The Free Friday Read

Read the first 5 chapters of my next release!

 October 21, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

The Gatekeeper

The Gatekeeper

Seven years ago, she lost her husband.

Three years ago, her daughter was taken from her.

Today, she’s taking back her life.

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Chapter 1

Reine woke to the sun streaming in, and she stretched before jolting upright, taking a second to realize where she was. She pressed her hand over her heart.

The window by her bed was open, with a light breeze fluttering the white cotton curtains. The double bed was comfortable, and she took in the white walls, the white metal bedframe, the wicker dresser with a mirror and a chair in the corner, and a small closet. The floral comforter on the bed reminded her of spring. The room was so welcoming, and the way the morning light danced off the walls was comforting. She still had to remind herself this was real.

Reine pulled in a breath and swept back her bed hair as she looked over to the bedside table, which had a digital clock. For a moment, she felt the familiar panic that had her tossing back the comforter, sliding her legs over the edge of the bed, and standing barefoot on the soft cotton throw rug. The clock said nine thirty-two. Reine couldn’t believe she’d slept so late.

She stumbled over to the mirror, taking in her image and the long light green pajama T-shirt and shorts, which hung loose on her. They had been sitting on the bed for her—from Charlotte, she thought. She reached for a light blue housecoat on a hook on the back of the closed bedroom door, something else she thought Charlotte had put there for her, and turned the knob.

Her heart hammered with unwelcome unease as she stepped out, hearing a woman’s voice downstairs. It was so quiet, and she wondered if she would ever find her footing. As she walked down barefoot, the creak of the stairs halfway had her jumping and staring for a second at the closed front door, the one she’d been on the other side of a few days earlier. That seemed like another lifetime now.

Reine pulled in one breath and then another, furious at herself for a second for being so jumpy. She forced herself to take another step down even though that irrational worry was still there, the worry that she could find herself thrown out the door and have her freedom yanked away again. She forced a swallow, willing her nerves to steady, as she heard the clatter of dishes and took in the short dark hair of a woman whose smile reached out to her.

“You’re awake. Hope you slept well. Come on, sit. Coffee?” said Iris O’Connell, Marcus’s mother, who had such a warm presence. Reine pulled out a stool at the island and sat beside two-year-old Cameron, who was in a high-back stool with a bowl of cereal and a cup of juice. He had dark hair with a natural wave, and she could see how much he looked like his father.

“I would love a coffee, thank you.”

Iris filled a mug with big hearts on it. “Milk, sugar…?”

Reine shook her head. “Strong and straight, please.”

Iris settled the steaming mug in front of her, and Reine lifted it, breathed in the coffee, which smelled heavenly, and took a swallow.

“This is good, thank you. Can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a good cup of coffee.” She glanced over to Cameron, who was staring at her, and back to Iris, who had her own mug of coffee and was now leaning on the island. “Eva’s gone already, I guess. I wanted to be up and see her before she went to school.” She didn’t hear any other sounds in the house.

“You’ll see her tonight. No one wanted to wake you. You had to be exhausted. Take some time, get some rest. Eva didn’t want to go to school today; she wanted to stay home with you. Not sure how Marcus and Charlotte convinced her.”

Reine took another swallow as she heard the front door open, and Suzanne walked in with her baby in a carrier.

“Hi, Reine…” she whispered. “I just got Arnie to sleep. He was fussy most of the night, up three times.” She put the baby carrier right on the kitchen table behind her, and Reine took in the sleeping baby with a light blanket over him.

Suzanne walked right to the coffeepot and poured herself a coffee. “Harold had to work last night. Some call came in around two this morning. I’m sure it was the phone that woke the baby the second time right after I got him to sleep, so I took him to bed with me, and Harold never came home. He’s going to be tired…” She had the fridge open and pulled out a plastic-covered plate of what she thought was leftover chicken from the night before, the barbecue.

This family seemed unusually close and so different in a way she didn’t understand. She watched as Suzanne pulled out a piece and took a huge bite, and Iris only shook her head before taking the plate from her and putting it back in the fridge.

“Reine, how about some breakfast?” Iris said. “You have to be starving. I can whip you up some eggs and toast, or cereal…”

“Hey, and maybe Reine would like some leftover chicken? Not everyone eats cereal, Mom,” Suzanne cut in after taking a big bite of meat from a thigh. She looked right at Reine. “I’ve never liked cereal. I’d just as soon heat up any leftovers from dinner in the fridge.”

Iris shook her head and glanced up. Reine was really starting to get a picture of the dynamic of this family, Marcus and Charlotte’s family, here in this house. She wondered when she wouldn’t feel like an unwelcome guest.

“Eggs and toast, if it’s not too much trouble,” she said. Suzanne was still looking at her, unsmiling and unapologetic as she held that chicken thigh and chewed.

“It’s no trouble at all, Reine,” Iris said. “You live here now. You make yourself at home…” She moved Suzanne out of the way. There was something sweet about the teasing between them.

“That’s right, because after today, you fend for yourself,” Suzanne said. “I think we should put Reine in charge of side dishes for whatever Owen’s barbecuing tonight. Did he seriously say tonight he wants fish?”

Reine didn’t know what to say. She was stuck on the idea of her making a side dish. For what? She moved to lift her hand to ask, taking in the back and forth between mother and daughter, then pulled her hand down and decided to say nothing, trying to figure out what exactly they meant by “tonight.”

“A friend of Owen’s came back with a mess of trout, bull trout, or was it cutthroat?” Iris said to her before dragging her gaze back to Suzanne as if this were the most normal information to add to this odd conversation.

“Do you not remember the last time Owen barbecued cod, or was it salmon or something he picked up at the store? It was overcooked. He should stick to what he does best: burgers, chicken, or hotdogs. Or even pork chops. He hasn’t done that in a while,” Suzanne said before going on further about the fish.

Reine wondered whether they were talking about that night or a different night. She moved to raise her hand again.

“You have a lost look on your face over there, Reine. Everything okay?” Suzanne said. Meanwhile, Iris cracked eggs in a bowl before setting a fry pan on the stove and turning it on. Bread was in the toaster, as well.

“Well, I guess I don’t understand,” Reine said. “I’m supposed to come up with a side dish… Is this for a party? And Owen, your brother, is barbecuing? When? Is this at his place? I guess I don’t understand what’s going on. Maybe I’m just not clear on how everything works here. You look after Cameron? I take it Marcus and Charlotte are…”

Iris had poured the eggs from the bowl into the fry pan. Reine wasn’t sure if that was an amused expression on her face.

Suzanne glanced her mother’s way before looking back to her. “Ah, I see you’re trying to figure out how we all work. Well, we always have our noses in everyone’s business. Family

night happens…what, three or four times a week, usually? It’s here, or at Ryan’s, or at Mom’s place, although with Tessa and Owen fixing up their little house and Chloe and Luke now living next door to them, I can see us starting to migrate more and more there. Harold and Arnie and I still live at his condo, which equals no house, no yard, and no barbecue.” Suzanne took another bite of the chicken as Iris finished scrambling the eggs in the pan.

Reine was now starting to understand what Eva had said about family night. “So you basically have your own lives but are always together, and last night wasn’t just because Marcus brought me back here?”

Suzanne was shaking her head as Iris scraped the eggs onto a plate and the toast popped up in the toaster. “Well, yeah, we were all waiting here to welcome you, but it’s what we do. When she’s in town, Mom looks after the kids, Cameron and Eva, either here or at her place, and when I get a job with the sheriff’s department, Mom will also look after Arnie.”

Iris rested the plate of eggs and buttered toast in front of Reine with a fork. “Here you go. Do you want peanut butter or jam on your toast?”

“Um, yeah, peanut butter would be great. Thank you. This is really nice…” She watched as Iris reached into the fridge and pulled out a jar of peanut butter, as well as a clean knife from a drawer, and slid them in front of her.

“Suzanne, you know Marcus already said no to a job at the sheriff’s office,” Iris said. “You really think you could work under him, considering the way you two butt heads? And do I need to remind you that your husband, Harold, is the lead deputy?”

Maybe it was hearing about the two men who’d arrested her that had Reine gripping the fork a little harder than she normally would have as she said, “Why do you want to be a cop?”

She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. She glanced over to Cameron, who was eating with his hands now, picking the cereal out of his bowl, and she realized both women were staring at her. The moment had suddenly turned awkward.

“Well, for one, I loved being a first responder, but I got bounced out of that, and the current council here and the politics of the fire department have made sure I will never get hired here again. I think I would make a great cop, but Marcus keeps telling me no, he won’t hire me.”

Iris was looking at her as she slid her hand over the island. “You’re still angry at Marcus?” she said. “I can see you’re trying your best to hide the hurt. We could all see it last night, the tension that lingers between you and Marcus and Charlotte.”

There it was, the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, except neither was here. Yet she was under their roof, and she was still powerless even though she was free. “It doesn’t go away overnight. I’m Eva’s mother, but Marcus and Charlotte make all the decisions for her.”

She hadn’t meant to say that, either. After all, this was Marcus’s family, closer than any she’d ever seen, and she was the outsider coming in.

“I understand, Reine, but know that you’re welcome here,” Iris said. “You’re Eva’s mother, and Eva is our family, and there is something about family, Reine. We fight, but we do forgive, eventually. You just need to find your footing. All I can say is just give it some time as you slip into this family. It’s not all about their being in charge of Eva. It’s about all of us. And Marcus feels horrible over what happened…”

“But I have no rights here.” She wondered if she was smart or stupid for forcing her point. The awkwardness lingered again.

“You know what?” Suzanne said. “Finish up breakfast, and then get dressed. We’re going out.” She looked over to her mom. “Can you watch Arnie?”

She admired Suzanne and her determination. She wondered whether anything ever scared her.

“You know I will,” Iris said.

“Okay, and where are we going?” Reine started as she reached for her fork again, feeling lost, not fitting in anywhere.

“It’s a surprise, but it will do you good, give you a new perspective. Come on, finish up.” Suzanne gestured at her plate, and Reine took in her bright smile.

Iris shrugged, looking back over to her. Just then, Cameron decided he was done, so Iris raced over and lifted Marcus’s little boy, and Suzanne’s baby started fussing from the car seat he was still in. Reine watched these two women she figured were trying to make her feel welcome. But, being the outsider, she still had no idea how she could fit into this family or what, exactly, her place was.

Chapter 2

“I don’t understand why you’re being so nice to me,” Reine said, speed-walking to keep up with Suzanne’s long-legged stride.

“Excuse me? Seriously, Reine, you make me sound as if I’m tossing you a crumb, as if you’re some charity case.”

She wasn’t sure what to make of Suzanne’s remark or Suzanne, for that matter, as she took in the quaint downtown city block. The sun was out, but she was still fighting the urge to look over her shoulder.

“Here, put these on,” Suzanne said as she reached into her bulky cloth purse and pulled out a baby soother, then a pair of polka-dot sunglasses. She tossed the soother back in her bag but stopped in the middle of the sidewalk until Reine took the sunglasses.

“Why…?” she said, but Suzanne had started walking again.

“Because of the way you keep looking over your shoulder with that spooked look on your face, as if you believe everyone knows your secret and wants to judge the shit out of you, look down on you, or maybe even spit on you. I see it and recognize it, as I’ve been there, so stop it and put them on.”

She slid the sunglasses on and looked up at Suzanne as she hurried to keep up. “I don’t think anyone would spit on me,” she finally said in a low voice, wondering how Suzanne understood and had voiced what Reine believed deep inside herself.

“There you go. You just focus on that one positive thought. If anyone spits on you, I’d have to punch them, and then Marcus would show up and figure out a way not to arrest me.”

There was something about Marcus’s sister that Reine couldn’t help but like. She even felt the tug of a smile at her lips. “You’d really slug someone?”

Suzanne made a rude noise as she stopped outside the door of a shop. Despite the noise of cars on the street and the chilly air, something felt so right about being with Suzanne.

“You have a beautiful smile, Reine,” she said. “You should show it more. Yeah, I’d probably cause a scene, too. I’ve never been known to let anyone walk on me or anyone I care about. Oh, let’s go in here.” She pointed to a small store with a few mannequins displaying clothes in the window.

“Okay. So you haven’t told me what the surprise is and where you’re taking me.” Reine followed Suzanne inside the store, which was filled with racks of clothes and the kinds of pretty things she couldn’t afford. When was the last time she’d walked into a store like this? Damn, it had been a maternity shop in Denver when Eva was a baby and Vern was still alive. Just her and Vern… The memory of his smile, his love, still cut so deep.

“Shopping,” Suzanne said. “You need some clothes, because as cute as those worn jeans you have on are, they’ve seen better days. I think a few new things are a must.”

She stopped just inside the front door when the irrational fear hit her, and she stared at Suzanne, who was at a rack of shirts, pulling one out. She wondered whether she’d lost her mind. The store clerk, unsmiling, was looking her way as she lifted her sunglasses and rested them on top of her head, which she’d only run a brush through. She stepped closer to Suzanne.

“Suzanne, I can’t afford anything in here,” she whispered, then realized the store clerk was listening to everything she said, so she turned her back on her, feeling uneasy.

“You don’t even know how much anything is. Look, this is on sale for $19.99.” Suzanne held up a shirt that Reine didn’t look too closely at.

“If it costs anything, I can’t afford it. I have no money,” she said again in a low voice, wondering why Suzanne didn’t know that.

“It’s our treat, Reine. I talked with Mom, and I called Karen too, but it was Jenny who brought it up. We know you have nothing, so this is our ‘welcome to the family’ gift. Nothing I have will fit you, and the only one in the family who’s close enough in size to you is

Alison—and I doubt very much you would want anything Alison would wear, since it’s all low-cut crop tops and skintight jeans.”

Suzanne had her own sunglasses resting in her hair, the kind of brown that didn’t stand out. She handed Reine two shirts, a T-shirt with a cuddly cat on the front and a deep green blouse with flowers and short sleeves. “This is perfect for you, with your eyes.”

Reine looked at the price tag, $39, and wondered if the strangled sound was from her. “This is too expensive, and where would I even wear it? It’s too nice.”

Suzanne handed her two more shirts and then walked over to a rack of blue jeans. Reine awkwardly gripped the hangers as Suzanne stared at her worn jeans before dropping her gaze to her feet and shaking her head.

“Nonsense,” she said. “Just start trying things on, and we’ll add some new shoes, too…”

“Can I help you two with anything?” said the clerk who’d been eyeing Reine since they walked in, standing right behind her. She had brown hair, wavy and thick, with mascara and mocha eyeshadow, and she wore a silky white sleeveless blouse, pumps, and trousers that looked like they cost a fortune. Reine was very aware of how she looked in comparison.

“Can you start a dressing room?” Suzanne said. “My friend here is getting an entire new wardrobe today.”

Reine just stared at her.

“Of course I can. I’ll put these in a room for you,” the clerk said, looking at Reine as she reached for the shirts.

“Sure,” was all she said in reply, and she wondered if the clerk was picking up on her unease.

Suzanne pulled out blue jeans and handed them over, then let her gaze land on Reine. “Any preference? High-rise, low-rise, sweaters, shirts, colors, or does it matter?”

Reine watched the saleslady walk away, then turned to Suzanne, who was staring at her again. “As you can see from the way I’m dressed, it doesn’t matter. Clothes are clothes. Why are you doing this?”

Maybe she wasn’t supposed to ask. Suzanne stilled, her hand on the rack, and took a second to look her way, no longer smiling. “Reine, I already told you we want to do this because you need clothes and because we can. It’s what people who care do. And it’s not as if we’re dressing you for a dinner party. You can raid Alison’s closet for that. This is just a small something. So just go try the clothes on. You’re not signing your life away.

“This isn’t charity, either, if that’s what you think. It’s our gift—which, by the way, if I have to say it again, you’re going to have to get used to. We haven’t had a chance to sit down and really talk. You’ve been stuck in a nightmare for so long, and your trust has been shattered, but just know you’re in a safe place. We care. Just let that be enough right now. After you have your footing again, there will be a day one of us needs someone to pick us up, because we all do, and that will be your day to help, to be there for one of us.”

God damn, how did she do that?

“Then we’re going for lunch,” Suzanne continued, “and that is my husband’s treat.”

Reine pulled in a breath, still feeling so damn nervous. “Okay, but don’t go crazy.”

There it was, the smile on Suzanne’s face that she envied so much. Suzanne pulled out a black pair of jeans and handed them to her. “I swear. Just a few shirts, pants, and essentials, and you’re set. Now go, try them on.”

Reine squeezed the hanger and spotted the curtained-off changing room in the back, feeling something she hadn’t felt in a long time. As she stepped inside, where the clothes were hanging, waiting for her, she glanced back to Suzanne, who was now talking to the saleslady and handing her more clothes. Reine was still trying to figure out how it seemed her entire life as she knew it had changed overnight.

Chapter 3

“I’ve never heard her laugh before,” Suzanne said as she walked into the kitchen, where Marcus and Harold were. “And look at her in there… Doesn’t she look nice?”

Marcus only gestured with his beer toward Charlotte, who was chopping up peppers for a salad, and Suzanne still felt the unease lingering.

“She looks very nice, and Eva is happy, so that makes us happy,” Charlotte said.

Harold was staring at Suzanne. She knew she was pushing it, but this awkward situation could have only one happy ending.

“You two have a chance to talk to her?” Suzanne continued.

There it was again, something in the exchange between Marcus and Charlotte. Her mom, who was holding Arnie, lifted a brow, and Suzanne could almost hear her warning her to stay out of the couple’s business.

“Not yet,” Charlotte said, “but we know we need to settle some things. I think right now we’re all in agreement that Eva lives here and so does Reine, at least until Reine gets back on her feet.”

Marcus hadn’t pulled his gaze from his wife, and Suzanne knew from the way Marcus was staring over at Charlotte that they might not be on the same page.

Harold pressed a kiss to Arnie’s little hand as he took him from her mom, who then walked out of the kitchen. She listened to her baby’s laugh, so new, but he could start fussing just as quickly. She heard the front door, then laughter from the living room, where Eva, Reine, Iris, Jenny, Alison, and her dad were. Ryan still hadn’t shown up. Then there was Karen, whom she’d spoken with that morning.

“They had a case of assorted juice on sale, so I grabbed it,” announced Owen as he stepped through the door, wearing his heavy jacket, with a five o’clock shadow, and Tessa followed him with a bright smile, her blond hair pulled back, carrying a paper bag. “Brady and Cassie aren’t coming tonight. He’s got some super-romantic thing planned for the two of them. Anyone hear from Luke or talk to Chloe?”

Suzanne wasn’t sure what to make of Charlotte and Marcus. Unease, yes. She turned to the laughter from the living room. “Karen is supposed to be coming down tonight,” she said. “I think she talked to Luke, and Chloe is coming later.” Then, unable to take it anymore, she pressed her hand to the island and stared long and hard at Marcus and Charlotte. “Okay, you two, what’s going on?”

Charlotte squeezed the knife and set it down, and Marcus finally pulled his gaze from her to look at Suzanne, annoyed. “Reine picked up Eva from school today, and no one thought to say anything to us,” he said.

So there it was. Suzanne had overstepped in suggesting they pick her up. Iris had been onboard, but apparently Charlotte and Marcus hadn’t. She hadn’t expected this.

“Reine and I picked up Eva,” she said. “I’m not sure how that’s a problem, considering one of us always does…”

Owen was staring at Marcus, who shook his head and said, “It’s not. It just surprised Charlotte, is all. We got a call from the school saying Reine had picked up Eva instead of Mom. They didn’t mention you, Suzanne. This is all new, and we just have to figure it out and come to an understanding, with Reine living here now…” He kept his voice low, looking at Charlotte.

At a knock on the front door, Marcus frowned, and Suzanne stepped back to look through the screen, on the other side of which was someone she’d never seen before.

“Who is it?” Marcus said as he set his beer down on the counter and headed toward her.

“I don’t know. Don’t recognize him. You expecting someone?” Suzanne said, following him to the door, past Cameron, who came running into the kitchen toward Charlotte.

“Can I help you?” Marcus said as he pushed open the screen door with a squeak. She realized her dad was striding casually their way, his expression watchful.

“I’m looking for Reine Colbert.”

She took in the man standing in the doorway, in a dark jacket and ball cap, of average height.

Marcus stood with one hand on the frame. “What is this about?” he asked.

Whoever this man was, Suzanne didn’t recognize him, and she felt her brother’s unease. The man was holding something, she thought.

“I’ve been given this address as hers. Is she here or not?”

Raymond glanced her way, standing off to the side, close to the door. Suzanne realized everyone had stopped talking. Reine was now walking their way in her new black jeans and navy shirt, her expression wary, her eyes big, on edge. Eva was holding her hand, staying close to her, something she did now.

Reine turned to her and leaned down. “Eva, it’s okay. I’ll be right back. Go to the living room with everyone. Nothing to worry about.”

Eva stood there, looking far too worried. Damn, she was a smart kid, old enough to understand everything that was going on.

“Eva, come here,” Iris called out from the living room.

“Why are you looking for Reine? Who are you?” Marcus asked the man again.

Reine walked past Suzanne to the door to stand beside him. Suzanne took another step closer, trying to see what was going on.

“I have something for Reine Colbert,” the man said, his voice deep. “Are you Reine Colbert?”

“I am,” Reine said in a low voice, and Suzanne wondered if anyone else could hear her uncertainty.

“You’ve been served,” was all the man said in reply as he handed her a brown envelope. Then he left, and Suzanne took another step closer. Marcus stepped outside, and Ryan was striding up the steps, looking long and hard at the guy, whoever he was, as he hurried away down the sidewalk.

“What is it, Reine?” Suzanne said.

Reine’s hands were shaking as she opened the envelope and pulled out the papers, then let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t know. I’m being sued.” She tapped the papers. “I don’t understand. It’s about Vern…”

Suzanne looked over her shoulder, trying to read all the fine print.

“Reine, can I take a look at that?” Raymond asked. He had a way about him, not taking over the situation but simply being kind, compassionate, watchful. She realized he didn’t miss anything.

“Sure…” Reine handed him the papers.

Marcus and Ryan stepped inside and closed the door.

“What was that about?” Ryan asked. Suzanne gave him only a passing glance as she looked over to her dad, who was reading the papers. He lifted the first page and shook his head.

“They’re coming after you for unpaid medical bills, and then there are back taxes owing for Vern Colbert. With interest on interest, this is close to four million.”

Suzanne wasn’t sure if that strangled sound was from her or Reine. She turned back to see Harold walking closer, handing over Arnie to Tessa. On instinct, Suzanne rested a hand on Reine’s shoulder. Everyone was now listening, standing. The energy had ramped up.

“Are you kidding? Why? How is this possible?” Suzanne said, very aware of how quiet Reine had become, aware of everything she’d lost. How could they be coming after her still?

“They took everything from me, and now they want four million more? It was never that much, but it was still too much. They took our house. I sold everything I had, and every

paycheck I had went to them. How is this possible? My husband is dead, yet it’s just never-ending bullshit…” She reached for the papers, and Raymond gave them back.

“It looks like interest at rates I’ve never seen before, with tax on top of it,” he said.

Marcus had his arms crossed, staring down at Reine, who was now reading all the fine print, gripping the papers so hard. Damn, she was just getting kicked over and over.

“We’ll give it to Karen,” Suzanne said. “She can go over it. This is so wrong, but, Reine, don’t worry. Maybe this is a good thing…”

Everyone was looking at her, and the horror in Reine’s eyes had her wanting to shut her mouth and backtrack.

“A good thing?” Reine spat out.

“I didn’t mean it that way. They’re coming after you even though they’ve already screwed you and your husband, so how about fighting back?”

Evidently, no one understood what she was trying to say.

“Maybe Reine isn’t a pit bull like you are, Suzanne,” Marcus added.

Reine still said nothing.

There were times she wanted to pull Marcus aside, like now, and remind him that rolling over was never the answer. She wondered when he’d become so cautious.

“Look, this heavy-handed crooked shit from this goliath is garbage. Reine, you lost everything because of these guys, and now they’ve decided they want to take another chunk out of you? Say no. Stand up. We can fight this.”

“How am I going to fight it? Now they want more, and I’ll never be able to pay. I don’t understand. Seven years ago I lost my husband, and they took my house, my bank account, my job, my life. How can they keep doing this?” Reine’s eyes were wide, and the emotion in her voice cut Suzanne deep.

“That’s what they want, Reine, to cripple you,” Raymond said. “But Suzanne is right. It’s a game to them, and because they’re as big as they are, it has made them untouchable, allowing them to take from vulnerable, hardworking families and destroy them because they can’t and don’t fight back. They may as well ask for ten million or twenty. It doesn’t matter, because they won’t get it. Have Karen look at it. They’re just trying to scare you, is all. You paid how much to them? I don’t know everything, Reine, only what Iris told me about what happened…”

Suzanne touched Reine’s shoulder again, feeling how tense she was. She didn’t know what she was thinking as she stared at the papers.

“Karen is due to have the baby anytime,” Marcus said, cutting in. “This probably isn’t the time to put this on her plate.”

Suzanne dragged her gaze over to her brother, wanting to kick him. “Her sharp legal mind still works, pregnant or not, and she’s not due for another five weeks. Should I tell her you didn’t want to bother her?” she tossed right back at him, knowing Karen would come out swinging, especially when she found out Marcus had tried to coddle her. She didn’t know why her brother had said that.

Ryan was quiet, as was Reine, and she looked back to see Eva watching and listening—upset and scared, maybe.

“I don’t have money to pay Karen…”

“Nonsense,” Suzanne said. “This isn’t about money. This is family, Reine. Have Karen take a look into this. It could be a clerical error, because it happens.” She shrugged at the way everyone was looking at her. “Well, it’s true. Bureaucracy at its finest.”

Reine tucked the papers back into the envelope and lifted her gaze to Marcus first, then to Ryan and then over to Suzanne. “Sorry to ruin the evening. I’m going to put this away,” she said, then stepped around Suzanne and started up the stairs.

The lingering quiet only added to the unease. Suzanne wanted to slug Marcus as she gestured to where Reine had disappeared at the top of the stairs. Above them, a door opened and then closed.

“‘Don’t put this on Karen’s plate…’ Are you serious, Marcus?” She stepped toward him, then felt her dad touch her shoulder.

Marcus made a rude sound and ran his hand over the back of his head. “Look, I didn’t mean we wouldn’t help.” He gestured to her. “It’s just I know how Jack feels right now. He doesn’t want unnecessary stress on Karen. Did you forget about her miscarriage? That’s the only reason I said it.”

His words felt like a slap, but she knew her sister was a born fighter, just like her.

“We’ll all help,” Raymond said in a low voice, maybe to remind them of how loud they were. “But now isn’t the time. Right now, Eva is listening.”

Suzanne turned back to see her mom standing maybe ten feet back with her hand on Eva’s shoulder. The expression on her little niece’s face was the same one Suzanne had seen nearly three years earlier when her world had fallen apart, when her mom had been taken from her and she had come to live with Marcus and Charlotte.

“Is that about my dad?” Eva said.

Suzanne felt the ache in her chest. Damn, she was smart.

“Yeah,” Marcus said, walking around Suzanne and toward his adopted daughter, running his hand over his head again. “But you know what, Eva? It’s going to be fine. We’re going to handle it…” He somehow maneuvered Eva back into the living room just as Arnie started fussing.

Ryan shrugged out of his coat, and Owen walked out the back door to the barbecue. Charlotte was holding Cameron, but she was looking at Suzanne and then at the stairs. As she turned away and walked back into the kitchen, Suzanne felt something she had sensed before, that something was simmering beneath the surface. She had a feeling Reine was not as welcome in their home as Charlotte had said.

Chapter 4

Reine pulled at the thick blue sweater Suzanne had bought her as she sat on the stool at the island in the kitchen. Hearing the creak of the floorboards, she sat up to see Marcus. It was dark, and only the light over the stove was on.

“I didn’t know you were down here,” he said. “What are you doing up?” He wore a T-shirt and sweatpants, and he walked over to the sink and leaned against it.

“Sorry, couldn’t sleep and figured I’d read through this…” She lifted the papers she’d been served with. Reading the legalese, the dollar amounts, she was having a hard time understanding how this had suddenly ballooned into something she’d never be able to pay back.

Marcus crossed his arms. She was still uneasy with him and wondered if she would ever feel differently. She lowered her gaze back to the papers, maybe because of how he was looking at her.

“Look, I’m sorry this was brought to your doorstep,” she said.

He let out a heavy sigh. “Don’t apologize. That isn’t your fault. I can see how this rattled you.”

She never knew what to make of Marcus and what he really thought of her. Did he hate her? She didn’t have a clue how to read him. She sat a little straighter, pulling her sweater closed over her lightweight pajamas, feeling the chill on her bare feet. The way he looked at her unsettled her at times, but he didn’t look away, so she only nodded and pressed her hand to the papers.

He walked over to the island. “You mind if I have a look?” He reached out, and she glanced back to the papers, which were like an anvil that would forever be hanging over her.

“Okay, I guess.” She pushed them across the island and Marcus reached for them and leaned down, one hand resting on the countertop, the other lifting the second page. It was so awkward, and she should have been embarrassed, but she no longer had any secrets Marcus didn’t know.

“This is from a collection company for the hospital and, it appears, the IRS. It’s a demand for $4,087,989.89, right to the penny, for treatment and taxes. I see most of it is interest. Did you talk to Karen?” He flicked those O’Connell blue eyes over to her, and in the dim light, she made out something else there. Sympathy, maybe?

She shook her head. “No, I don’t feel right calling Karen. She’s already done so much for me…”

Marcus was shaking his head as he set the papers down. “Call her. Suzanne is right; she’s our family lawyer, and she’d be mad if you didn’t. She could likely make one call and get this sorted out. Do you mind if I ask you something personal?”

She didn’t know what to say. She took in the ring on his finger, knowing his wife was upstairs, a woman who loved her daughter so much. She wasn’t a fool. She knew Charlotte really didn’t want her there.

“No, I guess not.” She flicked her gaze to the papers still in front of Marcus, very aware it was now after midnight.

“Vern, your husband, when did the insurance company deny coverage for him? It was lung cancer he had?”

She didn’t think she’d ever forget the day she’d walked through the doorway of their small house in Missoula to find him sitting in a corner of the living room, too quiet. She’d known at once that something was wrong.

“Yes, a rare form, apparently, but one that’s all too common for firefighters. Eva was only six months old. They didn’t deny coverage for him right away. He saw an oncologist

and did radiation first, then drugs and chemo, which didn’t work but made him so sick. There was an experimental drug they wanted to try that had been successful in other cases, only the cost was ridiculous. Each day was horrible with worry, but I never thought the insurance company would come back to the doctor to say they weren’t going to cover a treatment they considered experimental, even though it had been used thousands of times. The doctor said that was happening more and more.

“What were our options? This was my husband. Of course I knew there was no choice. The hospital agreed to go ahead. We were on the hook for those treatments, and three weeks before Vern died, a letter arrived in the mail, saying they were denying all coverage and coming after us for what had already been paid because of a pre-existing condition.”

Marcus was so quiet. Reine had never been able to talk about what had happened without feeling the absence where the giant ache had once been.

“He was a fireman,” he said, “breathing in toxic chemicals, running in and out of burning buildings. Even I know cancer is the biggest killer of firefighters.”

She only nodded, remembering his dark hair, which had grown back, his blue eyes, and his disbelief when he read what the insurance company had found out. “When Vern was fifteen, he smoked, if you can call it that, for a few months, horsing around with friends. It was in the letter. They cited a clause in the health coverage contract that no sane person would have been able to find. A pre-existing condition? It was ludicrous, and how did they find out, considering even his parents never knew?” Maybe that was what bothered her more than anything. “I mean, how could they uncover something like that unless they took his life apart, our lives? They must have spent so much on investigators to go back and dissect his past, talk to his childhood friends. It’s unbelievable, if you think about it.”

Marcus glanced over his shoulder and then back to her. “Unfortunately, insurance companies have resources the average person will never have, and they can uncover things even I would never be able to.” Marcus pointed to the paper again. “Call Karen in the morning. Or do you want me to?”

She and Marcus had never really had time to talk before, but there was something calming about speaking with him when Charlotte wasn’t around. “I’ll call her, thanks.” She had to force a smile to her face, as it suddenly felt so awkward.

“I’m sorry, Reine. Eva never got to know her father.”

She sat up straight. “Eva didn’t have much of a childhood. He died five days before her second birthday. I think that letter from the insurance company took the final piece out of him. They took our house, my dignity, my family, my joy, and they still want more.” She tried to force a smile as Marcus walked around the island and rested his hand on her shoulder.

“Well, how about it’s time you take it back? What they did was wrong. I haven’t offered you any advice, so I hope you’ll be okay with me putting this out there, but after Karen puts this to rest, you should consider burying them. Go after them for everything they took from you for denying coverage because they could. There’s one thing I know well, Reine: When you deal with giants like this, the government, insurance companies, they don’t play fair, and they don’t go after people who can fight back.”

This was something else she hadn’t expected from Marcus.

“I’m going to bed,” he finally said. “You’ll be okay?” He looked down at her, and there was something about this man who had taken her child in, adopted her, and opened his door to her.

“I’ll be fine. I’m not far behind. Can I ask you something?”

Marcus had taken only a few steps, and he turned around. For a moment, the tension she’d always felt seemed to have disappeared. “Okay,” he said. There was a smile. He really did have a nice smile.

“You sure it’s okay that I’m here?” she said.

“It’s not a question, Reine. Of course it is. You’re Eva’s mother.”

It wasn’t really the answer she was looking for, but she wondered whether he understood what she was getting at.

“I know that, Marcus, but have you asked Charlotte? Because she’s your wife, and this is her house too.”

He only looked away. There it was again, the tension. “Don’t worry about Charlotte. And call Karen in the morning. Goodnight,” he said. Then he walked away, and she listened to his footsteps on the stairs.

She thought of the woman who’d adopted her daughter. She wasn’t a fool. No matter what Charlotte said, she knew she didn’t really want her there, and she definitely didn’t want her to have any say in how she raised her daughter.

Chapter 5

Marcus stepped out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirt and fastening his duty belt. Charlotte was already dressed, holding Cameron as she walked into Eva’s bedroom and called out, “Come on, Eva, get dressed now! …Oh, didn’t know you were in here, Reine. Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

Cameron fidgeted, and Charlotte put him down. He raced off past her when he heard a key in the front door, knowing that had to be his grandma.

“Hey, slow down there, bud…” Marcus said, but his son was already running down the stairs. Marcus went down the top two steps in time to see Cameron leap at his mom. Then he started down the rest of the way.

“Wow, haven’t even made coffee yet,” he said. “How are you this morning, Mom?”

“It’s chilly out. You can feel the snow in the air. I think it’ll be a cold one this winter…” She looked up to the stairs, and Marcus heard footsteps and turned to see his wife. Her usual smile was missing. Cameron was already in the kitchen, and he’d be on the counter in a second, likely yanking out the only cereal he would eat as of late, Oaty O’s.

Maybe his mom picked up on Charlotte’s off-ness, as she gave him an odd glance as she reached the bottom step.

“Reine is insisting on helping Eva get dressed,” Charlotte said, an edge in her voice, though he didn’t understand the problem. She kept walking into the kitchen, and he followed her, but Iris touched his arm to stop him.

“I thought everything was okay here with Reine?” she said, her voice just above a whisper. What was he supposed to say? Charlotte had been okay until, apparently, she wasn’t.

He only shook his head and kept walking to the kitchen, where Charlotte was lifting Cameron off the counter with the box of cereal. “Go sit down,” she told him, gesturing.

Iris stepped in and took the bowl from Charlotte as Marcus lifted Cameron onto the stool at the island. Milk was poured on his cereal, and Charlotte was quietly making coffee. Then she was in the fridge, pulling out butter and eggs. She reached for the bread and put two pieces in the toaster.

“And what’s wrong with Reine helping Eva?” Marcus said. “I think you help her pick out clothes to wear more days than not. Reine missed a lot with her. I don’t see why it’s a big deal.”

He felt the nudge in his side, and when he looked over to her, his mom made a face as if he’d said something he shouldn’t.

“I know she did, but she’s overstepping, and maybe this makes me sound cruel, but Eva is ours. I’m her mother. She’s…”

He could see how tense she was, feeling the moment this could go sideways. Cameron was shoving cereal in his mouth, already dripping milk on his light brown shirt. Marcus found himself looking up, listening, knowing mother and daughter were both upstairs.

“Charlotte, we talked about this,” he said. “You were onboard with having Reine here. Are you telling me you don’t want her here now?”

She reached for a fry pan and set it on the stove, then pressed both palms to the island. She was tense, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her so off. He felt for a second as if he were wading into dangerous territory. Maybe his mom knew, as she pressed her hand to his arm again. Cameron looked up to him too, his mouth full, chewing around the cereal.

“I don’t, Marcus,” Charlotte finally said. “Even saying it, I feel horrible, but I feel like I’m competing with her. I know Reine is Eva’s mother, but so am I. We’re her parents now,

and we’re the ones who are raising her, making decisions for her, not Reine. Yet every time I turn around, there she is with Eva. Yesterday, showing up at the school and picking her up, that was too much. I mean, what if one day she just disappears with her?”

For a moment, Marcus didn’t know what to say. He found himself taking in how quiet his mom was, linking her hands together. He looked down to his son again, who was more interested in shoving food in his mouth than in the conversation.

“Well, Charlotte, I may be overstepping,” Iris said, “but don’t we all pick her up from school? If not me, it’s Suzanne, and even Owen and Tessa did it twice just last week. Jenny and Alison, too. I don’t see the issue, Charlotte. In fact, I told Suzanne it was a great idea when she called. Are you asking for all of us to clear it with you?”

He hadn’t expected that from his mom, and he could see the moment Charlotte regretted everything she’d said. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, shut her eyes, and pressed her hand to her forehead. Then she looked over to them.

“No, of course not,” she said. “I’m sorry. I know it’s irrational, but I feel that…”

“She’s competing with you for Eva’s love,” his mom cut in.

He heard footsteps and the excitement in Eva’s voice even though he couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“Okay, maybe I sound ridiculous,” Charlotte said. “I shouldn’t have said it.”

He just stared, wondering why she would think that, just as Reine and Eva walked in, the image of mother and daughter, a bond no one could break.

“Wow, look at you today in all yellow,” Marcus said. Eva let go of her mom’s hand, and he took in Reine, who wore a blue and white blouse and blue jeans. The unease was still there. A coffee appeared on the island in front of him.

“Reine, coffee?” Charlotte said in a much lighter tone.

Reine shook her head. “Sure, but you don’t have to wait on me. I know you both have to get to work. I wanted to say something first: Thanks for letting me stay. I’m going to call Karen this morning. And thanks for the words of encouragement last night, Marcus. It helped.”

He reached for his coffee and could feel Charlotte staring his way. “Let me know how it goes with Karen,” he said. “In fact, I’ll be talking to her later…”

“Well, Karen is already here,” Iris said. “She and Jack arrived late last night. They’re at the condo. I was going to go over after I drop off Eva at school and take this ball of energy with me.” She rustled Cameron’s dark hair.

He found himself looking over to Charlotte, who was pouring coffee in two mugs. She handed one to Reine and the other to his mom.

“Why don’t you tag along, Reine?” Iris said. “You can help me with this guy, and then you and Karen can talk.”

It was a great idea, but he didn’t know what to make of the way Charlotte had turned as the toast popped up.

“Does anyone want eggs?” she said. “I can put them on, or…”

Yup, she was flustered, off.

“Toast is good,” Marcus said, “but we need to get going.”

Reine set her coffee on the island, walked around it, and said, “Charlotte, why don’t you let me butter the toast?”

For a second, he didn’t know what Charlotte would say. He took another swallow of his coffee. Then Charlotte put down the knife and slid over the butter. “Sure, that would be great,” she said. “You know what? I forgot something upstairs.”

She walked out of the kitchen, her smile tight, and then over to the stairs. When Marcus looked back, Reine was buttering the toast, and his mom had pulled out peanut butter and honey.

Charlotte was now upstairs, and unless he figured out a way to get her to understand that it wasn’t a competition for Eva, he figured the tension and awkwardness could make things difficult for all of them.

“Excuse me,” he said, having finished off the last of his coffee. “Have a good day at school, Eva, and you behave yourself for Grandma.” He rustled both kids’ hair and took in how comfortable Reine was with his mom. Then he started over to the front door and looked up the empty stairs, realizing this thing with Charlotte could quickly get out of hand.

He listened to Eva’s laughter, the voices from the kitchen, and then glanced to the top of the stairs again, where Charlotte was now looking down at him. There was something he’d never thought he’d see in the face of the woman he loved. She couldn’t hide how much she didn’t want Reine there.

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