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The Hunted

The Hunted

When two prisoners escape and one is found dead, Marcus O’Connell finds himself being hunted—and the hunter could be someone he trusts.

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Chapter 1

The sound of crickets punctuated the quiet neighborhood. Darkness had settled in, but Marcus needed a minute, as he leaned against the large porch beam, before he could lock up for the night and feel that all was okay in his part of the world. He lifted his hand in a wave to his brother Owen and his wife, Tessa, as they drove away in her small compact. Again, he took in the neighbors’ houses. Next door, the lights were off and all seemed quiet.

Ryan and Jenny were already inside their house across the road, and the outside light was now off. Marcus waited for that feeling he got every night before locking up, an assurance that it would be okay for him to lay his head down and go to sleep. He counted heads, making sure everyone was okay, listening to the sounds inside his house, the fussing of Cameron, who was doing his nightly protest against going to sleep.

The screen door squeaked open behind him, and Marcus turned to see his dad step out, wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt. He heard his mom and Reine talking inside. His dad nodded to him and headed over.

“Your mom is finishing up in the kitchen with Reine and Eva,” Raymond said. “That boy of yours is just like you. You always fought your mom and argued every night about how you weren’t tired, but a second later you’d be out cold. You didn’t know how to stop.”

Marcus turned to look back at the street. He was still trying to understand his dad. He leaned against the post on the porch, breathing in the warm summer night. The smell told him tomorrow would be another hot day.

“You were rather quiet tonight,” Raymond said. “Everything okay?”

What was he supposed to say? This feeling had come out of nowhere. He couldn’t remember ever having felt so unsettled, and he didn’t have a clue what had caused it—family, life, something else?

“Just one of those days, you know,” Marcus said, unable to find words to explain it.

His dad only nodded. It wasn’t lost on Marcus that his dad had been forced to stick around Livingston because his mom had refused to leave her children and grandkids. His dad had a way of seeing everything. Marcus had figured that much out, but a stranger wouldn’t have been able to tell, as Raymond never let his gaze linger too long.

Now he did, narrowing his eyes, peering out into the darkness. The stars were out, and a few streetlights were on. “Always the sheriff, looking out to make sure everyone is tucked in, safe,” he said. “Expecting trouble?”

Marcus looked over to his dad. Inside, the house phone was ringing, and a second later, it was answered. “You know something I don’t?” he said. The sarcasm dripped.

His dad only shrugged. Marcus heard footsteps and pushed away from the post just as the screen door squeaked again, and Reine stepped out, her dark hair pulled back, wearing a peach sundress, barefoot.

“Marcus, it’s for you,” she said. “It’s Therese.” She held out the cordless phone.

Marcus didn’t look over to his dad, who he knew was watching him in the way only Raymond O’Connell could. Marcus took the portable phone. “Thanks, Reine,” he said, then waited as she walked back in the house. He put the phone to his ear, glancing only once to his dad, knowing his deputy called only if there was something he needed to handle. “What’s up, Therese?”

“Sorry to call so late, Sheriff, but I have a message from the warden from Montana State. Two prisoners have escaped, and all he said was that they could be headed this way. I was about to call him back…” There was static on the line. His deputy was cutting in and out, as if she were driving.

“Hey, Therese, you’re cutting out. You said two prisoners escaped from Montana State?” He was already walking back into the house and taking the stairs two at a time. Upstairs, Charlotte was reading to his son, whom he thought he heard jumping on his bed. Marcus was in his bedroom now, yanking open the closet door and opening the gun safe to retrieve his .357 SIG.

“Sorry, Sheriff,” Therese said. “I’m about twenty minutes away, and the cell service is like shit out here. Picked up the message on the way. All it said was that two prisoners escaped. The warden is…”

“Kellogg,” Marcus cut in, fastening the holstered gun to the waistband of his jeans. As he closed up the gun safe, he pictured a man he’d met only a few times.

“I missed that part of the message,” Therese said. “I’ll give him a call and let you know what he says.”

Marcus glanced to the open door. His wife now stood in the doorway. “No, Therese, I’ve got it,” he said. “I’ll have Charlotte check the message, and I’ll give the warden a call.”

She said nothing, and he noted her hesitation.

“Anything else?” he said, realizing it had come out rather short.

“No, that was all,” Therese said. “You sure, Sheriff? I don’t mind making the call. It may be nothing.”

“Or it may be a lot,” he said. “No, I’ve got this one.” Then he hung up and held the phone out to Charlotte, taking in her wide eyes.

“What’s going on, Marcus?”

He reached for his badge. “Prison break or something along those lines. Therese just called, said the warden at Montana State left a message. Two prisoners. I need you to get his number and play that message for me.”

She was already nodding and dialing the office. Something about his wife handling phones and dispatching again settled him in ways he couldn’t explain. She scribbled down the number on a pad of paper on the dresser just as his two-year-old son came running in, all smiles, appearing nowhere near ready to go to sleep.

Marcus reached for him and gave him a toss in the air, then held him and kissed his cheek. “Hey, you. Giving your mom a hard time? You’re supposed to be asleep.”

“Not tired.”

“Yeah, well, you will be soon. Go get a book and get in bed.”

“Here, Marcus, the number,” Charlotte said. “The message is kind of garbled, but yes, it’s something about two prisoners escaping.”

He put Cameron down after kissing him again and reached for the paper and the phone, shaking his head over his rambunctious son.

Charlotte shook her head. “He’s going to be the end of me. You know he argues every night about how he isn’t tired?” She pulled her arms over her faded green t-shirt, her dark hair pulled up in a ponytail. “You’re heading out, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, after I call the warden,” he said. “I don’t like this.”

There it was, that smile of hers he loved. She leaned in the doorway, glancing once over her shoulder down the hall to where their son’s bedroom was as he dialed the phone.

“Montana State, warden’s office.” The voice was muffled, and Marcus had to really listen past the rough twang.

“This is Sheriff O’Connell, from Livingston. Is the warden there? I’ve got a message from him about a prison escape.”

He heard a rustle on the other end, then a clunk. Evidently, whoever had answered barely knew how to use a phone. “Yeah, yeah,” the person said, then yelled out, “Warden! Call for you from that Sheriff O’Connell.”

Marcus reached for his wallet and stuffed it in his back pocket, then reached for his duty belt. Charlotte didn’t look away, gesturing for an explanation, but Marcus only shook his head. There was another rustle on the phone.

“Sheriff? Warden Kellogg here.” The man had a deep voice. “Afraid two prisoners escaped. Was discovered only a short time ago by one of the guards. We’re in lockdown now. Just finished a count and are interrogating some prisoners. We know two got out for sure, but how, we have no idea. They likely had help from inside. I suspect they could be headed your way. These men are dangerous, both of them. I’ve already contacted state officials, as well, along with the other sheriffs in the area. An order has already been issued: Shoot to kill.”

Marcus angled his head, looking right at Charlotte. He wasn’t sure he’d heard the warden correctly. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Who authorized that order? With all due respect, Warden, capturing the prisoners is the first priority.”

“Sheriff O’Connell, these prisoners are a danger to the community,” the warden said. “They will slit your throat and kill you without a second thought. If you want to dance around them and be the nice guy, do it on your own time and not at the detriment of the good people of Montana. You see them, you shoot them, because these two will do anything and everything to avoid capture. Killing, maiming, looting, burning. You want the details of what they’d do to your wife and sisters, everyone in your family, everyone you care about? If you want to argue with me about bringing them in alive, you can do it, but I don’t want these two getting anywhere near innocent people. I’ve already reached out to Judge Harris, and photos of the prisoners have been sent to you.”

Marcus didn’t have a clue who these two prisoners were or what they’d done, but that sick feeling was back in his stomach with the image of the horror the warden had painted. Damn, what kind of evil had the two men done?

On the other end, the warden was talking to someone else. Then he addressed Marcus again. “Anything else, Sheriff? If not, I suggest you get your ass out there and start looking. Stan has faxed over the photos, and emails have gone out statewide.”

Something about Warden Kellogg had always unsettled Marcus, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. “Yeah, you said they could be headed my way. Why is that? They have family, friends, contacts here? I need all that information.”

“Everything about both prisoners has been sent to you. One has a girlfriend, I understand, outside Livingston, and a brother up toward Billings. If that’s all, Sheriff, I’ve got a fucking mess to handle here. You have any questions, get in touch with Sheriff Lester up in Park County. He’s got more on them, and he’s been on this since word went out. And, Sheriff O’Connell? A word of advice. I understand you may want to give these men a second chance, but sometimes we’re all better off if a criminal is six feet under. You understand?”

Yeah, he understood, but a knot twisted in his stomach as he looked over to his wife. He wondered if this explained the sick feeling he had or the cold sweat that had broken out up his spine. “Understood,” he said. “I’ll start looking.” Then he hung up and tossed the phone on the bed.

“What is it, Marcus?”

Marcus counted the extra clips in his duty belt, then walked over to his wife and ran his hand over her shoulder. “Warden says the prisoners had help from the inside to get out. Says they’re dangerous. Photos have been faxed and emailed. Can you access those? I’m going to ask Mom and Dad to stay until I get back,” he said. It was just a feeling he had, the need to keep his family together. “See if you can pull up the prisoners’ files, too. Warden said they’ve been sent. I want to know everything about them: who they are, what they did, and exactly how dangerous they are.”

He hurried down the stairs, and Charlotte was right behind him. Raymond was back in the house, and he could hear his mom, Reine, and Eva in the kitchen. Marcus stepped off the

bottom step, and Charlotte moved around him into the living room, over to the small desk where her laptop was.

“What’s going on?” Raymond said as Marcus reached for his sheriff’s jacket and lifted it from the hook.

“Marcus, I just sent the photos and files to your phone,” Charlotte called out.

Marcus pulled his iPhone from his coat pocket and turned to his dad. “Can you and Mom stay?”

Raymond didn’t seem surprised. He only nodded and said, “Yeah, of course. You worried about something?”

Marcus pulled out the keys to his cruiser. “Two prisoners have escaped and could be headed this way. Warden says they’re dangerous, so much so that he wants us to shoot first and ask questions later, so I don’t want to leave Charlotte, Reine, and the kids alone.”

He knew his dad understood. “Yeah, you got it,” he said. “You be careful.”

Marcus thumbed through his phone and pulled up the photos his wife had sent. One was dark skinned, the other lighter, both with dark hair and brown eyes, the same bugged-out mugshot expressions. Their names were Rafe Jackson and Holter Donnelly. “Charlotte, send these to Harold and Ryan, too,” he called out over his shoulder as he opened the door, and his dad was right behind him, holding the inside screen. “Charlotte has the photos,” Marcus told him. “Take a good look.”

Raymond nodded. “I’ll call Ryan and Owen,” he said.

Marcus lingered just outside. He didn’t know what to say to his dad. Out of anyone, he knew Raymond had a handle on this. “Thanks,” he finally said, then started down the steps. He heard the door close behind him and the lock flick closed.

He dialed his cell phone, walking straight for his cruiser and climbing in. As he tossed his duty belt and coat on the passenger seat, the phone rang once, twice…

“Okay, what did you forget?” Suzanne answered. He thought he heard Arnie fussing in the background.

“Put Harold on,” he said, shoving his cell phone in the mount on the dash. He started the car.

“No can do,” Suzanne said. “He’s in the shower. What is it?”

There she went, playing interference. He knew she was still pissed at him because he wouldn’t let her play cop in his county.

“You tell Harold to get the hell out of the shower and call me back,” he said. “There was a prison break. This is serious shit, Suzanne. Charlotte just sent him the photos and files. I need him to dig into it and then meet me at the office. I’m not messing around. Have him call me. Can you do that?”

She was quiet for a second. “Don’t take my head off, Marcus. Yeah, I’ll tell him. Hey, big brother?” She always seemed to need to have the last word.

“What?” he said as he backed the cruiser out, ready to get off the phone. He flicked on the headlights and gave the vehicle gas, looking out into the darkness, knowing he’d be taking a second and third look at anyone he saw that night, scrutinizing who they were and what they were doing.

“Watch your back,” she said.

He felt a smile tug at the corners of his lips. “Always do,” he said. “Now have Harold call me.”

Marcus ended the call before his sister could add one more thing. As he rounded the corner, feeling his own angst, he drove slower than usual and took a good, long look at the few pickups parked along the street, scanning for anyone out walking. There was only a couple with a dog.

This was going to be a really long night.

Chapter 2

Marcus stood outside the station in the dark, looking right and then left, tracking the headlights of a car as it went by. He heard the distant laughter of a few teens skateboarding just up the block. He was getting a sense for who was out, doing what, and where.

He pulled out his key and shoved it in the lock, then pulled open the door. The hallway was dark, but he didn’t flick on the lights as he strode down it, his footsteps echoing. The lights were on inside the county sheriff’s office, and he thought he heard voices.

When he opened the inner door, Therese was there, her dark hair pulled back, wearing blue jeans and a gray t-shirt. Colby, the junior deputy, was there too, which Marcus hadn’t expected. He wasn’t in uniform but instead wore a jean jacket over what he thought was a red t-shirt with a Confederate flag. Both were standing by Charlotte’s desk and the fax machine, holding papers.

“Sheriff, the photos and files of the two prisoners came in,” Therese said. She held one for Rafe Jackson, the same one he’d already seen. “Colby just got off the phone with Sheriff Lester, who has all his men out looking.”

Marcus dragged his gaze over to a quiet Colby. “And?” he said, taking in the young deputy’s round face and eyes that were more brown than blue. Colby was lanky and tall, but Marcus still had a few inches on him. He hated this twenty-questions shit, and for a second, he didn’t think Colby was going to divulge anything.

“He said not to worry about coming out,” Colby said. “He has his men doing a grid search with the dogs, and he told me to pass along that you can stay close to home. They’ve got this.”

Marcus just stared at Colby, then dragged his gaze to Therese. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there had been a lot of discussion before he walked through the door.

The door opened behind him, and he expected Harold but glanced over his shoulder to see Suzanne, wearing the same blue jeans and bulky blue shirt under a faded old jean jacket, her long brown hair hiked high in a ponytail. She closed the door behind her.

“Where is Harold?” Marcus said. “Please tell me you’re not bringing the baby, too.”

Suzanne made a face only she could. “I’ll have you know Arnie is at home, fast asleep, and so is my husband. I left him a note.”

For a moment, he just stared at his sister, wanting to snap. She’d always been the hardest one to read. “Suzanne, this isn’t the time for you to pull this crap. You understand there’s been a prison escape? Call Harold. You go home.” He knew it had come out rather sharply, but he just turned back to Therese and Colby, who were watching the siblings with wariness. His frustration ramped up as he gestured at Colby. “And what were you about to tell me, Colby? You don’t get to talk to another sheriff as if you’re running things here. Sheriff Lester has no jurisdiction to tell you to pass along a message like that, as if I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head.”

“No, Sheriff, sorry, that wasn’t what I meant,” Colby said. “Or rather, it wasn’t what Sheriff Lester meant. I’m sure he was just trying to be helpful, is all.”

Now, why didn’t Marcus believe that? “So that’s it? That was all he said to you? You call him, or did he call here? Because I’m pretty sure my cell phone didn’t ring.”

Therese was now looking at Colby, and Marcus was starting to sense something else was going on.

Colby looked down to Charlotte’s desk and the papers there. “I was here first, and there was a message from the sheriff. I called him, thinking I could get a head start on things before you got here, is all. He told me they’re already on it and there’s no need for you, that they

have all the manpower they need. That’s all, Sheriff. He was neck deep, and I could hear the dogs in the background. We didn’t talk long.”

Marcus glanced back to his sister, who had her arms crossed, watching Colby. She shot Marcus a significant look, and he heard himself let out a weary groan under his breath. He pulled out his cell phone. “I spoke with the warden,” he said, “and he figures there’s a girlfriend here in Livingston and a brother outside Billings. See what you can find out.” He flicked his gaze to Therese, then over to Colby. “Both of you, start digging. What came through on these two?” He took in the message from his wife, a PDF, and tapped it open to see the mugshots of Jackson and Donnelly again, along with their arrest dates, prison records, and next of kin.

“We have a list of misdemeanors for both, nuisance charges, as well as trouble in prison,” Therese said, holding out a paper with the same notes that had been on his phone. “Career criminals, by the looks of it. Verbal threats, assault involving a police officer, criminal mischief, unpaid fines…”

Marcus reached for the paper, because Therese had to be missing something, but it was truly just a bunch of petty misdemeanor charges. A pain in the ass, for sure, but not dangerous. The public defender had been the same for both of them, George Wallace, someone he’d never heard of.

“Therese, call the warden back and find out where the rest of the file is,” Marcus said. “And call this public defender, Wallace, and find out from him what I’m missing about his clients. We were given an urgent warning, shoot to kill, which is not something I take lightly, and what I’m looking at here doesn’t warrant that. I want to know what they haven’t told me about how dangerous these two men are. I have a town full of people who have no clue about these prisoners on the loose. If anything, I need an alert put out to everyone in town to be on the lookout. You both got it?”

“Yes, Sheriff, absolutely,” Therese said, already on her way to her desk. Colby was still holding some papers, which Marcus snatched from his hands, but they were just a duplicate of the misdemeanor charges, as if someone had just kept faxing the first page.

“Colby, you tell me everything that was said between you and Sheriff Lester?” Marcus said.

Colby looked up at him with wide eyes. “He was just rushed, impatient, is all. Sheriff, he said not to worry, that he’s got it.”

Marcus glanced back to his sister, who only shrugged and widened her eyes. She thought she was being coy, but he knew her better. He dragged his gaze back to Colby. “Yeah, well, I doubt that. He’s got nothing in my part of the county. Go and give Therese a hand.” He turned to his sister. “You, come with me.”

Marcus headed for his office, hearing Therese on the phone already, wishing Harold were there. He waited as his sister walked into his office behind him, and he flicked on the light and closed the door behind her, holding the knob, taking a second. He walked over to his desk and dumped the papers on it.

“I know what you’re going to say, Marcus.”

“Oh, I highly doubt that,” he said. Everything in his sister’s face, her passion, her life, reminded him so much of the little girl who had tried to tag along on whatever he and Ryan had been up to as kids. They’d spent so much time ditching her, and it seemed she was still trying to find a way to sneak in, only now they were grown-ups, and she wasn’t scared of anything.

“You don’t have to be so nasty,” she said. “Besides, you’ve got Therese and Colby out there, making calls for you. You really should get notice out to the public. You don’t have to give details of what they’ve done, but you need their photos out there so people in the surrounding area know to be on the lookout and not open their doors for a stranger. We don’t

want someone to take the trash out and find one of these two hiding in their yard. People need to know to lock their doors tonight, Marcus, and maybe keep that shotgun in easy reach.”

He just stared at his sister, knowing she was right, but it was only because she was messing with him and interfering in his business, police business, that he wasn’t already all over it.

“Don’t worry, Marcus,” she said. “I can handle this for you, and then I promise you I’ll call Harold.”

He just stared at her. The phone was ringing from Charlotte’s desk, and he heard Colby answer it. “Fine,” he said. “Handle it. Get the notice out to local TV stations and cell phones, and then you call your husband and go home.”

Whomever Colby was talking to, he was now writing something down. “Yes, I’ll let the sheriff know,” he said. “He’ll be right out there.” Then he hung up. Marcus had just stepped back around his desk when Colby lifted the notepad and called out to him, “Sheriff, they found them! One’s dead, just past Miller’s Field. They need you out there to sign off. I can tag along.”

Marcus stared at Colby with a sinking feeling. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a long night after all. “No, it’s fine,” he said. “You go on home. I’ve got this.” Then he looked back to his sister, who was giving him that wide-eyed look. He shook his head and said, “You may as well come with me.”

There it was, a smile. For a second, he wondered whether she’d do a victory dance.

“Don’t get too excited,” he said. “Just making sure you don’t turn this office upside down.”

“Now, don’t be nasty, Marcus,” Suzanne said, thumping his chest with her fist as she walked past him and pulled open the door.

Marcus glanced back over to Therese, who was now off the phone. “You too, Therese, head on home. I’ll call you if there’s anything else,” he said.

Then he was out the door behind his sister, letting out a heavy sigh as he took in the paper he held. He knew well the location, a secluded spot in his county. His sister should have been home with her baby, yet there she was, sticking her nose in his crime scene.

“Well, are you coming, Marcus?” Suzanne called from the door and gestured impatiently.

“After this, you go home,” he told her. “Better yet, I’ll drop you off.”

She only angled her head, then gave it a shake and fell in beside him as they walked out to his cruiser. Harold’s Kia was parked right beside him.

“You didn’t tell Harold, did you?” he said, though it wasn’t a question.

Her hand was on the passenger door. Her mouth tightened, and she shrugged. “He really did fall asleep. I left him a note.”

He shut his eyes as Suzanne open the passenger door and climbed in. Yeah, he was going to have to have a word with his deputy about dealing with his sister. He slid behind the wheel and started the car. “When we get out there, Suzanne, I want you to stay out of the way.”

“Whatever you say, Marcus,” was all she said, and he knew she didn’t mean it. Damn, at times, he really did have a ton of sympathy for Harold.

Chapter 3

“Is that it?” Suzanne said. “Holy shit, Marcus, it looks like everyone’s here. What did Colby say happened, again?”

Marcus parked behind a sheriff’s cruiser from Park County and took in how many vehicles were on the scene just off the dirt road, surrounded in bushes and trees—another sheriff’s cruiser, a few pickups, and a van with Montana Corrections on the side. What had to be the crime scene was flooded with light. He shoved the vehicle in park, feeling his anger spike, because he wondered how many of them had missed the fact that they were now treading in his territory. Suzanne was staring out the window, glued to the scene. Yeah, he really wished she weren’t there.

“All he said was that it’s a crime scene,” he said. “I didn’t expect this. Like, what the hell? This is clearly on my side of the county line.” He stepped out of his cruiser and could just make out a sheriff’s deputy walking his way. It was a face he’d never forget. “Lonnie,” he bit out, still pissed that Sheriff Lester over in Park County had hired the deputy without so much as a damn courtesy call. Lonnie had been a source of misery for Marcus, considering how far the man had gone in trying to destroy his family.

“Marcus, we’ve got this all handled here,” Lonnie called out, actually raising his hands and waving as if Marcus were some bystander, as if he had any hope in hell of stopping him. Lonnie seemed to puff out his chest as he came to stand in front of him, sporting a mustache now. He settled his hand on his duty belt, another reminder of his arrogance. Then he held an arm out to stop Marcus from walking past him. “Whoa, stop right there.”

“You seem to forget yourself, Lonnie,” Marcus said. “This is my county you’re in. You ain’t handling nothing in my county. Now move the hell out of my way. You’re out of your jurisdiction with no authority. You hear me?” Marcus leaned in, biting the last part out.

He took a step and realized Suzanne was right there beside him. Of course, she hadn’t stayed in the car. Lonnie dragged his gaze over to her, lingering a little too long.

“Hey, Lonnie,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

Marcus didn’t look away. He couldn’t believe how calm Suzanne sounded.

“You keeping well, Suzanne?” Lonnie said.

Marcus gave his head a shake. “Fuck,” he bit out, then stepped around Lonnie, bumping him, and glanced back at his sister. “Let’s go,” he said, knowing he sounded pissed off.

He kept walking, and Suzanne fell in beside him. He couldn’t help glancing back to Lonnie, who was actually looking into his cruiser. “Fucking asshole! I swear, he puts one print on my cruiser and I’ll take him down.”

“Seriously, Marcus, let it go,” Suzanne said. “He was just flexing his non-existent muscles, making up for the fact that he was castrated as a kid and has nothing for balls—not real ones, anyway. You think I haven’t had to put up with those asshole moves? Just let it go.”

He couldn’t believe his sister sometimes. She kept up with him, her long legs matching his stride, hearing the crunch of debris, sticks, and leaves under his feet. It was still warm out. The trail was wide, and he passed another pickup, a four by four with the Park County sheriff’s logo. At another vehicle, a man had the back gate down and was loading three dogs in, two of them barking.

“Romi, who called you out?” Marcus said.

The dog handler was a big man whose dark hair had a natural messy wave. His beard was braided, his glasses were thick, and his belly was hanging over his belt. “Sheriff Lester over in Park County called me,” Romi said. “Got a call from the prison, too. Been a while since I had the dogs out, chasing someone down. Sheriff’s over there. He asked me to hold tight and

pick up the trail again for the other guy. The dogs need a break and some water, anyway. I told them if they keep tromping all over the scene, it makes it hard for the dogs to pick up the scent. It’s been a long night so far, and it’s about to get longer, I suppose.”

Marcus took in the dogs in the back of the pickup. Two were now drinking water from an old tin bucket, and one was lying down. Under the floodlights just ahead, he spotted Lester with a bunch of other cops he didn’t recognize. “Hold that thought,” Marcus said, “and don’t do anything until I give the word. This is my county, and any order to do anything comes from me first. Let me get up to speed here. One is caught, you said?”

“One is dead.” Romi gestured with his thumb, and even though it was dark, Marcus didn’t miss the disgust all over his face, though for what, exactly, he didn’t know.

“Don’t go far,” Marcus tossed out over his shoulder as he started walking to the lit-up scene. His sister had again fallen in beside him.

“How friendly are you and this sheriff?” she said.

“He’s tolerable, barely, considering he went behind my back in hiring Lonnie. Haven’t had to deal with him too much. He stays in his county, and I stay in mine. Now this…” He gestured to the scene and the six people he counted ahead.

“Marcus,” Suzanne said quietly, gesturing to Sheriff Lester, who was now walking his way, sweat stains on his brown uniform shirt and a sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest. He was balding, heavyset, and gestured to someone behind him who had called out.

Sheriff Lester took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The other man, the one who had called out, was in a ball cap and blue jeans, no one he’d ever seen before, another person in his county who should have been talking to him first. He was now walking the other way, though where to, Marcus had no idea.

“Well, Sheriff, sorry to drag you all the way out here and waste your time,” Lester said. “We caught one of the bastards—or found him, really. Not much for you to do here. We kind of got this all handled. Body bag will be here in a minute. We’ll toss the poor bugger in it, and the prison can deal with the remains.”

Marcus stopped and looked past the sheriff, who was a few inches shorter than him. In a circle of trees, a man lay face down, arms at his sides. One of Lester’s deputies was kneeling down over the body, and floodlights lit up everything. “I heard he’s dead,” Marcus said. “Just one, so the other is still on the loose?”

“Yup, afraid so,” Lester said. “That one’s Donnelly. Poor miserable soul, evidently not the smarter of the two.” He actually tsked under his breath, then looked at Suzanne but said nothing, and his silence only put Marcus further on edge.

Three other men stood by the body in uniforms, so he stepped around the older sheriff, but his hand slapped right to his arm, stopping him. Marcus let his gaze fall there, and the sheriff pulled it away.

“Again, Marcus, we’ve got this handled. You just need to sign off and we’ll finish up here. The guards will get the body hauled out, and everyone can go on home.”

“You don’t mind if I have a look, do you?” Marcus said. “After all, this crime scene is in my county. As you said, you need me to sign off. Seems you’re working pretty hard to send me on my way, which has me wondering why. And a word of advice? Don’t put your hands on me again.”

His pissed-off voice had held a clear warning, and the sheriff lifted his hands and made a face, taking a step back. Marcus glanced over to his sister again, who, he realized by her widened eyes, had evidently picked up on the fact that something was wrong. She joined him in stepping around Lester.

“Now, don’t go getting all hot and bothered there, Marcus,” Lester said, turning to follow them. “We’ve already

on home, crawl back in bed with that pretty little wife of yours, and have a good night’s sleep.”

Suzanne slapped her hand right to Marcus’s chest before he could say anything. The old sheriff had fallen in beside her. Evidently, she knew Lester was really stepping into it with Marcus.

Marcus realized three of the uniformed men ahead were prison guards, likely from the state prison, men who worked for Kellogg, one taller than the other two. They only nodded once to him, but no one said anything, and everyone had a look that put him on edge just a little more.

Marcus took in the four spotlights lighting up the scene. The man was facedown, unmoving. There was blood on his back, and instead of an orange jumpsuit, he wore dirty brown prison garb, pants and a short-sleeved shirt. His dark hair was messy, short. Marcus didn’t have a clue what had happened.

“So is someone going to fill me in?” he said. “I take it this is one of the escaped convicts. Bullet in the back, lying facedown, dead. Who did this? A man shot in the back poses a problem.”

The prison guards said nothing but exchanged the kind of look that had the hair on the back of Marcus’s neck standing up. A deputy who had been leaning over the body walked over to him. He was of medium height and build, wearing a Park County uniform, and had short dark hair.

“Jim Carlyle, Sheriff,” he said, pulling off his rubber gloves to hold his hand out to Marcus in the first show of respect he’d received since arriving at the scene. Marcus hesitated only a second before shaking his hand.

“So what happened here?” Marcus gestured to the body, waiting for someone to start talking. He glanced behind him to the three men from the prison, standing together. What was it about having his back to them that really unsettled him?

“He was hiding,” Sheriff Lester said, stepping in. “Came out of the bushes and took a swing at Peters over there. Lonnie shot him before he could do anything else. Dead by the time he hit the ground. Good thing Lonnie was there, or Peters could’ve been the one lying dead. Dangerous motherfuckers. Look, we chased him for miles on foot. He was a danger to the community, and the community is better off and far safer. He’d have raped, murdered, and done worse to any woman and child out there. This is better for everyone.”

Marcus could just make out Lonnie standing over by his cruiser. He spotted emergency lights pulling up, likely for the body. He turned back and looked at the ground, the debris, leaves, twigs. His sister was staring at the body, and her blue eyes flickered with something he was familiar with. She had the same questions he did, maybe. At least she was staying quiet, or maybe she realized he wasn’t in the mood to handle her, as well. It seemed Lester was speaking for everyone there.

Marcus stepped around Deputy Carlyle and angled his head as he took in the body again.

“Marcus, I understand your apprehension,” Lester said, “and I’m very aware this is your county, but we’re on the same team here.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much,” Marcus snapped, glancing back over to him. Lester had been sheriff in Park County for as long as Marcus could remember. He wondered which residents kept electing him.

“Now, don’t go getting all territorial,” Lester said. “You’re still new at being a sheriff, so you haven’t learned how things work here. You back us up, Marcus. Don’t go making this into something it’s not, because the folks around here won’t appreciate their sheriff wasting tax dollars and putting resources into a criminal who has already taken so much from so many. He’s dead, caught, and that’s all they care about. They don’t want this dragged out or stirred up, creating a problem. The investigation is done, you hear me?”

He heard the warning in the old sheriff’s voice, but he didn’t miss the awkwardness in Jim Carlyle’s stance, and then there were the guards, who had said nothing at all. He let his gaze linger on Lester. The man was doing his best to tell Marcus how to run his county and shut down questions about what had really happened there.

“Which one of you is Peters?” Marcus said, then waited. The one in the middle nodded. He was round in the middle, a few inches shorter than Marcus, and he realized none of them carried a weapon.

“That’s me,” the man said, then actually stepped forward and lifted his hand in the air. His hair was a lighter shade of brown, with messy waves. The other two guards had dark skin, one lighter than the other, one a few inches taller than the other, but both offered nothing, watching silently.

Lester appeared in his line of sight again, over by the guard, close to losing it on him. Evidently, he had missed the fact that Marcus was the kind of cop who actually did his own homework and allowed no one to tell him how to do his job.

“Well, how about you tell me what happened here?” Marcus said. He rested his hand over his duty belt, not missing the way the deputy glanced over at the sheriff.

“Just like the sheriff said, Donnelly sucker-punched me, knocked me down, and Lonnie took him out before he could take one of us out.”

Marcus let his gaze linger on Peters. He heard approaching voices. One he knew was Lonnie, with the arrogant twang that had always irritated the shit out of him. He glanced over his shoulder to see a man in a jacket, the coroner, walking toward him as well.

Marcus dragged his gaze back to Peters and Sheriff Lester, who was watching the guard closely. Marcus figured the men would do what their sheriff said and go along with everything he told them to do. Again, that off feeling just wouldn’t go away. He looked down at the body. The blood that covered the man’s back and the ground appeared dry.

“So you’re telling me he hit you?”

The guard hesitated, then nodded.

“Knocked you on your ass? And you were running around out here without a gun?”

The guard hesitated, narrowing his gaze. “Look, of course I had a shotgun. It’s secured now, back in the vehicle. Sheriff, this was a long chase, and he wasn’t about to go quietly. These are dangerous men. It could go down only one way.”

Marcus pulled out his phone and opened the camera to take photos of the body, then walked around to the head. The man’s arms were by his sides. Marcus crouched down and then gestured to Deputy Carlyle. “Roll him over,” he said. “You have another pair of gloves?”

Carlyle pulled gloves from his back pocket and held them out to Marcus, who snapped them on. The sheriff was saying something to the guards, all three of them talking in low voices. The deputy leaned down and helped him roll the body over. He was very aware the crime scene was both compromised and clean. The prisoner’s face had bruising, nothing fresh, and blood covered the front of the shirt. He found himself looking for an exit wound, aware that everyone was watching him.

“It looks like someone worked him over pretty good,” he said.

“Prison life is hard,” one of the other guards drawled.

Marcus didn’t bother looking up. “Maybe so,” he said. “You say he came out swinging, hit you? From here, it doesn’t look like you have a mark on you. You look like you have at least thirty pounds on him, give or take, but not a mark or a speck of dirt other than stinking of sweat? You don’t look like a man on the receiving end of a fight. If it went down as you said, the prisoner should have been lying in a pool of his own blood, but the ground is dry, and the way he was lying on the ground, his hands at his sides, it seems as if he didn’t even try to break his fall, almost as if he were placed there…”

“Now, you just wait a minute, Sheriff O’Connell,” Lester snapped, fire in his eyes as he stepped over to Marcus, right in the circle of a crime scene that no one seemed too concerned about keeping clean. Marcus already knew without a doubt that everything had been tampered with, but could he prove it? No. “You accusing us of lying? If I were you, I’d think real long and hard about what you say next. You forget about what a danger this man was? A shoot to kill order was issued, so we took that motherfucker out, and no one is going to question us—not the warden, who ordered it, or Judge Harris, who signed off on it. You and I both know there could be a lot of reasons for the way we found him, including the fact that he was dead before he hit the ground. The blood could have soaked into the soil. And he sucker-punched Peters in a low blow to the groin. You want him to drop his pants so you can inspect him?”

Lonnie still stood with the coroner, and everyone was watching Marcus as if he were the problem. He realized he was the odd man out. He dragged his gaze over to Suzanne and her horrified blue eyes, and he just couldn’t shake the feeling that time was up. She was in way over her head, and he needed her out of there.

“Marcus, the only one who has a problem here is you,” Lonnie said. “This was a dangerous criminal that the world is a safer place without.”

Marcus knew he made a face as he pulled off his gloves, standing up. “You shot a man in the back, Lonnie.”

“Shoot to kill was the order, Marcus, or would you rather it were one of us lying there, dead?”

Lester pulled his hand over his chin and took a step closer to him, dragging his gaze from Lonnie to him. “Lonnie is right, Marcus,” he said. “It was him or one of us, and I can tell you there was no goddamn way one of us was going down. You don’t take chances with criminals who pose a danger to the good people of your county. I’m going to save you before word gets out in Livingston that the sheriff is more interested in protecting dangerous criminals than the people who elected him.

“This is how it’s going to work, son: You’re going to sign off on this, and we’re going to handle all the paperwork, and then this thing is going to get filed away neatly. There’s nothing for you to see here, nothing other than an escaped convict. This is about your ego, is all. I know there’s bad blood between you and Lonnie, but set it aside, Marcus. Shake hands about this and move on.”

Marcus couldn’t believe the old sheriff was seriously treating this like some schoolyard disagreement. He let out a rough laugh and shook his head. “Un-fucking believable,” he said under his breath, then dragged his gaze back to the sheriff and over to the three guards. Lonnie still stood with the coroner, who was holding a folded-up body bag. “Two prisoners, one dead, the other still on the loose.”

His cell phone started ringing, and he saw Harold’s name on the screen. He handed his sister the phone and said only, “It’s your husband.” She took it and stepped away to answer, and Marcus turned back to the sheriff and said, “So that’s it?” He gestured to the body and to Deputy Carlyle, who was standing off to the side.

“As soon as you let it be and stop holding everyone up here,” Lester said. “Oh, and, Sheriff? No need for you to join in the hunt for the other prisoner. Romi has his dogs ready, and we’ll track him in no time. He couldn’t have gone far. We’ll find him.”

Calm, cool. The way the sheriff let his gaze linger on Marcus, he knew he was done there. He tossed his gloves to Carlyle, who caught them one-handed, and then he took one step and then another over to the sheriff standing in front of him.

Marcus jabbed his finger at Lester’s chest. “You come into my county again and pull this bullshit, you and I are going to have more than a problem, and you do not want that,” he said.

Then he glared at Lonnie, who stared at him with an arrogance Marcus wanted to wipe off his face.

He glanced over to Suzanne as she hung up, her back to him. The tension lingered, but he figured Harold had spoken his piece and then some. Marcus headed over to her and took his phone back.

“Let’s go,” was all he said as he started walking, and Suzanne fell in beside him again, glancing back only once. “Everything okay?”

“Sure, other than the fact that Harold is likely ready to file for divorce,” she said. “He demanded I get my ass home. Oh, and he asked me if I’ve lost my mind, considering Colby just called and filled him in, and that was when he saw my note.”

Marcus glanced down at his sister. “Harold isn’t going to divorce you. Don’t be so damn dramatic.”

She shrugged and nudged him. “No, he’ll get over it. You’re right, he loves me. But thanks for letting me tag along,” she said, her voice light.

He glanced down at his little sister, who, at times, knew how to push every one of his buttons, and grunted, “Don’t let this go to your head, but thanks for the extra set of eyes out there.”

And for just being there to watch his back, he thought, but he wasn’t about to tell her that last part.

Suzanne wrapped her arms around him, hugging him, and Marcus stumbled a bit. “Yay! Does that mean I can join the department?” She pulled back and tapped his arm with her fisted hand. He always knew when she was excited. Deep down, she was still a tomboy.

“Hell, no. I just have a feeling that if I’d shown up alone, this could have ended differently.”

Suzanne glanced back, unsmiling. They kept walking past Romi, who was leaning over the back of his pickup, running his hand over one of the dogs, talking on his cell phone. He only lifted his hand in a wave to Marcus as he walked past.

“Yeah, about that,” Suzanne said. “So who do you think moved the body, staged the scene?”

He shook his head, glancing again to his sister as they reached his cruiser. She walked around to the passenger side, and as Marcus climbed in and closed his door, she reached for her seatbelt. He pulled his keys from his pocket, shoved them in the ignition, and started it, considering everything that had happened, the scene, the night, and everyone who had been there.

He let out a sigh as he dragged his gaze to his sister. “Good question,” he said. “My guess? All of them.”

Chapter 4

As Marcus drove outside Livingston on a highway that went for miles, bordered by forests, mountains, privacy, and lots of places to hide, his mounted cell phone was ringing again, Harold’s name on the screen. It was dark in the car, but he knew Suzanne saw it. He pressed the green answer icon.

“You know where we are right now?” was all Marcus said when he answered, hearing the baby crying in the background.

“Yeah, well, not much I can do, where I am. You’re bringing Suzanne back? Can’t even pack Arnie up because she took my car.”

Marcus winced at the way Harold had snapped. Yeah, he was pissed, and could he blame him? Marcus kept on the road, his brights on the empty highway. His sister was quiet as he looked over at her, shaking his head again.

“Call my mom,” Marcus said. They were getting closer to Livingston. “She can send Jake over to pick up Arnie. Your car’s at the station. Just left the crime scene, where Donnelly’s body is. Goddamn Lonnie was there, put a bullet in his back. The way the body was laid out neatly, someone put it there. He was shot somewhere else. Makes no sense, considering the order was shoot to kill. Still don’t know why, and you know me; I don’t like puzzles where there are no answers. No one seemed too willing to come clean on what really happened. I smell a ton of bullshit, and the hunt is still on for the other prisoner, Rafe Jackson. If it’s all the same, I’d like to find him first.”

“Forget your mom,” Harold said. “I already called Owen. He and Tessa are on their way over and will watch Arnie. Suzanne, you listening? You can’t keep pulling this shit. A fucking note. You left a note about an active manhunt.”

Marcus turned to his sister again. They had reached a point where this wasn’t just between her and Harold anymore. “You two can hash that out later,” he said. “You spoke to Colby? He filled you in on what the prison sent over on those two? Because I remember the warden saying something about a girlfriend in the area and a brother up by Billings, but I didn’t get the details on them. Can you get me her address? And which one’s girlfriend is she? Also, I told Therese to call the warden back and get me the rest of the file, because what they sent was nothing. They based a shoot to kill on a bunch of threats and misdemeanors. I’m missing something, and I don’t like these kinds of holes.”

“Look, I talked to Colby,” Harold said. “He said Therese put in a call to the warden but didn’t talk to him. Had to leave a message. He didn’t tell me you were missing information. I guess if someone had actually woken me, I could have been at the station, handling this already, and we wouldn’t be two steps behind.” Harold paused. “Owen and Tessa are here.”

Marcus heard voices. Evidently, Harold was answering the door. The baby was still fussing. Suzanne said nothing, and when he glanced her way again, she stared straight ahead. Yeah, she was tough to crack.

“Well,” Marcus said when Harold had come back on the line, “get your ass to the station and dig up everything on those two, but get me the girlfriend’s address first and information on any other next of kin for Rafe Jackson. Everything on Donnelly, too.”

Headlights were coming his way. Marcus flicked his brights as the car passed. His phone beeped, another call on the line.

“Harold, someone is calling,” he said. “Just let me know when you’re at the station.” He hung up before his deputy could say anything else and answered the other call. “Marcus O’Connell.”

“Sheriff, I just got off the phone with the public defender, George Wallace.” It was Therese. “He couldn’t recall the names. Said he’d have to pull the files and he’d call me in the morning.”

“You tell him to get his goddamn ass out of bed and dig out those files now, not in the morning,” Marcus said. “Does he have no fucking idea what the hell has happened? Two of his clients broke out of prison, there is a shoot to kill order, and one is dead.” Damn, he was so done with no one giving him the answers he needed.

“Which, if you would have let me finish, was exactly what I told him,” Therese said. “And I told him to call me right back.” She sounded rather calm in response, considering he’d just taken her head off.

“Colby still there?” he said.

“Uh-huh. Told him to start digging around in the Corrections database.”

Okay, so she’d been thinking.

“Oh,” she said. “It’s the public defender calling back.”

He heard a phone ringing. “You know what, Therese? Put him through to me, and keep digging. And, by the way, Harold’s on his way in.” He glanced over to Suzanne in the darkened cruiser and realized she was looking right at him, shaking her head.

“Sure, I’ll put him through,” Therese said. Then she hung up, and Marcus glanced again at his sister.

“You know, Suzanne, stepping between you and Harold is not what I’m interested in doing, but you can’t pull this. He’s right. I depend on him. He’s one of the best investigators out there, and he finds things I wouldn’t think to have him look for. He’s that good.”

His cell phone started ringing again, and Suzanne said nothing. She was getting hammered from all sides. He pressed the green answer icon.

“This is Sheriff O’Connell.”

“Sheriff, this is George Wallace, public defender. One of your deputies called about two prisoners I represented, a Rafe…” He was flipping through papers. His voice was a little too soft, too abrupt.

“Rafe Jackson and Holter Donnelly,” Marcus said. “Donnelly is dead, by the way. Just left the scene. Jackson is still on the loose, so I need you to tell me why there’s a shoot to kill order on them both, considering the only thing I received from the warden was a history of verbal threats, assault involving a police officer…” He could see the edge of Livingston and its lights.

More papers were flipping. “Oh, here it is,” Wallace said. “Well, this doesn’t make sense. You said who was dead?”

Damn, a confused public defender.

“Holter Donnelly,” Suzanne said, jumping in. “Gunshot to the back. Was he a danger to the community?” Then, maybe because the public defender didn’t know who was talking, she added, “This is Suzanne O’Connell.”

Marcus wanted her to just stop, already.

“Okay, yeah,” Wallace said. “I remember these two now, but I hope you know I can’t share anything with you. Client confidentiality…”

“I’m not asking you to breach confidentiality,” Marcus said. “What I’m asking for are the charges. Explain to me what this is. Were they a danger?”

He heard a heavy sigh in the background, then papers shuffling. “All I can say, Sheriff, is that they were charged with misdemeanors that never should have landed them where they are. But I’m just a public defender. You have any idea how thick my case load is? I usually meet my clients for the first time when they’re dragged into the court room, shackled, and the only thing I have time for are quick questions about how they want to plead and whether the charges have merit, and then the judge is there.

“Dangerous? I don’t know where that came from. All I can tell you is that one of them was a street preacher, the other a veteran. Both, I think, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that altercation with a cop, the cop said they were the aggressors. I wish I could tell you more, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know anything about them. I had basically five minutes with each of them.

“Oh, here it is. Rafe Jackson was given five years and was up for parole soon. Holter was given a ridiculous sentence of eight years, plus three years’ probation over some bullshit. Excuse the French. But he was angry. I understand lack of sleep in jail does that, but he didn’t keep his cool in front of the judge, which landed him on his wrong side. The first thing I tell everyone is respect first, because the judge doesn’t give a shit about their problems, threats from other inmates, that they can’t get a shower, take a shit, or sleep, or that there’s some guy inside named Sue who won’t leave them be.” The lawyer sighed again.

Marcus glanced over to see how intently Suzanne was staring at the cell phone. “So why the shoot to kill order?” he finally asked.

“Honestly, Sheriff?”

“Please. Would be appreciated.”

“How often do you hear of prisoners escaping?”

Marcus shook his head. “Rarely, if ever.”

“My guess is you’re dealing with ego,” Wallace said. “A pissed-off warden of a state prison is not someone you want to be on the wrong side of. Can you imagine what would happen to the prisoners if caught alive? Their fates would be worse at the hands of the warden, who basically owns them, and there’s no one they can call for help. If that warden wants to, he can make sure a prisoner disappears, never sees the light of day, and everyone knows it, those inside, anyway. My opinion, Sheriff? The shoot to kill may have been a mercy.”

Suzanne hissed, and Marcus glanced over to her before saying, “You know anything about a girlfriend or family of either of these two? The warden mentioned something about one of them having a brother up towards Billings and a girlfriend around Livingston.”

The man grunted. “Here it is. Tracy Mitchell, girlfriend of Rafe. It just says Livingston. I don’t have an address or phone number. You said one of them has a brother? I have nothing here. The only reason I know about the girlfriend is that she’s left me a lot of messages, hounding me to file an appeal.”

Marcus shook his head. His sister had pulled out her cell phone and was typing something in, then held the screen up toward him.

“Marcus, an address right here for Tracy,” she said.

He only nodded. “Okay, thanks, George. If you hear from Rafe or think of anything else, you call me.”

“Goodnight, Sheriff,” was all the lawyer said.

Marcus hit the end call icon and turned to his sister. “How far is she from here?”

Suzanne tapped her phone, then gestured to the road ahead. “Not far. So does this mean you’re not taking me home?”

He pulled in a breath, knowing his sister wanted him to say the one thing he wasn’t about to. “Nope, but you’ll have to stay in the car this time. Now give me the address and don’t let this go to your head.”

He turned left on a secondary road just outside of town, still rural, with houses on lots that were an acre or two in size. A lot of places to hide. There was that feeling again. Just how far behind were Sheriff Lester and his men or Kellogg’s guards?

“I’m letting nothing go to my head,” Suzanne said. “I know my limitations very well, but at the same time, Marcus, I know how to look up an address, I know what a crime scene looks like, and I know when someone shouldn’t be someplace. Oh, Tracy Mitchell’s place is

right here.” She gestured to a dirt driveway with a small doublewide and an old pickup parked out front.

Marcus pulled in behind it and parked, then turned to his sister, who had unfastened her seatbelt and already had her hand on the door. “Suzanne, I mean it. This time, I need you to stay here in the car.”

She looked over to him in that way of hers, and for a moment, he thought she’d argue. He took in the double wide. The outside light was off, and the house was dark. In bed? Likely, considering it was well past midnight.

“If you want me to stay here, I will,” Suzanne said. “But, Marcus, you’re alone. There’s still the matter of this prisoner on the loose, and the warden wants him dead. If he’s here, you think he’s going to come easy? The least I can do is watch your back.”

Damn, why did she have to be so reasonable? He knew he needed to say no. He gave his door a yank. “You stay behind me and out of the way,” he said.

Then he stepped out of the vehicle, and so did Suzanne. He closed his door quietly, and she did the same. As he walked around the front of the vehicle, she fell in beside him. She gestured to the door, up some narrow rickety steps, and he nodded.

He pulled the screen door open and gave a solid knock on the wooden door behind it. “Sheriff’s department!” he called out, then glanced down to his sister, who stood at the bottom of the steps, looking at him and around. He heard footsteps inside, the outside light flicked on, and his hand went right to his holstered gun as he heard the lock click.

“Tracy Mitchell, open up!” he yelled.

The door cracked open a bit. A light was on inside. The woman standing there was short, with a narrow face, messy brown hair, brown eyes, and a dark blue robe. “Can I help you?”

He didn’t think she was that old. Mid-thirties, maybe. “Are you Tracy Mitchell?”

She nodded. “I am. What is this about?”

He looked past her, listening for anything. “There was a prison escape tonight, Rafe Jackson and Holter Donnelly. I understand you know them?”

She pressed her hand to her chest, pulling her robe closed. “I do, but I don’t know anything about them escaping. You must be mistaken.”

Again, he wondered if she was hiding something. “So you haven’t heard from either of them.”

She made a face and shrugged. “No, I haven’t.”

He wondered if she’d tell the truth. “Well, let me put it this way: The warden and the Park County sheriff’s office have a shoot to kill order out on both of them, and law enforcement has been alerted they’re both considered dangerous. I was just at a crime scene where the body of Holter Donnelly was, shot in the back. So, again, I’m going to ask you about Rafe. You see him? And before you answer me, know that I’m trying to save his life, but he’s got to turn himself in, because the law out there are looking for him, and they aren’t going to ask questions. They’re going to shoot first. You understand what I’m saying?”

She said nothing, just swallowed and licked her lips, nervous. She glanced out to his sister at the bottom of the stairs. “I don’t know what I can tell you, Sheriff, but if you’re really trying to help, and I hope you are, then you have to know the truth of the matter. Neither of them should have been in jail. The only thing they did wrong was stand before the wrong judge, and that was after a cop lied about what happened. They’re not dangerous, neither of them.” She sounded pissed.

“Then you won’t mind if we come in and have a look around.”

She was standing right in the doorway, her arms crossed, both scared and pissed. “You have a warrant? Because unless you do, you’re not setting one foot in my house.” She moved to shut the door, but Marcus slapped his hand to it before she could.

“I guess you didn’t hear me,” he said. “Rafe is a wanted man, a criminal, and in the eyes of the law, he’s already been convicted. I don’t need a warrant, so unless you want to find yourself arrested for obstruction or aiding and abetting a fugitive, a felony conviction for which you’d serve a good many years…”

Her eyes flashed with fury as she stepped back, letting go of the door. Marcus pushed it open, and she just stood there, staring at him with an anger he didn’t even know how to reason with.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” she said. “Come on in. But hear me well, Sheriff: I will not be intimidated, pushed around, or threatened. I already said Rafe isn’t here. Just don’t make a mess, and don’t be long. I have an early day tomorrow.” Then she turned her back, walked into the small kitchen, and lifted a kettle and filled it with water.

Marcus stepped into the living room, seeing a large flatscreen, a small green sectional, and piles of papers and books. On one wall, papers and notes were pinned up along with photos of a cop and a judge, as well as a timeline. He found himself looking back to the woman, who was now watching him.

“What’s this?” He gestured to the wall, on which there was also a copy of a police report.

“What does it look like?” Tracy said. “I told you Rafe and Holter didn’t deserve what happened. Their only crime was standing up to a bully for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. But as you said, Sheriff, he’s been convicted. To hell with whether it was right.” She put the kettle on the stove and flicked on the burner.

“I never said that,” Marcus said. “Right now, I’m just trying to prevent Rafe from also ending up on a slab in the morgue. If he’s innocent, I promise you I’ll look into it, but I’ve got to find him first.” He knew he sounded reasonable. He heard the squeak of the floor and turned to see his sister in the doorway.

Tracy shut her eyes for a second. He wondered if this was where she would come clean. She had to know something. Then she flicked her eyes open and gave her head a shake. “As I said, Sheriff, I haven’t heard from him, so if you don’t mind, have your look-see, and then, with all due respect, get the fuck out of my house.”

Chapter 5

Time was ticking. Marcus pulled open the driver’s door of his cruiser, then slid behind the wheel. Suzanne was still just inside the house, talking with Tracy.

He had searched the two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and small laundry room but knew no one was hiding inside. He still figured Tracy knew something, though, and he didn’t have a clue how his sister managed to talk to a woman who’d basically told him to go fuck himself. Tracy was gesturing passionately now, maybe because Suzanne wasn’t wearing a badge, carrying a gun, or representing a system that had incarcerated someone she cared about. Or maybe it was because Suzanne was less of a threat.

“You still there, Marcus?” Harold said. He had called a few seconds ago and was waiting on the line.

“Yeah. Tell me you have something, anything, on Jackson and Donnelly,” Marcus said. “The lawyer said one was a street preacher and the other a veteran. I’m at Tracy Mitchell’s right now, and she’s less than forthcoming. Suzanne is talking to her.”

“My wife, Suzanne?” Harold said rather sharply.

“Yes, your wife, my sister—who, evidently, Tracy likes better than me. She’s fine. Just don’t tell her she was helpful tonight.”

Harold made a rude sound on the other end. “Whatever. We’ll save that discussion for another time. About the two prisoners, they were friends. Rafe Jackson was a retired veteran, served in Afghanistan. He took the BUD/S training but washed out the first week, and apparently, that was it for him in the military. Donnelly was a minister who worked mostly with the homeless, vets, the down and out, anyone on the street. So he knew the streets and who was there, but he had a problem with the local authorities and butted heads with them all the time.

“He’d been issued numerous parking tickets, which I guarantee was because he pissed off the wrong person, or many of them, and they had him in their line of sight. He was fined for trespassing and mischief, but never anything more than a fine, so I’m having a hard time understanding what happened to escalate things to him standing before a judge, arrested. There was a charge of inciting violence, but that disappeared off the books. There were verbal threats to a cop, but not sure what was said. This is the first time I’ve seen just the charge with no explanation of what, why, and how.

“As for assault of a police officer, from what I’ve read, a cop sprayed gas over a homeless guy from his car, and either Jackson or Donnelly threw an umbrella at the cop’s car. A statement was filed by Donnelly about the cop, but I can’t find it anywhere. This was some cop over in Billings. He arrested him, and I’m not sure how all this had them before a judge and sentenced with what they were. As for them being dangerous…”

Harold paused. “Let’s see. They fed the homeless, tried to find shelter for those on the street, and were basically do-gooders who gave a shit and tried to help people no one would help. The shoot to kill order, I can find no reason for that at all. If something happened in the prison, I’ve got nothing here. You said they shot Donnelly? He was the preacher. Wow, something is wrong there. Jackson grew up in a small town, Shelby, over in Toole County, hunting, fishing, tracking. He’d know how to hide and stay hidden. Donnelly had a brother-in-law outside Billings, Jack Cooper, but I’ve got nothing here on a sister. I can send you the address, or do you want me to head out?”

Marcus took in Suzanne, who was gesturing to him from the open doorway. What the hell was she up to now? “I’m still here at Tracy’s,” he said. “Looks like I’m headed back inside to have a word, maybe. Your wife is waving me back. Why don’t you give the brother-in-law a call? I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t already b

or the Yellowstone County sheriff. But yes, call him, and let me know what he says. So no other family, friends? You said Donnelly was a minister. I think he pissed off the wrong person. From his face, someone had worked him over. Not recent. The bruising, from what I saw, was old. See if you can find out anything from inside the prison. Damn, I just have a feeling Tracy knows something. I mean, think about it. If you were in trouble and on the run, wouldn’t you go to Suzanne, or at least call and let her know you were okay?”

Harold grunted. “One, that would never be me. Right now, the best thing for me and Suzanne is for you to talk some sense into her. She’s got a baby. You do know what this is about with her?”

Marcus pulled in a breath and stepped out of the cruiser. He nodded to his sister, who gestured sharply and made a face as if he were taking too long. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’ll talk to her.” He let out a sigh.

“You do that,” Harold said. “I’ll call you and let you know what I come up with.” Then he hung up, and Marcus pocketed his phone, closed his door, and started back to the double wide and up the rickety steps.

“Tracy, tell Marcus what you just told me about Holter,” Suzanne said as Marcus stepped inside.

Tracy was pouring a steaming mug of tea, and she gestured to Suzanne and said, “Cream or sugar?”

Suzanne walked over to the counter and reached for the mug. “No, this is fine. Thanks so much, Tracy. You really have done a lot of work here, your research. How long had Holter been ministering on the streets?”

Marcus knew he was frowning. It was the middle of the night, and his sister had a woman who’d basically told him to fuck off making her tea. He wanted to give his head a shake. Tracy lifted another steaming mug, standing on the other side of the small counter. She dragged her gaze over to Marcus, and he swore daggers appeared again in her eyes.

“Ministering was Holter’s life,” she said. “He’d been doing it for twenty years, started as a kid. Spent time in Panama, in Africa, at a church in Columbia Falls, over in Wyoming, and then in Billings. With everything going on, when the housing market fell and so many lost their homes, he was out there, helping where he could. He said most ministers want to preach to people who can pay. He said a lot have sold their souls and forgotten what it’s really about, helping those who need it, not those who can pay for it.

“In doing so, he had a knack for pissing off the wrong people. He called a spade a spade and challenged anyone who took advantage of the little guy. He was as politically incorrect as they come. He considered himself an activist, saying too many believe freedom is not something you really have to fight for. He believed our freedom was being snatched away every day by politicians and corporations who were all about profit. I think it was six years ago when Rafe got back, left the military, and went through a hard time. It was Holter who pulled him up, said he needed him to watch his back. Holter was a born warrior.

“Rafe turned him down, but when Holter was beat up and dumped in an alley, Rafe was there. Long story. After that, Rafe made sure no one messed with Holter. He watched his back. Said there were cops and business owners who wanted Holter gone and brought him a heap of trouble. Can you imagine, you’re just trying to help those who have nothing, nowhere to go, and then one day you lose it? Let me be clear, Holter had a temper, but if you saw how some of those cops, community leaders, and business owners treated the people he was trying to help, you’d be angry too.

“To be clear, it’s not all cops, but it takes only one or two. The brotherhood protects the ones who kick the shit out of innocent people. There was an elderly woman with a walker on the streets, and one day a cop took her walker and dumped it in a trash bin. Rafe filed a complaint with the county sheriff’s office in Billings. It wasn’t just one thing, either. One cop

took a shopping cart filled with all a man’s belongings. It was endless, the beatdowns, and everyone on the street was scared to point a finger.

“The gaslighting by the media was the worst, he said. He saw a story about a vagrant urinating at the back door of some big store, and it said the resulting confrontation turned ugly. The business owner was on the news, complaining about the homeless in the area, who were defecating all over and had damaged his property, trying to break in, stealing, threatening customers. Except it wasn’t true. The media put a few crisis actors there to say it had happened. Rafe said the shop owner didn’t want the homeless there, so he made up a story, created a lie. The people believed the news, and no one questioned it.”

Marcus glanced over to the clock, feeling the lateness, wondering where this was going. “You know, Tracy, I sympathize, I really do,” he said. “But how is this helping us find Rafe? So he watched Holter’s back, and now he’s on the run. Holter is dead. Someone worked him over in jail, and I’m afraid Rafe is next unless you level with me.”

Suzanne put down her mug. Tracy lifted her chin and glanced away.

“You know where he is, don’t you?” Marcus said.

Outside, an engine started.

Marcus ran to the door and slammed his hand on the screen to open it just as the pickup floored it and backed out. He glanced back to Tracy and saw it written all over her face. “He was here the whole time,” he snapped.

Tracy had put down her tea, fear in her eyes.

Marcus pulled his cuffs from his pouch as he strode to her. “Turn around,” he said, then slapped the cuffs on her and grabbed her arm. Suzanne was looking at him with wide eyes, and he said, “You stay here with her. Call Therese and tell her to get over here and pick her up.”

He ran to the door, and as he yanked it open, he heard Tracy yelling, “You’ll never find him!”

“Marcus, I swear I didn’t know,” Suzanne called out.

He just shook his head, still hearing the squeal of the truck as it reached the road. He sprinted out to his cruiser, started it, and gave it gas, spinning the car around and flooring it down the driveway. He hit all the ruts, following the trail of dust to another road that led farther from town. He drove faster than he ever had, his high-beams just reaching the back end of an old white pickup rounding the bend ahead.


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The Last Stand

The Last Stand

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island town in the Pacific Northwest. On the eve of Police Chief Mark Friessen’s wedding, a fierce snowstorm blankets the island, knocking out power, and the body of a woman is discovered in the church. The only clue is the note in her hand, a list of names—all members of Mark’s family.

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Chapter 1

Mark stared at the weekly report of problems, a revolving door of the same people, those he could do something about and those who just got better at hiding their crimes. He heard the knock on his door just as he took a swallow of coffee, and he turned where he was standing beside his desk.

“Hey, Chief,” said Carmen. “Just got a call from Lisa Jenkins about a man who’s openly threatening her. His hostility is over the top, so much so that she fears for her safety. She said she showed up for a wellness check on his kids and believes he’s hurting them and interfering with her taking them.”

He just stared at Carmen as she shrugged on her heavy coat, wondering whether he was supposed to know who Lisa Jenkins was. Maybe his expression gave him away. He set down the printed three-page report, which had been waiting on his desk when he walked in an hour earlier.

“Taking kids, wellness checks? You lost me. Who is this?” He let out a heavy sigh, feeling the weight of everything. His parents were on their way, his brothers, their families, and Billy-Jo’s family. He still needed to pay the restaurant, pick up his new suit, and make sure he stopped in at the church at some point that day to make sure everything was a go for the wedding. He gave his head a shake, willing himself to get back in the game.

“Lisa…” Carmen said. “You know, the junior social worker brought in to help with the rise in the case load? For your fiancée.”

Right. He thought Billy Jo had mentioned that at the church before their meeting with the minister who would listen as they said “I do” and officially pronounce them mister and missus. Maybe that was why he was feeling a gigantic pressure right in the middle of his chest. Mark reached for his cell phone on his desk but saw no message from Billy Jo.

“Billy Jo didn’t call,” he said. “Is she there too?” He had his phone to his ear already, and it was ringing, but it went right to voicemail.

“Hello, this is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. I can’t take your call right now. Leave me a message and I’ll call you back when I can. If this is an emergency…”

He hung up. Right, she wasn’t going in to work that day because Chase and Rose were flying in, and she was doing all the last-minute stuff involving her dress and something else he couldn’t remember.

He realized Carmen was still standing there. “No answer.” He held his phone up. “I’ll come with you. Have you met this Lisa?” He reached for his keys in his drawer and shoved his phone in his pocket, looking to Carmen as he strode over to the coat tree and reached for his black down winter coat. His gun was holstered on his favorite blue jeans, and his sheriff’s badge was pinned to his shirt.

“Only once,” she said. “She’s young. Don’t think she’s been doing this long. You want to follow me?”

Mark shrugged on his coat. “Yeah. So tell me again who she is and what’s going on. Would have thought this would go through Billy Jo. You said this social worker is taking the kids? She’s supposed to call us first, or have I missed something?”

Carmen had already pulled open the door to the station and was walking out. A blast of cold swept over him as he glanced back to his dog’s empty bed. Billy Jo had Lucky at home. Maybe that was also why he felt so off that day. His routine was being completely screwed up.

“Lacy,” he called out.

“I already know,” the dispatcher replied. “I took the call and patched it through to Carmen.” She was behind her desk, Gail’s old desk, and she gestured to him as she stood up. So damn efficient, but he wondered when he’d stop comparing her to Gail. “You’ll be at the Clarks’. I got it.” She just lifted her hand, and Mark took in Elisha’s empty desk, as well, knowing she was already doing rounds on the island.

“Well, good,” he said. “If Billy Jo calls, tell her to call me.”

He didn’t miss what he thought was the hint of a smile tugging at the older woman’s lips. Her hair was a mix of dark and white, and he was pretty sure she was as tall as Gail.

He stepped out of the office and kept walking down the steps, feeling the icy chill. The salt on the steps crunched under his cowboy boots. Heavy clouds loomed overhead, but he knew it was too cold for rain.

Carmen was already in the sheriff’s cruiser as Mark pulled open the door of his Jeep and started the engine. Carmen backed out, swinging around and flicking on her siren. So they were there, kids in trouble, a desperate situation. Damn, he hated that. He wished Billy Jo had filled him in more on this Lisa.

He followed Carmen as she pulled down a road he was familiar with and took in the houses so close together. Cars pulled over to the side as they flew past another road, more trees and privacy. Carmen pulled up in front of a small older two-story. He could see a man in the doorway, dark skinned, tall, lanky, and a woman on the porch.

Carmen was parked behind a burgundy Hyundai, and Mark stopped in front, turning off his engine, feeling his sidearm. He stepped out of the Jeep, his coat now zipped, and reached for his brown knit hat in his pocket. As he pulled it on, feeling the bite of cold, he strode across the grass, Carmen already two steps ahead of him.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” the young woman said. “This man is preventing me from doing my job. He’s openly harassed me and been verbally abusive…”

“I did no such thing, you lying bitch. You showed up here, coming in my house, disrespecting me,” the man cut in. He wore a long-sleeved faded brown shirt and what looked like sweatpants. He had no coat. Mark figured the woman was Lisa, who had called.

“Okay, so what exactly is going on here?” Mark said, resting his foot on the bottom step.

Lisa was young, early twenties, he thought, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and holding a clipboard close to her chest. He glanced once to Carmen, who appeared right beside him. Mark was very aware of the man’s anger toward Lisa. He stepped up onto the porch, looking down on her, putting himself between them.

“And you are?” he said to the man.

“That’s Nathan Clark,” Lisa cut in behind him, and he didn’t miss the snark in her tone. He glanced back once to her, knowing Nathan was fisting his hands. Just her opening her mouth had provoked him.

He turned back to Nathan, who looked past him with dark eyes locked on to the short social worker. He knew when a man had been pushed too far. “Nathan, I’m Chief Friessen. We got a call about some trouble…”

The man was already shaking his head and had pulled his arms across his chest. He had to be cold. Mark took in the closed screen door and could hear voices inside, a woman and kids, he thought.

“Look, I don’t know what she’s yapping on about, but she showed up here, walking through my house, and yelled at me to get away from her when I did nothing. She was the one

disrespecting me and my wife. She’s going on about us hurting our kids, which is an outright lie…”

“I’m just doing my job,” Lisa said. “You have no right to interfere, and that was exactly what you were doing in there, following me right on my heels and yelling at me, scaring me. This is a state matter, and you are interfering—”

“These are my kids,” Nathan said. “You coming in here, turning your nose up at me and—”

“Hey, hey, enough,” Mark said. “Just cool down, both of you. Nathan, give us a minute.” He turned to the new social worker and wondered why Billy Jo hadn’t called him. “Come with me. I want to talk to you.”

He went down the steps, seeing her legs were bare under her coat. She wore a short dress underneath, he thought, and light brown ankle boots. He gestured to her and then took in Carmen, who said nothing as she stood there. He had only to nod before he heard her say something to the father, who was standing guard at that door.

He turned around, taking in how short Lisa was, about Billy Jo’s height. She really looked like a kid. “What’s going on here? Billy Jo sent you?” They were far enough away that he couldn’t hear what the father was saying to Carmen, but he could see how upset he was.

“I’m the social worker on call today, and this is a wellness check. A complaint came in, and it was given to me. This has nothing to do with Billy Jo, who’s away now. Everything will come through me until she’s back from her time off.”

The way she was looking at him, he realized she didn’t have a clue who she was, but then, he knew Billy Jo didn’t go around sharing her personal business. Evidently, Lisa wasn’t in the know.

“Billy Jo is getting married to me. I’m her fiancé. You should know, filling in for her, that we have a protocol on the island. In any cases where you’re removing a child, you are required to contact my office, and a deputy is to accompany you.” He kept his voice low.

When she looked up at him, he could see she wasn’t on the same page, maybe because she was shaking her head. “With all due respect, Chief, this was not a visit where I planned to take the kids. But, just showing up here and seeing what I saw, I’m alarmed. The condition of the premises, the dirt, the locked doors…and there was feces on the floor. The father is volatile, and the kids appear unbathed. One little girl, who I understand has special needs, appears neglected.” She was so damn matter of fact, and he sensed she would argue about everything.

“Volatile? I think you need to be a little more specific about what your concerns are. You suspect abuse, hurting his kids?” He gestured, wondering why she had a clipboard.

“You saw him up there, the way he looked at me, yelling at me. He stalked behind me in the house when I expected answers from him. He was disrespectful…”

Mark angled his head. He wanted to call Billy Jo again, but if he did, he knew her well enough to know she’d likely be in her car and on her way over there. Maybe there was something more about this situation that he didn’t know.

“You showed up here about his kids. I’m seeing a father who’s trying to protect them. You want to take his kids away? I would be surprised if a father let you do that without fighting back. You want to walk me inside and show me what the issues are?”

The way she pulled the clipboard up close to her chest, he wondered if she’d say no. “Fine, but I’ll need your assistance getting the kids out of the house. This is a state decision, and I’m acting on behalf of the state. I’ll need to take the kids, all of them, to the hospital for a doctor to look them over.”

Then she turned and started walking back to the house, and Mark followed, seeing that Carmen and Nathan were staring at him long and hard.

“I’m going in the house with Lisa,” he said. “Nathan, Carmen will stay outside with you. We won’t be a minute.”

Lisa had pulled open the screen and walked right in, and Mark reached for the door.

Nathan lifted his hands in the air and linked them behind his head in frustration. “Fine. My wife is there.”

“How many kids?” he asked. He could hear Lisa inside, speaking with the kind of voice that expected answers, but about what, he didn’t know.

“Two girls, two and five,” Nathan said.

He only nodded and walked inside, taking in the small entry, the wood floors, an older sectional with piles of clothes on it, a laundry basket, toys and papers scattered on the floor. A woman with dark hair, a few inches taller than Lisa, was holding a towel. Her hair was half out of a ponytail.

“Down here, Chief,” Lisa said to him as she gestured to a narrow hall with doors closed. He only nodded at the woman standing there, wide-eyed, a little girl jumping around her with a thumb in her mouth. Then he realized another girl was there, naked, her hair a mess, shoving ripped paper into her mouth.

“No, no, no, Dana,” the woman said and ran over to the little girl to pull the paper from her mouth. The girl squealed and swatted at her.

Mark saw the mother struggling, and he took in something smeared on the wall in the hall. He could smell it from there and knew it was feces. The social worker was looking at him expectantly as she stood by a door locked with a deadbolt, which needed a key, and another door with a sliding bolt.

“Every door here, all four, has a lock on it,” Lisa said. “Do they lock the kids in? I’m sure you can smell that a child defecated, and it’s on the walls. One has no clothes on, and there’s something wrong with the other, too. The place is a mess. The kitchen is not the neatest I’ve seen, and there’s food in the corner on the floor.”

He slid the bolt on one of the doors and opened it to see a bathroom—not a mess but reasonable, with a towel on a hook, toothbrushes by the sink, and a bathtub with no shower curtain.

“Look, I don’t know what to say,” Mark said. “I see the mess. Is there something wrong with the one screaming out there?” He glanced down the hall. Everything in the house felt tense, but then, he supposed having DCFS show up like this only ramped up family problems.

“Special needs, I think. Not really sure, but something is wrong…” She was flipping through her chart, lifting papers and reading, and then she shook her head and let out an exasperated breath. “But, regardless, the care is seriously lacking. I’ll need some help getting the kids loaded up. I think I’ve seen enough here.” She clutched her clipboard to her chest. The way she said it had been dismissive, and damn, did he hate this. She brushed past him, leaving him standing there.

“Okay, I’m taking the kids,” she said. “Are there car seats? I need clothes on these girls, too…”

She was cold, unfeeling. Nothing about this felt right. The mother wore a look he knew too well, shellshock. He put his hand on the screen door and pushed it open, and Nathan and Carmen both stopped talking and looked at him.

“Your kids in there,” he said. “Something wrong with the little girl with no clothes on?”

The man was much calmer now. He wondered what Carmen had said to him. “My older one, she’s five. She’s got autism. Can’t keep no clothes on her. She takes them off as soon as they’re on.”

Mark realized Carmen hadn’t looked away from Nathan, yet she said nothing. “You have locks on the doors in there. You lock the kids in?”

Nathan shook his head and gestured. “No, sir, no way. Those locks are to keep Trina out. She wears a diaper, but we can’t keep it on her. We lock the doors because she goes in and wipes her shit on the walls everywhere, so we have to keep her in one small part of the house. Look, we’re doing the best we can, but I’m not always here. I have to work off island a lot, and it’s just my wife here. My daughter, she screams if you try to brush her hair. Can’t get socks on her at all. I tried to explain all that to the social worker in there, but she wouldn’t hear none of it…”

“Hey, Nathan, I get it,” Carmen cut in. “You just need some help, is all. Sometimes these state workers only check boxes and can’t see or hear anything. I know you’re just trying to protect your family, and I can hear how upset you are. She probably didn’t understand all that. She’s not from around here and doesn’t know you.”

Damn, how did Carmen do that? The door squeaked open behind them.

“Chief Friessen, I’m ready to go,” Lisa said. “Can you get some car seats so I can take the kids?” There was something so inexperienced about the social worker. She had so much to learn about people.

“I have car seats, but I want the name of your supervisor,” Nathan said.

Lisa was still standing in the doorway. “My direct supervisor is away right now. You want the name of my acting supervisor this week?” Now she sounded way too helpful.

“I do, name and phone number. I’m calling and making a formal complaint about you.”

He wondered whether Lisa would say no, but she only shrugged and said, “Sure. Grant—”

“Billy Jo is in charge here. Pretty sure you report to her,” Mark couldn’t help himself from saying.

Lisa seemed to stiffen and then shook her head. “Ms. McCabe is away, and that’s not how the chain of command works. Grant is who I report to right now.” Damn, she was so matter of fact. “You have a pen?”

Carmen, bless her, pulled one from her pocket along with paper and handed it to Nathan, who was going to have his kids pulled out of there. Mark listened to her rattle off Grant’s name and number.

“I’ll help you with the car seats,” Mark said to Nathan. He listened to screaming in the house as he followed him down the stairs and over to an older off-white minivan, and all he could think was that nothing about this seemed right.

Chapter 2

“I don’t know what’s keeping Mark,” Billy Jo said. “I know he should be here by now. Damn, it’s really coming down out there…” She fumbled her glass of wine then, spilling some of the red she loved on the light granite island. Her mom and Diana were sitting at high-back chairs across from her, each with a glass of wine, and she could hear the voices of her dad and Mark’s dad, Jed, in the living room.

“I’ll get that,” said her mom, already off her chair, her long blond hair hanging loose past her shoulders. She wore a pink turtleneck and deep blue wool pants, but she could wear anything and look good. She reached for a sponge at the sink and moved Billy Jo over as she wiped up the spill and handed her the glass. “Here you go. You just drink your wine before you knock something else over. Why don’t you sit down and let us know what else we still have to do?”

Diana smiled at her. “You indulged us for the day, letting us drag you around town, so let us wait on you now.”

Billy Jo took a swallow of her wine. Through the big windows, a heavy snow was starting to settle in the darkness. She pulled at the hem of her black cardigan over a pair of black dressy slacks and a sleeveless silky black shirt. The only things not black were the fluffy brown slippers on her feet. She had to remind herself she looked good, chasing away the voice of doubt that at one time had taken up too many hours, lingering in her head. The wedding had seemed so far away, but she was now staring down the moment she and Mark would stand before the minister and say “I do.” Good God, maybe that was why she was so freaked out.

“You want to call Mark?” Diana said, leaning an elbow on the island. “What time are we meeting up at the restaurant? Danny, J.D., Chris, Evie, and the girls should be here and checked into the hotel by now. I don’t know how you do it with the ferries, having to wait to get on and off island. Although it’s beautiful here, I never realized how cut off you are.” She wore a deep green knit sweater that made her vivid blue eyes pop. At least now Billy Jo knew where Mark got his blue eyes and red hair from. There was nothing about Diana that she disliked. “You know, when Mark first told me about you, Billy Jo, I told Jed I thought he’d met the one.”

She didn’t know what to say. She took in Mark’s mom, who was so warm and welcoming, and she wondered how much Mark had shared about her. Did Diana really understand who Billy Jo was?

“I recognize that look,” Diana said. “You have the pre-wedding jitters.”

Billy Jo pulled her arm over the flat of her stomach as she held her wine, not looking over to her mom, who she knew likely wanted to add something. “I’m not nervous. Why, do I look nervous?” Even she could hear how defensive she sounded. She took in the diamond ring on her finger, which she hadn’t taken off since Mark put it on. When she lifted her gaze, her mom rose a brow and dumped the sponge back in the sink.

“If you’re not, I’d think there was something wrong,” Diana said. “You’re right, it really is coming down out there. Jed, what time was the reservation tonight?”

She could see her dad and Jed from where she stood. Jed was lounging on the new blue sectional, her dad in the easy chair.

“Six,” he said. “Aren’t we still waiting on Mark? What time is it, anyway?”

Something about Jed Friessen was so much like his son. Billy Jo was vaguely listening to the back and forth when she felt the touch on her arm, her mom. She took in the clock on the stove, seeing it was nearly five.

“You okay?” Rose said. “You’ve been unusually quiet today, letting us drag you around into shops I know you have no interest in. I know how uncomfortable you get, being the center of attention.”

Her shoulders were tight, and she made herself take another sip of wine. Just then, she heard the door, and she let out a heavy sigh. “Just out of my comfort zone…” she started.

In the living room, Mark said something to Lucky, who trotted to the door and took in her cat, Harley, who was curled up fast asleep on the cat tree next to the window.

“Hey, everyone. Sorry I’m late,” Mark said. “It’s really coming down out there. Billy Jo, the shed door was wide open.”

She shrugged. “Wasn’t me,” she said, gesturing, and he gave her one of those heavy gazes.

“You sure?”

She really looked at him.

“Maybe it was the wind,” he said. “I can’t remember ever seeing the snow coming down the way it is. Reminds me of home, not the island. The roads aren’t pretty out there.”

She didn’t move from where she stood, holding her wine, taking in Mark, who was brushing the snow from his hair. He was sock-footed as he walked right over to her, his heavy coat still on, and leaned down and pressed a kiss to her lips. For a second, it was just the two of them, and she wondered whether he was going to start in about the shed again, but when he pulled back, he let his complicated gaze linger, and she looked up into it.

“I called you and you didn’t answer,” he said. “Sent you a text, too. Kind of started off the morning with an issue.”

Her brow furrowed. Mark pulled open the fridge behind her and reached for a beer, then twisted off the cap and smiled to his mom, but Billy Jo just stared up at him, keeping her back to everyone.

“You talk to your brothers?” Diana said to him. Jed was now standing behind his wife, his hands resting on her shoulders. Billy Jo looked over, a knot in her stomach over the issue Mark had mentioned.

“No, been a crazy day,” he said. “Was going to stop in at the hotel. I think they were coming in on the three o’clock ferry…” He scratched his head and took a swallow of his beer, still standing right in her space.

“I’ll call Danny, see where they are.” Jed had his phone out already and was dialing, and he turned away, taking a few steps.

Billy Jo rested her glass of wine on the counter. When Mark went to step away, she reached for his arm and pulled him back. “My phone is turned off in the bottom of my purse. Pretty sure you’re the one who told me that taking time off meant turning my phone off and keeping it off. You have no idea how difficult it was for me not to check it every twenty seconds. But, again, didn’t you say to me this morning before leaving that I should enjoy the day with our moms and not take calls from work?”

He made a face. “Didn’t think you’d listen, and I kind of didn’t mean calls from me.”

She angled her head, wondering how he expected her to just pick and choose which calls to answer. Her parents and Diana were talking in the background, and she glanced back to them, knowing she was supposed to be focused one hundred percent on the wedding.

“What happened?” she said, staring up at Mark, and even she could hear the edge in her voice. She knew so well the many moods of Mark, and the grim edge he had in his expression made the knot tighten in her stomach. She wanted to groan.

“Got a call at the station from that new junior social worker, Lisa…?”

“Jenkins,” she cut in. Tension now pulled right across her shoulders. Maybe Mark knew she was one step from getting on her phone and calling the office to find out everything, as he put his beer on the island and slid his hand over her shoulder. “What happened?”

He shook his head. “She was at a house, making a call on a family, and called the station with a complaint that she was being threatened. It was Nathan Clark, with two little girls. I can tell by your face that you know who I’m talking about. But she hadn’t called the station for anyone to go with her. Does she not get the protocol here?”

She stared at Mark and blinked, then opened her mouth to say something, but instead she wanted to pick up the phone and call Lisa, the new girl Grant had sent over. Just what the hell did she think she was doing?

“Seriously?” she said. “I have half a mind to call her, then Pam, then Grant. I went over everything with her, and she basically cut me off, saying she knew her job and she understood. Told me to enjoy my time off, and congrats on the wedding, and not to worry about anything. Now I’m freaking out. Why was she at the Clarks’? Did something happen? I know Nathan and his wife, Grace. They have two girls and really struggle. The oldest has Rett syndrome, and I’m pretty sure the other has something wrong, too. Those two parents are really doing the best they can. I know Nathan was working two jobs to pay their bills. Do you know how long it took him to get a doctor to actually diagnose his kid? And I know what it cost him: a lot of money they didn’t have.”

She pressed her hands to her face and pulled them away, realizing how quiet it was. Her mom and dad and Jed and Diana were watching them. Judging by their faces, they had heard.

“Please tell me you handled it,” she continued. “Damn, I should call Grace and Nathan, make sure they know they have my support… Wait, why did she show up there to begin with?” Everyone was watching her as she narrowed her gaze, looking up to Mark.

He shook his head. “Not much I could do except become a buffer. The house was a mess, with locks on the doors. Lisa had made her mind up and was taking the kids. Social services has jurisdiction, you know that. I did fill Lisa in on her responsibility to call the station first, but not sure she agreed. I have no idea who sent her. She said it was a wellness check or something. They’re struggling. Maybe they’ll get some help. I know she took the kids to the hospital, strapped them both in the back of her little car. One was screaming. Told Nathan he needed some help…”

She groaned, and maybe that was why Mark had stopped talking. “Helping them doesn’t mean yanking their kids,” she said. “You’re right that they have no help, no support, because it costs money they don’t have. The pitiful resources available are allocated based on a waitlist, where they’re behind hundreds of other families. Their eldest is still in a diaper, which I’m aware she won’t keep on. She’s unresponsive, doesn’t talk. Grace has no help, but those kids are not abused.” She made herself stop talking.

“Is there something I can do, sweetheart?” Chase said from where he stood behind her mom. She knew he meant well, but she shook her head and lifted her hands helplessly.

“No. Thanks, though. If Lisa did what I think she did—no, sorry, what I know she did, those girls are now stuffed in someone’s house, an emergency placement. The real kicker is that those kids are now with someone who has no clue what to do or how to handle a child as unresponsive as their eldest, so she’ll be locked in a room or tied down, but that isn’t considered abuse when it’s not done by her parents.”

No one said anything. The joy and happiness that had filled the house moments earlier had completely vanished.

Chapter 3

The table reserved at the hotel, set for twelve, overlooked the harbor through big windows. The snow had turned into full whiteout conditions, so the drive over had been challenging. Mark sat at the end with his brothers, Danny and Chris. Both had short red hair, but Chris also had a short beard and mustache. Damn, he had missed his brothers.

“Man, I never thought we’d see the day you’d be domesticated,” Danny teased.

Mark glanced down the table to his parents and his sisters-in-law, J.D. and Evie, as well as his two nieces, who had each grown a foot. Billy Jo’s chair beside him was empty.

“Everything okay with your bride-to-be?” Danny continued. “She’s pretty quiet.”

Mark glanced over his shoulder from the private alcove where they were dining. He could just make out Billy Jo by the front door of the restaurant, the phone to her ear. He turned back to his brothers, but his mom slid back her chair and walked across the restaurant to Billy Jo.

“Afraid I dumped something on her just as we were leaving,” he said. “Someone who’s filling in for her did something she’s trying to undo.”

His brothers exchanged a glance, and he knew he sounded cryptic. He was kicking himself, because now Billy Jo was completely focused on two kids he couldn’t do a damn thing about. Mark didn’t like feeling helpless. He felt responsible even though it didn’t make a lick of sense. His brothers lifted their gazes just as Billy Jo reappeared and sat down beside him.

“So, anything?” he said.

She reached for her glass of water and took a long swallow before shaking her head and looking over to him, shrugging. His heart sank. The happiness that had filled her eyes just that morning had been replaced by a sadness he hadn’t seen in a long time.

“I called and spoke with Nathan, who was beside himself. Said he called Grant to lodge a complaint about Lisa. He told me she stared him down as if he were something vile, and she had her mind made up the minute he opened the door. She barged in and wouldn’t take no for an answer, tossing out insults and accusations, and it didn’t matter what he said.

“He was furious and wanted to know why she was on his doorstep to begin with, which is exactly what I wanted to know. He’s been trying to find out where the girls are. I called Lisa twice, and it went right to voicemail. Pretty sure she’s screening her calls. I had already left a message for Grant, but he likely isn’t going to call me back, so I called Pam at home and found out what I needed.

“It seems the minute I left the office yesterday, little Miss Jenkins was in my office, going through files. She asked Pam to pull up every case, anything that was flagged, and apparently she’s taken it upon herself to start doing impromptu no-notice wellness checks—you know, just showing up on a doorstep to catch families off guard. She’s pulled three other kids from their homes and placed them in foster care, two off island.

“I found out that the hospital ordered psychiatric care for Nathan and Grace’s eldest girl, and the youngest is with another family I hadn’t finished vetting. There’s nothing I can do about it, because Lisa sounded the alarm and has the state authority behind her. Undoing what she did will take a long time. The kids will be separated, and with the courts closing down for the holidays, they’ll be left with strangers.” She let out a heavy sigh. “Sorry to put a damper on the night,” she said to his brothers before reaching for her red wine and taking a swallow.

“Don’t apologize for wanting to help some kids,” Chris said. “That’s shitty, what happened. So there’s nothing you can do?”

Danny, a lawyer, was looking down and shaking his head. “Happens too often. Some social worker sounds an alarm and a family’s lives are ripped apart. The system doesn’t exactly work in favor of the ones scraping by. Do what you can, Billy Jo, but you also can’t stop living.” 

Mark really looked at his brother, because that was something he’d never heard him say before. “Sounds like there’s a story there,” he said, resting his arm over the back of Billy Jo’s chair, letting his hand linger on her shoulder. Damn, he couldn’t believe there was only one more day before they were official. Billy Jo looked up at him, and for a moment he wondered if she’d pull into herself. 

Danny lifted his glass of the local amber on tap. “Isn’t there always? Yeah, it’ll eat you up if you let it, and then you’re no use to anyone.” He took a big swallow of his beer, looking over to him and then Billy Jo, who was leaning closer to him. “There are days I tell Evie I want out. I wish I had Dad’s love of horses and the land, but no, I have to follow in Mom’s footsteps, because I want to help people who are chewed up by the law. I don’t know. It seems the more I navigate a system that should protect the people it doesn’t, the more I see how rigged it is…” 

Danny leaned back and lifted his hand, and Mark realized how out of touch he was with his family. “But we’re not here to talk about everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re here in the middle of nowhere, on an island, to get you married off. Hey, everyone, let’s have a toast to Billy Jo and Mark.” He lifted his glass and clinked it with his spoon—and then the lights went out. 

“Way to go, Danny. You knocked the lights out,” Chris said as people murmured throughout the restaurant. 

“Hey, let me check this out. I’ll be right back,” Mark said to Billy Jo, running his hand over her shoulder as he scraped back his chair. 

“Guess there goes dinner,” she said to him, sounding unusually calm. His dad was shining his phone, standing, and so was Chase. 

Mark walked over to them, pulling his phone out and flicking on the flashlight. 

“Likely the snowstorm,” Jed said. The lights flicked dimly on and then off again. The wind whistled faintly, and even in the darkness, Mark could see a full-blown snowstorm through all the windows. 

He looked over to his dad. “Yeah, likely a line down…” 

He started walking around tables to the front, where the waitstaff were lighting candles, right over to the dining room manager, Merv, who was behind the bar, barking out orders. Mark shook his head as he turned to his dad alongside him and said, “Snowstorm on the island could knock power out for days…” Then he dialed Carmen, who answered on the first ring. 

“Hey, Chief. Power’s out. Take it that’s why you’re calling.” 

He shook his head. “We just ordered dinner, and everything’s gone dark. Here with my family…” Someone was talking in the background. “Are you at the office?” 

“Yeah. Lacy just came back in, said all the lights are out in town. Ferry’s been canceled the rest of the night because of the storm. The forecast isn’t great. Seems this storm came out of nowhere and may not let up for a few days. Elisha is on the phone with utilities to find out more, but it’s completely dark in town. Not sure how long it will take, with only one truck on the island. Could be a tree down over a line…” The phone rang in the background, and someone answered. 

“Well, find out and call me,” he said. “People start to panic and get scared. Keep your phone on and let me know what you find out.” 

He hung up and took in his dad and Chase, who were leaning against the bar, talking to Merv. He pulled his hand over his face as he strode over to them. 

“Power’s out to the entire island,” said one of the waitstaff who had walked out from the back. He turned to Merve. “Turned the gas off, but we’ve got ten orders in queue and food on. What about the generator?” 

Everyone was looking at Mark as if he were supposed to fix this. 

“You know as much as I do,” he said. “Lines are down and the power is out. Can you get the generator going, or are you going to close up?” 

He had to think of what they had at home. The well needed power, and their generator needed gas, but at least there was the woodstove for heat. How much gas did he have? Maybe half a jerry can, because this wasn’t something he’d been planning on. 

“No, I’ll get the generator on to finish the orders that are up,” Merv said, “but we’re not taking any more orders tonight. If anyone hasn’t ordered, apologize and let them know. Hopefully the lines aren’t down long.” Then Merv was walking away back through the kitchen. 

“Well, this kind of puts a damper on things,” Chase said, gesturing to a waitress walking past with a tray of candles. 

“What’s the call time like here on the island?” Jed asked. 

Mark shook his head. “Well, haven’t been here that long, just over a year, but I’ve never been in a storm. Typically we have only one truck, and manpower has to come over from the mainland on the ferry. But I can tell you right now that with how bad the storm is, the ferry has been canceled for the night, so at the very least, it could be not till morning.” 

The lights flicked on, and a few people cheered. His dad reached over and tapped his shoulder. “Well, there’s worse things. I’m sure we’ll figure it out. If anything, it will be a great story to tell your kids, how a big storm hit right before your wedding.” 

Mark ran his hand over the back of his head as he looked over across the restaurant to where his family was waiting, talking, laughing. He shook his head. “Let’s just hope they get the power back on, because a storm on the island takes up resources. When people get scared, holidays get canceled for first responders, and the chief of police could suddenly find his wedding being postponed.” 

Chase let his gaze linger on him, but Jed was shaking his head and said, “I don’t think we’re there yet. The power being out and the snowstorm aren’t problems. Light some candles. As long as you have a minister, you can have a wedding.” 

All three of them looked over to the table, where Billy Jo was talking with his brothers. His family was there, and the last thing he wanted was to postpone anything, because Billy Jo wasn’t the easy-going kind of girl who could just reschedule. 

No, she was damn difficult. He realized it had likely been in a moment of weakness that he convinced her to accept a Christmas wedding, and he knew her well enough to know that likely would not happen a second time. 

Chapter 4 

“How long you want to run the generator tonight?” Jed called out at the front door just as Chase shoved another piece of wood in the woodstove in the living room. Billy Jo still had her coat on, and she heard the stomping of feet as Mark appeared in his down coat as well, covered in snow. She pulled at her sweater, feeling uneasy. Everything seemed to be falling apart, and for a moment, she was plagued with the feeling that simple and easy weren’t going to happen for her. 

“I’m going to have to do a gas run,” Mark said. “I used all the gas in the generator. Can you fill jugs so we have some water? Do what you need to, and I’ll shut it off when I get back.” He was standing right in front of her, and she felt Lucky brush her leg, his tail wagging. 

“Yeah, I hate to say this, but if the power doesn’t come back on, we may have to postpone the wedding,” she said. 

He just stared down at her, and she wasn’t sure what to make of the flicker in his vibrant blue eyes. She knew he wouldn’t listen. “Nope, not going there, and neither should you,” he said. “Look, this is just a blip. We’ll figure it out. My family’s here, and so is yours. Power could come back on tonight or tomorrow. What’s wrong?” 

She heard voices in the background, but Mark hadn’t moved, and she didn’t want to argue over the fact that she was still reeling, unable to shake the feeling that she’d let down two kids and a family who didn’t deserve any trouble. She made herself shake her head. “Nathan is furious with me. He may not have said it on the phone, but I could hear it in his voice. He blames me for Lisa showing up on his doorstep. I’m trying to help him get services, and I tried to explain to him that I didn’t send her. The file we had was just to help him get some funding, some resources. I swear to Almighty God, the first chance I get to wrap my hands around Lisa’s throat… I have half a mind to drive over to her place now, but lucky for her, a freak snowstorm has blanketed the island, and I wouldn’t be able to see shit behind the wheel.” She realized Mark’s brothers were staring at her, and Mark wore an amused grin. 

“Well, that’s the spirit,” he said. “Keep a positive outlook. But no to killing her. I will, though, happily look away for a second while you put the fear of God into her after we’re married, after the honeymoon, when you’re back. Unfortunately, as you’ve said, you can’t do anything now, but in the meantime, you can fill some water while I get gas—if I can, with the power down.” 

Then Mark’s cell phone was ringing, and he pulled it from his pocket. His brow knit. “It’s Carmen,” he said before he answered. “Hello? Yeah, okay, I’ll head over there now.” Then he hung up and leaned down to press a quick kiss to her lips. “Got to make another stop at the church. Doors are open, and Carmen can’t get a hold of the minister. Likely some kids or someone.” 

“We’ll tag along, maybe get a firsthand view of my little brother, the chief,” Chris said. “And then you can drop us off at the hotel. J.D. and Evie said the hotel is turning the generator off at eleven.” 

Billy Jo reached down and brushed her hand over Lucky. “No, you get to stay home,” she said to him, then watched as Mark headed out of the house with his two brothers. 

“Diana, I’m going with Mark,” Jed called out as well. “We’re going to stop for some gas.” 

Billy Jo just listened to the footsteps of the men and the sound of the front door closing. 

“I’m going to go get some more wood,” her dad said, pulling on his coat. 

Billy Jo turned to her mom and Diana. 

“We should get some water jugs filled,” Diana said, rubbing Billy Jo’s arm. 

“I’ll grind some coffee for the morning in case the power is still out,” her mom said. 

“There are some big jugs in that far counter over there if you want to fill them up,” Billy Jo said. “So sorry about this. Not exactly the comforts of home without power. You may wish you stayed at the hotel with Danny and Chris.” 

Diana and Jed were staying in one of the two bedrooms downstairs, her mom and dad in the other. 

“Oh, don’t be silly. This is fine,” Diana said. “You have no idea the number of times we’ve lost power, living out of town on a well with septic. We learned fast to fill the bathtub when a storm was coming in. Always have water. You know, I can see how upset you are about those kids, and I’m going to tell you something. They’re going to be okay. This is not an ideal situation, but they’ll get through it. I grew up in foster care, I’m sure Mark told you, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had people who cared about me. I worked my way through school and became a lawyer so I could help people who need help. 

“But I had a sister who died. She was severely disabled up here.” Diana tapped her head. “Not really an official diagnosis. I grew up with nothing, with a mother who didn’t care. To make a depressingly long story short, you can’t put your life and happiness on hold. You did what you could, but you are not responsible for what Lisa did. You’ll fix it when you get back, and those kids will get back with their parents, okay? This one is done. How many should we do?” Diana settled a big two-gallon jug of water on the island as her mom dumped freshly ground coffee into a plastic container. 

“Just the three jugs. That’s all we have,” Billy Jo said. 

Diana began filling another gallon jug as Billy Jo walked over to the cupboard and pulled out a half-gallon plastic juice carton. 

“And this one,” she added, holding it up as she walked over. “Mark didn’t tell me you had a sister.” 

Diana didn’t look at her. “I don’t think I ever told him. Jed knows, of course, but it was something I never talked about with the kids. I didn’t grow up in a loving home, but I made sure my boys were loved. Jed and I love them and our grandkids, and you know what?” She had filled the last jug, and she turned off the tap and faced her. “Even though it took me a long time to get past what I went through, I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t suffer the way I did. Those two kids, they’ll be okay. I’m going to tell you this again, because there will be another two, and another, and you will do what you can, but you need to look after you.” 

Billy Jo realized Diana had shared something deeply personal, an old wound she hadn’t even shared with Mark. “How am I supposed to get married and pretend everything is okay?” 

Diana rested her palm on the island. Even Rose had stepped in closer to listen as she said, “You don’t pretend. But let me ask you something. What are you going to accomplish by worrying? Can you speed up any of the process? Because I know well how the system works. A hearing is going to be set, and because of the holidays, nothing will happen until the new year. Reports and observations and recommendations still have to be filed by the doctor and the social worker, who is not you…” Diana said to her. 

She couldn’t believe how much Diana understood about how her job worked. “But I can call Grant, my boss, and his boss. I can demand, I can…” She didn’t finish. Her mom and Diana were both watching her with a ton of sympathy. “Fine, you’re right, I’ll drive myself crazy, but what am I supposed to say to Nathan and Grace? They don’t deserve this, and honestly, I can’t blame him for his anger.” 

She heard the front door kick open. 

“Okay, I stacked a bunch of wood,” Chase called out. “It’s really bad out there. I could barely see anything…” He walked right past her to the woodstove, and Diana and her mom looked back at her. 

“You tell him the facts, how the process works, and what he can do,” Diana said quite matter-of-factly. 

“And you get married, and then you and Mark go on your honeymoon,” her mom added. 

“When you get back,” Diana said, “the reports will be in, the hearing will be set, and you can go in with a clear head and be of more help to this family than you can be right now.” 

She knew Diana was right, but hearing it still didn’t make her feel any better. 

Chapter 5 

“You sure there’s a road here?” Chris said from the back seat. 

Mark couldn’t remember ever driving in anything like this. His dad had rolled his window down and looked out as Mark gripped the wheel, slipping a few times even though his tires were good winter ones. 

“How much farther?” Danny added from the back. “Shit, Mark, I can just make out a tree line. We go off the road, no one’s going to find us.” 

“Both you two, knock it off,” Jed said. “Mark, just stay in the middle of the road…” 

The defrost was on full blast as the snow and icy chill from the open window swept in. He spotted what he thought was the sign to the church at the edge of town. 

“It’s right here,” he said. “Geez, that sign is completely covered in snow.” 

The Jeep slid sideways as he turned down the driveway to the church and geared down, then steered into the skid, straightening the Jeep as he gave it some gas. The snow was piling up, and he stopped just as the church came into view. 

“Maybe you should wait in the Jeep. I’ll just be a minute,” he said as he lifted his gaze to the rearview mirror and his brothers in back. 

“Not a chance.” Chris tapped the back of his head. 

Mark turned off the Jeep as his dad stepped out. He opened his door and stepped out as well, then reached into his pocket for his flashlight and flicked it on, lifting his jacket just enough that his holstered sidearm was within reach. He could hear his brothers climbing out, the doors closing, and he trudged in his cowboy boots through the snow. He glanced once to his dad, who was looking around much like he was, and he listened to the wind and the crunch of snow beneath his feet. There were no other cars there, and he found himself squinting as a gust of wind and snow pelted his face. 

He reached the steps and the snow that covered them and made his way up, hearing the footsteps behind him. “I don’t see any tracks,” he said as he reached the door, which was closed. Weird. 

“What do you want to bet it was the minister?” Jed said. 

He put his hand on the knob and expected it to be locked, but it pulled open. “Okay, didn’t expect that,” he said, shining his light inside the church, which was pitch black. His breath fogged in front of him as he stepped in. 

“Hello, this is Chief Friessen! Anyone here?” he called out, hearing the squeak of the floorboards as his dad and brothers followed him inside. “Pull the door closed, Danny,” he said. “That’ll keep the snow out, at least. I’m just going to take a look around.” He took in the pews, all stained dark wood, as he made his way up the aisle. 

“So this is where you’re saying ‘I do’? Cute, but would be better with lights,” Danny said, and he thought Chris grunted in response. His dad said nothing, but Mark knew he was right behind him. 

He shone his light at the front of the church, landing on someone in the first pew, and his arm went out on instinct toward his dad. 

“Hey, you okay in here? You need some help?” he called out. He took one step and then another, shining his flashlight. The person’s coat hood was up, and he or she said nothing, leaning against the edge of the pew, not moving. He felt the slow, methodical pounding of his heart, and he pulled his gun on instinct. 

“Answer me right now!” he called out. “Who are you? Dad, stay back.” 

He knew the person must have heard him. He took another step, seeing boots, blue jeans, and he tapped the foot, saying, “Come on, wake up. You can’t be in here.” 

He shone the light right in the face and realized it was a woman, and her eyes were open. “Shit! Damn, fuck…” He holstered his gun and pulled back the hood to shine the light in her eyes. When he touched the side of her neck to feel for a heartbeat, he knew she was dead. “Okay, stay back,” he called out. “This is a crime scene now.” 

His dad had his phone out with the flashlight on. “Is she dead?” 

“Yeah.” He looked back at the woman. Danny and Chris had joined them. 

“She’s young,” Danny said, stepping toward him. “How old, do you think?” 

He didn’t want to guess. Twenty, maybe. He only shook his head and glanced over to his brother, wondering if he’d ever seen a body before. His dad hung back, and so did Chris. 

“I don’t know. This is…” He flashed his light around and pulled his phone out. “Come on, Danny, I’m serious. Get back. This is a crime scene, and with no lights here, you could be walking over all the evidence.” 

“How’d she die?” Chris asked. Jed glanced once to him and back over to the young lady. 

Mark had his cell phone to his ear, listening to the ring. “I don’t know. No lights, and I can’t see any blood. Come on, Danny, seriously, get back.” 

“Hey, I could use your help,” Carmen said immediately upon answering. “The phone lines have gone down now, but cell towers are working. Power crew said several power poles are down, and they can’t get any more over until the ferry is running again, but until this storm lets up, it’s not going to. I’ve got people coming into the station, five seniors saying they have electric heat only. I talked with the firehouse and ambulance, and they’re going to set up a warming center at the station, where they have a generator running—” 

He shut his eyes. “Carmen, I get it. Listen, I’m at the church. You said someone called in that the door was open. Who called? Because I’m here now, and the door was closed but unlocked, and there’s the body of a woman here. She’s dead.” 

There was silence for a second. 

“I don’t know who it was,” Carmen replied. “Lacy took the call. Just said the door was open. Do you know who it is?” 

He shook his head. His dad was still shining a light on the young woman. “No idea. Never seen her before. Look, get Elisha to hold down the station. I need you out here at the church. Call the coroner, too, and pick him up if you can. The roads are bad. Visibility is zero, and the snow is piling up. And I need you to get me the number for the minister.” 

He thought he heard Carmen swear under her breath. He thought of Kyle Drake, the old minister, who, according to Gail Shephard, had been with the church since her kids were born. 

“I’ll have Lacy call you with his number,” she said. 

He angled his head to where his dad was shining the light. “Okay, call me right back,” he said, then hung up. 

“Mark, look at her right hand,” Jed said. 

He shoved his phone in his pocket and walked over to the body, then squatted down, flicking his flashlight on the small hand, which appeared to be clutching a piece of paper. 

“Well, what does it say?” Danny asked. 

Mark glanced back to his brother and shone a light right in his eyes. “Geez, Danny, I don’t know. It’s still in her hand—you know, evidence? You’re a lawyer. What do you think a good defense lawyer would do with all this? She’s dead. There could be prints on the note, and I have no gloves.” 

A small Kleenex package landed on the floor in front of him. “Here, use a Kleenex,” Chris said. Mark reached for it. 

“You carry Kleenex around in your pocket?” Danny said. 

“J.D. put it there. You telling me your wife doesn’t?” Chris said right back. 

Mark pulled out a Kleenex and heard the floor creak behind him as his dad stepped closer, shining the light on the hand. He used a Kleenex to pull out the paper, seeing it was a note, and he stood and tucked his flashlight in his pocket. 

“What does it say?” Danny asked again. 

“Let Mark do his job, you two,” his dad finally cut in. 

Mark used the Kleenex to unfold the paper, and he took in a list of names—all members of his family. At the top, in all bold, was the word KILL, and listed below were the names of everyone he loved, including Billy Jo, his parents, his brothers, their wives, and his two nieces. 

“Those are our names,” he heard Danny say, and he looked over his shoulder to see his dad and brothers standing right there, everyone staring at the names on the list that had been in the hand of a dead woman in a church on the eve of his wedding. 

“Yeah,” Mark said. 

“A kill list?” Chris said. 

“It is,” was all he could get out, his heart thumping long and loud. 

His dad rested his hand on his shoulder as he said, “Lord Almighty, son, just what the hell did you do?” 


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Sneak Peek

Read the first chapter of the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery!

Coming Soon

The Last Stand

The Last Stand

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island town in the Pacific Northwest. On the eve of Police Chief Mark Friessen’s wedding, a fierce snowstorm blankets the island, knocking out power, and the body of a woman is discovered in the church. The only clue is the note in her hand, a list of names—all members of Mark’s family.

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Chapter 1

Mark stared at the weekly report of problems, a revolving door of the same people, those he could do something about and those who just got better at hiding their crimes. He heard the knock on his door just as he took a swallow of coffee, and he turned where he was standing beside his desk.

“Hey, Chief,” said Carmen. “Just got a call from Lisa Jenkins about a man who’s openly threatening her. His hostility is over the top, so much so that she fears for her safety. She said she showed up for a wellness check on his kids and believes he’s hurting them and interfering with her taking them.”

He just stared at Carmen as she shrugged on her heavy coat, wondering whether he was supposed to know who Lisa Jenkins was. Maybe his expression gave him away. He set down the printed three-page report, which had been waiting on his desk when he walked in an hour earlier.

“Taking kids, wellness checks? You lost me. Who is this?” He let out a heavy sigh, feeling the weight of everything. His parents were on their way, his brothers, their families, and Billy-Jo’s family. He still needed to pay the restaurant, pick up his new suit, and make sure he stopped in at the church at some point that day to make sure everything was a go for the wedding. He gave his head a shake, willing himself to get back in the game.

“Lisa…” Carmen said. “You know, the junior social worker brought in to help with the rise in the case load? For your fiancée.”

Right. He thought Billy Jo had mentioned that at the church before their meeting with the minister who would listen as they said “I do” and officially proclaim them mister and missus. Maybe that was why he was feeling a gigantic pressure right in the middle of his chest. Mark reached for his cell phone on his desk but saw no message from Billy Jo.

“Billy Jo didn’t call,” he said. “Is she there too?” He had his phone to his ear already, and it was ringing, but it went right to voicemail.

“Hello, this is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. I can’t take your call right now. Leave me a message and I’ll call you back when I can. If this is an emergency…”

He hung up. Right, she wasn’t going in to work that day because Chase and Rose were flying in, and she was doing all the last-minute stuff involving her dress and something else he couldn’t remember.

He realized Carmen was still standing there. “No answer.” He held his phone up. “I’ll come with you. Have you met this Lisa?” He reached for his keys in his drawer and shoved his phone in his pocket, looking to Carmen as he strode over to the coat tree and reached for his black down winter coat. His gun was holstered on his favorite blue jeans, and his sheriff’s badge was pinned to his shirt.

“Only once,” she said. “She’s young. Don’t think she’s been doing this long. You want to follow me?”

Mark shrugged on his coat. “Yeah. So tell me again who she is and what’s going on. Would have thought this would go through Billy Jo. You said this social worker is taking the kids? She’s supposed to call us first, or have I missed something?”

Carmen had already pulled open the door to the station and was walking out. A blast of cold swept over him as he glanced back to his dog’s empty bed. Billy Jo had Lucky at home. Maybe that was also why he felt so off that day. His routine was being completely screwed up.

“Lacy,” he called out.

“I already know,” the dispatcher replied. “I took the call and patched it through to Carmen.” She was behind her desk, Gail’s old desk, and she gestured to him as she stood up. So damn efficient, but he wondered when he’d stop comparing her to Gail. “You’ll be at the Clarks’. I got it.” She just lifted her hand, and Mark took in Elisha’s empty desk, as well, knowing she was already doing rounds on the island.

“Well, good,” he said. “If Billy Jo calls, tell her to call me.”

He didn’t miss what he thought was the hint of a smile tugging at the older woman’s lips. Her hair was a mix of dark and white, and he was pretty sure she was as tall as Gail.

He stepped out of the office and kept walking down the steps, feeling the icy chill. The salt on the steps crunched under his cowboy boots. Heavy clouds loomed overhead, but he knew it was too cold for rain.

Carmen was already in the sheriff’s cruiser as Mark pulled open the door of his Jeep and started the engine. Carmen backed out, swinging around and flicking on her siren. So they were there, kids in trouble, a desperate situation. Damn, he hated that. He wished Billy Jo had filled him in more on this Lisa.

He followed Carmen as she pulled down a road he was familiar with and took in the houses so close together. Cars pulled over to the side as they flew past another road, more trees and privacy. Carmen pulled up in front of a small older two-story. He could see a man in the doorway, dark skinned, tall, lanky, and a woman on the porch.

Carmen was parked behind a burgundy Hyundai, and Mark stopped in front, turning off his engine, feeling his sidearm. He stepped out of the Jeep, his coat now zipped, and reached for his brown knit hat in his pocket. As he pulled it on, feeling the bite of cold, he strode across the grass, Carmen already two steps ahead of him.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” the young woman said. “This man is preventing me from doing my job. He’s openly harassed me and been verbally abusive…”

“I did no such thing, you lying bitch. You showed up here, coming in my house, disrespecting me,” the man cut in. He wore a long-sleeved faded brown shirt and what looked like sweatpants. He had no coat. Mark figured the woman was Lisa, who had called.

“Okay, so what exactly is going on here?” Mark said, resting his foot on the bottom step.

Lisa was young, early twenties, he thought, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and holding a clipboard close to her chest. He glanced once to Carmen, who appeared right beside him. Mark was very aware of the man’s anger toward Lisa. He stepped up onto the porch, looking down on her, putting himself between them.

“And you are?” he said to the man.

“That’s Nathan Clark,” Lisa cut in behind him, and he didn’t miss the snark in her tone. He glanced back once to her, knowing Nathan was fisting his hands. Just her opening her mouth had provoked him.

He turned back to Nathan, who looked past him with dark eyes locked on to the short social worker. He knew when a man had been pushed too far. “Nathan, I’m Chief Friessen. We got a call about some trouble…”

The man was already shaking his head and had pulled his arms across his chest. He had to be cold. Mark took in the closed screen door and could hear voices inside, a woman and kids, he thought.

“Look, I don’t know what she’s yapping on about, but she showed up here, walking through my house, and yelled at me to get away from her when I did nothing. She was the one disrespecting me and my wife. She’s going on about us hurting our kids, which is an outright lie…”

“I’m just doing my job,” Lisa said. “You have no right to interfere, and that was exactly what you were doing in there, following me right on my heels and yelling at me, scaring me. This is a state matter, and you are interfering—”

“These are my kids,” Nathan said. “You coming in here, turning your nose up at me and—”

“Hey, hey, enough,” Mark said. “Just cool down, both of you. Nathan, give us a minute.” He turned to the new social worker and wondered why Billy Jo hadn’t called him. “Come with me. I want to talk to you.”

He went down the steps, seeing her legs were bare under her coat. She wore a short dress underneath, he thought, and light brown ankle boots. He gestured to her and then took in Carmen, who said nothing as she stood there. He had only to nod before he heard her say something to the father, who was standing guard at that door.

He turned around, taking in how short Lisa was, about Billy Jo’s height. She really looked like a kid. “What’s going on here? Billy Jo sent you?” They were far enough away that he couldn’t hear what the father was saying to Carmen, but he could see how upset he was.

“I’m the social worker on call today, and this is a wellness check. A complaint came in, and it was given to me. This has nothing to do with Billy Jo, who’s away now. Everything will come through me until she’s back from her time off.”

The way she was looking at him, he realized she didn’t have a clue who she was, but then, he knew Billy Jo didn’t go around sharing her personal business. Evidently, Lisa wasn’t in the know.

“Billy Jo is getting married to me. I’m her fiancé. You should know, filling in for her, that we have a protocol on the island. In any cases where you’re removing a child, you are required to contact my office, and a deputy is to accompany you.” He kept his voice low.

When she looked up at him, he could see she wasn’t on the same page, maybe because she was shaking her head. “With all due respect, Chief, this was not a visit where I planned to take the kids. But, just showing up here and seeing what I saw, I’m alarmed. The condition of the premises, the dirt, the locked doors…and there was feces on the floor. The father is volatile, and the kids appear unbathed. One little girl, who I understand has special needs, appears neglected.” She was so damn matter of fact, and he sensed she would argue about everything.

“Volatile? I think you need to be a little more specific about what your concerns are. You suspect abuse, hurting his kids?” He gestured, wondering why she had a clipboard.

“You saw him up there, the way he looked at me, yelling at me. He stalked behind me in the house when I expected answers from him. He was disrespectful…”

Mark angled his head. He wanted to call Billy Jo again, but if he did, he knew her well enough to know she’d likely be in her car and on her way over there. Maybe there was something more about this situation that he didn’t know.

“You showed up here about his kids. I’m seeing a father who’s trying to protect them. You want to take his kids away? I would be surprised if a father let you do that without fighting back. You want to walk me inside and show me what the issues are?”

The way she pulled the clipboard up close to her chest, he wondered if she’d say no. “Fine, but I’ll need your assistance getting the kids out of the house. This is a state decision, and I’m acting on behalf of the state. I’ll need to take the kids, all of them, to the hospital for a doctor to look them over.”

Then she turned and started walking back to the house, and Mark followed, seeing that Carmen and Nathan were staring at him long and hard.

“I’m going in the house with Lisa,” he said. “Nathan, Carmen will stay outside with you. We won’t be a minute.”

Lisa had pulled open the screen and walked right in, and Mark reached for the door.

Nathan lifted his hands in the air and linked them behind his head in frustration. “Fine. My wife is there.”

“How many kids?” he asked. He could hear Lisa inside, speaking with the kind of voice that expected answers, but about what, he didn’t know.

“Two girls, two and five,” Nathan said.

He only nodded and walked inside, taking in the small entry, the wood floors, an older sectional with piles of clothes on it, a laundry basket, toys and papers scattered on the floor. A woman with dark hair, a few inches taller than Lisa, was holding a towel. Her hair was half out of a ponytail.

“Down here, Chief,” Lisa said to him as she gestured to a narrow hall with doors closed. He only nodded at the woman standing there, wide-eyed, a little girl jumping around her with a thumb in her mouth. Then he realized another girl was there, naked, her hair a mess, shoving ripped paper into her mouth.

“No, no, no, Dana,” the woman said and ran over to the little girl to pull the paper from her mouth. The girl squealed and swatted at her.

Mark saw the mother struggling, and he took in something smeared on the wall in the hall. He could smell it from there and knew it was feces. The social worker was looking at him expectantly as she stood by a door locked with a deadbolt, which needed a key, and another door with a sliding bolt.

“Every door here, all four, has a lock on it,” Lisa said. “Do they lock the kids in? I’m sure you can smell that a child defecated, and it’s on the walls. One has no clothes on, and there’s something wrong with the other, too. The place is a mess. The kitchen is not the neatest I’ve seen, and there’s food in the corner on the floor.”

He slid the bolt on one of the doors and opened it to see a bathroom—not a mess but reasonable, with a towel on a hook, toothbrushes by the sink, and a bathtub with no shower curtain.

“Look, I don’t know what to say,” Mark said. “I see the mess. Is there something wrong with the one screaming out there?” He glanced down the hall. Everything in the house felt tense, but then, he supposed having DCFS show up like this only ramped up family problems.

“Special needs, I think. Not really sure, but something is wrong…” She was flipping through her chart, lifting papers and reading, and then she shook her head and let out an exasperated breath. “But, regardless, the care is seriously lacking. I’ll need some help getting the kids loaded up. I think I’ve seen enough here.” She clutched her clipboard to her chest. The way she said it had been dismissive, and damn, did he hate this. She brushed past him, leaving him standing there.

“Okay, I’m taking the kids,” she said. “Are there car seats? I need clothes on these girls, too…”

She was cold, unfeeling. Nothing about this felt right. The mother wore a look he knew too well, shellshock. He put his hand on the screen door and pushed it open, and Nathan and Carmen both stopped talking and looked at him.

“Your kids in there,” he said. “Something wrong with the little girl with no clothes on?”

The man was much calmer now. He wondered what Carmen had said to him. “My older one, she’s five. She’s got autism. Can’t keep no clothes on her. She takes them off as soon as they’re on.”

Mark realized Carmen hadn’t looked away from Nathan, yet she said nothing. “You have locks on the doors in there. You lock the kids in?”

Nathan shook his head and gestured. “No, sir, no way. Those locks are to keep Dana out. She wears a diaper, but we can’t keep it on her. We lock the doors because she goes in and wipes her shit on the walls everywhere, so we have to keep her in one small part of the house. Look, we’re doing the best we can, but I’m not always here. I have to work off island a lot, and it’s just my wife here. My daughter, she screams if you try to brush her hair. Can’t get socks on her at all. I tried to explain all that to the social worker in there, but she wouldn’t hear none of it…”

“Hey, Nathan, I get it,” Carmen cut in. “You just need some help, is all. Sometimes these state workers only check boxes and can’t see or hear anything. I know you’re just trying to protect your family, and I can hear how upset you are. She probably didn’t understand all that. She’s not from around here and doesn’t know you.”

Damn, how did Carmen do that? The door squeaked open behind them.

“Chief Friessen, I’m ready to go,” Lisa said. “Can you get some car seats so I can take the kids?” There was something so inexperienced about the social worker. She had so much to learn about people.

“I have car seats, but I want the name of your supervisor,” Nathan said.

Lisa was still standing in the doorway. “My direct supervisor is away right now. You want the name of my acting supervisor this week?” Now she sounded way too helpful.

“I do, name and phone number. I’m calling and making a formal complaint about you.”

He wondered whether Lisa would say no, but she only shrugged and said, “Sure. Grant—”

“Billy Jo is in charge here. Pretty sure you report to her,” Mark couldn’t help himself from saying.

Lisa seemed to stiffen and then shook her head. “Ms. McCabe is away, and that’s not how the chain of command works. Grant is who I report to right now.” Damn, she was so matter of fact. “You have a pen?”

Carmen, bless her, pulled one from her pocket along with paper and handed it to Nathan, who was going to have his kids pulled out of there. Mark listened to her rattle off Grant’s name and number.

“I’ll help you with the car seats,” Mark said to Nathan. He listened to screaming in the house as he followed him down the stairs and over to an older off-white minivan, and all he could think was that nothing about this seemed right.


Newly Released

“Insightful, raw and eye-opening…highlights a topic we all find uncomfortable, that perhaps we choose to ignore, and prods us to take a deeper look and be an advocate for change. It is timely and well worth reading.” ★★★★★ Rebmay, Amazon Canada Reviewer

Finding Home

Finding Home

What happens when a family loses everything and has no place to go?

Terrance Mack has a wife and two young boys. Never in a million years did he expect to find his family living on the streets, with no home, no jobs, in a position where everything they owned has been taken from them in the cruelest of ways. As the family struggles to stay together, they encounter a hard and unfriendly way of life, having to move from town to town, being harassed by the police and by locals, and confronting danger each day. Living on the streets is nothing as he expected.

All Terrance wants for his family is for someone to give them a chance—a chance for a new beginning, a roof over their heads, the opportunity to once again build a life without constant fear, having to look over their shoulders, feeling as if the rug will continue to be yanked out from under them again and again.

The worst is seeing the light in his wife’s eyes slowly diminish, along with the hope they once had. Terrance carries a constant weight, and every day brings a new challenge as doors close and they’re forced to move on. Even though they’ve stayed together, finding a place to stay has forced the family into survival mode, living one day at a time. The dignity Terrance once took for granted has become something he struggles to hold on to as he dreams of one day being able to have a peaceful night’s sleep.

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When Joe Wilde surprises his new bride, Margaret, with a honeymoon, she is speechless—but not from surprise!  She soon wonders, should she be running the other way?

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Sneak Peek

Read the first 5 chapters of The Gatekeeper!

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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