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The Free Friday Read

Read the first 5 chapters of the next O’Connells release!

 July 16, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

Coming Soon

Broken Promises

Broken Promises

What do you do when a woman shows up on your doorstep, suddenly wanting her daughter back?

More info →

Chapter 1

She was thirty-one years old, and she had a daughter, a tattoo she would never be able to remove, eighteen dollars and forty cents in her pocket, and a prison record that would keep her from ever having anything else. Reine Colbert wondered when she hadn’t felt this hollow ache that had become a part of her, of who she was, an anger that had only grown deeper, so much that it burned her with every breath she took.

She stared at the brick homes, sidewalks, and grass lawns of picture-perfect suburbia, with flowers planted in front of porches that welcomed visitors, family, and friends with glasses of lemonade, laughter, and small talk.

But that life wasn’t for someone like her. That life had been ripped from her. Reine had once had a husband, a daughter. She’d once felt joy. Now she felt only anger.

It hurt more than anything to feel she was supposed to be thankful that she got to breathe the same air as people who had homes, lives, and freedom. Wasn’t that exactly what her parole officer had said after he finished grinding her into the ground as she sat in his dingy office, realizing he didn’t see her as human? He’d stared at her file instead of her, making it clear she’d never matter. She’d better learn her place, keep her nose clean, take what was offered. And he didn’t want to hear any complaints or whining about anything, because rights were something she didn’t have.

No drugs, no liquor, no weapons.

And the last, which had nearly choked her, was no respect. That was something she wasn’t entitled to anymore. She’d been officially categorized as a person with no rights and no dignity, and she was terrified, as she stood on the concrete sidewalk, seeing weeds sprouting up between the cracks here and there, staring at a house, that what she was doing now could have her right back behind bars.

It would take just one call from someone who mattered, even though that would be cruel. Then again, cruelty had become familiar to her, and it was a quality she saw in everyone now.

Someone was watching her. This was that feeling prison had taught her, the one that had kept her alive and breathing. She waited a second before turning to see a woman with long dark hair across the street, staring.

Reine pulled at her old hoodie, lifting the hood over her shoulder-length dark hair even though it was mildly warm out. She made herself look away, around and up the street to see what could be coming at her. It was a quiet morning, and cars were parked in front of most of the houses. The sheriff’s cruiser was in the driveway as the early sun topped the horizon.

She reminded herself she couldn’t keep standing there, as someone would call the cops, and she’d be questioned, told she didn’t belong. Reine made herself take one step and then another, hoping whoever was watching her would let her be instead of hitting her with the knowledge that she didn’t belong there.

She kept moving in sneakers that were so worn she could feel each pebble she stepped on, but the pain was welcome as she walked up the sidewalk toward the two-story craftsman. Her legs were shaking, and her stomach was hollow, and Reine was very aware of the voices she could hear from inside.

The three front steps were painted gray. As she stepped up, she glanced down at the holes in her sneakers, and her heartbeat thudded long and loud in her ears. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. She wondered whether she’d ever shake that feeling of being watched, having to look over her shoulder, never feeling a moment’s peace because of that deep ache in her soul, a reminder of everything she’d lost.

She took another step up, and the creak of the wood ricocheted through her. Her inhale was long and loud in her ears, her heart pounding, her hands sweating. One more step, and she knew she shouldn’t be here, fearing the hand that would reach for her and pull her back, another living nightmare. Reine prayed for the day when that fear would truly leave her.

She fisted her shaking hand, feeling the sweat under her arms, down her back. Her blue jeans hung on her hips. The inside door was closed, and she stared at the screen mesh and lifted her hand to ring the doorbell, but instead she knocked on the white painted frame.

The sound was weak. Standing there, she wasn’t sure if anyone had heard her. She lifted her hand again when she heard voices and footsteps, and then the door opened. She’d never forget his face, his blue eyes, that all-cop look, even though she’d forgotten how tall he was, standing there in his sheriff’s uniform.

For a moment, the silence hung thick in the air as she stared at the man who was responsible for everything she didn’t have.

“Marcus, who’s at the door?” someone called out. It was her voice, Charlotte.

Reine fisted her hands where they hung at her sides and stared through the screen that separated her from a man she felt only bitterness for. She took in the confusion that knit his brows, his hand on the door. He didn’t answer his wife.

“Reine?”

Was he happy or angry? She couldn’t tell from his deep voice. The screen was still closed, but then he pushed it open with a loud squeak. She heard the sounds of children and a voice she’d go to her grave knowing, because it was a part of her.

Eva.

“I don’t understand. What…? How?” Marcus gestured toward her, and she could hear the confusion as his gaze bore down on her. “What are you doing here?”

She pulled her hood down. “Hello, Marcus,” she said, her heart still hammering as she took in the gun holstered on his duty belt. Once, she’d never have believed she could come to hate that uniform, but now she did because of what it had taken from her.

He was still standing in the doorway, looking down at her. She knew she wouldn’t be invited in. What, exactly, had she expected?

“Marcus, you didn’t answer. Who’s here…?” There she was, Charlotte, dressed for work in a brown deputy’s shirt, her long dark hair pulled up. Her eyes widened as she stood beside Marcus, staring down at her. Charlotte’s head just topped his shoulders, but they were both taller than her.

She was still trembling inside, facing the gatekeepers to her Eva. More guards, even though she was no longer behind the walls of a prison.

“Reine, what are you doing here?” Charlotte said. “I didn’t know you were out. What’s going on?”

Not even a welcome or a smile. That was something she expected, and there it was, the change in Charlotte’s face, in her eyes. Gone was the caring, and the woman who’d taken her daughter was staring at her now in a way that told her she didn’t want her here.

“I’m here to see my daughter,” Reine said.

She didn’t miss the exchange between husband and wife as if her fate was still up for debate, as if someone else decided what she could and couldn’t do.

“You’re out of prison?” Marcus said. “I don’t understand. When did this happen?”

When had she become so aware of the tone of people’s voices? Marcus’s had an edge she hadn’t expected.

“Yes, I’m out. I hope that’s not a problem for you.” She wondered if sarcasm dripped from her words. Maybe that was why she still hadn’t been invited in.

Marcus stepped out of the house, forcing her to take a step back, something she was too familiar with. Then he took another and another, and she had to fight the urge to look back to see the steps she could fall down. He was right in front of her, his hands on his duty belt beside cuffs she hoped never to feel around her wrists again. But she refused to cower even though she was terrified of what he could do to her.

The screen door hadn’t closed, and she knew Charlotte was still standing there, holding it open.

“Marcus, the children…”

Was that worry or fear in Charlotte’s voice? Reine couldn’t look at her because the sheriff was staring down at her with a hard expression, the only way people looked at her now.

“Go inside and take Eva and Cameron upstairs,” he said without pulling his eyes from her.

Reine wasn’t about to lower her gaze, either, even though looking a guard in the eye in prison would have been seen as challenging, threatening, with repercussions that ranged from having her privileges taken away to being beaten or tossed in isolation. Cruel was cruel, and that had been all she’d known for too long.

Reine made herself take a breath and instinctively fisted her hands at her sides again.

“Marcus, everything okay here? Jenny said there may be something wrong,” came a voice from behind her.

She had to look away, down to the man looking up at her from the sidewalk in a park warden’s uniform. He was tall, too, and from the way he looked at her, she could feel this going sideways.

“No, everything is fine, Ryan,” Marcus said. “This is Reine. She’s out of prison.” He sounded so matter of fact, but the way he talked about her, as if addressing the weather or the news, ached.

From how the other man was looking at her now, she expected to be told to leave or maybe walked down the street by the two of them, out of the neighborhood, with a warning never to come back.

“You have my daughter, Marcus,” she said. “I want to see Eva right now.”

He lifted his gaze back to her sharply with an expression she didn’t like, shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Reine. She’s happy now, and she wouldn’t understand. You just showing up here like this isn’t good for her. It’s confusing, and—”

“She’s my daughter!” She thumped her chest with her fisted hand, cutting him off, and it felt so damn good to do it, because it was something she’d never have been allowed to do in prison.

His gaze snapped to the sudden movement, and she reminded herself she was in front of a cop, standing right on his doorstep. She needed to be careful not to be construed as threatening or aggressive, even though the words she wanted to say were screaming through her head. The anger that radiated through her was clouding her reasoning.

“No, Reine,” Marcus said. “She’s our daughter now. Charlotte and I adopted her. Did you forget it was your idea? Now you’re showing up here without calling, demanding to see her. What is this?”

That was something else she’d become far too used to, being denied everything she loved. The lump in her throat threatened to choke her, and tears burned her eyes from the anger that was only swelling deeper, bigger, burning a hole right through her.

“This is about my daughter, Marcus. Mine. I gave birth to her, and she was taken from me…”

He lifted a hand, and for a moment she thought he would touch her, so she jerked her shoulder sharply away. He must have known, as he pulled his hand back. “I can see you’re angry and hurt, but I really don’t think right now is a good time,” he said. “We’ll talk, and maybe we can look at something down the road when you’re a little more settled.” His hand went to his duty belt again, and she felt the dismissal, knowing the other man was still standing there, watching her, maybe waiting for her to move too fast or do something he didn’t like.

Reine didn’t nod. This was too familiar, being told to leave. Then they’d circle the wagons and make sure Eva was moved further out of reach. She was shaking her head as she said, “No, I’m not leaving. I came to see my daughter, and you can’t keep her from me.”

“Reine, you’re making this very difficult. I said no. What is it you really want here? What is this really about? If you were truly thinking of Eva’s best interest, you wouldn’t be here now, showing up without calling.”

She tried to look past him, but he was right there, blocking the door. She lifted her chin and refused to look away from the hard blue eyes of the cop looking down on her. “What I really want is to have the life that was stolen from me. That’s what I really want, Marcus. But I can’t have that, and I have to live with the shitty hand I was dealt. I’ve already asked you, and you’ve denied me seeing my daughter. So hear me, Marcus O’Connell. I’m standing here on your doorstep, and you have my daughter inside, and I’m telling you I want her back. Not to visit, not to make an appointment so you can decide whether I can or can’t see her. I want her back. She’s mine.” She was trembling and knew she should be terrified by the way he was staring down at her.

“No, absolutely not,” he snapped.

She picked up the sharp edge in his voice and heard the creak of the step behind her, knowing her time was up. A hand would grab her and push her away.

She didn’t think. She could feel the panic and the agony of her daughter being ripped away from her again. It was her sweet face, her image, and her name that had kept her sane, so she did the only thing she could think of. She opened her mouth and yelled, “Eva!”

Chapter 2

“What do you want to do?”

Marcus leaned on the island, pressing his hands against the edge of the laminate as he listened to his daughter, Eva, talking to a woman he couldn’t believe had shown up at his door. He looked at Charlotte, whose brown eyes seemed to darken with a worry he’d never seen before. As she ran her hand over his arm, he only shrugged and shook his head, then pushed away from the island. “I don’t know. I can’t believe I didn’t get a call that she was getting out, even just as a courtesy. Our office should have been notified. I’ll find out who her parole officer is and have a word with him.”

Charlotte touched his arm again. “What about work? We have to go. We were supposed to be there already, but we can’t leave her here. Eva has school, too. She’s already late. I can’t believe Reine called out for her like she did. You should have seen Eva’s face when she heard Reine. The way she yelled, I couldn’t stop her from running down the stairs.”

He shut his eyes, feeling the ache, wondering whether he’d ever shake the moment when he heard the desperation in Reine’s cry for Eva. It had cut him deep inside, and so had the footsteps of the little girl he loved so much on the stairs, her face as she pushed open that screen door, and her voice as she cried out, “Mommy!”

The entire situation had spiraled out of his control.

He only nodded and slid his hand over his wife’s arm, feeling how tense she was.

“You want me to walk in there and ask her to leave?” she said.

He shook his head. “I can’t do that to Eva. Let her have a minute with Reine to talk, but I think you should go to work. Jenny good to keep Cameron?”

His wife made a face and sighed. He was grateful that Ryan had at least taken Cameron back to his house and out of the emotion of Reine having just shown up. He still hadn’t told Charlotte what she’d said.

“Yeah, of course,” Charlotte replied. “She called your mom, too. At least Iris won’t be sitting there, waiting for Cameron to show up. I have to get Eva to school.”

He heard the squeak of the front door and footsteps, and he lifted his gaze to his brother Ryan as he walked in. Marcus gestured with his thumb to the living room, where mother and daughter were sitting. The expression on his face said everything.

“So what’s the plan here, Marcus?” Ryan said. “She staying for the day? She really planning on taking Eva back?”

Charlotte hissed beside him. “She wants Eva back?”

“Shh,” he said, taking a step and sliding both his hands over Charlotte’s shoulders, the only way he could think to keep her from running into the living room and pulling Eva, the little girl who was their daughter, away from Reine. “Keep your voice down.”

Charlotte’s face paled. He hadn’t expected it to come out so sharply.

“She said she wants her daughter back,” he said, “but I haven’t had a chance to talk to her. We’re running completely on emotion here…”

When he let his hands fall away, Charlotte moved to step back, so he touched her arm again and said, “No, don’t you go in there and make this worse. I can see your anger, but going in there now will only further complicate this situation we find ourselves in. Remember, we adopted Eva officially. She can’t just walk in and take her.”

Marcus slipped his hand around Charlotte’s arm and gave her a little tug, feeling the war raging inside her. She only wanted to protect Eva.

Ryan was quiet, watching them. Just as Marcus realized he couldn’t hear Eva and Reine talking anymore, he heard the creak of the floorboards and turned to see them stepping quietly into the kitchen.

“Hey, there,” Marcus said, resting his hand on the edge of the island beside him and doing his best to keep his voice light. “You’re supposed to be at school. We have to get going soon.”

Eva was holding Reine’s hand, and he took in the way she looked up to her mother, seeing how hesitant and thrown his little girl had to be. “I don’t want to go to school today. Can’t I stay here with Mommy?” she said, her voice no longer that of the confident little girl who had settled in with them.

He knew Charlotte couldn’t pull her gaze from how tightly Reine gripped Eva’s hand. Her clothes were worn and old. He couldn’t remember whether those were the ones she’d been arrested in. He had so many damn questions, and he could see panic staring back at him from the face of a little girl who’d had her life turned upside down.

“Eva, you love school,” Charlotte said, slipping away from him to squat down in front of Eva and reach out for her. “This was just a short visit with Reine this morning. You’ll see her again. We’ll have her over. Come on, you go and get your shoes on. This isn’t goodbye. Come on.” She slid her hand over Eva’s arm, rubbing it.

Eva looked up to Reine, who was still holding her other hand, as if waiting for her mother to say it was okay. He couldn’t have this, so he took a step toward them, seeing the determination on Reine’s face. From her silence and the way she stared back at him with a hard, unforgiving look, it was clear she had no intention of letting go of Eva’s hand. He wondered whether she expected to walk out of the house with his daughter. He needed to remind her it didn’t work like that.

“Charlotte’s right, Eva,” he said. “We’ll have Reine over, but you need to go get your shoes on, and Charlotte will take you to school. Remember, Grandma is picking you up today, and it’s family night at her house tonight. Right now, Reine and I need to talk. Isn’t that right, Reine?”

When he lifted his gaze to her, Reine was staring at him with a hate he’d never expected. It made absolutely no sense, and he was so damn furious at this situation.

“Can Mommy stay, Marcus?” Eva said. “I don’t want to go to school today…”

He shook his head. “Hey, don’t worry. You’ll see her again.”

“Can she come to Grandma’s tonight, to family night? You have to come, Mommy, please. Uncle Owen always barbecues, and Uncle Luke and Chloe have a dog they always bring…” Eva was looking from Charlotte, to him, to her mother, and he could see the hope he couldn’t take from her.

“Eva, if Reine doesn’t have plans already, of course she can come,” he said, “but Reine and I need to talk, and you need to go to school. Go get your shoes on and say goodbye to Reine.” He took one step closer and then another, dragging his gaze to Reine. She had to know she was pushing him, and maybe that was why she made a face, squeezed Eva’s hand, and leaned down to her.

“Marcus is right,” she said, “but I’ll see you tonight. I promise I will be there. No one will keep me from being there.” Reine lifted her hard gaze to him as she spoke, and he could already feel the fight building in her.

She ran her hand over Eva’s head before kissing her forehead, and as she let her hand go, Marcus let out the breath he hadn’t known he was holding. He realized then how tight his chest was, and the relief he blew out was louder than expected.

Charlotte was right behind Eva. He knew she’d have her out the door and in her car quickly by the way she was urging her to get her shoes on. Reine turned, facing the door, her arms across her stomach, and he already saw her anger toward him. This conversation would be anything but friendly.

“Marcus, Eva’s lunch,” Charlotte called out.

He pulled open the fridge and reached for the paper bag in which Charlotte had packed Eva’s favorite, a cheese and lettuce sandwich, along with a fruit cup, a bag of carrots (the only vegetable she’d eat), and a cookie from the chocolate chip batch Charlotte had baked for the kids. He rolled up the edge of the paper bag.

“Okay, I see you got the last chocolate chip cookie again,” he said, forcing the teasing back into his voice as he walked around Reine and Ryan, who leaned against the island without saying a word. He kept going, one step and then another, seeing the panic and uncertainty flickering in Eva’s innocent blue eyes. They weren’t the O’Connell blue but a different shade, Reine’s shade, yet without the same disillusionment and rage at the weight of the world.

He made himself blow out a breath as he stood over Eva, who was sitting on the steps, and Charlotte, who was helping her lace up her shoes. That was something he hadn’t seen her do for Eva in a long time. Marcus held out the paper lunch bag. “So when you’re eating that cookie today, think of me watching you and knowing you got the last one.”

She took the paper bag, and there was the hint of a smile. “We’ll make some more. Maybe Mommy could help,” she said with a hopeful look to Charlotte, who stood abruptly.

“Okay, we have to go, Eva,” she said, an edge to her voice. “Say goodbye to Reine.”

Eva left the lunch bag on the steps and ran back to the kitchen. Marcus leaned on the wooden railing of the staircase, watching as she hugged Reine, who was on her knees, holding her daughter so tight. He couldn’t make out what she whispered to her before she kissed her again.

Marcus dragged his hand over his face, hearing the scrape of whiskers even though he’d shaved, and then shook his head as he saw the panic in his wife’s face. She had her purse and the lunch bag as she waited. Finally, Reine let Eva go, and Eva ran over to Charlotte with a big bright smile.

After Charlotte had her out the door, the silence lingered, and he could’ve sworn he heard the tick of a clock from someplace in the house. He listened to Charlotte’s Subaru starting up before dragging his gaze back to a woman who had suddenly turned their morning upside down. His brother was still standing behind her, and Reine stared at him too with the kind of anger he’d seen too many times on the faces of people he’d arrested. Being a cop, he had grown far too used to seeing that.

He pushed away from the dark wood of the rail, noting how tense she was. “I know Eva invited you to my mother’s tonight, but I don’t want you there. We have some things to settle first, some ground rules to lay out. For one, you coming in here and threatening to take that little girl from us… It isn’t going to happen. Did you forget we adopted her? You signed over your parental rights. It’s too late, Reine. There is no going back.” He was shaking his head, stepping toward her.

She tracked each of his movements, and he wondered whether it was fear he was seeing now instead of the rage he’d first thought. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong, Marcus O’Connell. She’s my daughter, and I was left with little choice. I will have it reversed, and I’m taking my daughter. You can fight me and try to keep me away, but if you do that, Eva will hate you.”

She wasn’t cowering. He knew when someone was bluffing, and this was a woman who wasn’t going to quietly walk away.

“Do you think I’m just going to let you walk in here and rip her world apart, and ours?” he said. “No, she’s our daughter now. We love her—”

“No, she’s my daughter.” Reine cut him off and slapped her hand sharply to her chest. “And you are not keeping me from her. Do not come any closer to me, Marcus.”

He stopped, watching the heave of her chest.

Ryan was watching her, too. “You know what? This isn’t getting us anywhere,” he finally said, stepping in, staring down at Reine. Then he dragged his gaze over to Marcus. “You need to get going, Marcus. Go on. Reine, you, Charlotte, and Marcus really need to sit down and talk, but now isn’t a good time. It’d be better if your heads were cooler.”

The last thing Marcus wanted was to walk out of his house without setting some ground rules with Reine, but Ryan took another step and got right in front of him, saying in a low voice, “Go. You’re only butting heads. There’s no reasoning right now. Go to work. I’ve got this.”

He didn’t want to agree.

Maybe that was why his brother angled his head and glanced back to Reine, asking, “You had breakfast yet?”

She didn’t say anything, just shook her head.

Marcus realized maybe his brother was right. “You call me later,” was all he said to Ryan before taking a step away.

“Yeah, later,” Ryan replied.

Marcus kept right on going to the door, where he set his hand on the screen and stood for a second, watching Reine watching him. Ryan was waiting, and he didn’t have a clue how to reason with this woman.

Chapter 3

Charlotte was perched on the edge of his desk, where he sat with the phone to his ear, the door closed. He’d said nothing to Therese and Colby about his personal business, and then there was Harold, who he knew was handling a call at a property north of town about vandalized farm equipment and a fire that had destroyed half a barn. Arson for sure, but not something he could get his head into today.

He listened to the ring again, furious after having left two messages for the warden of the women’s prison, who had never bothered to call him back.

“Jane Bartlett,” she finally answered, and the ball of rage building in his stomach seemed to grow bigger.

“Warden Bartlett, this is Sheriff Marcus O’Connell. You’re a hard woman to get a hold of. Pretty sure I left two messages for you already.”

“Sheriff, I’m busy running a prison. What can I do for you?” she said sharply. He still remembered how she’d laid the law down on him when Reine was locked up, calling that prison home for nearly three years. Her words, exactly, had been Stay the hell out of how I run my prison.

“I’m calling about Reine Colbert. I would have expected a courtesy call from you to say she was being released.”

There was no pause on the other end, no Oops, sorry. “Why would I notify you? Her lawyer managed to get her before the parole board, and she was granted early release. Is there a problem I should know about? Because unless she’s done something and is having her parole revoked and being returned to my prison, I’m not clear on why we should be talking. The last thing I have any time for is to notify people when a prisoner is being released. As far as I’m concerned, she’s done her time. All she has to do is keep her nose clean. If she gets herself in trouble, she’ll land right back here and will have to serve out the remainder of her sentence. Again, did she do something? Otherwise, I don’t want to hear about it.”

Sometimes he appreciated when a woman got to the point, but right now, the way she talked to him was only pissing him off. Worse, he expected her to cut him off and hang up. Charlotte didn’t pull her gaze from him until he heard a knock on his door, when she slid off the desk and walked over to pull it open.

He looked away, turning his chair toward the large framed map of Montana on the dark wood wall, and shut his eyes for a second, then dragged his hand down over his face, knowing everything would go sideways with this warden when he opened his mouth.

“Look, she showed up at my door this morning,” he said. “I would have appreciated a heads-up so I could prepare and have an idea—”

The warden sighed. “So you’ve arrested her.”

He hadn’t expected that. He realized the warden likely didn’t remember about her daughter, and he found himself shaking his head. “No, of course I didn’t. My wife and I adopted Reine’s daughter, Eva…”

“Of course, yes.” She cut him off. “Well, I’m sure her parole officer will have already advised her not to contact you and her daughter. So she couldn’t help herself. Seems too often they’re out and then right back in here. Okay, here it is. Manny Meskill is her parole officer. You want the number?”

There was something odd about the warden. He never knew what side of the fence she was on.

“No, I know Manny,” he said, recalling a man in his fifties, five inches shorter than Marcus, with messy dark hair, a penchant for fast food, and a belly that hung over his belt. “I’ll call him.”

“Is there anything else, Sheriff?” There it was, the unfriendliness back in her tone as if she didn’t want to hear from him again.

“No, I’ll have a word with Manny. Thank you, Warden.”

He heard the click and knew she’d hung up, so he set the phone back in the cradle with a clatter and slid his office chair around. It squeaked as he leaned forward, resting his forearms on his desk, seeing Harold in the doorway. Evidently, Charlotte was bringing him up to speed. The door was wide open as she walked back over to him.

“Well, what did she say?”

Marcus reached for the phone again to call Manny, a man he’d talked to half a dozen times, but then decided against it. He let out a heavy sigh, feeling Charlotte staring down at him, waiting for him to answer as he tried to wrap his head around this situation.

“Manny Meskill is her parole officer. Her lawyer got her early parole. Karen should have called me and told me…”

“Maybe your sister didn’t know,” Charlotte said.

Harold stared at them, just taking it all in, standing right in front of his desk beside her. “Karen did say sometime about Reine’s father, Duncan, bringing in his own lawyer. Wasn’t he handling things for her now? You know we were cut out of the loop.”

Marcus needed to call his sister. “I’ll call Karen, see what she can find out. In the meantime, I’ll have a word with the parole officer.”

He didn’t have a clue how to deal with Reine’s anger, and he hadn’t really taken the time to consider what would happen when she got out, what it would mean for her to eventually walk through the doors of the prison. It shouldn’t have happened so early, but evidently, here they were.

“She threaten you?” Harold said, resting his hands on his duty belt, all cop, staring down at him.

Charlotte’s gaze lingered on him. Wouldn’t it be so easy to say she had?

He made himself shake his head. He could see the panic in Charlotte’s gaze. She expected him to figure out how to keep Reine away. “No, she didn’t threaten me or us. I wouldn’t say that about her. She wants Eva back, though, which has me wondering what else is coming our way. She’s angry, and the way she showed up, I’m not sure what she’ll do. A woman on the edge, operating on pure emotion… It’s not an ideal situation, and it’s not exactly what I want around my daughter.”

Harold dragged his gaze from Charlotte to him, taking it all in.

“So was it arson?” Marcus changed the subject because he needed to think of something else for a moment so he could be reasonable instead of reverting to the hard-ass he likely had been that morning.

Harold shook his head. “Looks like it. Tracking down a couple leads, but seems it could be the same person who wrecked the farm equipment and cut fencing at those two other properties, the Olsons’ place and Lloyd Binnion’s down the road.”

Marcus reached for the keys on his desk and his cell phone, shoving them in his pocket as he stood up, knowing Charlotte still expected him to do something. “You got this, then?” He gestured to Harold, who just lifted his hands.

“Yeah, I got it. What are you planning on doing? Charlotte said you left your house and Ryan was there with Reine. What happened?”

Another call he needed to make. This was his problem, but Ryan had obviously picked up on how sideways it was going.

He took in the open door, unable to shake that off feeling he had, and gestured helplessly, dragging his gaze back over to Charlotte, his wife, the mother of his children, Eva and Cameron. “Maybe Ryan got through to her. I expected him to call. Eva wants Reine to come to family night at Mom’s.”

Harold opened his mouth the way he did when he didn’t know what to say.

Marcus dragged his gaze back over to Charlotte, who crossed her arms over her chest, her lips pressed tightly in a fine line. “I told her no after you left, told her she can’t come,” he said. “So that’s where it was left. Right now, I’m going to pay Manny Meskill a visit and find out why he couldn’t pick up the damn phone and give me a call. He should’ve let me know Reine was out so I could do damage control and figure out a few things instead of being blindsided completely this morning when she showed up at our door. Then I’m going to find out where she’s staying, everything he said to her, and where the fuck she got this idea that she can just walk out of prison and take Eva back. Eva is ours now. I’ll have that chat with Manny, see that things are squared away and he sits down with Reine so she gets her head on straight…”

“Marcus, you mind some advice?” Harold cut in, which was something he didn’t normally do. But then, Marcus couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone so far off the rails. He wanted to say no, as he could see Charlotte expected him to just handle this. He let out a heavy sigh as he held the keys.

“Sure, why not?” He could feel the sarcasm dripping from his tone, but Harold didn’t seem to notice.

“Maybe you need to sit down with Reine and just listen to her,” he said, then lifted his hands as if he’d overstepped, likely because Marcus could feel the Hell, no! on the tip of his tongue. “Look, just hear me out here. What is it you’re planning on doing? You’re going to see Manny and, what, have her parole yanked and get her tossed back in jail? You want to make her life more difficult than it already is?”

Marcus pulled his hand over his face. He wasn’t that kind of cop, he was better than that, but this was his daughter, Eva. “I don’t know. No… I’m not out to toss her back in jail, but the entire situation of her being there wasn’t right. Nevertheless, this is where we are, and the fact is she’s messing with my family. She’s going to hurt Eva, and I can’t have that.”

Charlotte still hadn’t said anything. She was looking at the door, and he knew she wanted to race out of there, pick up Eva from school, pick up Cameron from Jenny’s, and lock the doors at home and not let them out.

“Hey, I get it,” Harold said. “I can see how wound tight you both are. But don’t forget she’s Eva’s mother, so tread carefully. Eva is old enough to understand that her mother showed up this morning, so if she doesn’t see her again, she’s going to ask why. Are you going to lie to her or say it’s complicated? Because I have to tell you, that kid is smart, and if she figures it out or finds out you did something…”

How the hell did Harold do that? His words of reason were an icy splash of water

“Shit! Fuck…” Marcus said. “God almighty, she’d never forgive us.” He dragged his hand over his face again and turned back to the map on the wall, wondering why he was so damn focused on it. Then he made himself look back to Harold, who made a face and angled his head, pulling his arms across his chest.

“Again, Marcus, talk to her, sit down with her, find some common ground. Because I can see already what this is going to do. From where I’m standing, it could tear you apart, and that happy little girl. Anger is anger. Reine evidently wants to be part of her life. Can you really deny her that, or Eva?”

He pressed his hand over his eyes. Harold’s words of wisdom told him something he already knew deep down. He tucked his phone in his pocket.

“I’m still having a talk with Manny,” was all he said, then started around his desk, feeling the reality of the situation. When he reached the doorway, he turned back, carrying the weight of every moment of what had happened to Reine: her survival, her wrong choices, her ending up on the wrong end of the law. “I’m just talking, that’s it. I’m not heading there to cause Reine trouble.”

But he still planned on talking one on one with Reine, too. And this time, he hoped the woman he spoke to was the same reasonable one who’d asked him to adopt Eva.

Chapter 4

“Mrs. Hirst, is there anything else I can get for you before I go? Now, Reine is going to finish up here, and then your daughter will be back, so if you need anything, just call for Reine and she can get it for you.”

Reine couldn’t hear how the old woman answered Ivy Smoat, the homecare nurse for whom Reine did all the grunt work. As she wiped the bathtub down, she remembered how the O’Connells had looked down on her and the agony of not being able to be a mother to her daughter.

She took in the floor she still needed to clean and the bed she needed to change. Should she say something about the fact that the old woman was soiling the bed again? Reine had found the adult diapers she was supposedly wearing tucked in the oddest of places. The daughter had to have noticed. But then, she remembered how she’d raced out of the house for a hair appointment or massage—she couldn’t remember which—as soon as they arrived.

“Hey, when you’re done there I need you to run upstairs and tidy up,” Ivy told her. “Run the vacuum, clean the bathrooms, and do Valerie’s room, too. She’s got a lot on her plate, looking after her mom.” She made a motion of looking at her watch. “Now, Valerie said she’d be back around two.”

She stood in the doorway, a big woman who had five inches and a hundred pounds on Reine. She had a dark round face and eyes that said she didn’t care or want to hear anything about Reine’s problems or her business. She wondered if that was why it always felt as if Ivy were talking down to her.

Reine squeezed her fist, holding the sponge on her knees by the bathtub, wondering whether she should point out that homecare meant looking after the old woman, not her daughter, and she worked only until one thirty. But instead she just shrugged and said, “Sure.”

Ivy let her gaze linger a second, and Reine felt the knot in her stomach. Had she said it the wrong way? She wondered why the woman was still staring down at her. She knew well when someone still had something to say, and the only thing she expected was something else to grind her down.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Ivy said, “but you were late this morning. Showing up all sweaty, running in the way you did as I was loading up the car, I can’t have that happening again, do you hear? And since you were assigned to me, to help me, I expect reliability. Tomorrow, make sure you show up to help me get the supplies before we leave for the homes we’re visiting. You’ll have to walk back to the office today. I have to leave now and get over to the Johnsons’, so when you’re done, just leave the bucket and cleaning supplies downstairs. Reine, consider this the only warning I’ll give you. Plan on being at the office fifteen minutes early, because that’s what the boss likes to see. I don’t want to be in that position of wondering whether you’ll even show, because if you don’t, you won’t have a job. You understand?”

She wanted to argue, to explain how she’d had to run sixteen blocks from the O’Connells’ because she’d needed to see her daughter. Even though she knew Ryan had wanted a word with her, she’d run out the door right after Marcus pulled away. Probably not something she should mention. Going toe to toe with Marcus O’Connell hadn’t been what she’d planned to do—not yet, anyway. Then there was his family.

“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” she said.

Ivy didn’t smile except when she was sitting and talking with the old woman. “Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” she said with a bite.

Reine realized she’d found herself on the bad side of her supervisor, but then, she wondered whether Ivy had made up her mind about her from the moment Reine was assigned to her. She’d come with the label of ex-con, out on probation. Her anxiety only twisted tighter in her stomach.

“We have three calls on the schedule tomorrow, and you have to wear the company scrubs, as is outlined in the employee handbook,” Ivy said.

Reine didn’t bother to get up. Should she point out that she was supposed to leave with Ivy? She was just the homecare assistant. She was to arrive and leave with the homecare nurse and do everything she asked. Also, although she was four days on the job now, she’d been told they didn’t have the uniform in her size.

“Sorry, Ivy, but I asked again yesterday about the scrubs and was told my size was backordered. Not sure what you want me to do.”

Ivy flicked her gaze down to her and gave her head a shake. “Well, then you should pick up something else to wear in the meantime instead of those ripped blue jeans. It’s not a good image for the company. Because I’m not completely heartless, I realize you’ve likely not had time to shop. There is a secondhand store on Third that might have something that would work.”

Reine squeezed the sponge, still remembering her parole officer tossing her the name and number for Better Way Homecare, saying it would be a dream job for her. “I’m doing the best I can, Ivy, but I haven’t even been paid my first check. This is all I have. Secondhand store or not, it’s going to cost money,” she said, but as soon as it was out of her mouth, she realized she should’ve said nothing. “You know what? I’ll figure something out.”

Apparently, that was what Ivy wanted to hear, by the way she gave her a nod and stared down at her. “You do that, then,” she said, then moved to step away.

“Oh, just to clarify, you’re leaving me alone to finish, and you don’t need help at the Johnsons’?”

Ivy gripped the strap of her black purse and pulled her keys from her pocket. “No, I don’t need help at the Johnsons’ until Friday, because that’s when he’s on the schedule for a longer visit, with a bath and a big clean of the house. Today, I just need to check his sugar levels, make sure he’s taken his insulin. I figure I’ll be in and out in five minutes, ten tops. Friday will be the cleaning and everything else, so plan on being there most of the day. Oh, and I forgot to mention the fridge here. Clean it out if you get a chance. I noticed a lot of old uncovered food. Just toss it all.”

Apparently, this was the “everything else” she was supposed to be doing.

“What if I run out of time? I’m supposed to be off in an hour…” She stopped talking, because from the way Ivy let her gaze linger on her again, she knew she was going to have to do more and talk less.

“Are we going to have a problem here?” Ivy said.

Reine made herself close her mouth and shook her head.

“We’re taking a chance on you, Reine. We don’t normally hire ex-cons. Should I be worried about leaving you here to finish?”

What the hell was she supposed to say to that? It was a familiar reminder that she had to know her place. “Dehumanization” was a word that cut so deeply in her soul, a word she’d heard too often from the lips of other inmates, and now that was all she felt.

“Of course not,” Reine said. “Just wanted to be clear on the rules. See you tomorrow?” She forced a smile to her lips even though she felt this going sideways. That had been her life for too long.

“Again, don’t be late tomorrow. And talk to Pete when you get back to the office about the uniform. Wear something that at least looks like scrubs. Pete is really big on all us girls looking the part.”

Then she was gone, and Reine let out a sigh, falling back on her heels and hearing the outside door close. She pictured her daughter’s face again and imagined the talk she hadn’t had with Ryan. She knew she didn’t want to hear him warn her off.

But at least she wasn’t locked in a cage, with people telling her when she had to go to bed, when she had to get up. She had no intention of ever going back again. Now she was on the outside, having to visit a man who could make her life a living hell.

She was taking a second to remember her daughter, just sitting with her that morning while she fought the giant ache of the years she’d lost with her, when she heard a crash from what sounded like the kitchen. She dropped the sponge in the bathtub, yanked off the rubber gloves, and ran out of the bathroom to see the woman, who she knew was in her seventies, standing over a broken clay plant pot. Dirt was spilled everywhere, and she was standing right in the middle of a pile of it.

“Oh no, Mrs. Hirst…” she started, seeing how confused the woman was. “Come on, careful now, watch your step.” She put her hand on the old woman, taking in the navy polyester slacks, the loose blue and white top, her hair still damp from the bath she’d just had.

“Oh dear, what did I do?”

“Were you trying to water the plant, Mrs. Hirst?” Reine helped her take a step back—in her slippers, thankfully.

“I don’t know,” she said, still confused.

How was she supposed to clean and keep this old woman out of trouble? She helped her into the living room, back to her chair.

“I’ll check the plants for you,” Reine said. “You sit back here by the window and see what a nice pretty day it is. Can I get you some water?” There was a mug of coffee there, still full, and a small wooden box on top of a newspaper, as well as a book she didn’t think she’d read.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Reine, remember? I came with Ivy.”

Mrs. Hirst reached over to the box and opened the lid to pull out a pearl necklace that was tangled with a bunch of other earrings and necklaces. “Could you help me put this on?”

“Of course I can.” Reine took the pearl necklace from her shaking hands and opened the clasp, then put it on her, wondering if this was what the old woman had to look forward to. “There, that looks so nice.”

The woman touched the pearls. “Herman gave me these on our first anniversary.”

She could see the old woman had evidently been pulled into a fond memory. “Who is Herman, your husband?”

Mrs. Hirst looked up to her again. “Who are you?”

Reine realized this was going to be a really long day. “I’m Reine. So, Mrs. Hirst, I need you to stay here. I’m going to clean up the mess in the kitchen.”

Reine took in the clock as she strode back into the kitchen, spotting a broom tucked in the corner. She realized she would be here longer than she wanted. As she swept up the dirt, she heard a creak and footsteps, and she glanced up to see Mrs. Hirst walking down the hall. She wanted to scream. Cleaning was one thing, but looking after a woman struggling with dementia was far outside her comfort zone and not what she’d signed up for.

“Mrs. Hirst, where are you going?” she called out.

Then the old woman walked back down the hall, now wearing a robe, and went right to the front door and opened it.

Chapter 5

Marcus’s phone was ringing. He took in the caller ID, Karen Curtis, and wondered when his sister had taken her husband’s name.

“So you’re finally calling me back. Took you long enough,” he said as he pulled up in front of the old commercial building where Reine’s parole officer, Manny Meskill, had his office. He put the car in park and turned it off before pulling the keys from the ignition, hearing Charlotte’s voice over his radio, then Harold’s, about a call in progress and a wellness check on some old-timer.

“Oh, park the nasty, already, Marcus. I was in a meeting. So what’s up with you? You said something in your message about Reine Colbert? And, just FYI, my husband—you know, the governor? Well, his assistant was in my office when I played your message out loud.”

He couldn’t remember what he’d said, exactly, when he was sent right to voicemail, other than Pick up the damn phone! or something along those lines. He shook his head as he sat in his parked car, staring at the dingy glass front that led to a narrow hallway. He knew the parole officer’s office was in back, with hard wooden benches in the hall where the parolees would sit and wait.

“Reine Colbert showed up at my door this morning, demanding to see Eva,” he said. “It was not a good scene. I tried to get her to leave, but everything went sideways when Eva heard her and came running out. Reine said she wants her back. Did you know she was out? Because I have to say, I can’t believe we never got a courtesy call…”

There was silence on the other end.

“Karen, you there?” He really looked at the phone.

“Yeah, sorry. No, I didn’t know she was out. But I’m not her lawyer anymore. I know her father brought in a lawyer of his some time back. What was his name? Gregor Smith, I think. But you’re the one who never wanted her in jail, remember? You called me to get involved because of the situation, the circumstances. Even you said you’d have let her walk. Do you need a reminder of everything that went down?”

Of course he didn’t, but he didn’t know how to explain this awful feeling that he hadn’t considered. “I’m not a monster,” he said. “Of course I’m glad she’s out, but this is about Eva. Remember, the girl Charlotte and I adopted, who is now our daughter? She’s not Reine’s anymore. So please tell me we don’t have anything to worry about.”

“You want the truth?”

The knot in his stomach tightened. “No, Karen, I want you to lie to me. What the fuck? Are you telling me there’s a chance she could get her back? She signed away her rights. She wanted us to adopt her…”

“Hey, don’t yell at me, Marcus. I’m trying to help. The truth of the matter is yes, she signed away her rights, but in reality, the law isn’t black and white. You know this already. In reality, she shouldn’t have been in jail, and there are circumstances, although rare, where everything could be reversed. But in this, she would have to prove in court that her decision to sign and relinquish her rights was done under duress or fraud. Remember at the time that the ADA was determined to strip her of her parental rights? She’d lost everything, which is duress. I can only imagine what she was suffering at the time. But, and there is a big but here, you and I both know that in order to accomplish any of this, you’d need a good lawyer, an expensive lawyer. Can she afford this? And that would drag Eva right into the middle of it. Did you try talking to her? She really said she wants her back?”

What was he supposed to say? He’d been shellshocked, staring at her face through the screen, standing on his doorstep, considering she shouldn’t even have known where he lived. How had she found out? He could have handled it better, but surprises were something he’d had more than enough of for one lifetime.

“I probably could have handled it better, but she showed up at the door and wanted to see Eva, and I said no.” Actually, he realized he’d said a lot more, and he didn’t think he’d ever shake the memory of how her haunted, angry misty blue eyes stared back at him. He knew hatred and anger well.

“You told her no? Why would you do that?”

He could hear her disbelief and wished for a moment that he could go back and re-do the conversation, but he still wasn’t sure he’d have let her in the door. “Karen, I was caught off guard, and it wasn’t a friendly visit. She’s angry, and maybe she has a right to be, but I don’t want that around Eva or my family. And for the record, it was more of a demand, as if she felt she had every right to just show up and see her. You should know that Eva asked her to come to Mom’s tonight. But after Charlotte managed to get Eva out of the house and to school, I told her to consider herself uninvited.”

Karen hissed. “Marcus, no…”

He could sense she had something more to say, but he continued. “In all fairness, Karen, she shouldn’t be there. It’s for family, and …”

“And you’re not thinking clearly. I get it. But a word of advice, Marcus: Reine is Eva’s mother. I always wondered what would happen when she got out, though I didn’t expect it to happen this soon. You can’t expect her to not play any role in Eva’s life. That’s not fair. Then there’s Eva. She’s going to want to know her mother, to see her. You really told her that, Marcus?”

The last thing he wanted was to listen to her reprimands, because he was still reeling from seeing Reine standing there on his doorstep. Marcus didn’t like being in any situation where he was caught completely off guard, and he found himself still trying to piece together why she’d gotten out so early, why no one had called him so he could get a plan in place. There was so much he didn’t like about this situation.

“She’s angry, Karen, and I don’t want that around Eva…”

“I hear you, Marcus, but you can’t expect her to just disappear. You need to park your anger and what you’re feeling and sit down with Reine. And you have to do it for Eva. I love that little girl, and she’s a part of our family, but I’m telling you this not as your sister but as a lawyer: Almost every case I deal with is based on anger and resentment because two people won’t reasonably sit down and talk and hear each other out. You and Charlotte adopted Eva, so of course you have rights, but so does Reine, and whether you want to hear this or not, big brother, one thing I never doubted was her love for Eva. Her greatest sacrifice was her daughter.”

Marcus pushed his door open and stepped out, the phone to his ear now. “That’s not what this is about.”

“You sure about that? You know I can hear your frustration, and I know you, Marcus. Maybe it’s best you don’t talk to her. Look, I was planning on coming down this weekend anyway. Do you know how to get a hold of Reine, where she’s living?”

Marcus pocketed his keys and gave the door a shove closed. “Just about to find out now. I’m about to pay her parole officer a visit.” He looked at the street and the cars going by, the old brick front of the building, as he stepped on the concrete sidewalk.

“You’re paying her parole officer a visit? Is it to just find out where she’s living and how to get a hold of her, or are you trying to stir up trouble?”

As soon as Karen said it, he stopped at the glass door, which appeared never to have been cleaned. “I’m not an asshole, Karen, but this is my family, my daughter, and I don’t want a repeat of the blindside I had this morning. I’m still the sheriff here, and she’s on parole, which is very much my business.”

“Marcus, tread carefully, because I can still hear the anger in your voice. Another word of advice: You can’t be the sheriff on this one, not with Reine. She already has the deck stacked against her.”

He took in the door, reached for it, and pulled it open. “I’m not completely heartless. Go back to work. See you when you come up,” he said, then hung up before his sister could add one more thing he didn’t want to hear.

He tucked his phone in his pocket and made his way down the narrow hall, his footsteps echoing on the cracked old linoleum. He could hear Manny and remembered now how loud he was, and there was that old wood bench. A man was sitting there, tall, lanky, dark skinned, wearing a navy hoodie. He lifted his gaze to Marcus with wariness as he took in the closed door.

“Manny in with someone?” Marcus said, taking in the old door. He lifted his hand and knocked when the man who sat out there said nothing to him.

Then the man only shrugged. “No idea,” he said.

Okay, not really helpful, considering even he could hear Manny on the other side. But parolees didn’t talk to cops, which was something he was used to.

He tapped on the door, looking down at the man again, who was looking away now, fidgeting.

“Park your damn ass out there and wait your turn!” came the snapped reply.

Marcus figured that was Manny, so he turned the knob and opened the door to look in. Beyond was a short man in a rumpled yellow shirt. Large nose, overweight, with the ruddy complexion of bad health and too much liquor. He was holding a phone, sitting behind an old wooden desk. No one else was in the box of a room. The chair in front of his desk was empty.

“Oh, Sheriff, sorry. Didn’t know you were out there.” His voice was gravelly, loud, and the only dark hair he had at the sides and back appeared in bad need of a cut by the messy way it stuck out everywhere. “Hey, listen, I’ll call you back. The sheriff just walked in… Yeah, yeah, likely someone on their way back to jail. Sure, six is great. Thanks there, darling.”

As he hung up, Marcus took in the windowless office. He thought Manny had packed on a few more pounds, as he struggled to get up with a groan, his thick white chest hair showing from the V of his dress shirt, with its top buttons undone. He shuffled over to the open door as Marcus moved into the room, taking in the two filing cabinets behind the desk, a lateral one and a tall six-drawer one. Both had seen better days.

“You’re late, Archie,” Manny said to the man waiting. “You just keep your ass parked there until I’m finished with the sheriff.”

Marcus took in his desk, the half-eaten burrito with spilled sauce, wrapped in foil, and a supersize takeout cup of a soda. The door was still open, and he could hear the creak of the bench outside.

Manny walked back behind his desk and sat down, then reached for the burrito and took a big bite. It oozed, and sauce dripped onto the desk, so he reached for a napkin from a pile and wiped the sauce from his hand as he chewed. He gestured to the chair opposite him. “So, tell me, which one of my parolees are you here about?” he said without bothering to swallow.

Marcus moved to the door and closed it. There was just something about this man that he’d never liked, his personality, how loud he was, and the feeling he couldn’t shake that he wasn’t there to help anyone but himself. “Reine Colbert,” he said. “She was recently released?”

Manny wiped his face, finished chewing, and swallowed. “Reine? Sure, just a week ago, actually. What did she do? Should have known from that doe-eyed look that she’d be right back in jail.”

Marcus rolled his shoulders as Manny dropped his gaze and swiveled around to open the lateral cabinet behind his desk. He pulled out a file and moved his burrito over before opening it and reaching for a pen.

“No, nothing like that,” Marcus said. “I need to know where she’s living and how to get a hold of her. I assume you know she has a daughter, and the circumstances of her incarceration?”

The man lifted his icy blue eyes to him. Noting the red over his nose and cheeks, his ruddy complexion, Marcus remembered how often he had visited the lighthouse bar. He knew his fondness for cheap draft and cheap whiskey. “Yes, I’m aware of what she was in for,” Manny said. “She’s a criminal with a record. She signed away her rights to her daughter, and I’m aware you adopted her. So what gives, Sheriff?”

“My wife and I adopted Eva, yes. Reine showed up this morning on my doorstep. I would have expected a courtesy call, yet I heard nothing from the warden of the prison or you, Manny. Would have liked a heads-up, at least.”

Manny shook his head. “So she’s already violated her parole conditions. Well, there’s a surprise.” The sarcasm dripped. He slapped her file closed. “She was warned to stay away. I guess you’ve already picked her up. Great, one more off my plate.”

As Marcus stared at the man he didn’t like, he could hear his sister’s warning, a voice whispering in his ear. “Of course I didn’t pick her up,” he said. “I’m not a monster. I just would have appreciated a heads-up, is all. I don’t like being blindsided. Where is she living, and what’s her phone number? She have a job? I want to know all the details, everything.”

The man opened the file again and let out a heavy sigh, then reached for a pen and a notepad piled in a messy stack of papers. “She’s in a basement suite. Here’s the address. No phone number. Got her a job with Better Way Homecare, cleaning. You know, Sheriff, one of her conditions is that she has to stay away from you and her daughter. I’ll haul her ass in here and read her the riot act. Better yet, I wasn’t planning on doing a home check until Wednesday, but you want me to send a message to her? I don’t usually give warnings. I send them back to finish their sentences—and I still might.”

He didn’t know what to say. He took in Manny, who leaned back heavily in the chair with a squeak, looking at him without feeling. “You want to deliver a message?” he said. “I don’t want to know what you’re hinting at. I seriously hope the message doesn’t involve ransacking her place and scaring her, which I’m sure you’ve already done. And no, you’re not sending her back to jail. That’s not why I’m here.”

Manny lifted the paper in his grubby thick hands and held it out, and Marcus strode over and reached for it, seeing the address and the reality of what Reine was living through. “You just give me the word, Sheriff, on how you want her handled. If she becomes too much of a problem, I’ll see that she gets a refresher on how it works. Nevertheless, if she shows up again, she will be back behind bars, serving her full sentence. I’ll make sure she understands how the rules work for her. She’s barred from contacting you or her daughter, Sheriff.” Manny scribbled something in what he could only assume was Reine’s file.

“Look, I’m not here to have her hassled, and I’m not filing a complaint. I guess I’m more pissed that you didn’t pick up the damn phone and call my office to let me know she was out.”

Manny leaned back and looked up to him, and something in his expression made Marcus think he never wanted to get on his bad side. “Part of the conditions of her parole is that she’s to steer clear of the victims, which includes you and your family. Her daughter is off limits. She knows this, Sheriff. No contact, no nothing. Do you seriously need me to outline how this works? I asked her if her daughter was going to be a problem, and she said no. Don’t worry, Sheriff. I know how to handle this. And what I won’t tolerate is a parolee lying. As cute as she is, that doesn’t give her a pass. I’ll see to it she gets a refresher. Now, since you’ve added to my plate, is there anything else, Sheriff? If not…” Manny lifted his hand and gestured to the door.

Marcus knew it was a dismissal. He shook his head, then lifted the note with Reine’s address. “No, but if it’s all the same, don’t mention this to Reine. I don’t want this to be an issue for her or a mark on her record.”

The man only stared at him, then pulled in a sharp breath as he looked away, reaching for another file. “I don’t tell you how to do your job, Sheriff, so don’t come in here and tell me how to do mine. Send Archie in on your way out.”

All Marcus could do was step out of the office. He looked down to the man fidgeting with his jeans, which had seen better days. “Your turn,” he said.

Then he started walking, shoving the paper in his pocket, hearing his sister in his head. Now he knew where Reine lived, where she worked. He needed to figure out how to handle the problem of Reine Colbert so that he and his wife and his daughter, Eva, didn’t end up with broken hearts.


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His crime was unforgivable, but the law protects him.

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Get a FREE US or UK Audible code for select McCabe Brothers titles.  A limited number of codes are available; first come, first served.  Honest reviews are always appreciated.  Happy listening!  *Due to limited availability, codes must be redeemed within 48 hours or will be reassigned to another reader.

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