her hands.
“No, we haven’t met, but I know who you are. Saw you’re friends with that detective who also showed up on the island. I know there was talk when you showed up not long after one another, coming into a new place. You’re not part of the community, and that worried a lot of folks who said you’d change things in a way that would upset people. You know how it’s always been done here.”
Billy Jo didn’t have a clue what to say. The woman stood about five inches taller than her and appeared her mom’s age. She knew well that change was something no one welcomed, even if it meant something better. “I guess that’s the thing about small communities. When you’re new, people don’t have any idea whether you’ll fit in or you’re some wildcard, coming in with crazy ideas to change the way things are done. I’ve heard it before. But hey, as you put it, I’m just a social worker.”
Then there was Mark, but she wasn’t talking for him. Billy Jo tossed the paper towel in the trash and lifted her bag over her shoulder, taking a step to the door.
“You know, that’s the thing about someone new coming in. That person doesn’t know about some of the things that go on in a community, and most times they don’t want to know. For example, there are problems happening right under the nose of the chief of police.”
Her hand had been on the handle of the door, but she froze, realizing this wasn’t just a friendly chat. She turned back to the woman, who was now watching her in a way that said she had something on her mind. Maybe Billy Jo didn’t want to know.
“Sounds like you’re hinting at something,” she said. “You know the chief?”
Billy Jo slid her hand over the strap of her baggy cloth purse, holding on to it over her shoulder. The woman wasn’t smiling, and Billy Jo still didn’t have a clue who she was.
“Everyone on the island knows the chief—or knows about him, his family, how he runs things. You kind of have to get used to it. Someone like that, with how deep his roots go here… The thing about communities is that everyone has ties going way back, and there’s always one family that runs things as if they founded the place. It morphs into their kingdom, their rules. They get their hooks into the island, and it’s impossible to ever get them out. It’s passed down through families, and if you’re part of that group, you know, and you’re good with it because it benefits you.
“Most people know this, and no one ever thinks it’s a problem, or if they do, they only laugh it off as if that’s just the way it is. Don’t know how to fix it or change it, because you learn to either put up or move on out. Everyone else just goes along and decides it’s not a problem because it doesn’t affect them, or that’s how it’s always been done. People tell you to leave it alone because it happens everywhere.”
The way this woman was hinting at something only added to the giant unease Billy Jo felt, which she figured had always been with her. She’d grown up on the wrong side, it seemed, of everything. “You know, I haven’t been here that long, you’re right, and you evidently already know that,” Billy Jo said. “But I get the sense that you know something and don’t really want to say what it is. I can’t help wondering if you’re trying to figure out what side of the fence I’m on. Are you wondering if what you tell me will get back to the chief? I wish you would just say it. But I’m at a loss because you know who I am but I don’t know who you are.”
The woman reached for her small black bag and looped its gold chain over her arm before smoothing down her blue and white shirt, a little long and baggy in the front. “You know why people don’t come forward when something bad has happened to them or someone they know? Because they know nothing will change. Or, worse, if they do say something, they’re suddenly the one with a target on them, the one in the spotlight, with bad things happening to them, because no one ever likes the person who blows the whistle.
“And what happens to that person who calls out a liar or a thief, someone who does bad things and gets away with it? That person suddenly finds herself hunted, with her life upended and a spotlight shining down on her and her family. Skeletons she doesn’t even know she had are dug up. Then she loses her job, or her friends suddenly turn away, or she has even bigger problems. Going after a cop, especially one who runs a community, is a surefire way to find yourself under investigation for something. Then your friends are either running the other way or throwing you under the bus to save their own skin.”
She knew she was frowning, and she realized now what she was seeing on the woman’s face and hearing in her voice. “Are you trying to figure out if I’m going to share whatever you tell me? I can assure you I won’t, but then again, you don’t know me. I can see you’re likely trying to figure out whether you should tell me whatever it is. First, I don’t know your name, because you haven’t told me, so whatever you tell me isn’t going to come back on you since I don’t know who you are. And I get having trust issues…” She made herself stop talking. Convincing someone to trust her was something she would never try to do. She let go of the strap of her purse and lifted both her hands to stop herself. “You keep hinting at the chief, at the idea that he did something. Let’s say he did. Is this something he did to you?”
The woman pursed her lips as if considering her answer. “Not to me but to someone else. As I said, it was something that was happening right under the watch of the chief, right in his own family. You know what I mean? How often do families protect their own, look the other way, or maybe wear blinders because they don’t want to know the truth even though they really do? How often do you really not know that someone in your family is doing bad things to another family member? Think about it. What would you do if you found out something like that about the chief and his family?”
Billy Jo pulled her arms across her chest. She had an unsettled feeling every time she had to be around the chief, talk to him, or listen to him talk down to her as if she were less than him. Maybe that was why she’d never give him the benefit of the doubt.
“You’re saying you know something about the chief, or is it someone in his family? You want to know what I’ll do? Well, I won’t walk into his office and tell him, if that’s what you’re thinking. I do know enough about him to understand that nothing goes down on this island without him knowing about it, though. I guess I would have to consider what it is and then figure out a way to handle it. But I wouldn’t confront him, not someone like him.”
The woman seemed to consider her reply, then nodded. “Well, you’re right about one thing: You don’t know me. You know how big the chief’s family is?”
What did Billy Jo really know about the chief? That he was married to Gail, for one, and she’d seen photos of their grown kids, but other than that, she knew nothing. “I know very little, but maybe that’s a good thing.”
“The chief and his wife have a large family, with nine siblings between them. Five are married, and three are currently single. One’s been married four times. The chief has dozens of nieces and nephews and four of his own kids, three with Gail and the eldest with a woman he was married to for five minutes. Most of their family lives somewhere else, another state, another country, but there are more than a dozen of the shirttail kind who still live here.
“One of them is a niece by the name of Cheyenne Potter, just one of a few who were preyed on by someone they should’ve been able to trust. It started when she was fourteen, and she told her mother when she was fifteen. The predator is a man who’s been married too many times and is known for his affairs. He shows up for every family dinner, gathering, or reunion. He’s the one who never forgets the kids’ birthdays, who puts the party hat on and gets down on a level with the little ones. He treats the boys like gold, and he loves the girls who sit on his lap… You have any idea where I’m going with this?”
She did, which was maybe the reason for the sick lump sitting heavy in her throat. She forced herself to swallow. “You’re saying she was molested. How old is she? Who did it?”
“She’s too old for you to do anything now. She’s twenty-six. Just ended her engagement because that kind of thing messes with you and takes away any chance of having something normal. She never told her fiancé, because who in her right mind would want to talk about something like that?”
“And she didn’t report it? Her mother didn’t?”
The woman shook her head. “You haven’t listened to anything I’ve said. He’s family, the chief’s family. You think they don’t know? The funny thing too is that Cheyenne’s schooling was paid for, but she dropped out and never finished her degree. She was in Boston, a long way from here, and she should’ve stayed there. But for some reason, she came back, and the only thing I do know is that she’s not allowed to talk about it, any of it—whatever that means. She just bought a house, though where she got the money…”
The woman shrugged. “So I’m going to walk out of here now. Please don’t follow me, but if the stories and rumors on this island about you are true, then I expect you’ll look into it, that you won’t give the chief and his family a pass just like everyone else does. Oh, and if you come looking for me, I’ll deny we had this conversation. Remember, Cheyenne Potter. And if you talk to her, don’t tell her where you heard this from.”
The woman walked around Billy Jo and pulled open the bathroom door, leaving her standing there, pulling in a breath, feeling as if a little bomb had been dropped. She stepped out of the bathroom into a half-empty restaurant and found herself looking around for the woman, her heart pounding. But she must have already walked out. For a moment, she wondered who else knew.
She dragged her gaze over to Mark, who was sitting at the table by the window, eating what looked to be nachos. She crossed the restaurant and took in the way he lounged in the chair, those blue eyes flickering with what she thought was annoyance.
“Took you long enough,” he said. “Was starting to think you ran out the back door. The waiter said the kitchen was about to close up for the night, so I overstepped and ordered you the special, a shrimp enchilada. Don’t be pissed if it’s not what you wanted.”
“That’s fine,” she snapped as she flicked her hand to him, looped her purse over the back of her chair, and scraped back her chair and sat down. She glanced at the empty tables around them and leaned forward, keeping her voice down as she said, “I was just cornered in the bathroom by a woman who told me something about the chief.” She scooted her chair closer, her arms resting now on the table, and glanced around. She could see she had all his attention.
Mark stilled, having just shoved a nacho into his mouth. “Is this something I’m going to want to hear?” He wiped his hands and glanced over his shoulder before settling those baby blue eyes on her.
She pulled in a breath. “Probably not, but let me ask you this: What do you know about the chief’s family? Would he cover up a crime to protect a relative?”
Mark glanced to the side again and then behind him as if to make sure no one was listening. “I think you’d better tell me what this woman said to you,” he said, an edge to his voice. “And, Billy Jo, don’t leave anything out.”
Mark took in Gail, who was rustling papers, stapling something, then slid around in his chair and took in the chief. The man was in his office, talking on the phone. Mark’s dog was lying on the dog bed, his eyes open, staring at him.
His phone dinged with another message from Billy Jo:
So much for their peaceful dinner out. The evening had turned into a bombshell of secrets about the chief’s family.
He turned off the screen and turned his phone over, still trying to get his head around what Billy Jo had told him. Then there was Sybil at the coffee shop. He planned to stop in later and have a talk about Roland Shephard, who was harassing her. But as he stared at Gail, he had no clue how to go about tactfully and carefully looking into the problem in the chief’s family without the chief and her knowing.
What was the story, the real story?
“What’s on your mind, Mark?”
He only lifted his gaze from where he lounged in his chair, giving his head a shake, not missing the way Gail seemed to be studying him with an amused grin. He really did like her and the way she served as a buffer between him and the chief.
“Quiet day on the island,” she said, teasing. “You sure there isn’t something?”
“Nope, just waiting for the phone to ring and enjoying the peace and quiet for a moment without having to handle some problem,” he replied. Then he heard the ding of his phone again, and he noticed the interest in Gail’s expression.
“Someone seems persistent,” she said.
He took in the long line of texts from Billy Jo:
Did you ask?
Why aren’t you answering?
I’ve done my part. No report here.
He lifted his gaze to the ceiling and texted back: Not yet. Give me a minute.
He knew Billy Jo wanted him to get the inside scoop on who this Cheyenne Potter was and whether she was related to the chief or Gail.
Then there was Sybil. He hadn’t shared the other problem in the chief’s family with Billy Jo. Was it the same person?
“Yeah, just a friend, you know,” he said. He didn’t know what to make of the way Gail smirked.
“I heard you and Billy Jo tried out the new Mexican restaurant last night. Also heard you had to wait after showing up and making Lindy, who was hostessing last night, put you at the bottom of the list even though she had a table ready for you.”
“You spying on me, Gail?” he said. There was something about this place. It seemed every move he made was reported back to Gail, the chief, and everyone else in town. It was the kind of thing that made him really uneasy. He gestured vaguely when she quirked a brow. “Billy Jo pointed out to me that I’d used my position as a cop to get to the front of the line, and that kind of abuse of authority is a problem.”
Gail let out a sharp laugh. “Oh, I see. She’s really got you toeing the line. Man, I love that girl.”
He didn’t know what to make of that comment, considering he had a mind of his own but just didn’t see things the way Billy Jo did. “I’m not toeing anything. I just didn’t believe her. When I asked the hostess last night whether she’d put me at the top of the list and given me a table over everyone who was already waiting or had called to reserve, I didn’t expect her to say yes. So it’s not about toeing the line. It’s about the fact that I didn’t even realize it was happening.”
She pulled in a sharp breath, watching him. “You know, Mark, I remember years ago, when I still worked in the male-dominated banking industry, all the men I worked with—or rather, under—walked right through the doors that were open wide to them. They didn’t see the struggles I had, being a woman, or the struggles others had because they weren’t white. The men I worked with landed so easily into positions of power because of who they were and how they looked. They didn’t see all the hurdles I had jumped through to get the position I had, from delivering them their coffee, to picking up their mail, to dry cleaning their suits, to even dusting down their desks only to be left in the office when the boys all gathered at the club for drinks.
“Don’t get me wrong; they were friendly, even nice. They told me hello, asked how my night was. But I was not on their level, and the worst thing was that they never even saw that. It was clear from simple things, such as a favorite table always waiting for them at a restaurant when everyone else was put on a list and had to wait. Honestly, I remember bringing it up once to this man we’ll call Fred, and the look he gave me, it was as if I’d lost my mind.
“That told me everything. He didn’t believe he was getting anything special, said I was being overdramatic. Yet he could pick up the phone and call anyone, a lawyer, another bank, some retail giant, and get put right through to the corporate president. You know what really got me was the fact that it was people like him who were the gatekeepers, and the people who work in those places simply conform—like the girl who works a minimum-wage job and had your table ready because she was conditioned to automatically give you a leg up because of your power, your position.”
Mark hadn’t realized he was squeezing his phone. He set it down. He hadn’t expected this, not from Gail. “So, what, are you saying I’m at fault here? Geez, you sound like Billy Jo…” He sat forward. Damn, he felt uncomfortable, and he didn’t understand how he hadn’t seen what she was talking about.
“Oh, don’t get your panties in a knot, Mark. It’s how this country was built. You can’t change centuries of how things have been done overnight. People aren’t ready for the kind of change that needs to happen. People, even minorities, keep doing the same old thing even if it doesn’t work just because it’s familiar. Something new is uncomfortable, and no one likes that. Just mentioning change is enough to start a fight. That’s not your fault. But if you don’t turn around and see what’s happening to the person behind you who doesn’t look like you, that’s on you.”
He gestured toward her. “You’re making it sound as if it’s up to me to fix this.”
She stood up and stacked her files. The way she looked over to him, for a moment she seemed so much like his mom, ready to set him straight. “It is up to you, Mark. It’s up to every white male out there who looks like you to stop in that doorway, when something is so easy for you that you don’t even realize it, and turn around. It’s up to you to ask if you got a job fairly, if you’re making more money because you’re white and male, if you have the ability to call anyone and go over the heads of people everyone else has to deal with, people who don’t get the same service as you, the same benefit as you. You thought it was a simple dinner out?” she added in a teasing tone.
He found himself looking over to Carmen’s empty desk. “Do I make more money than Carmen?” he said, his heart thudding. He just assumed…what, that it didn’t matter?
Gail pulled in a breath and let it out. “She’s not a detective. You are,” was all she said.
He dragged his gaze from Gail back to the empty desk, thinking of the prickly deputy who always had his back. He knew what Gail hadn’t come right out and said. “But she does the same job as I do.”
Gail pulled open the filing cabinet and started tucking in her files as he sat there at his desk, unable to figure out why he was so uncomfortable. “How about that, Mark? Good on you for noticing. She does do the same job, but she’s not a detective. Her title is deputy, which is a way of justifying the wage difference. It comes down from the top, the state, all the way to the county, the mayor, and the council. Even though we don’t have a sea of white men running everything like we once did, we do have minorities who have moved into those positions and conform, carrying on the same way of doing things. So no, Carmen doesn’t get paid what you do. You technically have more authority than she does, although, job to job, what you do here on this island is exactly the same. The only difference is that you have a title, and she doesn’t.”
How the hell had they gone so far down this rabbit hole? He had to remind himself to blink, to pull in a breath. “This isn’t okay,” he replied. He didn’t know what else to say.
“No, it’s not, Mark.”
“Isn’t the head of the town council a woman?” He was sure of that.
Gail rested her hand on the files in the cabinet. “Did you miss the part about conforming? To be clear, Mary Jane Trundell faced the same closed doors I did, watching as promotions she would’ve earned were given to men who had no qualifications. She was called honey, fetched coffee, made less than her male coworkers, and had to claw her way to where she is. Yet she was all for the idea of a white male being the detective with higher pay. She argued that Carmen could not have a promotion, so, as a result, the title of deputy earns her twenty percent less. Kind of leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?”
From the way Gail shoved the filing cabinet closed, he wasn’t sure whether she was angry and finished making her point or whether she still had something else to point out about how he didn’t see what was happening around him.
“I swear, Mark, this is the first time I’ve seen you at such a loss for what to say,” she said. “But, as I said, I think Billy Jo is good for you. Glad to hear you two are seeing each other.”
“Billy Jo and I are just friends, Gail…”
Good friends, and she was the one person he found himself wanting to talk to about anything and everything—except Sybil.
“Oh, please,” Gail said. “Next you’ll be telling me you’re seeing someone else or that Billy Jo is. Bite the bullet, Mark. Make it official. You’re perfect for each other. In fact, why don’t you bring her for dinner tonight at the house?”
His phone dinged again, but he didn’t turn it over. Gail was walking over to the coffeemaker and pulling out the basket of grounds—to make a pot for him?
He pushed back his chair and stood up. “You know what, Gail? Let me make the coffee,” he said, shrugging out of his jean jacket and tossing it over the back of his chair.
She turned around, holding the basket, confusion knitting her brows. “You want to make coffee?”
He reached to take the basket of grounds from her. “I don’t want you waiting on me. I can make coffee. I mean, you just finished pointing out how I don’t see things.”
She was still gripping the basket. He wondered if she’d refuse. When she relented, he wasn’t sure whether he saw panic or distrust in her expression. “Just make sure you wipe up the grounds you spill on the counter, only fill it half full, use cold water to fill the carafe, and…”
“Do you want to make it?”
She ripped the basket from his hands. “I don’t want to clean up a mess, and I want it done the right way.”
He said nothing, wondering if he should point out that he’d offered.
“Don’t say it,” she snapped.
“Say what? All I was going to say is that Billy Jo and I would love to come for dinner. So what time should we be there?”
They could talk about family, the personal kind of stuff they didn’t talk about at work, and Billy Jo wouldn’t be texting him about it every five minutes.
Gail filled the carafe with water. “Come about six.”
He heard the ding of his phone again and started back to his desk. As he did, the chief stepped out of his office and said something to Gail in a low voice. Gail was a complicated woman, and her husband was a man Mark would always keep an eye on.
He picked up his phone and saw another message from Billy Jo:
Hello, what are you doing?
He replied, Got us an invite to dinner at the chief and Gail’s tonight.
He spotted three dots, then nothing. Then a thumbs-up appeared.
Okay, one woman appeased. Now he had to figure out how he was going to find out everything he could about Cheyenne Potter before dinner that night. Then there was Sybil. He needed to find her and have a talk with her about this nuisance brother of the chief.
He dragged his hand over his face, knowing he was being dragged deeper into something that could end badly for him and his career as a cop.
Mark had been unusually quiet since pulling in to pick her up five minutes after she got home. He’d blasted the horn without getting out of his Jeep, which she knew was his way of saying, “I’m here. Let’s go—and hurry up about it!”
At any other time, she’d likely have ignored him, but as he sat in his idling Jeep, Lucky panting in the back seat, the floor of the passenger side free of takeout packaging, something about Mark just seemed off.
“So how did you manage to get us invited for dinner at the chief’s?” she said as he backed out and swung around, already shifting gears while driving out to the road. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the dark sunglasses he always wore when driving, but she could sense an edge to him tonight.
“I didn’t. Gail suggested it as I was warding off all your texts, trying to figure out a way to find out who Cheyenne Potter is, considering she didn’t show up in the database. I figured a nice social get-together away from the office would be the perfect spot to talk about family.” He glanced over to her and then back to the road.
Lucky leaned forward and licked her face, and she reached back and rubbed his head, his floppy ears. She really loved Mark’s dog.
“Well, I did Google Cheyenne,” Billy Jo said. “She’s on social media, with all kinds of photos with friends, selfies. Pretty girl, but no privacy settings. From what I can see, she loves to play some Candy Crush game and hasn’t figured out that her online profile shows everywhere she goes and everything she does. If I ever try to sign up for one, remind me why it’s a good idea to keep things offline.”
He only shook his head. She’d expected a smile, but there was nothing. Okay, something was up.
“Anyway, I did cover the bases on my end and search the DCFS records, but her name never came up. So what’s the plan tonight? How are you going to bring up Cheyenne and steer the conversation there?”
He darted his gaze to her and back to the road, and she could tell how off he was by the frown he couldn’t hide. “I’m not planning on bringing it up. That’s why you’re here to help steer the conversation to family. You said she’s a niece? So find out the details of their family without asking outright. You know this could be some wild goose chase or someone messing with you. You said you didn’t know who this woman was, that she wouldn’t give her name but she knew you and me. This could be nothing except someone trying to stir something up and have us walking into a problem with the chief and Gail.”
That wasn’t what she’d expected from him.
“Everything okay there, Mark? You seem not your cheerful self.”
He rolled his shoulders the way she knew he did when he felt cornered, then let out a heavy sigh. “This isn’t a walk in the park, you know. I’m already on the wrong side of the chief, but I like Gail, so I’m having a hard time with the idea that she could know about this, if it’s true. You said Cheyenne Potter told her mother, but nothing happened. Would her mother have told Gail and the chief? If they weren’t all over this, I don’t understand. It makes no sense. Family doesn’t do that, none that I know of. There has to be more to it, or someone’s created a story to stir things up.”
She didn’t pull her gaze from him. She could see how much trouble he was having with the idea as he pulled into a driveway that led up to a two-story house on twenty acres that belonged to the chief. It was impressive, and she knew it had been in the family a long time.
Mark parked beside the police cruiser and Gail’s white Tundra, and Billy Jo put her hand on the door as he turned off the engine.
“You know, Mark, I get that you’re having trouble with this, but the thing about families is that you don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors. The picture you see from the outside is what the family wants you to see so you would never believe the ugly truth.” She yanked the door open.
Mark sighed heavily and ran his hand roughly over the top of his head. “You think I don’t know that? I do.” He gestured sharply. “I’m just saying in this, it doesn’t make sense. So how about we don’t crucify this family and convict them because of something that hasn’t even been substantiated? And especially not with this kind of accusation, because if we sound the alarm and it’s found to be untrue, you can’t un-ring the bell. The damage is done, and you’ve already destroyed someone’s life.” He dragged his sunglasses off.
The strength that seemed to radiate from his expression was mixed with something she had never seen before, and she realized she couldn’t push him tonight. Something was up.
She only shrugged as she stepped out. Mark already had the dog out, and Lucky trotted all the way to the open front door, in which the chief was standing.
The man gave all his attention to Lucky, leaning over and patting him, running his hand over his ears. “Lucky, come on in here. Gail has a big old bone ready for you.”
Billy Jo didn’t miss the fondness he seemed to have for the dog, who was first in the house, walking in as if he were an invited guest. She kept her gaze on a moody Mark as they walked around the front of the Jeep.
“Mark,” the chief said, nodding to him.
For a second, from the look that lingered between the two of them, she suspected things were already quickly going sideways. Then the chief dragged his unsmiling gaze over to her.
“Billy Jo, glad you could come,” he said. He gestured wide, sweeping to the open door for them to come in.
She could hear Gail making a fuss over the dog, who apparently knew exactly where to go, as she went in first, Mark behind her. She slipped off her flats, noting that Mark only wiped off his cowboy boots before gesturing for her to keep going.
The chief closed the door behind them, and they headed into the kitchen, which was big and open to the family room and a deck out back, where, through the open sliding glass door, she could see a barbecue smoking.
“Hey there, Billy Jo,” Gail said. “It’s great to see the two of you. Wine, right? Red?”
So she’d remembered.
“Sure, thank you,” Billy Jo said as she pulled out a high-back padded stool at the island. She felt Mark’s hand settle on the back of it as she sat down.
Gail handed him a cold beer from the fridge and poured red wine in a glass for Billy Jo, who took in the salad Gail was making and a plate of burger patties ready to go on the grill.
“So nice to see the two of you together and catch up away from work,” Gail continued. “So how have things been with DCFS, Billy Jo? Heard from Tolly that you all had an issue last week removing a young boy from his home.”
Right, the new policy had her being accompanied by the police to any incident now, and the chief had been the one who got that call.
“Nothing unusual, just the same distressing call, having to pull a child from the only home he’s known and stick him with a bunch of strangers.”
Having the chief there had only added to the anxiety. The child had been terrified, the mother distraught, but their life was now just notes in a file.
“I noticed your family portrait above the fireplace over there,” Billy Jo said. “Your kids? I don’t remember hearing if they live here on the island.”
Mark was leaning on the island beside her, so close, and she knew he was letting her take the lead on this. At the same time, he had been and still was unusually quiet. The chief reached for a beer that was already open on the counter and took a swallow, looking from her to Mark.
“Funny thing about kids,” Gail said. “They leave and say they’ll never come back, that they can’t wait to get off this island, but Richard and Lori moved back last year. Trish is studying in Paris under a pastry chef right now, and Graham is back in Minneapolis, where his mom lives. He’s Tolly’s son, from his first wife. What is he doing now, Tolly?”
Billy Jo turned her head, taking in the photo and the smiling tall black kid who towered over the chief. She looked back to him, noting that he hadn’t pulled his gaze.
The chief shrugged. “Mechanics. Has an uncle there who took him under his wing.”
She didn’t know what to make of that comment. Just then, the dog strode back in the open door, his tongue hanging out, and headed to a bowl of water on the floor, which he lapped up.
“Tolly, grab that bone in the fridge and take it out on the back deck to give to Lucky,” said Gail.
There was something about the way the chief seemed to follow her orders. Billy Jo watched as he pulled open the fridge and pulled out a prime rib bone on a plate.
“Come on there, Lucky,” he said, and the dog followed.
Mark seemed to track the chief, and she elbowed him sharply when Gail turned away. She made a face when he frowned down at her.
“So how long have you lived here on this island?” she asked.
Gail opened the fridge, pulled out a potato salad, and rested it on the long granite counter. The center island had a gas insert, and it appeared the place had been freshly remodeled. “Oh, I grew up here, just like Tolly did. It’s home. The place is in the blood. Can’t imagine living anywhere else. Did at one time in my younger corporate life, but I moved back here when Tolly and I got married. So what about you and Mark? Are you both finding that this island life is growing on you? It’s a great place to raise kids.”
Billy Jo reached for her wine, lifted the glass, and took a swallow. Gail’s questions were veering into that personal territory of where she and Mark were or were not. She dragged her gaze to Mark, who still hadn’t said anything, and she wasn’t sure what to make of the way he was watching her. “It’s good here, right, Mark?”
He pulled in a breath. “Yup. You want those burgers on the grill?” He gestured to the plate.
Gail reached for it and handed it to him. “Yeah, good idea. Take this out to Tolly and tell him to get them started.”
Mark headed out the back door, where the chief was watching the dog, who was now lying on the deck, chomping on the bone.
“Everything okay between you two?” Gail said.
It took Billy Jo a second to realize the woman had picked up on something. She just took in the chief and Mark, the barbecue now open. The two seemed to be talking. “Yeah, it’s just Mark, you know, moody. Figure he had a rough day. He tends to clam up.”
The smile and soft chuckle from Gail had her really looking at the woman as she said, “Ah. I gave him a little bit of a hard time, showing him the reality of what he doesn’t see. Could tell I hit a nerve. Mark doesn’t hide it well when he’s rattled. Tolly has warned me I tend to take it too far sometimes.”
“Oh…?” She wasn’t sure she should ask and hoped it wasn’t about her.
“He’s a good guy, though. But you know that already.”
She wondered whether her face portrayed her unease. “You’re right, I do know that. Considering I don’t have family here, I call on Mark for anything. You and Tolly have other family here?” She wanted to pat herself on the back for her quick thinking.
“Sure we do. My two sisters are here, but my brother is down in Sacramento. Have a few nieces and nephews on my side, and Tolly has two brothers and four sisters. We had a big reunion just last year and were missing only four.”
Gail stepped over to the bookshelf, which held a framed photo, and walked back over with it. It looked like forty people, easy. She held out the photo, and Billy Jo took it, her gaze seeking out Cheyenne Potter, whom she’d seen online. There she was on the end, not smiling. A man next to her had his hand on her shoulder.
“I’ve seen her in town. Who is this?” she said, wondering how the lie could roll off her tongue so easily as she pointed to Cheyenne in the photo.
“Oh, that’s Cheyenne, my sister Patrice’s daughter. She owns the nail studio down on main street. Did you have your nails done? Is that where you saw her?”
Billy Jo was still holding the photo, taking in the curiosity that lingered in the way Gail was watching her. The woman was smart. Billy Jo needed to be careful. She held up her hand and her short nails. “These? Please. I am the last person to have my nails done. Is that her father behind her with his hand on her shoulder? And which ones are your sisters?”
Gail leaned on the counter and seemed to really look at the picture. “My sister Bev is here, and Patrice is there…” She pointed to two women in front who were sitting on the grass, laughing together, their arms linked. “That’s Philip behind Cheyenne. He’s married to Bev… And those are our kids, there.”
Billy Jo took in the photo. The family seemed picture-perfect. But something about Philip’s hand on Cheyenne’s shoulder had her stomach knotting.
“Gail, burgers are almost ready…” the chief called out from where he was barbecuing, Mark beside him.
Gail reached for the framed photo. “Okay, I’ll grab the buns. Billy Jo, can you take the potato salad and put it on the table?”
And that was the end of that. Gail put the photo back on the bookshelf, and Billy Jo slid off the stool. Mark walked in and over to her as she reached for the potato salad, and Gail was gone down the hallway—to a pantry, she thought.
“Well?” he said in a low voice.
“Yup. Cheyenne is the daughter of Gail’s sister Patrice. There’s a photo over there. And behind her is her uncle, married to her other sister,” she whispered.
Gail walked back in. Mark had that way of looking at her that told her he understood what she was saying. He was so close, in her space.
“What are you two whispering about?” Gail said. “Whose place you’re going to after or just plans in general?”
Mark stepped back. “You just don’t let up, do you?” he said teasingly.
Gail laughed softly. “Nope, not when you two look this good together.”
Mark just shook his head and stepped around her. When Billy Jo placed the potato salad on the table, she turned to see Mark already reaching for her wine on the island. The chief walked in with the plate of burgers, and Billy Jo pulled out a chair on the other side of the table, taking in the redheaded cowboy in the jean jacket he never took off, realizing she liked him more than a friend ever should.
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DON’T HIDE FROM ME
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Sometimes what we can’t see is standing right in front of us all along.
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