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The Free Friday Read

Get a sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery!

 August 20, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

Happy weekend, all!  It’s Preview Friday, and I’ve got your sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery, THE STRANGER AT THE DOOR!  This upcoming title will be released at the end of the month, but you can pre-order your copy AND read the first five chapters here today.  Enjoy & have a wonderful weekend! 

The Stranger at the Door

The Stranger at the Door

She knocked on his door. He never should have answered.

 

As newly appointed chief of police, Mark Friessen is settling into his small-town role when he uncovers the twisted tale of a woman forced to marry the man who killed her family.

 

When the woman goes looking for help, knocking on his door, Mark and Billy Jo are thrust into a web of lies that tests their own complex relationship, as they discover secrets in the couple’s shadowy past that could drive a wedge between them for good.

 

Mark and Billy Jo are continuing to learn the hard way that stepping on the wrong toes could have serious consequences. Thrust into the center of a dangerous and bizarre case, they have to face their own doubts about each other, and soon, they may wish this woman had never knocked on Mark’s door.

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Chapter 1

“You given any thought to redoing this office and really making it yours? You know, putting your own stamp on it?” Billy Jo was sitting in a padded old chair, her bare feet in flip-flops up on his desk, and he thought she wore pink nail polish on her toes. Something about the bellbottom blue jeans and light peach blouse she wore, which even hinted that she was a girl, had him wondering what was different about her as of late.

He looked around the glassed-in office, with its old desk covered in papers and files, the cabinet behind him, and the computer, and he gestured from where he lounged in the black swivel chair, which had once been the chief’s. “It’s just an office, Billy Jo, and it is mine. I don’t need anything fancy.”

She shot him a look from across the desk, where she seemed to fit so well, lounging. They had settled into a routine that was both welcome and expected, with her stopping in after work every day. “Well, at least paint it,” she said. “What are all those plaques up there on the wall? Is that a baseball back there? And those old photos, Mark, you’ve got to take those down.” She gestured to them, unsmiling. This was the snarky side of Billy Jo that came out when she had something to say.

He had to fight the urge to smile. She was so familiar. He didn’t turn around to see the black and white photos on the wall of the young chief, then a new cop, standing with the old chief he’d later replaced and the council. He’d personally never met any of them. He stood up and reached for one, seeing a smile on the face of the old chief, one he never remembered seeing, and looked over to Billy Jo, taking in her blue eyes. He was doing his damnedest to figure out where to tread with her and how this thing he couldn’t put a name to worked between them.

“Fine. I’ll box this up, but I’m not painting. You want to do it, be my guest. Since you’re just sitting there, take a look at these.” He reached for a pile of applications and resumes for the new deputy position and dumped them on the desk in front of her with a thunk. In the bullpen outside, Carmen, who wore blue jeans and a faded black T-shirt, was really pulling double duty since they were down to just the two of them. He missed having Gail to answer the phones and do all she had done to keep the station running.

“So what are these?” Billy Jo reached for the pile of papers as she dropped her feet to the ground.

He realized, as he looked at her brown hair, that it appeared the layers had been freshly cut. Something about her seemed so different, so not the girl hiding behind frumpy clothes. He walked around the desk, watching the way she thumbed through the papers, the way her brow knit when she was focused, reading and absorbing something, the way she never hesitated to jump in. She was so damn smart that her opinion on everything mattered to him more than he could have explained to anyone.

“Resumes, applications for the deputy job, someone to answer the phones and do everything Gail did. The top of the pile there was sent over by the council, and see all the ones with a red star marked on top? The council has pretty much ordered me to hire one of them. The ones on the bottom are the ones I found and came across.”

She flicked those blue eyes up to him, reading between the lines and knowing what he was thinking without him having to say another word. This was the comfortable relationship they were morphing into.

He kept walking out the open door and over to the corner by Gail’s old desk, where a few boxes were stacked for recycling. He took in Lucky, who was curled up, asleep, before he reached for a box and walked back across the bullpen. Carmen was hanging up the phone, and

her chair squeaked as she stretched and started closing up files. She lifted her gaze to him, her wary dark eyes tracking him, and he found himself stopping beside her desk.

“You get today’s report finished?” he said.

She opened her laptop without a word and gestured to the screen as if she expected him to check her work. He didn’t look at her screen, not pulling his gaze from her, still holding the box and waiting, so she pulled in a breath and said, “Was about to email it to you. Theft at the pharmacy of a bunch of back-to-school supplies, some drinking in the park, public indecency, and a lot of nuisance crap that would seem to indicate an alarming rise, except it seems most troublemakers were used to the times Chief Shephard had me run the same route, so that tells me everyone had their watches set to when I would be making the rounds like clockwork, and it was only the idiots who were getting caught. Now I can’t drive anywhere without seeing something, and there isn’t enough of me going around to do anything. Then there are all the noise complaints, parties, loud music, neighbors fighting, and the bylaw crap still tossed this way, from illegal camping to people living in their cars, and where am I supposed to tell them to go?”

He could see her frustration. “Do what you can. It’s a judgement call. Send me the report, and I’ll see what I can take off your plate until I get a deputy hired in here.”

She sat up and swiveled her chair around. “Well, won’t be soon enough for me, Mark—sorry, Chief.”

There was something odd about being called Chief. He wondered if he’d ever get used to it.

“Clock out and go have some dinner,” he said. “I’m going to be here awhile yet.”

Carmen yanked her desk drawer open and pulled out her keys, and Mark walked back to his office, where Billy Jo was reading through the stack of applications. Damn, she was too perfect. He had to remind himself how easily he could sabotage the good things in his life.

“You look nice, in case I forgot to mention it,” he said as he rested the box on his desk. “You did something new with your hair.”

She suddenly stilled. Right, she didn’t take compliments at all. From the way she flicked those sharp blue eyes to him, he could tell she was uncomfortable, and he waited for her to toss something snarky his way.

“Here. You picked the ones on the bottom?” she said. Okay, so she was going to ignore the compliment. That was one way not to handle it. She pulled out two papers and held them out to him, and he reached for them, seeing two names, Mike Schneider and Georgette Hunter.

“That was quick,” he said. “Why these two and not the starred ones favored by the council?”

She neatened the pile of papers and then leaned back in the chair, balancing them on her lap. “Well, for one, it would take a fool not to see that of the council picks, most are either their friends or relatives or, as with these first two, have more experience than you, so the council is likely looking for your replacement, someone who is going to do exactly what they say, report to them, and take all their directions directly. I happen to know that after every weekly meeting you have with the councillors, a few of them criticize you, complaining and commenting that you’re going to ruin the policing on the island.”

He stared at her as he pulled the black and whites off the wall and tucked them into the box. “Excuse me?” he said. What was she hearing that he wasn’t? She didn’t even smile, and he could see she was dead serious. “Are you shitting me? Who in all hell is talking out of turn? What goes on in the council is confidential, yet now you’re telling me…”

“You’re stepping on toes, Mark.”

He straightened and could feel the alpha fighting inside him. His first instinct as he took in the seriousness staring back at him was to walk out the door and knock on the door of the head of council, Mary Jane Trundell, or maybe Hal Green or Herb Walker, so he could go toe to toe with them and find out what the fuck they thought they were doing, sharing anything about what went on in the council.

“I can tell by your face that you’re ready to go a round with one or all of them,” she said, “but that would be a mistake. I’m not sure how many are furious, but I know Herb Walker has been the most vocal, and I heard Hal Green was talking about how you don’t play ball with the Rotary Club. Several have said Mary Jane isn’t happy with you and the fact that you’re going all cowboy with your policing.” She lifted the stack and settled them on his desk as she leaned forward.

His jaw slackened as he rested both hands on the edge of the box and squeezed, then lifted his hand and dragged it over his jaw roughly. “Are you sure? They said I was a cowboy, seriously? Is that because I outright refused to allow the council to dictate to me which crimes to ignore and which to put my focus on? Did you know we currently have more than three dozen people sleeping in their cars on the island because they can’t put a roof over their head? The council has ordered me to make sure they know they can’t park anywhere overnight, which means basically kicking them off the island.

“Then we had three driving without a license. One was a young mother who couldn’t have afforded bail or the license renewal fee, and I knew that, so I let her off with a warning and told her to park and pay the fee, but the council ordered me to charge her and lock her up. If I do, she won’t get out until she goes before a judge, and then she’ll be hit with another fine she won’t be able to afford, so she’ll still be locked up, and her kids will be tossed in the social services system.

“Of the other two I stopped, one shithead had lost his license for driving two times over the legal limit, and he refused a breathalyzer, yet his lawyer had him out before the ink was dry, citing that he was on pain meds and wasn’t drinking. That was a load of crap, considering the alcohol on his breath could have knocked me over. He just so happens to be a cousin of Herb Walker.

“The other was a snotnosed teenager who took his mom’s BMW for a joy ride. The family is from Seattle, and the dad is some tech giant with a summer home here worth millions. You know that kid laughed when Carmen pulled him over? He’d almost run down an elderly woman on one of those mobility scooters. When Carmen yanked him out of the car, he screamed at her to keep her dirty half-breed hands off him and said his dad would make sure she was fired and would pay for it.”

Billy Jo said nothing. Mark had refused to back down when it came to how the council felt they could tell him to police this island: kid gloves with some and paramilitary tactics with others.

“Yeah, I heard about that too,” she said with a hint of a smile. “Wasn’t it Mary Jane whose phone was ringing with a call from the dad, who apparently contributed largely to her campaign? He threatened that he had enough clout to redirect infrastructure funding from the island to another region and halt the upgrade of the water treatment plant, meaning the tax bills of every full-time island resident would be hiked to cover the cost. That would get Mary Jane voted out, so I heard she folded like a deck of cards under the pressure. And you did what?”

“I charged the privileged little shit,” he said, “although it didn’t do any good. The DA has already thrown it out, calling me and chewing out my ass. But I made it clear to good old dad, who showed up here, breathing down my neck, that he’s to keep his kid off the island, and if ever again we have a problem with him, a video of his racist diatribe will be all over the news.”

She lifted her brows, leaned back, and crossed her feet on his desk, and he wasn’t sure if she was amused. “You have a video?”

He reached for the baseball and the plaques and shoved them in the box. “No, but he doesn’t know that. Anyway, I ordered a body camera for Carmen, and she’ll wear it. The council will freak, mind you, when they get the bill, but I’m not having her credibility shredded because of some privileged kid who gets a free ride and thinks he can do anything he wants without consequence. Because her word won’t count against his if shit hits the fan.” He knew he was shoving everything in the box a little harder than necessary. “As far as Hal Green, I reminded him of all the tickets he had the chief write off for him over the years and let him know I have a copy of every one of them, including his emails to the chief telling him to take care of it.”

Her expression was unreadable. “I thought you didn’t keep any of the chief’s insurance, the dirt he had on the council,” she said. “You said you didn’t want to operate that way.”

Mark shrugged, thinking of the files in the bottom drawer, the proof of how Herb Walker had dipped into the funding for the island homeless, the tickets for Hal Green, and the photos of the head of the council herself, Mary Jane, with Philip Maddox, the reason the chief was no longer the chief. “If those running things actually played by the rules, I guess you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he replied. “Didn’t say I would use them, but I’d be stupid to throw them out.”

She nodded. “Heard you eventually paid the license renewal fee for Harley Peters, too,” she said. “Word gets around that you can’t help being a good guy, Mark.”

He only grunted. Aggressive prosecution against a woman who just couldn’t afford her license didn’t sit right with him. “She’s got kids, no support, and her job barely pays her a living wage.”

Billy Jo lifted her hands. “Hey, you don’t need to justify it to me. I get it, Mark, and I’m behind you. I’m just saying that the council doesn’t like being backed into a corner, and they especially don’t like having a chief they can’t control, so you’ll need to watch your back. Now, those two, you should call them.” She gestured to the two resumes she’d pulled out, Georgette Walker and Mike Schneider. One was from Salem, the other from Olympia. “And I’m starving, so how much more do you have to do?”

He took in the box, the girl, and the resumes on his desk. “Tons, but it’ll keep.” He reached for the pile of resumes and tossed them on top of the box. “For dinner, how about steak?”

She shrugged and stood up. “You’re cooking?” She reached for her bag, and he took in the curves she was no longer hiding.

“Yeah. I’ll throw steaks on the grill, and you can go through the rest of these resumes…” He lifted the box and started out of his office, following her.

“And the box?” She gestured back to him as he flicked off the light with his elbow and whistled to Lucky, who was now up and striding to the door.

“I’ll drop it off at the chief’s,” he said. “As you pointed out, these are his things.”

She pulled open the door.

“Lock it, will you?” he said. “The keys are in my pocket.”

She hesitated only a second before reaching into his pocket, a touch he hadn’t expected, and she pulled the keys out. He strode to his Jeep and opened the back to stuff the box in, then grabbed the papers and pulled open the front door.

Billy Jo tossed him the keys, which he caught one-handed, before starting to her new Nissan Rogue. She would just follow him to his place, he knew, and he considered for a second this relationship they’d fallen into. Her place or his place didn’t matter. It was always dinner, talking, and then he or she would leave. Maybe tonight he could figure out a way to change her mind and get her to stay.

Chapter 2

Mark turned the steaks on the grill and sprinkled on more seasoning. Billy Jo was carrying on a conversation with Lucky, and he couldn’t help smiling at how his dog listened more to her than him at times.

“Here, put this on and heat it up,” Billy Jo said, handing him a small skillet with broccoli and butter to sauté. He wondered where that had come from, but then, his fridge seemed to be stocked more and more with real food he knew she was responsible for. “Those potatoes done?”

He used the tongs to turn two baked potatoes wrapped in tin foil. Cooking was something he didn’t normally do, and all he could think was that his domestication had come out of nowhere. “Should be. So, you give any thought to what we talked about?”

She stood right beside him, and he looked down at her, taking in how cute she was. She never flirted with him, ever, and he didn’t think she’d even know how if she tried. She just stared at him and gestured to the broccoli sizzling in the butter. “Don’t let that burn.”

He flipped the broccoli and moved it around the frypan on the grill. She was still standing there. “You know, Billy Jo, it’s not lost on me that when you’re uncomfortable about something, you just don’t want to talk. You’re about the worst when it comes to talking things through. Instead, you ignore me and say nothing. But this, with us, only works if you talk.”

She pulled her arms over her chest. “You get that tattoo scheduled to be removed yet? Because I told you I don’t want to be looking at your ex-girlfriend every time you take off that shirt.” There she went, changing the subject again.

“You know, Lucky and Harley will get along great,” he said. “You’ve seen them when he’s at your place, no fights… I’m thinking this is more about your comfort level. Harley would do great over here with Lucky. Look at all the outdoors he’d have to wander…”

She was still looking up at him, breathing in and out, her chest rising. “He’s a three-legged cat. He doesn’t wander outside. He stays inside or sits on my deck. He couldn’t protect himself if he wandered. You want a beer?”

She was already walking back into his small one-bedroom cabin. He gestured after her with his tongs, fighting the urge to wrap his hands around her neck. She was the only woman he found himself completely off kilter with, unable to reason with.

“Opinionated, stubborn, difficult…” he said under his breath, maybe because she still hadn’t answered him. He wondered if this was where guys learned to toe the line.

“Mark!” she called out to him, holding up a beer from the open fridge.

He gestured with a sweep of his tongs. “Nope. Carmen isn’t on call tonight, and I’m not about to give the council any reason to bounce me.”

She shoved the beer back into his dated old fridge with a clatter. “Then how about water, or do you want this lonely can of orange soda?” she called out.

“Nothing, I’m good.” He shook his head, flipped the steaks again, and turned off the grill as Billy Jo walked his way with an empty plate and a glass of wine. She handed the plate to him in comfortable silence. She seemed to just know what he needed, and it left him wondering why they were still dancing around each other. He was trying to figure out how to navigate this maze, treading carefully, recalling his history of screwing up every good thing he’d had.

“So can we talk about how you avoid answering by changing the subject? I’m serious, Billy Jo…” He let out a rough laugh, trying to dial back his frustration. “You know how I feel about you. Is it about this place, sex, or what? I feel like I’m having to force the conversation when I would rather not talk, but if I don’t, seriously, I’m starting to think dancing around is all we’ll ever do. Are you scared of me, of this between us? Is that why I feel as if you’re one step forward and two back all the time? And don’t think I haven’t noticed your subtle change from baggy comfortable clothes to looking more like a girl.”

He took the plate from her a little harder than he meant to, and she narrowed her eyes, her mouth tight, her posture stiff. He put the steaks and baked potatoes on the plate and reached for the hot skillet using the mitt Billy Jo had held out without a word. He shook his head as he walked around her with dinner, seeing how she held the wineglass, still saying nothing.

He stopped beside her and leaned down, so close. “And here you go again, suddenly mute.”

She flicked her gaze up to him and let out a frustrated breath, and he made himself keep moving because he could feel the edge of her anger. He would gladly have reached out and shaken her if he thought it would do any good.

“Frustrating…. Like, what the hell am I doing?” he said under his breath as he put the plate down with a clatter and set the skillet on the stove. He rested his hands on the counter and gave his head a shake before reaching for two plates on the open shelf, which he realized had never looked this neat and organized.

He heard the door close and sensed her walking his way, so he held out a plate to her as she appeared quietly beside him and put her glass of wine down.

“Just FYI, I’m not scared of you, Mark,” she said. “It’s me I’m scared of. You want to have this conversation, then fine, let’s have it. We’re friends…”

“We’re more than friends and you know it,” he snapped, cutting her off, forking one of the steaks onto a plate. She rolled her shoulders as he reached for a baked potato and unwrapped the tinfoil.

“So we’re dating,” she said.

“Not dating, either. Dating is getting to know someone, testing the waters to see if a committed relationship is possible. I told you I’m not dating. You got under my skin. This, here, is dancing around, and that’s all you, baby.” He knew he sounded like an asshole, but he was tired of this, and he wondered when he’d found himself seeing her as the one.

“I’m not afraid of sleeping with you, Mark, or sex, so let’s get that straight. But you have issues, one of which is the tattoo of your former girlfriend that you should have removed by now. So let’s talk about dancing around, shall we?”

“I called and booked an appointment for a week Thursday, but it has to be done on the mainland, and that’s if I have a new deputy trained and here to help Carmen so I can leave the island. So no, I haven’t blown it off, but with the shitstorm that went on here with the chief and me taking over, you know I can’t just hop on a ferry and leave right now.”

He had her backed against the counter, so close to her that he settled his hands on either side of her so she couldn’t move. She looked to one side and then the other until she was forced to look at him. He knew he was in her space, touching her, pushing her. He could feel the pull of her breath, see the way she reacted to him.

“You really booked it?” she said.

He angled his head without stepping back, and she flicked her gaze to his lips. He didn’t wait for her to say yes before he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her lips, easy, soft, and let it linger. Her hand on his arm traced the skin up to the edge of his faded T-shirt, and he settled his hand on her hip, over the curve of her waist, and up her back, then slipped his arm around her and pulled her right against him as he deepened the kiss.

She pressed against his chest but didn’t push him away. It was instinctive and natural as he lifted her, resting her on the edge of the counter, pressing a kiss to her neck, the soft skin at the V of her open blouse, and he heard her hiss. Just then, the dog barked, and Mark jumped. There was a knock at the door.

He pulled back, still holding her as she slid down, mourning the interruption, the loss. He stepped away, his hand on her for another second, and he angled his head, unsure what was staring back at him.

“Dammit, always something.” He hadn’t meant to say it out loud. “Lucky, come here!” he called out as the dog barked again. He made himself take one step and another, glancing once to his open bedroom door and his holstered gun sitting on the dresser.

He walked to the door and pulled it open to see a woman with light hair, slender, wearing a loose blouse. “Hi, are you lost?” he said, taking her in. He figured she had to be about five foot five, maybe—young, pretty.

“So sorry. You’re the chief, right?” she said.

He didn’t step back, feeling uncomfortable. The young woman looked up at him, and he couldn’t help being a little pissed. Billy Jo stepped up behind him, and he set a hand on her arm. “Sorry, can I help you?” he said before pulling in a rattled breath.

He’d been so into Billy Jo, that kiss, and having her one step from under him, that he hadn’t heard a stranger arrive. He stepped away from Billy Jo, his hand lingering a second on her to keep her behind him, maybe from the fear of everything that had happened around him.

“Are you the chief?” she said, her voice soft. She appeared in her early twenties, if that.

“I am. And you are?” he replied. Lucky was growling behind him, and he turned back to the dog, seeing Billy Jo with her arms crossed, looking intently at the woman. Lucky growled and barked again. “Lucky, come over here,” he said. “Billy Jo, can you…?”

He didn’t have to say any more, as Lucky warily came over to him, and he grabbed the collar Billy Jo had bought for him and pulled him back. Billy Jo reached for him, making him sit, as Mark took in the open door to his bedroom and the gun still sitting on the dresser. He didn’t know why he was feeling so on edge.

He stepped closer, standing in the open door right in front of the woman, and he could hear Billy Jo talking to his dog behind him. Her expression was off, maybe from the way the dog had reacted to her.

“You didn’t tell me who you are. Is this a police matter?” he said. “Your coming out here is unusual. We’re kind of in a crunch right now with staffing down. I haven’t been on the island that long, so I haven’t had a chance to get to know everyone.” He gestured to her, looking over her head to see a sleek silver Jaguar Coupe, likely why he hadn’t heard her pull in.

She squeezed the silver chain strap of her purse over her shoulder, her mouth tight. “I apologize for intruding, and yes, I hesitated in coming to you. In fact, I’ve sat outside the station—well, just on the road, with plans to walk in and talk to you, but I’m afraid I chickened out. I didn’t want anyone to see me, because then there would be talk, and then he’d know.”

Her eyes were deep blue, and Mark found himself lifting his hand to invite her inside. “Okay, come in. Why don’t you have a seat?” He gestured to the old leather sectional and glanced back to Billy Jo, shooting her a puzzled look. She didn’t let go of Lucky, who, he realized, wasn’t letting the woman out of his sight. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his dog act that way: wary, watchful. Hmm.

She took a step inside and over to the sofa, running her slender hands over her deep blue jeans. She wore makeup, thick mascara, and her lips were full. Her identity was still a mystery.

“So why don’t we start with your name?” he said, his hands going to his hips.

The woman seemed to track him with just her eyes. “And it won’t get back to my husband?”

He made himself shake his head. “This is just us here. I can’t help you unless you tell me what it is. Are you in trouble, scared? What is it?”

Odd, he thought as she nodded, glancing past him to Billy Jo before looking back at him.

“My name is Sunday, and I’m not sure where to start. Did you know child marriages are legal in this country? I’m not old enough to vote, buy a house, join the military, or drink alcohol, but I’ve been married for three years.”

He didn’t have to look to know that Billy Jo was now standing beside him, and Lucky’s nails scratched on the old hardwood as he lay down behind him.

“You’re married. How old are you?”

“I’m sixteen, old enough to drive now. I have two children, my first when I was fourteen, the second when I was fifteen. When I had my babies, the hospital knew, and the school I went to knew, and the courts knew where I was married before a judge.”

Billy Jo hissed beside him, or maybe it was the sound in his own head. He knew he was staring like a fool, trying to wrap his head around what she was saying. Maybe that was why the woman opened her purse, pulled out her wallet and driver’s license, and held it out to him.

He found himself staring at her before reaching for the license, seeing a photo of a woman free of makeup, appearing much like a young girl. He took in the year, the birthdate, and the name Sunday Byrd, then flicked his gaze right back to her. The makeup she wore made her look older. Yeah, there it was, the same image. He could see it now, how young she was. He held the license out to Billy Jo and let her take it, maybe because he didn’t know where to begin.

“I can see by your face that either you don’t believe me or you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this,” Sunday said.

Billy Jo tensed beside him, and he dragged his hand over his face. He couldn’t figure out what to say, because he knew that her being married, as sick as it was, was legal in too many places.

“Is that why you’re here?” he said.

She shook her head. “No, I’m here because the man I was forced to marry killed my family.”

Chapter 3

“Could you excuse us a second?” Billy Jo said, still holding the license. She dragged her gaze over to Mark, who appeared tense and quiet. She was beginning to read him so well, his many moods, right down to the way he had to fight the urge to wrap his hands around her neck when she went toe to toe with him and stepped on his male ego—though, to his credit, he had a restraint she hadn’t expected. Then there was the way he became quiet when he was completely rattled and thrown, like now. She reached for his bare arm, feeling the warmth, the strength, and pulled.

“What are you doing?” he said, but he went along with her, letting her lead him and the dog, whom she grabbed by the collar and shooed into the bedroom, where he jumped onto the unmade bed.

She glanced back once from the bedroom to Sunday, who was sitting on the sofa, staring at her, saying nothing. “We’ll be right back,” Billy Jo said before closing the door.

Mark paced, unsettled, and dragged his hand over his face, likely still getting his head around what the very young woman had said. He wasn’t happy she had pulled him out of the room, but the way he always humored her was another point in his favor.

“Well, I don’t want to talk in front of her, so I’m pulling you aside so we can discuss this,” she said. “Do you see this? She’s just a kid. If this is true, it’s like… Oh my good God, Mark. Two kids? She was just a child, having a baby, two babies.” She had to remind herself to keep her voice down, as she could feel the magnitude of what she was imagining as she stared at the license, the photo. The girl had shown up at Mark’s door and shut down any chance of anything happening between them. Maybe that was why she was so rattled.

“Illegal, is that what you’re going to say?” He inclined his head, those blue eyes flickering with passion and anger as if he were trying to piece together a puzzle.

“Yeah. I guess I’m looking for something that explains how illegal this is, but it isn’t. Yet he killed her family? This is so bizarre. I just…”

He pulled those amazing strong arms over his chest. He wore a faded T-shirt and blue jeans that fit him too well, and his short red hair was unruly. She knew he was dangerous for her, but at the same time, his personality, the way he talked and listened, and even these complications that landed on his doorstep kept reeling her in again and again.

She knew deep down that Mark had never walked away from the kinds of problem a sane person would. Self-preservation didn’t seem to be something he operated from, and maybe that was why she had to be around him. Good guys apparently did show up, though not as the picture-perfect image she had expected. He was like a drug for her.

“Look, right now there’s a strange woman—”

“A girl, a teenager.” She flicked the license she was still holding up to make her point.

“Fine, a teenager who looks like a woman and who showed up at my door with a story I haven’t even heard the details of yet. I need to figure out whether a crime happened—and, if so, and this is a big if, can I even do something for her? Whether I’m disgusted or not is irrelevant, because unfortunately, this kind of shit happens in our country.”

His hands were on his hips, and his gaze flickered with an anger she hadn’t seen that often. “Yeah, I’m aware that all the advocacy groups fighting against child brides in shithole countries should start looking right under their noses at home. It’s legal, as sick as it is.”

He raised his brows, likely because she couldn’t get her tongue to move, couldn’t come up with one argument. Apparently, he knew this part of the law well, as did she.

“Do you need another minute in here?” he said. “Because I’d like to find out what the hell she wants and if there’s something I can do. Unfortunately, on the child bride thing, there’s zero, but on the murder thing, maybe.”

He reached for the license and stood beside her, looking down at her, so close as he slid his hand to her hip and around. She could feel how pissed off he was, his passion, and damn, it only made her want him more.

“I can always tell, you know, when something treads on one of your no-go buttons,” he said. His gaze lingered, and she wanted to run and hide, but his hand was still there, his arm across her. She had to fight the urge not to hold on to him.

“Fine,” was all she could get out.

He pulled his hand away, and she was immediately furious, because even now, with a strange woman in his living room, she couldn’t fight that pull toward him, and what bothered her more than anything was how well he could read her. Too well. She heard him pull open the door behind her, and when she turned, he was watching her.

“You coming?” he said, then dragged his gaze over to Lucky, who was still on the bed, tail wagging in expectation. “And you stay.” He jabbed his finger at the dog.

Billy Jo followed him out to where Sunday was sitting. She was slender, dressed well.

He handed her license back to her. “Sorry about that…”

“You know, your walls are thin. Just FYI, I can hear everything you’re saying, so if you’re trying to save me any embarrassment or save face in trying to get rid of me, don’t bother. It only makes this situation even more awkward. You think I don’t know the statistics, the reality of how child marriage has been culturally accepted in the US? So many say the opposite, that it’s child abuse, but it’s not if a judge signs that piece of paper and weds you to a man who’s old enough to be your father.

“You think I haven’t looked for ways to get away from my husband? I even thought once, stupidly, that if the authorities only knew then I’d be pulled out, and he’d be in jail, and I’d be free of him. But that reality came crashing down when I called a lawyer one day when he was out only to hear that from 2000 to 2015, over two hundred thousand young girls in the US alone were wed legally to a man over eighteen. In too many states, I can’t even enter a shelter, or divorce him, or leave him at all, because I’m a minor.

“I was screwed at thirteen, so you think I didn’t look for any loophole to get away? That’s why I sat outside your office for so long, knowing I couldn’t walk in because I’d be seen, and you’re damn right that I’m paranoid it will get back to him. I have a driver’s license now, the only freedom I’ve had since I was forced to marry him, but I can’t even run with my babies because there’s nowhere to hide.”

Billy Jo dragged her gaze over to Mark, who had pulled his cell phone from his pocket and was typing something in. He said nothing as she stepped over to him, and he held the screen out so she could see the title of the article he’d pulled up.

“As of July 2021, last month, six states have banned underage marriage with no exceptions. But not here,” he said to Sunday.

She glanced at the first line of the article and angled her head. The way she looked at Mark, even Billy Jo could see she wasn’t impressed, and all she could think was that for a sixteen-year-old, Sunday was unusually well composed.

“Sunday, I’m not sure what I can do,” Mark said. “Does he hurt you? You said he killed your family. When, how? You’re looking for help from me—to do what? To get away from him? To leave him? You said there are kids involved. Maybe you can do a wellness check, Billy Jo?” He looked over to her. She knew he was thinking over the options out loud.

Sunday cut in. “He’s never laid a hand on the babies,” she said.

Billy Jo flicked her gaze to Mark. “Let’s play devil’s advocate here. Say I did a wellness check. Then there’ll be a report, and let’s be real here. Sunday is only sixteen. The babies would be stuck in foster care. And that’s not even addressing the issue of how I can suddenly get involved.”

Mark stilled, saying nothing, his mouth open. He glanced up.

“You know, I can’t be here much longer,” Sunday said. “He’ll wonder where I am since I said I was going to the store.” She looked at her watch, and it wasn’t lost on Billy Jo how calm she was, how this seemed like a game of cat and mouse.

“You said he killed your family,” Mark said. “Start there and tell me what happened.”

Her eyes were dark blue, her slender legs crossed, her hands linked over her knees. The diamond on her finger flickered. It was impressive. Nothing about her hinted at poverty. “Do you think I’m lying?”

Billy Jo narrowed her gaze. This young girl was playing a dangerous game. “Don’t play coy! You showed up here, remember, at the door, looking for help, but all you’ve done since you walked in here was toss us a crumb. Is this a game for you? How about doing us all a favor and answering the question the chief asked you? Or are you lying about this, telling a story to jerk his chain and stir up trouble?”

Billy Jo felt Mark drag his gaze over to her, but there was something off about this girl. She couldn’t help thinking this was a game, a lie, something to mess with Mark.

“I’m not lying about anything,” Sunday said. “My husband, Ash Byrd, is a man people take their problems to. They tell him their problems, and he fixes them, and he’s paid for it. My mom was a problem. When he showed up the first time and told her how it was going to be, he said they could resolve things the easy way or the hard way, but either way, it was going to happen.

“When my dad came home, she told him. I’d never seen her so scared. I don’t know what she did, but she wouldn’t stop even though I knew she was terrified. Next her tires were slashed, and her brakes were cut, and then the phone would ring and she’d scream at whoever was on the other end to leave her alone. She called the police once, but nothing happened.

“I asked my mom what that man wanted, what she’d done, and all she kept saying was that she was getting what she was owed. She worked in Hollywood for a producer. I heard her say once that the sharks in Chicago have nothing on Hollywood. She’d been fighting with actors, producers, managers.

“One day, I went to school. It was a Thursday in June. When I came home, Ash was sitting in my parents’ living room alone. My parents were both gone. He told me that because my mom wouldn’t do as she was told, and because she had gone to my dad and talked when she knew better, he’d had to take care of my dad as well. Then he said he had no choice but to make sure I couldn’t be a problem. That was three years ago.

“Next, I was standing in a judge’s chamber with him in a sunny California courthouse, thinking it was all a bad dream. But he said this was going to happen. So here I am, sixteen now, legally married to a man who fixes problems for the Hollywood elite. Now can you help me?”

Billy Jo couldn’t pull her gaze from Sunday. When she finally did, looking over to Mark, she thought this really did sound like a young girl messing around with the new police chief.

Mark shook his head, making a sound of frustration under his breath as he dragged his gaze from her back to Sunday. “I’m confused. You said he killed your parents, yet you came home and he was in your house, your parents’ house. Did you see him kill them? Where were their bodies? Was there a crime scene?”

Sunday lifted her purse over her shoulder and stood up, and Billy Jo couldn’t believe she was seeing what seemed like arrogance. “No, there were no bodies, no crime scene. He’s smarter than that, and it wasn’t the first time he’d taken care of a problem. I’m married to the man, so I know that when he takes care of something, it goes away for good. No evidence will be found unless he wants it to. He has people working for him, from former cops to industry experts who understand the game.”

Mark dragged his hand over his face, and she reached over and touched his arm. He looked right at her.

She just shook her head and said, “You should look into her parents, at least, see if any missing persons were reported.”

And then he could call her out on her bullshit story, she thought, though she kept that part to herself. She didn’t quite understand what it was about Sunday that rubbed her the wrong way.

Mark only groaned, then pulled his hand over his head, something he did when he didn’t have an idea where to start. He didn’t answer Billy Jo, just shook his head as he looked down at Sunday. “You probably already know what I’m going to say.”

“Yeah, that you can’t help me. No body, no crime, and there’s no way it could be true. I can already tell she doesn’t believe me,” she snapped, gesturing to Billy Jo, which only angered her more. This girl was playing with fire, and it seemed she wasn’t beyond taking a shot at her. “So thanks for nothing,” she continued in a rather snarky tone, then started walking to the door.

“Wait.” Mark lifted his hand.

Sunday’s back was to him, her hand on the door, but she turned back and lifted her chin, all attitude. Billy Jo felt she was deliberately thumbing her nose at her. She knew she couldn’t have explained this to anyone, this feeling that there was something so completely off about this girl.

“That wasn’t what I was going to say,” he said. “I’ll look into it, see what I can find out, and if there is something, I’ll see what I can do. But, one, if he killed your parents in California, it’s out of my jurisdiction, and, two, as far as your marriage is concerned, until the laws are changed, there isn’t a damn thing I can do about that. You live here, and he lives here too. I’ll be in touch.”

She pulled open the door. “No, please don’t be in touch. I drove out here because he can’t know I was talking to you,” she said. Then she walked out the door.

Billy Jo took in Lucky, who was staring out at them from the bed, his tail wagging. Mark walked to the open door and pulled his cell phone from his pocket, and Billy Jo strode over to him and slid her hand to his back, leaning close to him as they watched the strange young woman walk to her fancy car, the kind Billy Jo would never have tossed money toward. Mark lifted his phone, took a photo of it, and then looked down at her.

“You believe any of that story?” he said. From the way he was looking at her, she could see the edge of disbelief, and all she could do was shake her head. She’d thought for a moment that he’d believed it hook, line, and sinker.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A pretty young girl shows up at your door with a crazy story? If it’s true, and I’m not saying it is, but if so, I think you’d better ask yourself just how much you want to stick your nose into this. Because if he is who she says, you don’t have enough resources to investigate this, let alone go after someone like him. Problems you can’t even imagine could very well land on your doorstep, and people could come after you. Or, worse, you could be made to disappear.”

Chapter 4

Something about the visit from Sunday Byrd had completely cooled off anything happening between him and Billy Jo. Over a cold dinner, he hadn’t gotten her to admit the parallels between her and Sunday, the many similarities. He’d never seen Billy Jo display the kind of open hostility she had to the young lady who’d knocked on his door. In the end, he’d slept alone with his dog at the foot of the bed.

Maybe that was one of the reasons he was feeling unsettled, off, and frustrated as he pulled up in front of the station in the early morning before anything else had opened and parked his Jeep beside Carmen’s cruiser, seeing she was already there and the light was on inside. He didn’t know where to begin in unraveling the tale of the girl who’d shown up at his door.

“Come on,” he said to the dog, who jumped down and out the door. Mark’s hair was still damp, and he held his go-mug of coffee and took a swallow as he stepped up on the sidewalk. He opened the door to find Carmen at her desk, on the phone, gesturing with a pen to his office, where a man he’d never seen before was sitting, having turned the chair to watch him. He had neat short dark hair and was casually dressed, not pulling his gaze from Mark.

“Bed, go,” he said to Lucky, and the dog went right to his dog bed. Mark walked over to Carmen’s desk as she hung up the phone. “Who is that?” he said.

She lifted her brows. “Don’t know. He walked in and said you were expecting him. Said you’d know. I sent you a text a second ago before the phone rang.”

Mark pulled his phone from his pocket and stared at a text sent five minutes earlier: Some guy just showed up and is sitting in your office, waiting. Said you’re expecting him.

Carmen let her gaze linger on him, pissed off, as he glanced over to the man sitting there.

“You two finished gossiping out there?” the man said. “Come on in here, Mark. We need to have a talk.”

Carmen’s expression darkened. He didn’t have a clue who the man was, but the way he spoke was unsettling. He heard the squeak of the chair and knew Carmen was on her feet behind him.

“You want me to get him out of here?” she said.

He shook his head. “No, I’ll deal with this. Look, I sent you a text, a plate number. I want you to dig up anything you can on it, the registered owner, everything.”

She was still standing there, her dark hair pulled back, looking at the man who was staring at them. He had to be forty, maybe, his hands linked over his belt, a thick gold ring with some insignia on his finger. He wasn’t smiling.

Mark didn’t look away as he said to Carmen, “I want to schedule a meeting later this morning with a couple of the possibilities to fill the deputy position and answer the phones here.”

Then he started walking to his office, digging into each step. “You seem to know me, yet I’m at a loss. Have we met?” he said, standing just inside his office, staring down at the man, who stared right back at him, unflinching, cold. Mark couldn’t remember ever looking into eyes so unfeeling before.

“Ash Byrd,” the man said. “I can tell by your face that you already know why I’m here. Figured putting a face to the name would help. Join me. Come on in your office and sit down.”

He had to fight the urge to look back at Carmen. He wanted to tell this guy to get the hell out of his office, but he remembered Billy Jo and her warning to him. He’d thought she was paranoid, but the memory now had him feeling like a fool. He was about to refuse and stand there, but something about this situation wasn’t sitting right. With what he’d heard the night before about this man, he wondered what the hell had shown up in his community and on his island.

He glanced back once to Carmen, who was on her laptop, before walking around his desk, feeling each step. He heard his door close, and Ash turned to face Mark, who rested his coffee on his desk and sat and leaned back in his chair. He could feel his sidearm as he took in the man, wearing a long-sleeved burgundy Henley and dress pants he knew weren’t from a bargain store. His face was clean shaven, with a scar on his chin.

“So what can I do for you—Ash Byrd, is it? You’ve walked right in here and made yourself at home. Do you forget I’m the chief of police?”

The man didn’t smile as he pulled in a breath. “I know exactly who you are. You met my wife, Sunday, last night.”

Mark was leaning back in his chair. He rocked a bit and didn’t pull his gaze. How the hell did he know?

“Can see you don’t want to answer,” Ash said. “Not much goes on without my knowing.”

Mark knew he made a face. “Now, why would you show up here and ask me that? What makes you think I’ve spoken with your wife?”

The man didn’t flinch. Strength seemed to ooze from him. “You’re new to the position here on the island, newly appointed, but good at what you do with the limited resources you have. The council here, though, doesn’t really have your back, and they’re looking for any reason to replace you with someone they want. After all, having you step in was only temporary, and much of this office really is in flux. You ever ask yourself how Tolly Shephard managed to keep his job as long as he did, running things the way he did? You ever ask who made sure he was left alone? I think you know what I’m talking about, given that bottom drawer of yours, which you haven’t cleaned out.”

Mark stilled, a knot in his stomach. He had to remind himself to breathe, picturing the file the chief had kept on Mary Jane and the other councillors, the dishonesty, the hands in the cookie jar, the kind of dirt that would serve as his insurance to keep the politicians in line and off his back.

“Sounds to me as if you’re alluding to something,” he said. “You help the chief out?”

He’d talk with Carmen, because how the hell did Ash have any idea what was in the bottom drawer unless he’d gone through it?

“No idea what you’re talking about. Let’s talk about the other situation, the tale you were told. You’re a smart man, so let me help you out so you can stay smart and keep your job. Sunday is known for her tales. She’s bored, and she finds you rather attractive, Chief, young and single as you are…”

Ash had big hands, he realized, as he gestured toward him, not pulling his gaze. Mark knew when someone was aware of what was going on around him without even looking. This guy was good, and as he recalled what Sunday had said, he felt his hand had already been tipped.

“Not sure what this is, but I’m not some wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Are you coming in here and threatening me? Because it sounds like you’re trying to warn me off. Threatening an officer, I could arrest you for that.”

“Who said anything about threatening you? We’re just having a friendly conversation, is all.”

Mark pulled in a breath, very aware of what he wasn’t saying, being careful, giving nothing concrete. A smart man was sitting across from him. So that was how he was playing it. “Your wife, Sunday, an unusual name.”

Ash’s lips pulled to the sides in an odd smile. “Sure, young, smart, and troublesome…” He angled his head, teasing.

“How young is she, again?” Mark said. He knew he shouldn’t, but this man already knew that he knew. How, he wasn’t sure.

“You know, the greatest thing about this country is that the laws haven’t caught up with me. There’s nothing illegal about marrying a minor where we are right now.”

“Thirteen is a kid, not a minor. It’s child abuse.”

Ash was shaking his head. “I know you’re not an idiot there, Chief Mark Friessen. That snippy little social worker you spend time with knows what I’m talking about. Maybe you should have her fill you in on the legalese of a marriage document. She’s my wife, and therefore there’s no crime. Now, I’m coming here as a gentleman, all friendly, man to man. Because to hear that my wife is being entertained by another man, being shown interest by another man who just so happens to be the acting chief of police, well, I have to say I don’t like that.”

Mark just stared at him, realizing he was serious. He could feel the slippery slope he was treading, with this added dimension that was far from the truth. His job was everything, and the politics were never anything he had considered, but they had become more and more of what his job was. “Mr. Byrd, you come into my office, tossing out tales…”

“No, you’re not listening to me, so I’m going to help you out so you understand. There’s the easy way and there’s the hard way, Chief Friessen. Doesn’t matter which to me, but easier is better for everyone and for the community. It’s never good for a police chief to be showing interest in a young girl. She’s my wife, but to you, she’s a minor. The community is still reeling from the sudden departure of Chief Shephard, a long-time resident who could be forgiven for far more than a new young chief no one knows much about other than his lack of respect for authority. Imagine being fired by a small county for taking bribes, corruption, and just being a bad cop in general. That’s a bad way to go out.”

The horror of what he’d said had Mark just staring at Ash as he stood up. He was of average height and weight, and he didn’t know why he’d pictured someone with a lot of muscle. Ash pulled open the door and let his gaze linger on Mark again.

“You’re creating a tale about me, and that’s dangerous for you,” Ash said, unflinching, confident in a way that was unsettling. “You think the truth is even relevant? You have a lot to learn. It was nice meeting you, Chief. Remember what I said.”

Then he strode out to the door. Mark didn’t get up. He could see Carmen already walking his way.

“What the hell was that about?” she said, gesturing.

Mark couldn’t remember ever having been this unsettled. There was Billy Jo’s warning again. He leaned forward, taking in the way Carmen was staring at him, wide eyed, freaked out. He pulled his hand over his face.

“Not sure, but I figure that was a warning,” he said, then pushed back his chair and stood up to walk around his desk, past Carmen and over to the window. When he looked out, he couldn’t see where Ash Byrd had gone. There were cars driving past, a few people here and there. Something about the warning made him feel a blindside coming.

“You ever hear of an Ash Byrd?” he said, turning back to Carmen.

She shrugged. “Is that who that was?”

He turned back to the window, aware she hadn’t really answered. “He knows the chief,” he said. When he turned back to Carmen, he wasn’t sure he liked what he could see staring back at him. “He may have done some work for him.”

She fisted her hands and nodded as she pulled them over her chest. “I presume we’re not talking about the kind of work that would in any way be official.”

Mark glanced back out the window. “No, nothing legal, legitimate, or above board here.” He dragged his gaze away, around the empty and quiet station, to his dog, who was looking at him from the dog bed in the corner.

“I’ve never seen him before, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Carmen said. “The chief, you know, already had a way of doing things. But he also did business at the golf course, out where no one can hear you, where it’s just two or three people and a golf game. A whisper here, a deal there… The chief played a lot of golf.”

He took in Gail’s empty desk, missing her more than he would admit. “Get me the details of that plate. It should come back as Ash Byrd’s. Then I want you to find out everything about him, and I mean everything: who he knows, what he does, where he’s from.” Mark pulled his keys from his pocket and started to the door. “Come on, Lucky,” he called to the dog.

“And where are you going?” Carmen said.

“To find out exactly what kind of problem is knocking at my door. You call me with anything,” Mark said, then pulled open the door and let the dog out first, saying nothing else.

He walked down to his Jeep, unable to explain the odd feeling that someone was watching him. As he pulled open the door and let the dog in, he looked over his shoulder, but the problem was that he couldn’t see anything or anyone out of place.

Chapter 5

Googling Sunday Byrd and her situation only to come up with nothing should have given Billy Jo some peace of mind. But something about the girl, her face, and her story bothered her in ways she couldn’t have put into words. Worse, she was unsettled and furious because she’d seen the way Mark had looked at Sunday, and she knew he didn’t see her the same way Billy Jo did.

She was perched on a stool at her small island with a coffee, her French press half full in front of her, Harley munching his kibble in a bowl on the floor, when she heard a vehicle. She was still in a T-shirt and pajama shorts, her hair a mess, but she heard footsteps on her stairs, so she closed up her laptop and slipped off the stool to walk barefoot over to the door just as he knocked.

She flicked the deadbolt and pulled the door open, staring up to see vivid blue eyes, red hair, and brooding lips. She remembered too well what those felt like pressed to hers, and she let her gaze linger. He took in her bare legs, her pajamas, and she could see he had something on his mind.

“I need to talk to you,” he said.

She stepped back, and he walked right in, wearing blue jeans, a jean jacket, and cowboy boots, with the greatest ass she’d ever seen. There was something about Mark. Being around him was the easiest and the hardest thing at the same time. She closed the door and swept back her shoulder-length hair, feeling the tangles. Mark was already in her kitchen, making himself at home, pulling out a mug from the cupboard as she strode back over to the island and slid back onto the stool. He lifted the French press and poured himself a coffee, and she waited, seeing the moodiness and how off he was.

“I hope this isn’t where you’re going to start in on me again,” he said, still holding the French press. He filled her mug to the top, emptying what was left. His lips were tight, and he clearly didn’t want to talk.

“What was it you said, that I’m like Sunday Byrd?” she said. He put the empty French press into the sink without responding. “You know, Mark, you have a blind spot when it comes to attractive women, and Sunday, though sixteen, is that and then some. You have any idea what it’s like to sit there and watch you just accept everything she said? You ever heard of a woman who knows how to spin it, to dial up the drama, to mess with you? Pretty sure that tattoo on your arm should be enough of a reminder of how nice, gorgeous girls can flash you a smile and tell you a story while lying through their teeth.”

“Do you want me to say I’m sorry?” He rested both hands on the island, staring right at her. “I will if that will help, but just the same, Billy Jo, I’m not going to start lying to you now. You want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want me to tell you the truth? I thought this thing here, with us, starts with no bullshit.” He gestured at her.

She could feel this going sideways again. “Don’t be an asshole, Mark, or toss out cruel comparisons between me and Sunday, because there are no similarities between us, what I went through, and her showing up at your door.”

“Yeah, but one minute you want me to check into it, and the next you’re calling her a liar.”

She fisted her hands, resting them on the island, wondering when he’d become so good at tossing attitude right back at her. “I never called her a liar, so you’re putting words in my mouth, but you think a young girl like that isn’t stretching the truth? Look at her. The only reason we knew she was young was because of the ID she offered rather easily. Then there was the game of sitting outside the station, not wanting to come in because she’s afraid of it getting back to her husband. I have to wonder, is it even true? The cloak and dagger and drama are very indicative of a story from someone so young, and you fell for it. I could see how adept she was at reeling you in. You’re telling me you don’t find her attractive in the least?”

She’d never seen him look at her quite the way he was, with anger and fury flickering in those blue eyes.

“She’s a fucking kid,” he said. “Seriously, don’t turn me into a creep eyeing up a young girl. She knocked on the door looking for help, is all. I’m the chief of police here. You’re damn right I’m going to give any woman looking for help the benefit of the doubt. I’m surprised as all hell with you, Billy Jo. You’re so quick to toss out her story and paint her as a liar. I would’ve thought out of anyone, you’d have been in her corner, advocating, fighting. You know, you may not want to admit it, but she hit a nerve in you. I saw it last night. Whether it’s her story, her situation, or the girl herself, I could see it in the way you walked out on me. Even right now, you’re ready to go another round.”

She wondered if that was the reason he appeared so pissed. “You swallowed everything she said as if it were gospel. With her showing up at your door with that story, maybe some of it’s true, but maybe the whole thing is absolute bullshit. I could see the way you looked at her. She’s attractive, young. You were ready to bend over backwards for her, letting her lead you around…”

“Don’t you fucking dare, not from you too.” He slammed his mug down, cutting her off, and the coffee sloshed over the side. The cat jumped, and Billy Jo stared back at the flicker of fire in his eyes. She realized what he’d said.

“What do you mean, not from me too?”

His mouth was tight as he reached for the roll of paper towel, ripped off a sheet, and wiped up the spilled coffee. “You know, Billy Jo, suggesting I could seriously be eyeing up that girl is pretty low, even for you. She’s a kid. You think I don’t know you’re more scared of yourself and this bullshit relationship, this dancing around that you’re doing with me? You’d rather paint me as a dirty dog because then you could say, ‘Look, I was right, see?’”

She flicked her gaze to her coffee, feeling the slap and the embarrassment, then lifted her hands. “I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t cross the line. But are you honestly telling me you didn’t find her attractive in the least bit?”

He angled his head and narrowed his gaze, then let out a rude sound under his breath. “You don’t get it. That suggestion is the kind of thing that could ruin my life, my career. It’s not even funny, Billy Jo, and I can’t believe you of anyone would accuse me. Why would you even think so little of me? In all the time we’ve spent together, are you telling me you really believe I would go around with another woman behind your back? You really believe I could do that?” He could really be loud when he was pissed off—no, furious.

For a moment, she felt herself stumbling, trying to explain how she had to fight every day the doubts that plagued her. “No… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Really, then how did you mean it?”

She pulled in one breath and then another. “Look at me and look at you.”

He narrowed his gaze and made another rude sound as if he didn’t get it. “And what exactly are you trying to get at? Is this about me being a cop and you a social worker or what? Because you’ve lost me.”

She just stared and could feel her jaw slacken, wondering how he didn’t see that she wasn’t a supermodel, the typical woman he was drawn to, attractive, gorgeous, with curves. “I don’t want to fight with you, Mark. What did you mean when you said not from me too? You didn’t answer me.”

He really did appear off. “I walked into the station this morning to find a man I’d never seen before sitting in my office, waiting to give me a message. He walked right past Carmen, telling her I was expecting him.” He pulled his hand over the back of his neck, and his jean jacket pulled back to reveal his firearm, his badge.

She knew she was pushing him away, and she didn’t want to. She wondered why she couldn’t just be happy. “Who was waiting for you, Mark?”

He looked right at her across the distance she’d created. “It seems Ash Byrd knew Sunday paid me a visit last night. He was there, sitting in my office, making himself at home, waiting to warn me off. Yeah, she’s married to him, so she’s not lying about that, Billy Jo. I think he knows the chief and did some work for him, too.”

She wondered what kind of odd look was on her face. “What kind of work?”

He lifted his mug and downed his coffee, then walked over to the sink and rinsed it out before setting it there. She wanted to yell at him to say something, as she could feel her heart pounding. She’d never seen him this rattled.

“Remember the files the chief had to keep the council in line, the dirt on each of them in the bottom of my desk? Seems Ash may have been the one to collect it for him.”

She didn’t lean forward but realized he was serious. “For real?”

He shrugged. “It’s why I’m here. I plan to go see the chief and ask him outright who this guy is, but whoever he is, I know he’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley alone. You know he even went so far as to discredit Sunday? You know, saying she’s a flirt, a storyteller, and it wouldn’t look good if people suddenly learned the chief of police on this island is messing around with someone’s sixteen-year-old wife.”

She knew her jaw slackened, and she stared in horror, now recognizing the look on his face. He was cornered, upset, scared. “He seriously said that to you, accusing you of messing around with her? So he’s planning on tossing out a story about you to get you to back off. You told him what she said?”

Mark was looking away, leaning against the sink. When he dragged his gaze back to her, it wasn’t filled with the same caring she’d become used to. Why did she insist on pushing him away?

“No, I told her last night I wouldn’t tell her husband, and my word means something, Billy Jo. I haven’t had a chance to look into her story. I gave the plate number to Carmen and asked her to dig up anything she could on Ash Byrd. But he knew enough. Whether she went home and told him…” He gestured vaguely. “Nevertheless, he’s right about one thing. If a story got out about me showing interest in a young girl, I’d be run off the island, and it wouldn’t matter what I have on the council. My job would be gone. That’s the kind of thing I couldn’t run from. It would follow me. As you’ve already pointed out, Billy Jo, with my history with women, it really wouldn’t be too much of a leap, now, would it?”

She could hear the nastiness in his voice, and maybe she deserved that slap. She wanted to say people wouldn’t believe it, but she knew that wasn’t true. “I’m sorry, Mark. What are you going to do?”

He sighed. “I don’t know. Go see the chief, have a word with him about Ash Byrd, find out who he is, what he does for people, exactly, and everything about Sunday.”

Then he started walking out of the kitchen right past her. No hug, no kiss, no nothing.

“Mark,” she called out to him.

He stopped halfway to the door and glanced back to her.

“I don’t really believe you’d do that,” she said. “It’s just my own insecurity.”

He nodded. “I know, but there is a point, Billy Jo, where you can go too far, push too hard, lashing out to slap me down and push me away. I wouldn’t do that to you, not ever,” he said.

Then he kept walking out the door, and she shut her eyes, feeling his words and knowing how right he was. As Mark went down the stairs, Lucky barked from where he’d evidently been left in the Jeep.

Billy Jo realized she needed to get her head right, or this thing with Mark would never go anywhere. Because he was right: She was pushing him out of her life because he knew too many of her dark and dirty secrets, and he could read her way too well, and that was the one thing that absolutely terrified her.


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