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Read the first 5 chapters of my next release!

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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The Free Friday Read

Here’s your Free Friday Read

It’s the Free Friday Read!  Tonight I have a Friessen family throwback short story for you which followed The Homecoming and features a young Brad, Jed, Neil and Robbie.  Read When They Were Young below.  Plus don’t forget to check out the newest Billy Jo McCabe mystery, now available everywhere, and grab some free Audible codes, too.  Happy weekend!

Chapter 1 

This would all be his one day. 

Being the eldest of three boys, twelve-year-old Brad Friessen knew that this cattle ranch outside Hoquiam, Washington, which encompassed three hundred acres bordering the state park and had been in the family since the first Friessen settled in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s—1859, to be exact—would all be his to run, to own, to have. Over the last few years, his father had aggressively bought up the surrounding land and property before developers could get their hands on it, amassing another hundred acres. Brad made a point of listening when his mom and dad were talking. His dad was a brilliant man, and Brad believed he would soon own everything on this side of the peninsula. It made him feel proud to have that kind of power behind him. 

It was a history few families had, but as his father, Rodney Friessen, had told him many times, the Friessen name meant something here. Brad’s grandfather, Angus Friessen, had been a state senator and president of the Cattlemen’s Association. Although Brad had never met him, considering he’d died before he was born, he had heard stories about how he could make anything happen. Angus Friessen had been a powerful man. This was his part of the country. 

“Brad,” his dad called out to him, stepping out the back door of the house, his blue jeans tucked into gumboots. He was tall, strong, dark haired, and the kind of man Brad wanted to be. 

Brad held the reins of his quarter horse, Bucky, already saddled, and took in his dad heading his way. 

“Where’re you off to?” Rodney said. “I thought I told you to clean out all the stalls in the barn.” 

Of course he had, and Brad had done just that. He was about to reply when he heard the clomping of another horse and turned to see Neil coming out of the barn, leading his nearly all-black Arabian. Neil was a little shorter than Brad, but he had the same dark hair and amber eyes, and they’d always been unbelievably close. 

“We did. I helped Brad,” Neil said, stopping beside him, holding the reins. His horse had an attitude, and depending on the day, the season, or his general mood, he had thrown Neil a time or two. Brad suspected the horse was really a mirror to who Neil was at times, the brother who stood out and had to take center stage. “We’ve got things to do, Dad,” Neil continued. “We’re taking a ride out to our treehouse down at the ravine. We need to finish the roof. Robbie’s probably already there. Come on, Dad, we can’t keep him waiting. We’re late now.” 

Brad wasn’t sure what to make of his dad’s expression, the way he took in Neil and then him. His face hinted he could say no just as easy as yes—just a feeling he had. “Dad, I’ve done everything you’ve said to do…” he started. 

“Actually, you had your brother help you. That’s different than doing it yourself. Neil, you were supposed to herd up all the horses, bring them in, brush them all down, and clean out their hooves. I’m pretty sure you didn’t get to that,” Rodney said without even a smile. 

“You said over the weekend, Dad,” Brad said. “It’s only Saturday. I’ll help Neil with the horses tomorrow.” He was careful not to challenge his dad too much, which he’d done on more than one occasion, as his mom had pointed out. They were too much alike in too many ways. 

“So you’re meeting Robbie Davis,” Rodney said. 

Of course they were. They hung out all the time. They were friends. Brad just looked at his dad, seeing the way he seemed suddenly angry about something. 

“Not sure I want you to hang out with him all the time,” Rodney said. “It seems he’s the only one you’re ever with. And that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about…” 

“Dad, Robbie is my best friend,” Neil said, cutting in. “You’re not going to tell me I can’t see him?” 

Brad wasn’t sure what to make of his dad, who pulled in a breath and settled his gaze on Neil. 

“I’m just saying that I don’t want you going over to Robbie’s, not right now. I’ve got some business with his dad, so I want you to just steer clear for a bit.” His dad took him in next as if letting him know it was up to him to get Neil to listen. 

“Fine, can we go?” Brad said without elaborating on the fact that Robbie was going to be waiting for them. His dad gave him that heavy gaze and then nodded. 

“And what about your brother?” 

He knew his dad meant Jed, the baby, who was eight and always dogging his heels. “Dad, it’s just me and Neil. We don’t want Jed tagging along. We want to move fast.” He didn’t want to have to look after his brother, but he knew that was what his dad was going to say next. 

“Too bad. Take Jed with you and look after him, or you don’t go.” 

Brad was about to argue when Neil nudged him and said, “Sure, Jed can come if he wants to, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to hang out with us today. Considering the roof we still need to put on the treehouse, I don’t think Jed’s going to be too interested in helping.” 

There he went. Neil could talk his way, or rather their way, out of anything, and it always sounded damn frickin’ convincing. Brad had to fight the urge to laugh, considering he’d basically told Jed to get lost just that morning, though not in those words. He’d even dropped the “F” bomb, knowing his mom would likely give him an earful if she heard, but Brad had been brushing his teeth after breakfast, and his brother had wanted to hang out with him. 

Brad had expected Jed to go tell their mom, who would, he knew, make him include him. That was what she always did, thinking that all of them had to hang around together all the time, being brothers. And then there was Brad’s mouth, as if swearing wasn’t something he’d heard his mom and dad both do. The fact was that Jed was so much younger that hanging out together felt like looking after him. Instead, he wanted to move fast and not have to worry about Jed giving his mom a blow by blow of everything they weren’t supposed to be doing. 

His dad gave an odd laugh under his breath as he stared down at Neil. The terseness of his lips had the hair on the back of Brad’s neck standing up. 

“Jed…” Rodney called out, and they didn’t have to wait more than a second for the screen of the back door to squeak open. 

“Yeah, Dad?” he answered, and Brad could feel his afternoon with just Neil and Robbie, hanging around with the freedom to do things he didn’t want his parents knowing about, slipping away. Namely, they had planned to check on the cougar den they’d found under a huge uprooted tree, but Jed would definitely tell their mom, who would tell their dad, and Brad would likely be grounded for the next month. He just loved the challenge, the danger. It was what drove him and excited him. 

“Your brothers are going out to the treehouse down at the ravine,” Rodney said. “You know the one you helped build? They said you weren’t interested in tagging along. Is that true?” 

Jed stepped out of the house in his old cowboy boots, pulling at his jean jacket, his hair a lighter brown than his and Neil’s and a scowl on his face as he strode their way. “If they’re going to the treehouse, so am I. They didn’t invite me,” he added. 

Brad was about ready to kick his brother, but the way his dad was staring down at him, he knew he’d figured out what he and Neil had been up to. 

“I suggest you two give your brother a hand saddling up his horse,” Rodney said, “and stay away from that cougar den. I know you, Brad and Neil. You two are always poking into trouble, not thinking it can hurt you. But hear me well: That mother cougar will go after Jed first, the smallest, so you make sure he sticks close.” 

Then his dad was walking into the barn and saying something to Jed, whom he could hear already opening the stall door of his paint, Trudy. 

“Well, it could be worse,” Neil said as he tied the lead rope of his mare to the ring on the side of the barn. 

“Oh, and how is that? Because as I see it, having Jed tag along means we won’t be having the fun we want to have today.” 

Neil just shrugged. “It’ll be fine. Jed won’t bother us. He just wants to hang around. We’ll make him do all the hard stuff. He’s smaller than us and can get up into those tight places.” Neil had a wicked side at times, but at the same time, he didn’t have the same responsibility on his shoulders as Brad did. He wondered if his brother would ever understand what it was like to be the eldest. 

Chapter 2 

“Hey, it’s about time you got here,” Robbie called out from the platform, which was about five feet off the ground, built from branches and old pieces of wood they had dragged out that way. The ladder was a rusty metal one that he and Neil had taken from the pile of old farm equipment over by one of the sheds that stored the winter hay. Neil had said their dad would never miss it. Robbie wondered, though, considering he’d heard his dad talk about the problems he was having with Mr. Friessen. His dad had called him an asshole, so of course he was curious. 

He watched as Brad, Neil, and Jed rode up on their horses and tied them in the little clearing they’d made below the treehouse. 

Robbie squatted down in his bare feet. His shoes and socks were soaked from the walk over. He and his dad’s small house was on the east side of the Friessen land, and they had always lived there. Neil, Brad, and Jed had always been his friends—well, mainly Neil, since they were the same age and in the same classes, and he thought they shared the same dreams. He was his bestie. 

Brad was arrogant at times and loved telling them both what to do, and little Jed was a pissant with a mouth on him, not scared to tell his older brothers where to go. Just last week he’d flipped Brad the bird after dragging a huge branch that had to have weighed three times more than him to the fort and helping get it up the ladder. Robbie had no idea where a kid that size summoned the strength. His contribution had become the main part of the floor, and afterward Brad had told him to get lost. At the same time, he idolized Brad. Robbie knew that Brad didn’t have a clue. 

“Looks like you’re almost done,” Brad called out to him. Neil was already climbing up the ladder, carrying a small backpack he’d untied from the back of the horse, Jed behind him. 

“Well, I waited hours for you guys. You were supposed to be here after breakfast. Got tired of waiting, so I managed to slide up the rest of the branches for the roof myself. Just need to do the one side and then we’re done.” 

He could hear Brad on the ladder as Neil dumped the backpack on the floor and Jed crawled in on his knees and sat down. 

“I brought snacks,” Neil said. Jed sat beside him, waiting patiently. 

“That’s good, because I’m starving,” Robbie said. Since his dad had left for work early that morning, he’d downed a bowl of Cheerios and then started walking. His dad was supposed to pick up groceries on the way home when he got off at the lumber yard. Otherwise, Robbie would’ve packed a sandwich, but the bread was gone, and all that was left were frozen hamburgers, canned peas and corn, a bag of potatoes, and cereal. Yeah, he’d finished the last of the milk, too. 

He took in the bag of Doritos, a block of cheese, three apples, and a bag of chocolate chip cookies that Neil pulled out before handing him a can of cola. “Oh, nice,” Robbie said as he popped the can. “Can always count on you, Neil.” 

Brad climbed onto their makeshift floor, feeling the creak. They’d never tested the weight with all of them up there, and Brad squatted down as if overseeing all of it before taking a look out and down to the horses. 

“This is a great view. We did a great job. Maybe next weekend we can bring our sleeping bags and sleep up here for a night,” Brad said. 

“That would be so much fun,” Jed called out, ripping open the bag of Doritos. He shoved his hand inside and stuffed a handful in his mouth. 

“You’re not coming, Jed,” Brad said. “You’re too young and little, and I’m not looking after you overnight. Besides, this isn’t big enough for all of us to sleep up here, and this is our treehouse, not yours.” 

Oh, here we go. The Jed and Brad thing was about to start up again. 

“I don’t take up much room, and I’m not too little—and I helped build this, so it’s as much mine as it is yours. Besides, Dad will say no. You’re not sleeping out here, either.” 

Damn, Jed was smart. Robbie had to give him that. “Jed, you’re right,” he said. “It is all of ours, and we couldn’t have built it without you. Brad, stop arguing with Jed. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be almost done.” 

Brad was evidently ready to argue some more. It wasn’t lost on Robbie how he was always trying to take charge, tell them all what to do. “I’m the one who found the spot, and this is all going to be my land,” he said. 

Neil gave him a look that said he’d crossed a line. “Maybe so, Brad, but this treehouse is a shared project. It’s all ours and will never be just yours. And, just for the record, this property isn’t yours yet, and it’ll be a lot of years before it is.” Neil sat cross legged, reaching his hand in the backpack again. “You don’t get to tell any of us who can come and who can’t.” 

Neil did have a way of putting Brad in his place, Robbie thought. He expected Brad to start arguing. 

“Jed, if we sleep up here, yeah, you can come too,” Robbie said, knowing that would really piss off Brad. He could see the way Brad firmed his lips, ready to argue. Yeah, Robbie had gotten on his bad side a time or two. 

“Cut it out, Brad,” Neil said. He had pulled out a cutting board and a small sharp paring knife. “Let’s just sit down, enjoy the snacks I brought, and stop bickering—because you both know Mom will likely be the one to say no, not Dad. I for one don’t want to spend the few hours I get to spend out here arguing. You’re not the boss.” 

“Neil, is that Mom’s good knife?” Brad said as he reached for a ginger ale and popped the top, then sat down, crossing his legs and taking in Robbie’s wet shoes and socks. 

“I suppose. She won’t miss it, though,” Neil said as he sliced through the block of cheddar and then turned to Jed, who was watching him, and pointed to him with the knife. “And don’t you go telling her.” 

Jed just nodded, looked over to Robbie, and smiled. Then he opened the bag of cookies and held it out, offering one first to Brad, who took it, and then Robbie. 

“So what’s going on with your dad?” Brad said as Robbie took a bite of his cookie and chewed. He could see the way Neil looked up. There was something going on, something he didn’t know. 

“Brad, I don’t think we should be talking about this,” Neil said. 

Brad shrugged. “Why not? I’m kind of curious why Dad said what he did, making it sound as if he’s got a problem with your dad. He actually told us to stay away, so I’m kind of wondering if you know what’s going on.” 

Robbie lifted the cola and took a swallow, then looked over to Neil for a clue. Neil only shrugged, so Robbie said, “I don’t think it’s my dad. I’m pretty sure it’s yours. I know mine called yours an asshole, and I heard him say that your dad thinks he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and he was having none of that.” 

Actually, his dad had said Rodney Friessen was an entitled asshole who took from anyone and everyone. He had more than his fair share and should spread the wealth around, but he was just a greedy bastard. He’d thought that was just his dad blowing off steam, as he’d said the same about his boss at the lumber yard and the lady at the bank. Everyone, as far as he was concerned, was a crook. 

“My dad wouldn’t be the bad guy here,” Brad said. “I’m sure your dad did something.” 

Robbie could feel the anger start right in the pit of his stomach as he looked over to Brad. He wanted to hit him. 

“Hey, how about you both knock it off?” Neil said. “Let’s stop talking about our dads. This is supposed to fun.” 

Jed was frowning as if he was considering what Brad had said. 

“Sure,” Robbie said, “but just the same, my dad isn’t the kind of man who’s going to let your dad get away with anything or push him around.” He didn’t know why he’d said that, mainly to have the last word and wipe that smug look off Brad’s face. Brad thought he was the king of the castle or, in this case, the land. 

“Robbie, seriously,” Neil snapped. 

He took in his friend, whom he’d shared just about everything with, and saw that he’d said too much. “Fine, truce. How about we all agree to not talk about our dads?” 

Brad seemed a little too pissed, though. Jed said nothing as he looked from Brad to Neil and then over to him. 

Neil finally held up the cutting board, offering Robbie the cut pieces of cheese, and said, “Yeah, no dad talk—and no one tells Mom I also took the block of cheese she just bought.” 

Chapter 3 

“Go and make sure the coast is clear, Jed, so I can put the cutting board and knife back before Mom sees,” Neil said after unsaddling his horse, brushing her down, and putting her in one of the stalls with a fleck of hay. Brad was already walking with his and Jed’s horses to the paddock outside, where his dad’s other six horses were grazing. 

“Okay, that was so much fun. Are we going to go again tomorrow?” Jed said, walking beside him. 

Neil leaned down and picked up his backpack from where he had rested it against the barn. “We’ll try. Have to finish the horses first, so if you give me a hand, then we have a better chance of going. Dad said I had to get all the horses groomed this weekend.” 

“Yup, I’ll help,” Jed said before running toward the house and pulling open the screen door. Neil could hear him talking to someone—his dad, he thought, who stepped out of the house and down the steps, walking his way. 

“You were gone a while. Any problems out there?” Rodney called out. 

Jed peeked out the back door and held up his little hand for Neil to stop. Evidently, the coast wasn’t clear. 

“No, it was fun. Kind of lost track of time,” Neil said. Behind him, he could hear Brad walking through the barn, his boots scraping the concrete. 

“So you were hanging out with Robbie.” His dad stared down at him with that look that said they were in a bit of trouble. 

“Jed told you,” Neil said. He hadn’t meant to say it, but he could tell by the way his dad lifted his brows and didn’t answer that it had been his brother, who clearly hadn’t understood the instructions “Don’t tell Dad we were with Robbie.” 

“Robbie is my friend, Dad. If you’re having problems with his dad, then that’s between you and him. I told Robbie the same thing.” Neil squeezed the strap of his backpack, feeling his heart hammering, knowing that it wasn’t smart to talk to his dad the way he did. 

“If I tell you to stay away from someone, you will listen,” Rodney said. “My issues with his father have nothing to do with Robbie, but I’m not comfortable with you hanging out with him, considering his father has become a sizeable problem for me.” 

Brad stopped beside him, and Neil wasn’t sure what to make of what his dad was saying. He didn’t know Gary Davis well, having only said hey and bye and answered a few questions about school now and then, things like did he like it and was he doing well, as well as the occasional warning not to go getting into trouble. That was it. 

Rodney dragged his gaze over to Brad and let it linger. “And you, being the oldest, when I tell you to do something, you listen. When I trust that you’ll listen and do as you’re told, then you get to go off on your horse alone with your brothers. If not, you can hang out here and do a considerable amount of work, mucking out stalls, hosing down the barn, fixing fences, and digging in the mud, so much so that you’ll have absolutely no free time other than for school and homework.” The way he said it, Neil could feel the trouble they were in, but at the same time, it was Brad who was getting it. Neil always, for some reason, escaped his brother’s fate. 

“Okay, I get it, Dad,” Brad said. “It won’t happen again. Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you and Robbie’s dad, but I do know that Robbie said his dad wasn’t going to let you push him around.” 

Neil dragged his gaze up to Brad, surprised he’d repeated what Robbie said. Neil was still kind of pissed at the back and forth between Brad and Robbie about their dads. Today was supposed to have been fun, not a pissing match over whose dad was a better man. At the same time, he was bothered that Robbie’s dad could pose a possible problem. 

“Robbie said that?” Rodney asked. Neil just stared at Brad as he nodded. 

“He said his dad called you an asshole, said you thought you could do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted, and he was having none of that. I don’t know what’s going on, Dad, but it sounds like Mr. Davis is pretty mad at you.” 

Neil wasn’t sure what to say as Rodney rested his hand on Brad’s shoulder and squeezed. He seemed to be thinking some pretty dark thoughts. 

“You boys get the horses put away,” he finally said. There it was, a change of subject. 

“Mine’s in the stall inside, and Brad put his and Jed’s out to graze,” Neil said, still squeezing the strap of the backpack. 

His dad took in him and then Brad. “Well, you two, don’t worry about this thing with Robbie’s dad. It will be rectified soon. Your mother has dinner almost ready. Go in and wash up.” 

Then his dad was gone, and Neil took in Jed, who was still at the back door and was now motioning to hurry up. The coast was clear. 

“So why did you tell Dad what Robby said?” he asked Brad as they walked to the door. 

Brad simply shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “He’s our dad. He should know.” 

Neil took in Brad, the way he looked past him to the barn and the house. 

“You know what Dad always says,” Brad continued. “Look after family first.” Then he stepped into the house. 

At the door, Jed whispered, “I’m sorry. It just slipped out. I didn’t mean to tell Dad we were with Robbie.” 

What could Neil say? He had two brothers who couldn’t keep their mouths shut. One was too little to understand the concept of not telling their mom and dad, and the other at times surprised him with what he chose to share. 

Chapter 4 

“Okay, the store was closed by the time I got there, so I picked us up a pizza,” Robbie’s dad said as he came in the front door, and Robbie listened to the thump of what sounded like the pizza box landing on their kitchen table and the creak of the old floorboards in the house. 

Robbie had the TV on and was sitting cross legged on the sofa in the small living room. His dad had sawdust in his dark hair. He was lanky and tall, and Robbie took in his ring finger, on which he still wore his plain gold wedding band, even though Robbie’s mom had been dead since he was five, from breast cancer. He didn’t think his dad would ever take it off, as her loss had left a deep hole that would never heal. 

He took in her big bright smile in the photo that was still on the wall. Young and beautiful. It left him empty. 

“What were you up to today?” his dad said as he walked into the bathroom. Robbie could hear him taking a leak and then flushing. 

“Oh, not much,” he replied. He had just hung out with his friends, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that Brad thought he was so much better than him. Rodney Friessen owned a lot of land around them, but that was as far as it went. He had no say anywhere else. So why did it sting so much? 

He listened to his dad wash his hands as he slipped off the sofa, hearing a pickup. He stopped at the open door and saw the big green truck, fairly new, parked beside his dad’s older model Ford. He knew it was Rodney Friessen. Maybe that was why his heart was hammering in his chest so hard. 

“Is someone there?” his dad called out, and Robbie had to force himself to swallow before he could answer. 

“Mister Friessen,” he said, then went to the table and sat down, taking in his empty bowl of cereal from that morning and the pizza box. He lifted the lid just as he heard the sharp rap on the door, and as he pulled out a piece, he took in the hardened expression on his dad’s face. 

His dad stood at the screen, staring out to what Robbie knew was Mr. Friessen staring back at him. It was another second, while he forced himself to take a bite of the tasteless pizza, before his dad opened the door. 

“What do you want?” his dad said. 

“I’m here to settle some things with you,” Mr. Friessen said. There was nothing friendly in his voice, nothing friendly in his demand. For a minute, Robbie feared his dad would learn that he’d disobeyed him and had gone out to meet Brad and Neil and Jed. Then he’d basically be up shit creek, in trouble, grounded. For how long, he didn’t have a clue. He tried to make himself small as he sat there in the chair, holding the pizza over his cereal bowl. His dad glanced once to him, and he took in the flash of anger that simmered there. 

Rodney Friessen walked in and stood maybe five feet from him. 

“I am so fucking tired of all your bullshit,” Mr. Friessen said, “and you doing your damnedest to make my life a living hell. You’ve put up fences and blocked access to water for the cattle. You drive right across my field to the road when I asked you repeatedly to stay on the path by the crop of trees, the old logging road, yet you keep driving through where my cattle graze. You shoot your gun to scare them off. Then there’s all the junk you leave everywhere—old water tanks, scraps of metal. Look at this place! It looks like a fucking junkyard.” 

This was the norm, the fights with Mr. Friessen. Him and his dad would never be friends, which was likely why his dad didn’t want him being friends with Neil, Brad, and Jed. 

Yeah, his dad was mad, as well. He walked over to the fridge, pulled it open, and grabbed a bottle of beer, then used the side of the counter that was already chipped to take off the cap. Robbie heard it hit the floor. His dad took a big swallow and said nothing, but he didn’t need to. Robbie knew when his dad was at the point of no return. There was that angry stage where he would yell, and that terrified him, and then there was the quiet, which was so much worse, because it meant that his dad had gone beyond anger. He remembered it well from after his mom had died, and he didn’t want his dad there ever again. 

“You took the fence down when you drove over the field,” Mr. Friessen said. “The cows got out again.” 

“You think I want to drive down that old rutty road? No, that’s ten minutes out of the way. I have every right to drive across the way I do. Those damn cows you have don’t need to be here by my place. You have hundreds of acres and a lot of other land that’s nowhere near us. Hearing them at night, no! No more. Move them. You bet I fired off my rifle, and I’ll keep doing it. I have a job I have to get to on time without dealing with a herd that blocks my way. I have bills to pay and don’t have time to be sitting, waiting for cows to move.” 

Robbie forced himself to take another bite of pizza, wishing he could slip out and sneak off into his room with his dinner. He could put a pillow over his ears, and that would make it more bearable. But they would see him, considering Mr. Friessen was standing in his way, so he tried to shrink down so they wouldn’t know he was there. 

“Well, that’s about to come to an end,” Mr. Friessen said. 

Robbie took in his dad and the way he held his beer as Mr. Friessen reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. 

“What’s that?” his dad asked. 

“Your eviction notice.” 

His dad actually started laughing. “You’re crazy. I own this land, this place. You’re a guest here, and I’ve heard about enough from you.” 

But Mr. Friessen held the paper out to him, and his dad finally took it and flipped it open. The expression on his face brought a sick feeling to Robbie’s stomach. He clutched the pizza and couldn’t take another bite, so he put it down in his bowl. 

“You can’t do this,” his dad said. “This is impossible. You can’t own this. This is my land, my house.” 

“Actually, not anymore. I warned you before what would happen to you if you kept aggravating me, if you kept being a problem.” 

His dad lowered his hand, still holding the paper, but the expression on his face reminded Robbie of how he’d been after his mom died. “This isn’t legal. You can’t just take my land. How?” 

“I was going to put a lien on the lot, but my research revealed no official records on this place, just the fact that it was in your name and your dad’s before that. Fixing that is easy enough when you know the right people. So hear me: You have twenty-four hours to clear out everything. This is now my land, my place. If you’re still here when I come back this time tomorrow with the sheriff, with the law, who is on my side, I’ll have you arrested for trespassing and whatever other charges we come up with. I guarantee you it will be enough that you’ll never again see the light of day. Don’t think I won’t do it or can’t do it.” 

All Robbie could do was stare at this man, who was his best friend’s father, putting the screws to his dad. Then Mr. Friessen walked over to the door, and his gaze landed on Robbie for a second before it drifted back to his dad. There wasn’t a smile or anything for him. He was looking at him with the same hatred he gave his dad. 

“I mean it,” he said. “Be gone, and take everything you want, because you will not be allowed back on this land or in this county, or I’ll have you thrown in jail. Leave this town and don’t come back, because if I see you anywhere near the county line, I’ll follow through on my threat. I want you out of town tonight, and I don’t want to see or hear from you again. I have plans for this place, and now, with you gone, this eyesore on my land will be gone too.” 

Then he was gone out the door, and his dad threw his beer bottle against the wall. It shattered, and Robbie jumped. His father roared, fisting his hands. It was a sound that terrified him and chilled him to the bone. 

“Dad…” he cried out, scared as all hell. 

His father just moved over to the wall in the kitchen and sank down to the floor, resting his arms on his knees and pressing his hands to his head. Robbie didn’t know how long he sat there. He just stared at the pizza, his father, and the shattered glass on the floor. 

“Okay, go pack your bags,” his dad finally said to him. 

“But where are we going to go? What are we going to do? Dad, this is our house, isn’t it?” 

It was suddenly real. His dad moved onto his knees and stood up, then started out of the room. He pressed his hand against the doorframe and didn’t look back at Robbie. “Don’t know,” he said. “Just pack your bags. We got screwed, Robbie. That’s what happens. Don’t ever forget it. Rodney Friessen just stole everything from us, from you. He took your future. That man is the enemy. Don’t ever forget it, Robbie. The Friessens are people you should hate. He’s a bad man. These are bad people.” 

Chapter 5 

It was getting late. Neil had left Brad at the treehouse after slipping away from home and leaving Jed. His dad was in the den, on the phone, and his mom was doing laundry in back. 

Robbie should have been waiting for them at the treehouse, but he’d never come. They’d waited over an hour, he thought, the rain falling and the day a misty gray. He knew they wouldn’t be able to wait much longer, so Brad had stayed and Neil had left. 

He ran along the edge of the path to the open field, seeing Robbie’s house in the distance. He expected to see smoke coming from the stovepipe, but there was nothing, and as he ran closer, he worried that Mr. Davis would be home, but he saw nothing as he walked around the front of the house to the open porch and up its four steps. All was quiet. 

He knocked on the screen door. The inside door was closed, and he looked around but saw nothing, heard nothing. 

Neil pulled open the screen door. The squeal should have alerted anyone inside. He knocked again and listened. He expected to hear footsteps, anything, but there was nothing. He rested his hand on the doorknob, his heart thumping in his ears, and called out, “Robbie.” 

There was nothing, so he opened the door and stepped inside the kitchen. The fridge was open, and an empty bowl sat on the table. 

“Robbie,” he called out again as he stepped into the living room, seeing the walls were bare. The TV was gone, too, and there was nothing there but a sofa and a chair. All the photos were gone. Everything that made a house a home was no longer there. He went into the bathroom and saw it was empty, not a toothbrush or even a bar of soap. Then there was Robbie’s room, with just the frame of a bed and a bare mattress. The closets were empty. 

It took Neil a second to understand what he was looking at: an empty house, an empty home. His friend was just gone. 

Neil was out of breath by the time he ran back to the treehouse. 

“What took you so long? We have to go. Where’s Robbie?” Brad called out as he climbed down. 

“He’s gone,” Neil said. “The house is empty. There’s nothing there. He’s just gone. He didn’t tell us he was leaving.” Neil could feel the ache in his chest, and it was horrible, the loss. 

Brad said nothing for a second and then started walking. 

“Where are you going?” Neil called out. 

“Home,” Brad said. “We need to get home before Mom and Dad wonder where we are.” 

Neil had to run to catch up to him. “But what about Robbie?” he asked, still wondering how his friend could just leave without saying a word. 

“Guess he’s gone. What’s there to say? Come on, Neil. We need to get home before we’re in trouble.” Brad hurried down the path that led back to the house. 

“And that’s it?” Neil said. He couldn’t believe Brad could just shake it off like that. Robbie was his friend, his best friend. How could he just be gone? 

“There’s nothing to say, Neil. He left. They moved. There’s nothing you can do about it. Gone is gone,” Brad said. 

All Neil could do as they walked side by side was look over to the east end of the property and wonder where his friend had gone. 


New Release

“Never a dull moment in this latest book in this much loved series. One that highlights the reality of human trafficking…Another winner…” ★★★★★ Yvonne C., Amazon Reviewer

The Children

The Children

She picked up the wrong file, and now everything is falling apart.

 

 

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. When social worker Billy Jo McCabe accidentally picks up the wrong file, she discovers a shocking, twisted mystery plotted by a high-ranking social worker in the DCFS.

 

When Billy Jo McCabe accidentally picks up the wrong file, before she realizes her mistake, she discovers a secret no one was supposed to find.

She takes the file to the newly appointed chief of police, Mark Friessen, but he doesn’t believe her—that is, until they discover dozens more files and missing money from vulnerable at-risk children who have aged out of the system and are living on the streets.

As she digs into the files, the system, and the people involved, everything falls apart.

And what Mark and Billy Jo discover is a secret far more shocking than missing money.

More info →
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The Free Friday Read

Read the first 5 chapters of my upcoming release!

The Children

The Children

She picked up the wrong file, and now everything is falling apart.

 

 

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. When social worker Billy Jo McCabe accidentally picks up the wrong file, she discovers a shocking, twisted mystery plotted by a high-ranking social worker in the DCFS.

 

When Billy Jo McCabe accidentally picks up the wrong file, before she realizes her mistake, she discovers a secret no one was supposed to find.

She takes the file to the newly appointed chief of police, Mark Friessen, but he doesn’t believe her—that is, until they discover dozens more files and missing money from vulnerable at-risk children who have aged out of the system and are living on the streets.

As she digs into the files, the system, and the people involved, everything falls apart.

And what Mark and Billy Jo discover is a secret far more shocking than missing money.

More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from Apple Books
Buy from Kobo
Buy from Google Play

Chapter 1

“Pam, I need the Gillespie file. Can you grab it for me?” Billy Jo said as she finished scribbling her notes. When she realized she hadn’t heard anything in reply, she looked over to the open door of her office and leaned back in her chair, her laptop open, listening, expecting to hear footsteps, but she heard nothing.

“Pam…” she called out again, scooting her chair way back, looking to the darkened hallway, really listening. But it was quiet.

Too quiet.

She pushed back her chair and stepped into the dimly lit hall to see a darkened front door and no Pam. When she pulled back the sleeve of her navy shirt and looked at her watch, it was only ten after four.

“You couldn’t even tell me you were leaving?” she muttered. Pam didn’t report to her, but wasn’t it a matter of courtesy?

Billy Jo walked over to the file cabinet and pulled open the second drawer, where she knew “G” was halfway down, seeing how packed full it was with paper and files, every one of them signifying a child and family in trouble.

“Gillespie, where are you?” She spotted the thick labeled file and pulled it out, realizing another file had been stuck inside it. She walked the bundle over to Pam’s cleared-off desk and opened it to see a stack of papers, with notes written on the inside of the folder, as well.

She pulled out the inside file and spotted “Rae, Deena” scribbled in pen on the tab, and she found herself really looking at all the notes by Jim Stone, an older social worker from a year ago or maybe earlier—notes and numbers, with what looked like dollar amounts listed:

$2,384

$1,177

$129

$4,584

She didn’t have a clue what any of it meant.

She flicked her gaze to the Gillespie file and then back to the Rae file before unfolding a thick piece of paper from the latter. An envelope slipped out and fell to the industrial gray carpet. She bent down and picked it up.

“What is this?” She took in the folded envelope with “Jim Stone” scribbled messily in pencil on the front. It was unsealed, so she opened it and found a check inside, the kind of state check she was familiar with.

The amount of $834 was made out to Deena Rae, and from the color of the check and the date, she knew it was from over a year earlier. “Who is Deena Rae?” she said, recalling the file had been tucked inside the Gillespie file. She flipped the check over again to see that Deena Rae had in turn signed it over to Jim Stone.

What the hell?

Billy Jo looked up and over to the tinted industrial windows. This seemed both off and wrong. When her cell phone started ringing, she glanced over her shoulder to her office but turned back to the file, to the check she was holding. She flipped through the pages of notes, looking for an intake form or something, her brow furrowing. There was a photo: dark hair, Hispanic, she thought, and not very old, maybe early teens, with the same haunted mugshot expression she was familiar with.

“Now, why is a check for Deena Rae signed over to you, Jim…?”

The locked front door rattled, and then came a pounding. Her cell phone was ringing again, too. She looked over to see her guy on the other side of the door. Mark wore a jean jacket and blue jeans, and damn, did he look good. Check in hand, she strode to the door in her sandals and faded jeans and flicked open the lock.

He pulled the door open, and her heart did a flip-flop. “You didn’t answer,” he said.

“Sorry, was trying to figure out a mystery.” She held up the check and took in his frown in reply. Was this that feeling everyone talked about, that honeymoon phase, where she wanted to spend every second around him?

His gaze lingered, and she wondered if he knew what she was thinking. He reached for the check and really looked at it, turning it over. It was the cop in him that made him too perfect for her. “What is this?”

She started walking, feeling him right behind her, so close. His hand slid over her back as she neared Pam’s desk. “I was looking for a file and found this one tucked inside it, for a Deena Rae, whom I’ve never seen before. That check was in this envelope. Not sure why it was signed over to Jim Stone. He was a social worker here a year ago, maybe, I think.”

His hand fell away, but he was standing so close to her, looking over her at the file. She didn’t need to touch him because there was barely an inch between them, just like when they were sleeping. She never would have believed sleeping next to someone would be something she could get used to.

“I take it this is unusual?” he said. Damn, he was handsome when he was trying to figure something out. This was the man she could see herself with forever.

“Yeah. I mean, what is this check even for? Deena Rae… I’m thinking this is her photo. Young, by the looks of it, and she signed over a check. Why? It hasn’t been cashed.”

“You know, Billy Jo, it could be for a dozen reasons. Maybe she didn’t have a bank account. You found it in the file?”

She nodded. “Yup, tucked in an envelope right here, with Jim’s name on it. I don’t know, Mark. That doesn’t make sense. If a youth is getting a check from the state, she doesn’t sign it over to a social worker.”

Mark was holding the check back out to her, and she could see he was done with the topic as he glanced to the door and back to her. “You almost finished? I want to grab some dinner. Carmen’s on tonight, so thought we’d do a steak and then head home.”

And that was it. He wasn’t going to ask anything else.

She tucked the check back in the envelope and closed up the file. “Yeah, I’m done. So that’s it?”

He seemed distracted. “I’m hungry,” he said. “It’s a check. You’re sure it wasn’t cashed?”

Her brow knit. “Yeah,” she said. “This is odd.”

He let out a sigh. “Look, you said he hasn’t worked here in how long? So an uncashed check is stuck in a file. Seems like bureaucracy at its finest. I’m sure there’s an explanation, Billy Jo, that doesn’t involve us standing here, trying to figure out something that likely happened long ago. Maybe a new check was issued, or maybe it was a mistake. But the last thing I want to do after the day I’ve had is get tied up in some wild goose chase. Please let’s go eat.”

She was about to argue with him, and she wondered if that was why he pulled her close, right against him, and then leaned down and kissed her. She entwined her arms around his neck when he pulled back, appearing distracted.

“You okay?” she said. “Something happen today?”

He stepped back, which was also unlike him, and a shadow flickered across his expression. “Just the stress of being chief on an island where it seems like I’m constantly wading into a minefield of politics run rampant. Just once, you know, I’d like to not have to wonder what kind of bullshit is going to come out of the closet.” He ran his hand over the back of his neck. He really was not having a good day.

“Council still giving you problems?”

“Seems they’re always doing something—but, believe it or not, today it’s not them. Seems the state has suddenly flagged Carmen as a homegrown terrorist.” He wasn’t smiling.

She waited for the teasing, but his pissed-off expression remained in place. “Carmen, our Carmen?”

He angled his head. “My reaction exactly. I spent the rest of the day on the phone, being sent from one career politician to the next as each agency said it wasn’t their department. I finally called the Feds, talked with an Agent Mitchell in the Seattle office. Seems Carmen Zarko is a common name. I expected him to say he’d fix it, but guess what? It’s not that simple.”

She knew she was frowning. “And how did you find this out?”

He brushed back his jean jacket as he rested his hands on his hips, those hands that stirred so much in her, and she took in his holstered gun, his badge. “Well, funny thing. I convinced Carmen to take some time off, so she called her sister—you know, the one who has her kid? She worked something out and was going to fly down there, but she went to book her ticket and her name was flagged. She walked into my office, and I’ve never seen that look on her face before. I told her there had to be an explanation. It seems someone flagged her even though the Carmen Zarko who’s supposed to be on the list is a different Carmen, ten years older, and lives in Ecuador, part of some militia. All I got was runaround after runaround, from ‘It’s not my department,’ to ‘Sorry, I understand your frustration,’ to ‘Submit a request in writing to the state department.’ But, as the agent I was talking to said, I’ll need good luck, because Carmen has a better chance of winning the lottery than getting this fixed.” He let out a heavy sigh.

“So…” she started.

“So I told her to take an extra few days and drive. She told me thanks for trying. You know, sometimes, Billy Jo, the incompetence amazes me.”

She ran her hand over his arm. “So steak it is,” she said. At least now she knew why he wasn’t interested in helping her with this mystery.

“And your company,” he said as she slid her hands over his shoulders again, feeling how tight he was. He pulled her closer and patted her bottom. “You ready?”

She still needed to figure out why a signed check for Deena Rae was in that file. Then there was the Gillespie file and the paperwork she needed to finish. “Let me just grab my purse and my phone.”

He had that brooding look. She knew he was there for everyone. She kissed him again and then stepped away, starting back to the office, before she turned back to him.

“You know, Mark, you can do only what you can do.”

He let his gaze linger. “That doesn’t make me feel any better,” he said. He looked over to the open files she had left on Pam’s desk, files she planned to dig into, but tonight she needed to be there for Mark with dinner and a backrub. Tomorrow, she’d figure out what the story was with Deena Rae and the social worker, Jim Stone. Opening that file had thrown her into another mystery she knew she wouldn’t be able to turn away from.

She grabbed her purse and sweater and tucked her phone inside her bag. When she stepped out of the office, there was her quiet, brooding Mark, holding the check, looking at the file. All she could think of was something her mom had said, that sometimes you had to put aside your own worries to be there for someone you loved.

Chapter 2

Mark hated bureaucracy and red tape. He took a swallow of his coffee, hearing the phone ring in the background. The new dispatcher, Lacy Young, reminded him so much of Gail that he thought they could be sisters. They were the same age, and her confidence in handling the phones and any problems made his job easier. Then there was the new deputy, twenty-two-year-old Elisha Fields, her dark hair pinned back, on the phone, taking a report about what he thought was a stolen bike.

There was a knock on his open door, and he glanced up from the weekly report he was reading to see Carmen in blue jeans and a purple T-shirt, her purse over her shoulder.

“Chief, I’m heading out,” she said, wearing the same expression she always did. She really did hide everything she was feeling.

“You take those extra few days and drive safe,” he said.

She only nodded, then stepped inside his office. He could see she had something on her mind. “I will, thanks.” She closed his door, and Mark leaned back in his chair, hearing the squeak, realizing she was a little on edge. “I wanted to thank you for trying to get me off that no-fly list. You think I have anything to worry about, being labeled a terrorist? I mean, I know how it works, Mark…”

“Hey, it didn’t say ‘terrorist,’ it said ‘potential threat’—and it’s ridiculous. I’m going to keep working on it. I’ll get it squared away. You just go and enjoy yourself. The agent I talked to said it happens more than people realize. Just relax and enjoy the drive. You never know; by the time you get back, it may be sorted out.”

She lifted a brow, and he knew she didn’t a believe a word he’d said. Neither did he. “That’s wishful thinking,” she said. “Even I know that someone’s clerical error has just basically fucked over my life.”

He leaned forward, his forearms on his desk. “Carmen, I promise you it’ll get sorted out. The FBI agent I spoke with yesterday, Cole Mitchell, is aware now, and he told me to just keep calling everyone, writing everyone, to be noisy and not take no for an answer. People who throw their hands in the air and get frustrated, thinking it can’t be fixed, are why this happened to you. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but no one is going to come in here looking for you.”

He leaned back in his chair as he heard the front door and spotted Billy Jo. His dog, Lucky, walked over to her, and she made a fuss over him. Carmen glanced over her shoulder to Billy Jo, her expression still doubting.

“Thanks for trying. It’s appreciated,” she said, then turned to leave just as Billy Jo approached.

“I’m not interrupting…?” Billy Jo said.

Carmen shook her head and gestured to Mark. “Nope. See you, boss,” she said. Then she was gone.

Billy Jo took in Carmen and then dragged her gaze back to him, gesturing. “Everything okay?”

He took in her long red coat, which had to be new, black capris, and sleeveless turtleneck underneath. Damn, did she look good. The freckles splashed over her nose and face just made her who she was.

“Yeah, she’s just leaving for some much-needed time away,” he said.

Billy Jo closed the door, walked around his desk toward him, and leaned against it. His hand went to her thigh, running down over her leg, and she was right there, so close to him.

“So what’s up?” he said.

“I know you’re really distracted by the Carmen thing. I would be surprised if you got it sorted out.”

He didn’t say anything, knowing she had something on her mind. “Can’t do anything to resolve Carmen’s situation right now except keep calling anyone and everyone who could fix it. But I don’t have the patience to deal with being continually put on hold or told to call someone else. I get one name and then another until I’m sent right back where I started. So distract me. You can’t be done for the day. It’s not even…” He lifted his watch to see it was ten after three. “A late coffee break?”

She stared at him, unsmiling. “I can call my dad, fill him in on Carmen’s situation. You know he still has the contacts, being who he is, to at least get people off their asses and push you past the roadblocks being set in front of you.”

He wanted to say no, but he wasn’t a fool. Sometimes it was about knowing that one person who could understand the bureaucracy and fix something. “You wouldn’t mind?”

She angled her head and really looked at him before sliding off his desk. “Of course not. It will save you banging your head against the wall and getting nowhere. My dad can make a few calls and then a few more and will accomplish way more in a day than you would in six months.”

He knew she was right, and maybe that was what pissed him off more than anything. He lifted his hand, and she stood and strode over to the door. “So that’s it?”

Her hand was on the door, and she pulled it open, holding the frame. “Just taking something off your plate instead of adding to it. I’ll see you at home?”

Damn, she was perfect. He already felt better. He pushed back his chair, followed her to where she stood in the doorway, and ran his hands over her shoulders and down. “You’re perfect, I love you, and thanks.”

He leaned down and kissed her, letting his thumbs brush over her cheeks. She didn’t smile, and he could sense something else. He closed the door again and took in the surprise in her expression.

“Okay, tell me what’s going on,” he said, turning to lean against his desk, crossing his arms, waiting. He knew her so well, when something bothered her or was weighing on her. A case, a kid, anything.

“You have enough on your plate,” she said.

He stared at her and pulled in a breath. “Actually, no, I don’t. If you recall, you just took the main issue off it. Come on, what is it?”

She made a face, then reached into her purse, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and handed it to him.

“Okay what is this?” he said, unfolding the paper and taking in a list of names. She never played coy. “What is this, Billy Jo?”

She didn’t look away. In her blue eyes, which were always so serious, he could see that something really was bothering her. “Remember last night when you came by the office and I showed you that check?”

He stared at her, trying to remember what she was talking about. “That check you found in a file?”

She nodded, then stepped closer to him and tapped the paper he was still holding. “The check was made out to Deena Rae but was signed over to Jim Stone. He was the social worker here about a year ago. I asked Pam about it this morning, and she didn’t know anything. Deena Rae is a fourteen-year-old girl in the custody of CPS. I made a few calls to the homes she was supposed to be in, and each one said she had been moved. Those names are kids Jim Stone was the social worker of record for, and each was getting money from Child Protective Services…”

He shrugged. “Is that unusual?”

She rolled her eyes, something she did when she was frustrated. There was so much about Billy Jo that he knew well, and he realized she never let anything go. “No, payments to kids aren’t unusual. It depends on the situation, but they mostly go to older kids who are in special situations. It’s something a social worker has to apply for. It mostly goes to the family the child is in care of, for food and clothes. Those names are all kids Jim Stone advocated sending money to. Because there are so many, I pulled the files, and I was left wondering why an eight-year-old would need a check, or a three-month-old, who wouldn’t even have a bank account. I called up the accounting department to find that they were cashed. Every one of those names had monthly checks issued, including the three-month-old boy, Edgardo Deana, who died in CPS custody two years ago.”

Okay, she had his attention now.

“You sure about this?” he said.

She reached for the paper and took it from him. “Of course I’m sure. I wouldn’t be here bugging you about this, knowing everything you have on your plate, if I didn’t think there was a problem.”

“And it’s not some clerical mistake? I mean, CPS isn’t exactly known for running an organized agency.”

“It could be a mistake, of course. They make them all the time. But that’s not the point. The point is that there are too many names, and although I haven’t dug into all of them, with the ones I have, I’m seeing something I don’t like.”

Damn. Kids and animals were the issues he couldn’t turn his back on. “What do you want me to do?”

She pulled in her lower lip and bit it, then flicked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears. “There has to be a paper trail. After putting in a call to Grant, I found out Jim Stone took a new job in Cody, Wyoming, but when I called the CPS in Cody, they didn’t have anyone by that name working there. Can you go into your database and find out where he is? Just a hunch I have, but if I’m right, I hope there’s some explanation for this.”

He already knew where this was going, and he hoped she was wrong too. “You think he took money from a bunch of vulnerable kids?”

She pulled her arms over her chest, the paper still in her hand. She was so close to him as she shrugged. “I hope I’m wrong, Mark, but that feeling I have in the pit of my stomach that he did it…well, it’s there, and it makes me sick.”

He stood up and slid his hand over her arm, moving her back as he walked around his desk and pulled open the top drawer to reach for his keys and then his jean jacket on the back of his chair.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he shrugged it on.

“We’re going back to your office, where you’re going to pull all these files and we’re going to go through them. Billy Jo, I swear, I hope you’re wrong.”

She tucked the paper back in her purse and flicked those blue eyes up to him. “So do I, but I already know I’m not,” she said. Then she pulled open the door, and he followed her out of his office.

“Lucky, come on,” he called to his dog, who was eating kibble. He looked over to his new deputy, who watched him with wary dark eyes. “Elisha, I want you to do a search on a Jim Stone. He used to be a social worker on the island a year ago. Find out where he is now, what he owns, and where he banks, and then call me with everything.”

She was scribbling. Billy Jo was watching him, holding the door open.

“Lacy’s got my cell phone,” he continued. “Call me if anything comes up.”

“Will do, Chief,” was all Elisha said.

He followed Billy Jo out the door, his dog looking between them, and said, “I’ll follow you to your office. You know if you’re right, this is really bad.”

She pulled open her driver’s door, then glanced away, as if thinking, and back to him. “I know, and if it’s true, the thing is that CPS will never want the truth to get out.”

Damn! Why couldn’t this island be a sleepy, quiet place where nothing ever happened? But he already knew the answer. Sleepy, quiet places were the perfect places to keep anything and everything under the radar.

Chapter 3

“You want another piece of pizza?” Billy Jo asked, sitting cross legged in the middle of the office, while Mark was in Pam’s chair. The file cabinet was open, and what seemed like every file had been pulled out.

He didn’t look over to her as he shook his head and said, “Nope, all yours.”

She reached for another slice from the open box beside her. It was dark outside, and the clock on the wall read nearly midnight. She had so many notes, pages and pages.

When she heard the click of the front door, she damn near jumped out of her skin. Mark was on his feet, and Billy Jo turned to see Pam walking in, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing yoga pants.

“Why are you both here?” Pam said. “I was just driving by on my way home, out for dinner with friends, and saw the office lit up. I didn’t think I’d left the lights on… Why do you have all these files out?”

She could see Pam was ready to make an issue of this. What was Billy Jo going to say to get her out of there?

“Just researching some things,” she said.

Mark, who was still standing behind the desk, lifted a brow to her and then dragged his gaze back to Pam. “Actually, Pam, we’re looking into a discrepancy that could pose a problem. You’ve been here a long time. What can you tell me about Jim Stone?”

What was he doing? The last thing she wanted was to give Pam a heads-up, because then she’d call Grant or someone else, and then everything she was looking into, the links and the evidence, would suddenly disappear. She pressed her lips together and stared at Mark. He had to know what she was thinking.

“Jim? What do you want to know about Jim? You were asking about Jim this morning, too, about a file of his. What’s going on?”

Billy Jo put the loaded pizza back in the box and took in Lucky, who was lying on the other side of it, eyeing it. She uncrossed her legs, her feet bare, and stood up to toss the box on top of the file cabinet. “You know what, Pam? It’s probably nothing, just a question I have, and…”

“So you’re pulling all the files out? There’s paper everywhere. You know I’m going to have to put this all back in the cabinet. I had it all organized.”

Billy Jo didn’t miss the fury directed her way. “You won’t have to put anything away. I’ll do it.”

“I still need you to tell me about Jim Stone,” Mark said. “You worked with him, didn’t you? Because there are discrepancies in his case files.” He just wouldn’t let it go.

Pam walked around her to her desk, where there was a stack of files, two open.

Mark lifted a check, the one to Deena Rae, holding it so Pam could see. “See here? This check was made out to a young girl, and then it was signed over to Jim Stone. You haven’t answered me.”

Pam furrowed her brow. “Jim was here a long time, a great guy, worked with a lot of kids. He made a real difference, you know,” she said, looking at Billy Jo. Then she looked back to Mark and reached for the check he was holding.

Mark flipped it over and pointed to the other side. “See that it’s signed over to Jim Stone? Was this something he did?”

She gestured to the check. “Was it cashed?”

Billy Jo crossed her arms and took a step into the circle. “The check hasn’t been cashed, but it was in an envelope addressed to Jim, and the envelope was tucked inside a file. I mean, you’re the one who knew him and handled the files. Did you put it in there, or did Jim?”

She glanced between Billy Jo and Mark, then lifted her hands in the air and let them fall. “I have no idea. Jim handled his own files. Sure, okay, that’s strange, but Jim is one of the good guys, and I’m starting to get the feeling you’re trying to pin something on him or make him look bad. He did more for these kids than anyone. He went above and beyond when they needed something.”

“Like what? What did he do that had him going above and beyond?” Billy Jo said. “Because what I’m seeing is a lot that doesn’t add up. There are kids in these files from three months of age to fourteen, over forty kids just in the files we looked into. He had payments coming to these kids, a three-month-old, an eight-year-old, a thirteen-year-old. That makes no sense. And when I went into the system to look for these kids, I couldn’t find any of them.”

Pam frowned. Mark hadn’t pulled his gaze from her. She reached for one of the files and lifted the paper to read it, then shook her head. “You know how it is, Billy Jo. These kids get shuffled around and off the island. Records get lost all the time…”

“So why is there a request from you for money for these kids—for camp, school supplies, clothing? I could go on.”

Pam looked over to her and then back to one of the files. She could tell she was a little thrown as she shook her head. Billy Jo lifted a sheet of paper to show a requisition with Pam’s signature on it, pointing right to it.

“Okay, that is my signature,” she said. “You know I fill these out, and I do it for you too. There are all kinds of requests that have to be submitted on every kind of form. I can’t remember all of them. I’m sure there is a simple and reasonable explanation.”

Billy Jo swept her hands out. She could feel Mark watching her. “Then explain why Jim Stone was having checks issued to all these kids. A few, sure, but a three-month-old? I mean, how does a three-month-old cash a check, or a seven-year-old, or a nine-year-old? Do they even have bank accounts? I would really like to see all these cashed checks and who cashed them. What are the chances of that?”

Pam was now staring straight at her. Her face paled, and Billy Jo saw she understood clearly what she was accusing Jim Stone of. “I’m sure you’re wrong, I can find out from accounting in the morning. I know Joy in finance. She’ll be able to pull up the cashed checks and see. I’m sure it’s just a simple error or something…”

Billy Jo could feel herself going to that place of wanting to argue.

“That would be helpful, Pam,” Mark said, cutting in. “But, just to be clear, because of the seriousness of this issue, I’m going to ask you to enquire on all these files.” He slid over to her the piece of paper with all the names of the files in question. “I want you to call about each of these kids. Just ask to see the last check cashed and who cashed it for each of these names.”

She shot him a bugged-out expression. “That’s a lot of names. You know, I remember a few here—Dillon, Cam, Lea, Janny…” She looked over to Billy Jo. “I really hope you’re wrong here. There has to be a simple, reasonable explanation. Have you called Jim Stone?”

Mark didn’t pull his gaze from Pam. “He transferred to Wyoming, right?” he said, though Billy Jo knew he wasn’t there.

“No, he’s retired now. Thought you knew. He’s down in San Antonio. Said it was just too hard, the work, the kids, the same old. He said there’s a point where you just have to say you’ve done all you can do, and he was at that point.”

Billy Jo wondered how close Pam was to Jim. She sounded unusually fond of him. “You know where he is and how I could get a hold of him?”

Pam shrugged, opened the middle drawer of her desk, and pulled out a card. “He sends me a birthday card every year.” She held up the card and the red envelope. “That’s his address. Do you want his phone number?”

Mark took the envelope. “Yeah, give me his number—and in the meantime, Pam, I don’t want you calling him. Call your friend in accounting and give me the information about who cashed those checks, and then I’ll call Jim Stone. You do not talk to anyone about this.”

Even she could hear the warning in Mark’s tone.

Pam lifted her hands and shook her head. “Understood. Call accounting. But, again, I know Jim. He’s one of the good ones. When you find out you’re wrong, and you will, I hope he never learns how you, Billy Jo, and you, Chief, questioned his moral character.” Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and narrowed her gaze at Billy Jo as she walked around her desk and started to the front door.

Then she turned back. “And you know what? I have enough to do when I come in in the morning, and the last thing I want to do is clean this up. So, with all due respect, I expect all these files to be neatly put back in the cabinet exactly the way I left them.” Then she walked away to the door, pushed it open, and walked out.

Billy Jo listened to the key in the deadbolt, then dragged her gaze back to Mark, who had an odd look, still watching the door where Pam had walked out. When he looked over to her, she could see something she’d seen only a time or two.

“You think she’ll call him and tell him we’re looking?” he said. It was a good question and one she didn’t know how to answer.

“I don’t know. I hope she doesn’t, but she could,” she said. She looked over to Lucky, who had his eyes closed, tired, just like she should’ve been.

“Well, I think we’ve done all we can tonight,” he said.

She knew he was right. “Why don’t you head out? I’ll put the files away and meet you at home.”

Mark reached for one file and then another and stacked them on the desk. “Nope, I’m not leaving you here alone. I know how to file. You can double-check the names on the list and put them away.”

He shook his head again, and she could see the heavy thoughts lingering in the way his brow knit, the way he looked across the room as if thinking. He looked back to her. “You know, Billy Jo, I hope Pam is right.”

“But you know she’s not.”

He let out a heavy sigh. “You know me too well,” he said, then pulled open the drawer. “Come on, hand me those files.”

She took a step over to him and ran her hand over his arm, his back. She leaned against him a second, letting her hand link with his. “I love you.”

He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “I know. I’m a catch.”

She nudged his arm and couldn’t hide the smile that only he could put there. “You really are arrogant.”

He winked. “Yeah, I am—and yours.”

Chapter 4

“Mark, coffee,” Billy Jo said.

He stood under the spray of the shower, and Billy Jo poked her head in past the clear shower curtain. He was almost tempted to pull her into the shower with him, but she was holding out a mug of coffee, so he reached for it and stepped out of the spray to take a swallow, then leaned down and kissed her. He took another swallow before handing the mug back to her.

“You know, you could step out of those clothes and join me for some shower sex to start the day,” he said.

She let her gaze linger on his chest and then lower, taking in all of him, and then back up as if she didn’t have a shy bone in her body. “I had a shower, and now I’m dressed. That shower is a tiny box that’s barely big enough for one.”

She pulled the clear shower curtain back in place, and he could see her through it at the sink as she set his mug down and began brushing her teeth. Mark turned off the shower, pulled back the curtain, and reached for a faded gray towel on a hook to run over his chest and head.

“So let’s get a bigger place,” he said.

Billy Jo spit out the toothpaste, rinsed her mouth and toothbrush, tucked it in the holder, and reached for a hand towel to wipe her face before slowly turning to him. “You want to get a bigger place? I thought you liked this secluded hidden-away cabin of yours.”

What was he supposed to say? It was a temporary place he’d found, but he’d been thinking of a lot more permanence as of late. “Would be kind of nice to have our own place. I’m now the chief. This is a small place, great for a single guy, but I’m not that anymore. Was thinking of a house on the island here, with three bedrooms, a big yard for Lucky, some bright windows for Harley to look out of…”

She didn’t smile. She was pulling back into herself, and he wondered if she’d just walk out of the bathroom. He dried his legs and back, then looped the towel around his waist as she stood there, her arms now crossed. Then she did walk out.

He shut his eyes, hung his head. “Way to push there, Romeo,” he muttered under his breath. He heard her in the kitchen as he reached for his toothbrush and turned on the tap.

“You know, Mark, I’m not scared, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

He squeezed a good amount of toothpaste onto his toothbrush. “You’re terrified, and I’m tiptoeing around you. See? A second ago, you ran out.”

She was leaning in the doorway now, and he let his gaze linger on her while he shoved the toothbrush in his mouth and started brushing. “I didn’t run out. I stepped out because I needed to give myself a second to figure out what you’re saying. You want a bigger place…”

He spit the toothpaste out and leaned down to the tap, where the water was running. He swished the water in his mouth and spit it out, then pulled his hand over his face to wipe it as he turned off the tap. “I want us to buy our own place, you know, a house, the kind that comes with setting down roots and eventually having a family.”

She frowned. He could see her freaking out, and he hadn’t even said the one thing he wanted to but knew he couldn’t. “With me…?” He thought her voice squeaked.

“No, with Gail! For the love of God, Billy Jo, who else?” He brushed past her into the bedroom and tossed the towel onto the made bed, something else she had done. She was always up first, showered and dressed before he was even out of bed. Lazing around and waking up slowly together was something she didn’t do.

He pulled open the top drawer of the dresser, seeing her underwear and socks next to his. He pulled out his black boxer briefs and stepped into them, and he knew she was still there behind him, watching and saying nothing. There were times, like now, that he wanted to shake her, and he would if he thought it would do any good. He pulled open the bottom drawer and reached for a clean pair of jeans, seeing how neatly everything was folded in the drawers now.

“Okay.”

He still had his back to her, stepping into his jeans and zipping them up. He turned to her. For a second, he didn’t think he’d heard her right. “You said yes?”

Her arms were crossed, and he could see she really was struggling, scared, but she wasn’t letting herself run. She nodded. “Harley would like a big picture window with a lot of morning sun, Lucky deserves a big yard, and I’d like to have a kitchen with a dishwasher and counter space.”

He didn’t know what to say. “I’ll call a realtor, get the ball rolling. Any other requests?”

She uncrossed her arms. Her navy T-shirt was flattering and simple, and her black capris were so her. She took a step over to him and then another, then ran her hand over his arm, the discoloration of where the tattoo had once been. He was glad it was gone, but he was thinking of another tattoo now, on his other arm—something that wasn’t the face of a girl.

“I was thinking about this morning,” she said. “While you talk to Pam about the accounting and the checks, I’m going to do some digging on each of these kids, find out where they are and a little bit about their situations, you know, put it together. You’re going to the station first?”

So that was it. All talk of the house was gone. But then, when something made Billy Jo uncomfortable, like their evolving relationship, she shut down. At least she was still there.

“I’ll call Lacy,” he said. “I think after last night, I’ll follow you in and catch Pam early to make sure she looks into what I asked her to.”

Billy Jo let her hand linger on his bare arm. Then her fingers traced down and over to his chest. She stepped in closer and rose up on her tiptoes, where he met her halfway and kissed her, letting it linger a second before she pulled back and started walking, gesturing to the bathroom.

“Don’t forget your coffee,” she said. “It’s probably already cold. You want me to top it up?” She glanced back to him.

“Sure, thanks.” Mark opened the middle drawer and reached for a navy T-shirt to pull over his head.

“You know, Mark, I would also like a double wall oven, a gas cooktop, and an island in the kitchen. I don’t need an ocean view, but a quiet property would be best, where we can’t see or hear the neighbors.”

He looked over to her where she was holding his mug. He hadn’t expected that from her, and he couldn’t help the easy smile that touched his lips. “You got it.”

She walked out of the bedroom, into the kitchen of his small cabin, and he watched as she poured him a coffee. His dog brushed up to her, and she smiled brightly to him and bent over, making a big fuss. He wondered if this was how his brothers had felt before deciding to ask their wives to marry them.

“Okay, slow down, Mark,” he said to himself.

“Did you say something?” Billy Jo called out.

He shook his head, taking in his image in the mirror. “Just pour the coffee in two go-mugs,” he said. “I’ll have some cereal, and then let’s get going.” He pulled out a pair of socks and couldn’t help thinking of a ring on her finger, something simple and small.

She lifted her cat and carried him, and whatever she was saying to him, he wondered whether she had any idea of what he was thinking of doing.

“Baby steps there, Mark,” he said in a lower voice now, watching his girl, who was starting to come around.

But he could move only so fast, because there was one thing he knew about Billy Jo: He needed to give her enough time to get used to an idea. He thought of that ring again, wondering when he could finally ask her and when she’d finally be ready to say yes.

Chapter 5

Billy Jo could hear Mark talking to Pam, but whatever he was saying to her, she couldn’t make it out. She typed another name from the long list into the computer for the CPS system, then reached for the phone again to dial the number of a facility called the Braxton Institute. She listened to the ring, and then she heard a buzz and an automated message: “This number is not in service.”

She took in the list of places the children apparently were. So far, she had discovered exactly the same thing for each: no number in service.

“The Braxton Institute, Coronaldi, Pleaseman Detention Center, and a numbered company, 567899… Like, what the hell is all this?” she said, staring at the names. An icy unsettled feeling lingered inside her. Where were the names of the families the kids should have been placed with?

She pushed back her chair, holding the paper, and walked out of her office to see Mark standing in front of Pam’s desk, reading something from a file, while Pam was on the phone. Mark looked right at her as she walked over, and just the way he was watching her, she realized how much she depended on him. He was her go-to, her person to lean on, and she didn’t know what she’d do if he weren’t there.

“What’s wrong?” he said. That was just something else that was too perfect about him. He could read her so well.

“I can’t find these kids. I’ve made it halfway through the list, and all that’s come up has been a detention center, an institution, a numbered company… I’ve never heard of any of these places, Mark. I called two of them, and I keep getting a number not in service message. For the numbered company, there’s no phone number at all, and I can’t find anything about it or where it is.” She held the sheet of paper out to him, and he took it from her.

Pam hung up the phone and turned to her. “That was Grant. He’s coming out to the island because of the issue with Jim’s files.”

“You called Grant and told him?” She knew she sounded accusing, but Pam shook her head.

“He called me. Apparently, Joy from accounting called him to give him a heads-up after I called about those checks. Several were cashed by Jim Stone, but how or why, I don’t know,” Pam said, then lifted her hands.

Billy Jo dragged her gaze over to Mark, whose expression was all cop. “You tell Joy I want a copy of all the checks cashed by Jim Stone, all of them,” he said. “For every payment issued to kids on this list, I need to know what it was supposed to be for and where it was sent. I want to know who cashed them.”

Pam just stared at Mark, then looked over to Billy Jo.

“Pam, these kids were sent to places I’ve never heard of before,” Billy Jo said, reaching for the paper Mark was still looking at. He dragged his gaze to her and let her take it back, and she put it on the desk in front of Pam. “Have you ever heard of these places? Because I haven’t.” Her finger was on the paper by the names, and the odd look on Pam’s face said everything.

Pam shook her head and looked up to her. “No, I haven’t. Where are these places? Are you sure that’s right? All the kids?”

Billy Jo turned to Mark, who was watching Pam and her. He held his hand out for the paper again and said, “I’ll give this to Elisha, get her to check it out. She was looking into Jim, as well. I think it’s time I have a talk with him and find out what this is, see what light he can shed on it.”

Pam said nothing, just linked her fingers, clasping them in front of her. Her demeanour gave Billy Jo an off feeling. Finally, she said, “I called him last night. I’m sorry, but Jim is a friend, and I’ve known him for a long time. I can’t believe he would do something like this. There has to be another explanation, and—”

“Pam, Mark told you very clearly not to call him,” Billy Jo snapped, cutting her off.

“I know what you said, but I know Jim, and there’s no way he’s good for this. He has to have been set up. There’s no other explanation!” Pam yelled, ready to fight back.

“Hey, enough. Stop this,” Mark said, shaking his head. “Pam, I was clear when I told you not to say anything to Jim.”

Billy Jo had to pull her hands over her chest and squeeze her forearms to resist the urge to wrap them around Pam’s throat.

“So please tell me what his explanation was,” Mark continued, and she didn’t know how he could sound so calm. “I take it he denied it.”

Pam turned to Billy Jo without pulling her gaze from Mark, and she wondered whether she was trying to figure out what not to say.

“Pam, so help me God, if you lie or hold anything back…”

“Oh, hush up!” Pam snapped at her, and Billy Jo had to take a step back. She couldn’t remember ever being on this end of such nastiness from Pam before. “Jim Stone is one of the finest men I know. He remembered every birthday I ever had. He was the one there for me when my husband cheated on me. We worked it out, likely because of Jim and what a good friend he was to me. I watched how he cared for those kids, every one of them, wishing he could do more. I know his kids, too, and was at their birthdays, graduations… We barbecued on weekends. There’s no way he’s good for this.” She really was on the defensive.

“So he said it wasn’t true?” Mark cut in.

Pam shook her head. “He was thrown, likely because I woke him in the middle of the night. He was real quiet on the phone. He was upset. I could hear it in his voice.”

Mark was watching Pam as a cop would. She’d seen this side of him so many times with people. “And what, exactly, did Jim say? Did he say he didn’t do it, Pam?”

Again, she shook her head. “No, he didn’t come right out and say he didn’t do it. He said he’d call me back.”

Billy Jo realized she was fisting her hands, staring at Pam, wondering how she couldn’t get through to her.

Pam glanced over at Billy Jo. “And don’t look at me like that. If you were in my position and someone accused Mark of something heinous, even if there was evidence that pointed at him, you can’t honestly tell me you would just believe it,” she said, fire flickering in her eyes.

Billy Jo wondered if she hissed as she stepped back. She made herself look over to Mark as if he could make sense of this, then said, “Well, first, Pam, Mark wouldn’t do something like this. He wouldn’t cash checks made out to kids and then try to hide it, so don’t you dare turn this on me and the man I love. I hate to tell you this, but a bunch of kids are missing. On first glance, it seems they’ve vanished, yet these checks were issued to them. How many were cashed by Jim Stone? He didn’t deny it and said he’d call you back, but I’ll tell you why he got off the phone—because he’s trying to figure out how the hell to cover his tracks. You just tipped off a man who was responsible for these children and needed to do right by them. How the hell do you explain any of this?” She couldn’t remember ever yelling at Pam, at anyone, like this.

“Billy Jo,” Mark said in that calm voice. He stepped over to her and ran his hand over her back. His touch usually settled her, but right now she was too furious with a woman who’d chosen to protect a man she knew deep down was responsible in some way for something she had a bad feeling about.

“You deal with her,” Billy Jo said. “I’m going to see what I can find out about these kids, where they came from, their parents, anything.”

He slid his hand over her cheek, the touch gentle, and she took the paper from Pam and rested her hand on Mark’s chest before walking past and back to her office. She heard Mark say to her, “Okay, Pam, get Jim on the phone, because right now, I want to have a word with him.”

Billy Jo glanced back to Mark, who she had to remind herself was now the chief on the island, the man she loved. She had this awful unsettled feeling she’d never felt before.

She squeezed the paper and looked at the names of the kids, the ages she’d written beside them, and the places they supposedly were, and she walked over to her desk and pushed the laptop back. She hesitated only a second before lifting the phone and dialing home.

It rang only once before she heard, “Chase McCabe.” The way he said it, she knew he was distracted, evidently working.

“Hi, Dad, you got a minute?”

“Hey, sweetheart, always for you. What’s up?”

“Well, a few things I need your help with. I wonder if I can run something past you.” She heard something in the background.

“You know you can ask anything, right?” he said.

She wondered when she would tell him how serious it was with Mark. She leaned back in her chair and stared at the names of the kids, the places they were supposed to be. “Yeah, I know. I’ve hit a brick wall on something. If I send you the names of some businesses, some institutions kids were sent to… I can’t find anything about them, and the numbers I called were not in service. It just feels off.”

“And you’re not talking to Mark about this?”

There it was, the curiosity. “He’s here now, and yes, he’s also helping.”

“Well, that’s good,” Chase said. “You don’t have to explain. Send me the names, and I’ll do some digging, make some calls, and see what I can turn up. Anything else you want to tell me about you and Mark?”

Why did it seem as if he knew something?

“We’re going house-hunting, you know, getting a bigger place,” she said. Her dad was quiet, and for a second, she wasn’t sure he was still there. “Dad?”

“Yeah, sorry. I thought you said you and Mark are house-hunting.”

She knew her dad was teasing. “Okay, stop it. Yes, we’re still together, and I did say that. Now, how about I send those company names and you let me know what you can find? Oh, and one more thing! Dad, remember Carmen Zarko, who took over as detective? Well, she found herself on a no-fly list, some bureaucratic mistake that has her listed as a person of interest. I told Mark I’d call you…”

Her dad sighed on the other end. “Send it my way, darling. You know I’ll do what I can. Hey, and, Billy Jo?”

She was leaning back in her chair, squeezing the phone, knowing her dad was likely going to toss out unwanted advice, so she said nothing.

Instead, he said, “It’s really nice to hear you’re so happy.”

She hadn’t expected that. “Thanks, Dad,” she replied.

Then she hung up and stared at the phone, the paper, and her laptop, for a moment wishing that just once, something good could happen for these kids, as it seemed nothing ever went their way.


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The Free Friday Read

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

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

The Stranger at the Door

The Stranger at the Door

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re stepping on toes, Mark.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She pulled open the door.

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

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

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So we’re dating,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“You really booked it?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re married. How old are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that why you’re here?” he said.

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine,” was all she could get out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait.” Mark lifted his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Is that who that was?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And where are you going?” Carmen said.

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

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

Chapter 5

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

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

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

“I need to talk to you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, not from me too?”

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

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

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

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

“Really, then how did you mean it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mark,” she called out to him.

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

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

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

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

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


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Broken Promises

Broken Promises

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

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Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

No drugs, no liquor, no weapons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reine?”

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

Eva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marcus, the children…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, absolutely not,” he snapped.

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

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

Chapter 2

“What do you want to do?”

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

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

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

The entire situation had spiraled out of his control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped, watching the heave of her chest.

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

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

He didn’t want to agree.

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

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

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

“Yeah, later,” Ryan replied.

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, what did she say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reine made herself close her mouth and shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh dear, what did I do?”

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence on the other end.

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

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

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

“You want the truth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen hissed. “Marcus, no…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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His crime was unforgivable, but the law protects him.

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Broken Promises

Broken Promises

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

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Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

No drugs, no liquor, no weapons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reine?”

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

Eva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marcus, the children…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, absolutely not,” he snapped.

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

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


The O'Connells

The O’Connells of Livingston, Montana, are not your typical family. Follow them on their journey to the dark and dangerous side of love in a series of romantic thrillers you won’t want to miss.


The O'Connells Audio

The Neighbor

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Above the Law

Above the Law

His crime was unforgivable, but the law protects him.

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The Free Friday Read

Read Chapters 1-5 of my upcoming release here!

Happy weekend, all!  It’s Preview Friday, and I’ve got your sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery, ABOVE THE LAW!  This upcoming title will be released next week, but you can pre-order your copy AND read the first five chapters here today.  Plus, DON’T HIDE FROM ME is now on audio; claim a free Audible code while supplies last.  Enjoy & have a wonderful weekend! 

Chapter 1

“You ready to go?” Mark called out the minute he stepped into her place.

No “Hi.” No “How are you?” It was always “Hurry up, already.”

Billy Jo stared at the makeup she’d been about to put on, then tossed it back in her makeup bag, untouched. What had she been thinking, forking over her hard-earned cash on a whim for something she never wore?

“Seriously, Billy Jo, what are you doing?” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she flicked her hands through her plain and boring shoulder-length brown hair, noting the freckles that dotted her nose.

She’d never be the supermodel type. So, again, why was she doing this?

“Hey, didn’t you hear me? What are you doing in here?” Mark said as he strolled in.

She stared up at the tall, rugged, arrogant cowboy. His new jean jacket didn’t quite match his faded blue jeans, and his wavy red hair was short and appeared freshly cut. The way he talked to her, it was always as if he didn’t have a clue what she was thinking. He rested his hand on the doorframe and took in her small bathroom.

“I’m doing what a girl does: getting ready,” she said. “You said dinner at that new Mexican place. You made a reservation?”

He stepped back from the doorway, dragging his gaze down, taking in her new sleeveless black blouse and dressy capris, a gift from her mom. He had her feeling both uncomfortable and awkward.

“What?” She knew it came out quite sharply.

There was the pull of his lips, the smile that wasn’t really a smile but rather a sign of his amusement at her expense. Maybe that was why she could feel the frown knitting her brow.

“Didn’t say anything,” he said. “And no, didn’t get around to making a reservation. We don’t need it.”

She wondered at times what it was about him that had her wanting to pull her hair out. “It’s new and it’s busy. We need a reservation or it’s going to be fish tacos at the stand again—and I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”

He only angled his head, those blue eyes flickering, too good to look at. She knew he would rather argue than just go along with what he was supposed to do. But that seemed to be who they were and how this thing, whatever this was between them, worked.

“You worry too much,” he said.

At the jab, she felt her hands fisting at her sides. “And you seem to think we can just walk right in there and…what, we’ll be given a table?”

He flicked his jacket back as if trying to make a point, resting his hand right beside his badge, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He said nothing.

“You seriously think you can just show your badge and they’ll bump us right to the front of the line?” she said.

He made a rude noise, one she’d heard from him too many times when she just didn’t go along with his way of thinking. “You make it sound like a bad thing. Everyone knows who I am…”

She could tell exactly what he’d been thinking by the way he trailed off. “And you don’t think there’s anything wrong with that? Walking right in, past all the people who actually thought ahead to make reservations, past anyone else waiting their turn on the list? You seriously think that just because you’re a cop here, you get priority?” She flicked off the light in the bathroom and stepped out.

He suddenly seemed at a loss for words. “Now, wait a second. That wasn’t what I meant.”

She angled her head. He stepped back, and she walked around him to the island, where her cell phone was plugged in and charging. She took a second to check that it was in the green, at one hundred percent. As she looked over, she thought he dropped an F-bomb under his breath before pulling his cell phone from his pocket and dialing.

“Yeah, this is Detective Mark Friessen. This is probably short notice, but do you have a table available for dinner for two? I was planning on coming now and just showing up, but it was pointed out to me that you’re likely busy, and…”

She could hear someone talking on the other end.

“Uh-huh,” was all Mark said. As he flicked his gaze over to her, his blue eyes seemed to simmer with something. “Sounds great. We’re on our way,” he said, then hung up and tucked his phone in his pocket.

She stared at what seemed to be smugness in his expression.

“Apparently there’s always a table available for me,” he said. Then he shrugged. “I called like you said. You should be happy now.” He gestured as if she’d made a big deal out of nothing.

“Yet you just couldn’t help yourself from using your detective title before asking for a table,” she said. “Mark, it’s the same as if you’d walked in there and flashed your badge. Ever heard of abuse of authority? There shouldn’t always be a table for you. That is very much someone giving you something for a favor.” She tucked her phone in her bag.

He narrowed his gaze. “I am the last person to use my position to get something. Seriously, I don’t work that way. I can’t be bought and don’t give out special favors. You’re making it sound as if I’m taking a kickback or something. I pay my own way. I don’t take gifts or bribes.”

She pulled her arms over her chest, taking in how defensive he suddenly sounded. “I hate to tell you this, but a table in a crowded restaurant is a kickback, whatever you want to call it, if you got it using your position in the community.”

“Do you want me to cancel? Is that what this is?”

She realized in that second that he didn’t get it. He stared at her with what she thought was the usual frustration that happened in their discussions, where she had one idea and he seemed to pull counterarguments from his ass.

“No, I’m hungry,” she said. “Let’s go.”

He stood there for a second as if he didn’t believe her. “There’s a test in here, right?”

She didn’t smile. She didn’t say anything. She simply took in her three-legged cat, Harley, as he hopped up onto the sofa. Mark looked down at her with the same kind of apprehension with which he might have looked at a ticking timebomb.

“Don’t look so worried,” she finally said. “Let’s go. But hear me on this: If we get there and there’s a crowd waiting, and, sure enough, they’ve bumped you to the front of the line because of your phone call, you say no to the table and ask them to put us in the queue, where we should have been to begin with.”

He lifted his hands as if surrendering. “Fine. Point made,” he said, then gestured to the door.

Billy Jo had to remind herself that it wasn’t healthy to enjoy this butting of heads that seemed to come naturally between her and Mark.

Chapter 2

The sun was going down. Mark took in his watch, noting that it was approaching eight thirty. He had to remind himself to fight the instinct to go back over to the hostess just inside the door, who still had a spooked expression. 

Billy Jo had been right. Maybe that was why he was so uncomfortable as he sat outside on the bench, because he’d done what Billy Jo had expected and asked the hostess whether she’d bumped him to the front of the line, ahead of the dozen or so people already waiting, just because he was Detective Friessen. 

What had her answer been? She had stared in horror, because apparently he wasn’t supposed to have asked that. Nevertheless, she had replied that all but two of the waiting couples had called and been there before him. 

His stomach rumbled again. Waiting at a restaurant for over an hour for a table was something he had never done. His gaze continued to dart over to the nearby taco stand, which was now closing up for the night. 

Billy Jo smacked his arm. “Okay, two more are leaving their tables. Come on, hurry up, people.” She tapped his arm again. She was staring through the big picture window, nothing discreet about her. 

“You sure they’re not leaving because of the way you’re staring them down, making them feel as if you’re about to walk in there, rip their plates away, and tell them they’re done?” 

She made a rude noise. 

He took in her impatience, the way she fidgeted. She looked rather nice tonight. Her clothes were unlike the baggy things she normally wore. Girly was one thing Billy Jo wasn’t, but tonight was different. He found himself really taking in everything about her, though there was nothing flirty or teasing there. 

What was wrong with him? He seemed to always be drawn to the wrong kind of girl. But then, he trusted Billy Jo more than anyone. He pulled his hand over his face, wondering why he wasn’t like his brothers. 

“Yup…yup,” she said. “Look, that’s our table, and we’re taking it. Come on, get up.” She kept tapping his arm. 

For a moment, as he took in her impatience, he thought she might even go in and yell at them to hurry up and pay the bill. “You know, just saying, that could have been us. We could have already had dinner and been on our way, but no. You insisted I make everyone feel uncomfortable and go to the back of the line because…” 

“Oh, stop it, already. If you’d actually called and made a reservation earlier today like you were supposed to, we wouldn’t be sitting out here, starving. What the hell is up with some of these people, though? They’ve been sitting there forever, done eating yet not leaving. Those two must have been married forever, because they’re just staring off into space.” 

The way she said it, he half expected her to walk in there and over to the people at the tables in question and tell them to leave. She was staring down with the kind of look he wouldn’t want to have been on the receiving end of. Complicated, difficult. Being with her was just like treading over a minefield. 

He stood up beside her as she stared through the big window, leaning in. 

“Could someone get up any slower?” she said. “Come on, people. Move it, already.” She clapped her hands this time. 

He wondered whether people could hear her from inside. 

“Let’s go. We’re taking that table.” She gestured sharply as she strode to the door and pulled it open, and he had no choice but to follow her. He gripped the edge of the door, looking right and left, really taking his time. She was already up in front of the hostess, gesturing quite sharply. Would that hostess ever forget them? Likely not. 

Two couples walked out past him as he carefully took a step inside, looking around. 

“Come on, Mark. Let’s go,” Billy Jo called out. 

The hostess already had two menus in her hand, and she led them into the open restaurant, which had about twenty tables. It was well lit, with lots of windows that offered an amazing view of the now darkening sky. 

“I have a window seat here,” the hostess said. “Can I get you two anything to drink to start?” 

Mark reached for the chair at the table for two, which had just been cleared and wiped down but was not yet set for anyone, and pulled it out. “I’ll have a pint of your lager on tap.” 

Billy Jo was still standing, her hands resting on the back of her chair. “A glass of your house red,” she said. 

The hostess left the menus on the table and walked away. Billy Jo was still standing there, not sitting, and Mark didn’t have a clue what she was doing. 

“You’re not seriously expecting me to pull your chair out for you?” he said. 

She shot him a look that told him to drop dead, a look she’d mastered, and then looped her purse over the back of the chair before pulling it out. “Don’t be an ass,” she said as she sat, then nodded behind him. “You have any idea who those people are over there?” 

He glanced around to where she was gesturing, seeing a restaurant full of people he didn’t really know. 

She wiped her hands over the damp table and then rubbed them together. “Don’t look,” she hissed under her breath. 

He turned back to her and wanted to point out how ridiculous she sounded. “You asked me if I knew who they were. If I can’t look, then how am I supposed to tell you?” 

One of the servers brought a basket of breadsticks along with two rolled napkins with utensils. Not exactly Mexican, but hungry was hungry. Mark reached for one and took a bite. 

“Do it conspicuously,” she said. “Come on. You’re a cop. You should know how to watch people without them knowing you’re looking at them.” She was serious. 

He reached for the menu and leaned on the table before glancing behind him. Then he looked back to see her standing. “No idea who you’re talking about. What are you doing? I thought you were hungry.” He gestured to her chair. 

She reached for her purse, not pulling her eyes from his. He could see the edge to her, which was always there. “Table of four women who’ve been watching us, or rather you, since we walked in here. But even earlier, when we were sitting outside, they kept looking over.” She leaned in again. “Come on, Mark. The table of four women at two o’clock? Please tell me they aren’t women you dated and have forgotten about?” 

Now he had even less interest in looking. “Okay, you know what?” he said. “I’m hungry. If they want to look, let them. And, for the record, I remember every woman I’ve dated. What are you doing?” 

She was now standing, her bag over her shoulder. “I have to go to the bathroom. Order something to start while I’m gone,” she said, then started to the back of the restaurant. 

He just shook his head. Being with Billy Jo was anything but easy. He stared at the menu, the choices, as a lanky server wearing a black shirt and pants appeared with Billy Jo’s wine and his beer. 

“Do you have any starters before we order?” Mark said. “Chips, salsa…?” He looked up to the waiter as he took in the menu, which had so many options. 

“Sure. I can bring you a basket of chips and salsa, or we have nachos with shrimp con queso.” He pointed at the long list. 

Mark didn’t have a clue what Billy Jo wanted. “You know what? You choose,” he said. 

“Hi, Mark. I thought that was you,” said a woman behind the waiter. She was attractive, leggy, slender, wearing a hat over a mix of dark and light hair. “I guess you don’t remember meeting. I’m a friend of Sybil Gillespie. We met at the coffeehouse when she was closing up a while back.” Her smile was perfect. 

He could feel the unease, a knot in his stomach. He looked up to the waiter, who was still standing there, and said, “Whatever you bring is fine.” 

The waiter had been staring at the woman, whom Mark didn’t remember meeting. “Okay then…” was all he said before he left. 

Mark leaned back, wondering why the woman was smiling down at him. He took in the perfect smile of someone who seemed too familiar with him, and he wondered whether this was where he was supposed to ask how Sybil was. 

“Sorry, your name is?” He gestured toward her. 

She shrugged. She wore skin-tight jeans, a crop top, and a jean jacket, with heavy eyeliner and hoops in her ears. He was pretty good with faces and names, so he didn’t know why he didn’t remember. He thought of Sybil, super hot, exactly the type he gravitated to. Yet he hadn’t stepped back in that coffeehouse since things went sideways. 

“Lynn,” she said. “So you don’t remember me?” 

He pulled in a breath, wondering what it was about the way she was staring down at him, watching him. “Sorry, I meet a lot of people. You’re having dinner here with friends?” 

He wondered now whether that was who Billy Jo had meant, the people watching him. He found himself glancing back over his shoulder to see the three other women, who smiled and waved. He didn’t have a clue who they were—young, attractive, exactly the type that was unhealthy for him. 

“Yeah, just over there,” Lynn said. “We saw you walk in with that social worker, and I thought I’d come over and say hi. Sybil was just mentioning you the other day, oh so cool and forever single. She didn’t mention you were seeing someone else…” 

He reached for his beer and took a swallow. Something about this seemed too familiar, playing games, dancing around subjects, women sticking their noses in his business. “Well, again, Lynn, sorry I didn’t remember you, but enjoy your dinner.” 

She hesitated, as he’d made it clear they were done, before saying, “Sure, sorry. Great to see you again, Mark. I’ll let Sybil know you said hi.” 

He didn’t pull his gaze from her as he shook his head and settled his beer down on the table, not even trying to stop the rough laugh that slipped out. He hated these games. “Please don’t, Lynn. Not sure what this is, coming over here. I’m sorry I don’t remember meeting you, but I’m having dinner with a friend. Whatever has you walking over here and getting in my business…” 

“Oh, no,” she said, cutting him off, a hint of pink in her cheeks. “I hope you didn’t think that’s why I came over. Of course not. I just… Well, this is embarrassing now. That’s not what I meant. It was just careless small talk, really. I’m just…” 

He could see how flustered she was, yet he didn’t know why she was still standing there. She took two steps to Billy Jo’s chair, pulled it out, and sat down. He wondered whether his eyes bugged out. 

“What are you doing?” 

“Look, one thing Sybil always said about you was that you’re a great guy and you’d be her first call if she was in trouble, even though things aren’t good between you. Mark is who you call if you’re in trouble, she said.” 

Something about the way she was talking had him glancing over to the back of the restaurant where Billy Jo had gone. He still didn’t see her. “What’s going on? Are you in trouble or something?” 

She hunched a bit and leaned on the table, moving the wrapped cutlery to the side. She looked away. “Look, before you came to the island, people knew not to bother calling the police if something happened. Depending on who you were, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. But Sybil said you wouldn’t look away if someone you knew did something. She said you’d actually look into it and do something rather than protect someone because he was family or a friend. Is that true?” 

He felt uneasy, taking in her ball cap and wondering if that was her way of hiding. “Why don’t you just get to the point, Lynn? Did something happen?” 

She firmed her lips and fisted her hands on the table as she sat back, looking around, then lifted her hand to the side of her head as if she didn’t want anyone to see her. “Look, there’s a man who comes into the coffeehouse and makes her uncomfortable. The way he looks at her, the way he acts… She took it to the chief once, but he wouldn’t do anything about it.” 

He let out a sigh and leaned forward. “Did he do something to her? I’m kind of at a loss here. Is it just that she’s uncomfortable, or is it something more? Has he threatened her in any way? Is he harassing her? You need to be a little more specific. Does she have reason to believe he’ll hurt her? Who is this, anyway?” 

“Look, it’s not what he says but what he does, the way he ogles her. She says it’s creepy. He hasn’t exactly asked her out, but he takes things as if he has every right, little things, like he helps himself to a cookie and doesn’t pay for it. The last time he came in… You know that basket of muffins she keeps by the register? She went to move it, and he grabbed her arm so hard he left marks. I told her to report him, but she already did twice, before you came to the island, and all the chief said was that he’d talk to him.” 

“So why is it you are coming to me and not Sybil?” 

She stood up from her chair and pressed her hands to the table. “Because she said things ended badly between the two of you, and I know she’s super hurt that you’re interested in someone else. Call it ego, call it whatever. But the fact is that the last time she talked to the chief, the guy walked back into the café the next day, lifted the glass lid off the cake plate, and dropped it so it shattered right beside him. He didn’t look away from her. All he said was oops, then told her not to take it to the chief next time she had an issue with him. 

“Then he walked behind the counter, helped himself to a sandwich, and took a bite out of it before dropping it on the floor too. Of course, no one was there. Yesterday, when I stopped in, she said she wanted it to stop. He doesn’t take anything worth more than a few dollars. But the fact is that he’s Roland Shephard—you know, the chief’s brother? I told her to call you regardless of what happened between the two of you. She just wants him to stop coming in and knows the chief won’t do anything.” 

The last thing he wanted was to be dragged back into Sybil’s world, but if someone was harassing her, he wouldn’t look away. The chief’s brother? “Okay, I’ll talk to her,” he said. 

This time, Lynn didn’t pull her gaze, her light brown eyes. She gave him a smile and rested her hand on his shoulder. “That’s great. There. I guess that wasn’t so hard after all.” Then she pulled her hand away and walked off just as the waiter reappeared with a platter of steaming cheese-covered nachos. 

Still no sign of Billy Jo. 

What was it with women and bathrooms? 

Chapter 3 

As she washed her hands, Billy Jo took in the woman at the other sink, who wore a baby blue bandana around her dark hair as if to contain it. She had a round dark face and was wiping mascara that had flaked under her eyes. 

Billy Jo didn’t have to fix anything on her makeup-free face except for the freckles over her nose and cheeks, which she had always wished would disappear. 

“You’re that social worker, right?” the woman said. 

Billy Jo rinsed the soap from her hands and turned her head, unsure what was coming next, knowing she’d never seen the woman before. “I am a social worker. Have we met?” She turned off the water and reached for a paper towel to dry her hands. 

“No, we haven’t met, but I know who you are. Saw you’re friends with that detective who also showed up on the island. I know there was talk when you showed up not long after one another, coming into a new place. You’re not part of the community, and that worried a lot of folks who said you’d change things in a way that would upset people. You know how it’s always been done here.” 

Billy Jo didn’t have a clue what to say. The woman stood about five inches taller than her and appeared her mom’s age. She knew well that change was something no one welcomed, even if it meant something better. “I guess that’s the thing about small communities. When you’re new, people don’t have any idea whether you’ll fit in or you’re some wildcard, coming in with crazy ideas to change the way things are done. I’ve heard it before. But hey, as you put it, I’m just a social worker.” 

Then there was Mark, but she wasn’t talking for him. Billy Jo tossed the paper towel in the trash and lifted her bag over her shoulder, taking a step to the door. 

“You know, that’s the thing about someone new coming in. That person doesn’t know about some of the things that go on in a community, and most times they don’t want to know. For example, there are problems happening right under the nose of the chief of police.” 

Her hand had been on the handle of the door, but she froze, realizing this wasn’t just a friendly chat. She turned back to the woman, who was now watching her in a way that said she had something on her mind. Maybe Billy Jo didn’t want to know. 

“Sounds like you’re hinting at something,” she said. “You know the chief?” 

Billy Jo slid her hand over the strap of her baggy cloth purse, holding on to it over her shoulder. The woman wasn’t smiling, and Billy Jo still didn’t have a clue who she was. 

“Everyone on the island knows the chief—or knows about him, his family, how he runs things. You kind of have to get used to it. Someone like that, with how deep his roots go here… The thing about communities is that everyone has ties going way back, and there’s always one family that runs things as if they founded the place. It morphs into their kingdom, their rules. They get their hooks into the island, and it’s impossible to ever get them out. It’s passed down through families, and if you’re part of that group, you know, and you’re good with it because it benefits you. 

“Most people know this, and no one ever thinks it’s a problem, or if they do, they only laugh it off as if that’s just the way it is. Don’t know how to fix it or change it, because you learn to either put up or move on out. Everyone else just goes along and decides it’s not a problem because it doesn’t affect them, or that’s how it’s always been done. People tell you to leave it alone because it happens everywhere.” 

The way this woman was hinting at something only added to the giant unease Billy Jo felt, which she figured had always been with her. She’d grown up on the wrong side, it seemed, of everything. “You know, I haven’t been here that long, you’re right, and you evidently already know that,” Billy Jo said. “But I get the sense that you know something and don’t really want to say what it is. I can’t help wondering if you’re trying to figure out what side of the fence I’m on. Are you wondering if what you tell me will get back to the chief? I wish you would just say it. But I’m at a loss because you know who I am but I don’t know who you are.” 

The woman reached for her small black bag and looped its gold chain over her arm before smoothing down her blue and white shirt, a little long and baggy in the front. “You know why people don’t come forward when something bad has happened to them or someone they know? Because they know nothing will change. Or, worse, if they do say something, they’re suddenly the one with a target on them, the one in the spotlight, with bad things happening to them, because no one ever likes the person who blows the whistle. 

“And what happens to that person who calls out a liar or a thief, someone who does bad things and gets away with it? That person suddenly finds herself hunted, with her life upended and a spotlight shining down on her and her family. Skeletons she doesn’t even know she had are dug up. Then she loses her job, or her friends suddenly turn away, or she has even bigger problems. Going after a cop, especially one who runs a community, is a surefire way to find yourself under investigation for something. Then your friends are either running the other way or throwing you under the bus to save their own skin.” 

She knew she was frowning, and she realized now what she was seeing on the woman’s face and hearing in her voice. “Are you trying to figure out if I’m going to share whatever you tell me? I can assure you I won’t, but then again, you don’t know me. I can see you’re likely trying to figure out whether you should tell me whatever it is. First, I don’t know your name, because you haven’t told me, so whatever you tell me isn’t going to come back on you since I don’t know who you are. And I get having trust issues…” She made herself stop talking. Convincing someone to trust her was something she would never try to do. She let go of the strap of her purse and lifted both her hands to stop herself. “You keep hinting at the chief, at the idea that he did something. Let’s say he did. Is this something he did to you?” 

The woman pursed her lips as if considering her answer. “Not to me but to someone else. As I said, it was something that was happening right under the watch of the chief, right in his own family. You know what I mean? How often do families protect their own, look the other way, or maybe wear blinders because they don’t want to know the truth even though they really do? How often do you really not know that someone in your family is doing bad things to another family member? Think about it. What would you do if you found out something like that about the chief and his family?” 

Billy Jo pulled her arms across her chest. She had an unsettled feeling every time she had to be around the chief, talk to him, or listen to him talk down to her as if she were less than him. Maybe that was why she’d never give him the benefit of the doubt. 

“You’re saying you know something about the chief, or is it someone in his family? You want to know what I’ll do? Well, I won’t walk into his office and tell him, if that’s what you’re thinking. I do know enough about him to understand that nothing goes down on this island without him knowing about it, though. I guess I would have to consider what it is and then figure out a way to handle it. But I wouldn’t confront him, not someone like him.” 

The woman seemed to consider her reply, then nodded. “Well, you’re right about one thing: You don’t know me. You know how big the chief’s family is?” 

What did Billy Jo really know about the chief? That he was married to Gail, for one, and she’d seen photos of their grown kids, but other than that, she knew nothing. “I know very little, but maybe that’s a good thing.” 

“The chief and his wife have a large family, with nine siblings between them. Five are married, and three are currently single. One’s been married four times. The chief has dozens of nieces and nephews and four of his own kids, three with Gail and the eldest with a woman he was married to for five minutes. Most of their family lives somewhere else, another state, another country, but there are more than a dozen of the shirttail kind who still live here. 

“One of them is a niece by the name of Cheyenne Potter, just one of a few who were preyed on by someone they should’ve been able to trust. It started when she was fourteen, and she told her mother when she was fifteen. The predator is a man who’s been married too many times and is known for his affairs. He shows up for every family dinner, gathering, or reunion. He’s the one who never forgets the kids’ birthdays, who puts the party hat on and gets down on a level with the little ones. He treats the boys like gold, and he loves the girls who sit on his lap… You have any idea where I’m going with this?” 

She did, which was maybe the reason for the sick lump sitting heavy in her throat. She forced herself to swallow. “You’re saying she was molested. How old is she? Who did it?” 

“She’s too old for you to do anything now. She’s twenty-six. Just ended her engagement because that kind of thing messes with you and takes away any chance of having something normal. She never told her fiancé, because who in her right mind would want to talk about something like that?” 

“And she didn’t report it? Her mother didn’t?” 

The woman shook her head. “You haven’t listened to anything I’ve said. He’s family, the chief’s family. You think they don’t know? The funny thing too is that Cheyenne’s schooling was paid for, but she dropped out and never finished her degree. She was in Boston, a long way from here, and she should’ve stayed there. But for some reason, she came back, and the only thing I do know is that she’s not allowed to talk about it, any of it—whatever that means. She just bought a house, though where she got the money…” 

The woman shrugged. “So I’m going to walk out of here now. Please don’t follow me, but if the stories and rumors on this island about you are true, then I expect you’ll look into it, that you won’t give the chief and his family a pass just like everyone else does. Oh, and if you come looking for me, I’ll deny we had this conversation. Remember, Cheyenne Potter. And if you talk to her, don’t tell her where you heard this from.” 

The woman walked around Billy Jo and pulled open the bathroom door, leaving her standing there, pulling in a breath, feeling as if a little bomb had been dropped. She stepped out of the bathroom into a half-empty restaurant and found herself looking around for the woman, her heart pounding. But she must have already walked out. For a moment, she wondered who else knew. 

She dragged her gaze over to Mark, who was sitting at the table by the window, eating what looked to be nachos. She crossed the restaurant and took in the way he lounged in the chair, those blue eyes flickering with what she thought was annoyance. 

“Took you long enough,” he said. “Was starting to think you ran out the back door. The waiter said the kitchen was about to close up for the night, so I overstepped and ordered you the special, a shrimp enchilada. Don’t be pissed if it’s not what you wanted.” 

“That’s fine,” she snapped as she flicked her hand to him, looped her purse over the back of her chair, and scraped back her chair and sat down. She glanced at the empty tables around them and leaned forward, keeping her voice down as she said, “I was just cornered in the bathroom by a woman who told me something about the chief.” She scooted her chair closer, her arms resting now on the table, and glanced around. She could see she had all his attention.  

Mark stilled, having just shoved a nacho into his mouth. “Is this something I’m going to want to hear?” He wiped his hands and glanced over his shoulder before settling those baby blue eyes on her. 

She pulled in a breath. “Probably not, but let me ask you this: What do you know about the chief’s family? Would he cover up a crime to protect a relative?” 

Mark glanced to the side again and then behind him as if to make sure no one was listening. “I think you’d better tell me what this woman said to you,” he said, an edge to his voice. “And, Billy Jo, don’t leave anything out.” 

Chapter 4 

Mark took in Gail, who was rustling papers, stapling something, then slid around in his chair and took in the chief. The man was in his office, talking on the phone. Mark’s dog was lying on the dog bed, his eyes open, staring at him. 

His phone dinged with another message from Billy Jo: 

Well? 

So much for their peaceful dinner out. The evening had turned into a bombshell of secrets about the chief’s family. 

He turned off the screen and turned his phone over, still trying to get his head around what Billy Jo had told him. Then there was Sybil at the coffee shop. He planned to stop in later and have a talk about Roland Shephard, who was harassing her. But as he stared at Gail, he had no clue how to go about tactfully and carefully looking into the problem in the chief’s family without the chief and her knowing. 

What was the story, the real story? 

“What’s on your mind, Mark?” 

He only lifted his gaze from where he lounged in his chair, giving his head a shake, not missing the way Gail seemed to be studying him with an amused grin. He really did like her and the way she served as a buffer between him and the chief. 

“Quiet day on the island,” she said, teasing. “You sure there isn’t something?” 

“Nope, just waiting for the phone to ring and enjoying the peace and quiet for a moment without having to handle some problem,” he replied. Then he heard the ding of his phone again, and he noticed the interest in Gail’s expression. 

“Someone seems persistent,” she said. 

He took in the long line of texts from Billy Jo: 

Did you ask? 

Why aren’t you answering? 

I’ve done my part. No report here. 

??? 

He lifted his gaze to the ceiling and texted back: Not yet. Give me a minute. 

He knew Billy Jo wanted him to get the inside scoop on who this Cheyenne Potter was and whether she was related to the chief or Gail. 

Then there was Sybil. He hadn’t shared the other problem in the chief’s family with Billy Jo. Was it the same person? 

“Yeah, just a friend, you know,” he said. He didn’t know what to make of the way Gail smirked. 

“I heard you and Billy Jo tried out the new Mexican restaurant last night. Also heard you had to wait after showing up and making Lindy, who was hostessing last night, put you at the bottom of the list even though she had a table ready for you.” 

“You spying on me, Gail?” he said. There was something about this place. It seemed every move he made was reported back to Gail, the chief, and everyone else in town. It was the kind of thing that made him really uneasy. He gestured vaguely when she quirked a brow. “Billy Jo pointed out to me that I’d used my position as a cop to get to the front of the line, and that kind of abuse of authority is a problem.” 

Gail let out a sharp laugh. “Oh, I see. She’s really got you toeing the line. Man, I love that girl.” 

He didn’t know what to make of that comment, considering he had a mind of his own but just didn’t see things the way Billy Jo did. “I’m not toeing anything. I just didn’t believe her. When I asked the hostess last night whether she’d put me at the top of the list and given me a table over everyone who was already waiting or had called to reserve, I didn’t expect her to say yes. So it’s not about toeing the line. It’s about the fact that I didn’t even realize it was happening.” 

She pulled in a sharp breath, watching him. “You know, Mark, I remember years ago, when I still worked in the male-dominated banking industry, all the men I worked with—or rather, under—walked right through the doors that were open wide to them. They didn’t see the struggles I had, being a woman, or the struggles others had because they weren’t white. The men I worked with landed so easily into positions of power because of who they were and how they looked. They didn’t see all the hurdles I had jumped through to get the position I had, from delivering them their coffee, to picking up their mail, to dry cleaning their suits, to even dusting down their desks only to be left in the office when the boys all gathered at the club for drinks. 

“Don’t get me wrong; they were friendly, even nice. They told me hello, asked how my night was. But I was not on their level, and the worst thing was that they never even saw that. It was clear from simple things, such as a favorite table always waiting for them at a restaurant when everyone else was put on a list and had to wait. Honestly, I remember bringing it up once to this man we’ll call Fred, and the look he gave me, it was as if I’d lost my mind. 

“That told me everything. He didn’t believe he was getting anything special, said I was being overdramatic. Yet he could pick up the phone and call anyone, a lawyer, another bank, some retail giant, and get put right through to the corporate president. You know what really got me was the fact that it was people like him who were the gatekeepers, and the people who work in those places simply conform—like the girl who works a minimum-wage job and had your table ready because she was conditioned to automatically give you a leg up because of your power, your position.” 

Mark hadn’t realized he was squeezing his phone. He set it down. He hadn’t expected this, not from Gail. “So, what, are you saying I’m at fault here? Geez, you sound like Billy Jo…” He sat forward. Damn, he felt uncomfortable, and he didn’t understand how he hadn’t seen what she was talking about. 

“Oh, don’t get your panties in a knot, Mark. It’s how this country was built. You can’t change centuries of how things have been done overnight. People aren’t ready for the kind of change that needs to happen. People, even minorities, keep doing the same old thing even if it doesn’t work just because it’s familiar. Something new is uncomfortable, and no one likes that. Just mentioning change is enough to start a fight. That’s not your fault. But if you don’t turn around and see what’s happening to the person behind you who doesn’t look like you, that’s on you.” 

He gestured toward her. “You’re making it sound as if it’s up to me to fix this.” 

She stood up and stacked her files. The way she looked over to him, for a moment she seemed so much like his mom, ready to set him straight. “It is up to you, Mark. It’s up to every white male out there who looks like you to stop in that doorway, when something is so easy for you that you don’t even realize it, and turn around. It’s up to you to ask if you got a job fairly, if you’re making more money because you’re white and male, if you have the ability to call anyone and go over the heads of people everyone else has to deal with, people who don’t get the same service as you, the same benefit as you. You thought it was a simple dinner out?” she added in a teasing tone. 

He found himself looking over to Carmen’s empty desk. “Do I make more money than Carmen?” he said, his heart thudding. He just assumed…what, that it didn’t matter? 

Gail pulled in a breath and let it out. “She’s not a detective. You are,” was all she said. 

He dragged his gaze from Gail back to the empty desk, thinking of the prickly deputy who always had his back. He knew what Gail hadn’t come right out and said. “But she does the same job as I do.” 

Gail pulled open the filing cabinet and started tucking in her files as he sat there at his desk, unable to figure out why he was so uncomfortable. “How about that, Mark? Good on you for noticing. She does do the same job, but she’s not a detective. Her title is deputy, which is a way of justifying the wage difference. It comes down from the top, the state, all the way to the county, the mayor, and the council. Even though we don’t have a sea of white men running everything like we once did, we do have minorities who have moved into those positions and conform, carrying on the same way of doing things. So no, Carmen doesn’t get paid what you do. You technically have more authority than she does, although, job to job, what you do here on this island is exactly the same. The only difference is that you have a title, and she doesn’t.” 

How the hell had they gone so far down this rabbit hole? He had to remind himself to blink, to pull in a breath. “This isn’t okay,” he replied. He didn’t know what else to say. 

“No, it’s not, Mark.” 

“Isn’t the head of the town council a woman?” He was sure of that. 

Gail rested her hand on the files in the cabinet. “Did you miss the part about conforming? To be clear, Mary Jane Trundell faced the same closed doors I did, watching as promotions she would’ve earned were given to men who had no qualifications. She was called honey, fetched coffee, made less than her male coworkers, and had to claw her way to where she is. Yet she was all for the idea of a white male being the detective with higher pay. She argued that Carmen could not have a promotion, so, as a result, the title of deputy earns her twenty percent less. Kind of leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?” 

From the way Gail shoved the filing cabinet closed, he wasn’t sure whether she was angry and finished making her point or whether she still had something else to point out about how he didn’t see what was happening around him. 

“I swear, Mark, this is the first time I’ve seen you at such a loss for what to say,” she said. “But, as I said, I think Billy Jo is good for you. Glad to hear you two are seeing each other.” 

“Billy Jo and I are just friends, Gail…” 

Good friends, and she was the one person he found himself wanting to talk to about anything and everything—except Sybil. 

“Oh, please,” Gail said. “Next you’ll be telling me you’re seeing someone else or that Billy Jo is. Bite the bullet, Mark. Make it official. You’re perfect for each other. In fact, why don’t you bring her for dinner tonight at the house?” 

His phone dinged again, but he didn’t turn it over. Gail was walking over to the coffeemaker and pulling out the basket of grounds—to make a pot for him? 

He pushed back his chair and stood up. “You know what, Gail? Let me make the coffee,” he said, shrugging out of his jean jacket and tossing it over the back of his chair. 

She turned around, holding the basket, confusion knitting her brows. “You want to make coffee?” 

He reached to take the basket of grounds from her. “I don’t want you waiting on me. I can make coffee. I mean, you just finished pointing out how I don’t see things.” 

She was still gripping the basket. He wondered if she’d refuse. When she relented, he wasn’t sure whether he saw panic or distrust in her expression. “Just make sure you wipe up the grounds you spill on the counter, only fill it half full, use cold water to fill the carafe, and…” 

“Do you want to make it?” 

She ripped the basket from his hands. “I don’t want to clean up a mess, and I want it done the right way.” 

He said nothing, wondering if he should point out that he’d offered. 

“Don’t say it,” she snapped. 

“Say what? All I was going to say is that Billy Jo and I would love to come for dinner. So what time should we be there?” 

They could talk about family, the personal kind of stuff they didn’t talk about at work, and Billy Jo wouldn’t be texting him about it every five minutes. 

Gail filled the carafe with water. “Come about six.” 

He heard the ding of his phone again and started back to his desk. As he did, the chief stepped out of his office and said something to Gail in a low voice. Gail was a complicated woman, and her husband was a man Mark would always keep an eye on. 

He picked up his phone and saw another message from Billy Jo: 

Hello, what are you doing? 

He replied, Got us an invite to dinner at the chief and Gail’s tonight. 

He spotted three dots, then nothing. Then a thumbs-up appeared. 

Okay, one woman appeased. Now he had to figure out how he was going to find out everything he could about Cheyenne Potter before dinner that night. Then there was Sybil. He needed to find her and have a talk with her about this nuisance brother of the chief. 

He dragged his hand over his face, knowing he was being dragged deeper into something that could end badly for him and his career as a cop. 

Chapter 5 

Mark had been unusually quiet since pulling in to pick her up five minutes after she got home. He’d blasted the horn without getting out of his Jeep, which she knew was his way of saying, “I’m here. Let’s go—and hurry up about it!” 

At any other time, she’d likely have ignored him, but as he sat in his idling Jeep, Lucky panting in the back seat, the floor of the passenger side free of takeout packaging, something about Mark just seemed off. 

“So how did you manage to get us invited for dinner at the chief’s?” she said as he backed out and swung around, already shifting gears while driving out to the road. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the dark sunglasses he always wore when driving, but she could sense an edge to him tonight. 

“I didn’t. Gail suggested it as I was warding off all your texts, trying to figure out a way to find out who Cheyenne Potter is, considering she didn’t show up in the database. I figured a nice social get-together away from the office would be the perfect spot to talk about family.” He glanced over to her and then back to the road. 

Lucky leaned forward and licked her face, and she reached back and rubbed his head, his floppy ears. She really loved Mark’s dog. 

“Well, I did Google Cheyenne,” Billy Jo said. “She’s on social media, with all kinds of photos with friends, selfies. Pretty girl, but no privacy settings. From what I can see, she loves to play some Candy Crush game and hasn’t figured out that her online profile shows everywhere she goes and everything she does. If I ever try to sign up for one, remind me why it’s a good idea to keep things offline.” 

He only shook his head. She’d expected a smile, but there was nothing. Okay, something was up. 

“Anyway, I did cover the bases on my end and search the DCFS records, but her name never came up. So what’s the plan tonight? How are you going to bring up Cheyenne and steer the conversation there?” 

He darted his gaze to her and back to the road, and she could tell how off he was by the frown he couldn’t hide. “I’m not planning on bringing it up. That’s why you’re here to help steer the conversation to family. You said she’s a niece? So find out the details of their family without asking outright. You know this could be some wild goose chase or someone messing with you. You said you didn’t know who this woman was, that she wouldn’t give her name but she knew you and me. This could be nothing except someone trying to stir something up and have us walking into a problem with the chief and Gail.” 

That wasn’t what she’d expected from him. 

“Everything okay there, Mark? You seem not your cheerful self.” 

He rolled his shoulders the way she knew he did when he felt cornered, then let out a heavy sigh. “This isn’t a walk in the park, you know. I’m already on the wrong side of the chief, but I like Gail, so I’m having a hard time with the idea that she could know about this, if it’s true. You said Cheyenne Potter told her mother, but nothing happened. Would her mother have told Gail and the chief? If they weren’t all over this, I don’t understand. It makes no sense. Family doesn’t do that, none that I know of. There has to be more to it, or someone’s created a story to stir things up.” 

She didn’t pull her gaze from him. She could see how much trouble he was having with the idea as he pulled into a driveway that led up to a two-story house on twenty acres that belonged to the chief. It was impressive, and she knew it had been in the family a long time. 

Mark parked beside the police cruiser and Gail’s white Tundra, and Billy Jo put her hand on the door as he turned off the engine. 

“You know, Mark, I get that you’re having trouble with this, but the thing about families is that you don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors. The picture you see from the outside is what the family wants you to see so you would never believe the ugly truth.” She yanked the door open. 

Mark sighed heavily and ran his hand roughly over the top of his head. “You think I don’t know that? I do.” He gestured sharply. “I’m just saying in this, it doesn’t make sense. So how about we don’t crucify this family and convict them because of something that hasn’t even been substantiated? And especially not with this kind of accusation, because if we sound the alarm and it’s found to be untrue, you can’t un-ring the bell. The damage is done, and you’ve already destroyed someone’s life.” He dragged his sunglasses off. 

The strength that seemed to radiate from his expression was mixed with something she had never seen before, and she realized she couldn’t push him tonight. Something was up. 

She only shrugged as she stepped out. Mark already had the dog out, and Lucky trotted all the way to the open front door, in which the chief was standing. 

The man gave all his attention to Lucky, leaning over and patting him, running his hand over his ears. “Lucky, come on in here. Gail has a big old bone ready for you.” 

Billy Jo didn’t miss the fondness he seemed to have for the dog, who was first in the house, walking in as if he were an invited guest. She kept her gaze on a moody Mark as they walked around the front of the Jeep. 

“Mark,” the chief said, nodding to him. 

For a second, from the look that lingered between the two of them, she suspected things were already quickly going sideways. Then the chief dragged his unsmiling gaze over to her. 

“Billy Jo, glad you could come,” he said. He gestured wide, sweeping to the open door for them to come in. 

She could hear Gail making a fuss over the dog, who apparently knew exactly where to go, as she went in first, Mark behind her. She slipped off her flats, noting that Mark only wiped off his cowboy boots before gesturing for her to keep going. 

The chief closed the door behind them, and they headed into the kitchen, which was big and open to the family room and a deck out back, where, through the open sliding glass door, she could see a barbecue smoking. 

“Hey there, Billy Jo,” Gail said. “It’s great to see the two of you. Wine, right? Red?” 

So she’d remembered. 

“Sure, thank you,” Billy Jo said as she pulled out a high-back padded stool at the island. She felt Mark’s hand settle on the back of it as she sat down. 

Gail handed him a cold beer from the fridge and poured red wine in a glass for Billy Jo, who took in the salad Gail was making and a plate of burger patties ready to go on the grill. 

“So nice to see the two of you together and catch up away from work,” Gail continued. “So how have things been with DCFS, Billy Jo? Heard from Tolly that you all had an issue last week removing a young boy from his home.” 

Right, the new policy had her being accompanied by the police to any incident now, and the chief had been the one who got that call. 

“Nothing unusual, just the same distressing call, having to pull a child from the only home he’s known and stick him with a bunch of strangers.” 

Having the chief there had only added to the anxiety. The child had been terrified, the mother distraught, but their life was now just notes in a file. 

“I noticed your family portrait above the fireplace over there,” Billy Jo said. “Your kids? I don’t remember hearing if they live here on the island.” 

Mark was leaning on the island beside her, so close, and she knew he was letting her take the lead on this. At the same time, he had been and still was unusually quiet. The chief reached for a beer that was already open on the counter and took a swallow, looking from her to Mark. 

“Funny thing about kids,” Gail said. “They leave and say they’ll never come back, that they can’t wait to get off this island, but Richard and Lori moved back last year. Trish is studying in Paris under a pastry chef right now, and Graham is back in Minneapolis, where his mom lives. He’s Tolly’s son, from his first wife. What is he doing now, Tolly?” 

Billy Jo turned her head, taking in the photo and the smiling tall black kid who towered over the chief. She looked back to him, noting that he hadn’t pulled his gaze. 

The chief shrugged. “Mechanics. Has an uncle there who took him under his wing.” 

She didn’t know what to make of that comment. Just then, the dog strode back in the open door, his tongue hanging out, and headed to a bowl of water on the floor, which he lapped up. 

“Tolly, grab that bone in the fridge and take it out on the back deck to give to Lucky,” said Gail. 

There was something about the way the chief seemed to follow her orders. Billy Jo watched as he pulled open the fridge and pulled out a prime rib bone on a plate. 

“Come on there, Lucky,” he said, and the dog followed. 

Mark seemed to track the chief, and she elbowed him sharply when Gail turned away. She made a face when he frowned down at her. 

“So how long have you lived here on this island?” she asked. 

Gail opened the fridge, pulled out a potato salad, and rested it on the long granite counter. The center island had a gas insert, and it appeared the place had been freshly remodeled. “Oh, I grew up here, just like Tolly did. It’s home. The place is in the blood. Can’t imagine living anywhere else. Did at one time in my younger corporate life, but I moved back here when Tolly and I got married. So what about you and Mark? Are you both finding that this island life is growing on you? It’s a great place to raise kids.” 

Billy Jo reached for her wine, lifted the glass, and took a swallow. Gail’s questions were veering into that personal territory of where she and Mark were or were not. She dragged her gaze to Mark, who still hadn’t said anything, and she wasn’t sure what to make of the way he was watching her. “It’s good here, right, Mark?” 

He pulled in a breath. “Yup. You want those burgers on the grill?” He gestured to the plate. 

Gail reached for it and handed it to him. “Yeah, good idea. Take this out to Tolly and tell him to get them started.” 

Mark headed out the back door, where the chief was watching the dog, who was now lying on the deck, chomping on the bone. 

“Everything okay between you two?” Gail said. 

It took Billy Jo a second to realize the woman had picked up on something. She just took in the chief and Mark, the barbecue now open. The two seemed to be talking. “Yeah, it’s just Mark, you know, moody. Figure he had a rough day. He tends to clam up.” 

The smile and soft chuckle from Gail had her really looking at the woman as she said, “Ah. I gave him a little bit of a hard time, showing him the reality of what he doesn’t see. Could tell I hit a nerve. Mark doesn’t hide it well when he’s rattled. Tolly has warned me I tend to take it too far sometimes.” 

“Oh…?” She wasn’t sure she should ask and hoped it wasn’t about her. 

“He’s a good guy, though. But you know that already.” 

She wondered whether her face portrayed her unease. “You’re right, I do know that. Considering I don’t have family here, I call on Mark for anything. You and Tolly have other family here?” She wanted to pat herself on the back for her quick thinking. 

“Sure we do. My two sisters are here, but my brother is down in Sacramento. Have a few nieces and nephews on my side, and Tolly has two brothers and four sisters. We had a big reunion just last year and were missing only four.” 

Gail stepped over to the bookshelf, which held a framed photo, and walked back over with it. It looked like forty people, easy. She held out the photo, and Billy Jo took it, her gaze seeking out Cheyenne Potter, whom she’d seen online. There she was on the end, not smiling. A man next to her had his hand on her shoulder. 

“I’ve seen her in town. Who is this?” she said, wondering how the lie could roll off her tongue so easily as she pointed to Cheyenne in the photo. 

“Oh, that’s Cheyenne, my sister Patrice’s daughter. She owns the nail studio down on main street. Did you have your nails done? Is that where you saw her?” 

Billy Jo was still holding the photo, taking in the curiosity that lingered in the way Gail was watching her. The woman was smart. Billy Jo needed to be careful. She held up her hand and her short nails. “These? Please. I am the last person to have my nails done. Is that her father behind her with his hand on her shoulder? And which ones are your sisters?” 

Gail leaned on the counter and seemed to really look at the picture. “My sister Bev is here, and Patrice is there…” She pointed to two women in front who were sitting on the grass, laughing together, their arms linked. “That’s Philip behind Cheyenne. He’s married to Bev… And those are our kids, there.” 

Billy Jo took in the photo. The family seemed picture-perfect. But something about Philip’s hand on Cheyenne’s shoulder had her stomach knotting. 

“Gail, burgers are almost ready…” the chief called out from where he was barbecuing, Mark beside him. 

Gail reached for the framed photo. “Okay, I’ll grab the buns. Billy Jo, can you take the potato salad and put it on the table?” 

And that was the end of that. Gail put the photo back on the bookshelf, and Billy Jo slid off the stool. Mark walked in and over to her as she reached for the potato salad, and Gail was gone down the hallway—to a pantry, she thought. 

“Well?” he said in a low voice. 

“Yup. Cheyenne is the daughter of Gail’s sister Patrice. There’s a photo over there. And behind her is her uncle, married to her other sister,” she whispered. 

Gail walked back in. Mark had that way of looking at her that told her he understood what she was saying. He was so close, in her space. 

“What are you two whispering about?” Gail said. “Whose place you’re going to after or just plans in general?” 

Mark stepped back. “You just don’t let up, do you?” he said teasingly. 

Gail laughed softly. “Nope, not when you two look this good together.” 

Mark just shook his head and stepped around her. When Billy Jo placed the potato salad on the table, she turned to see Mark already reaching for her wine on the island. The chief walked in with the plate of burgers, and Billy Jo pulled out a chair on the other side of the table, taking in the redheaded cowboy in the jean jacket he never took off, realizing she liked him more than a friend ever should. 


New Audio Release

DON’T HIDE FROM ME
???? Now in Audio!
Narrated by Jason Markiewitz

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The Free Friday Read

Preview the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery here!

This Preview Friday, I’ve got a sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery, ABOVE THE LAW, for you!  This upcoming release is due out at the end of June, but you can pre-order your copy AND read the first chapter here today.  There’s also a new audio box set release (be sure to grab a free Audible code while supplies last) plus a few titles now offered in print.  Enjoy, and cheers to a wonderful weekend!

Above the Law

Above the Law

His crime was unforgivable, but the law protects him.

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****

Chapter 1

“You ready to go?” Mark called out the minute he stepped into her place.

No “Hi.” No “How are you?” It was always “Hurry up, already.”

Billy Jo stared at the makeup she’d been about to put on, then tossed it back in her makeup bag, untouched. What had she been thinking, forking over her hard-earned cash on a whim for something she never wore?

“Seriously, Billy Jo, what are you doing?” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she flicked her hands through her plain and boring shoulder-length brown hair, noting the freckles that dotted her nose.

She’d never be the supermodel type. So, again, why was she doing this?

“Hey, didn’t you hear me? What are you doing in here?” Mark said as he strolled in.

She stared up at the tall, rugged, arrogant cowboy. His new jean jacket didn’t quite match his faded blue jeans, and his wavy red hair was short and appeared freshly cut. The way he talked to her, it was always as if he didn’t have a clue what she was thinking. He rested his hand on the doorframe and took in her small bathroom.

“I’m doing what a girl does: getting ready,” she said. “You said dinner at that new Mexican place. You made a reservation?”

He stepped back from the doorway, dragging his gaze down, taking in her new sleeveless black blouse and dressy capris, a gift from her mom. He had her feeling both uncomfortable and awkward.

“What?” She knew it came out quite sharply.

There was the pull of his lips, the smile that wasn’t really a smile but rather a sign of his amusement at her expense. Maybe that was why she could feel the frown knitting her brow.

“Didn’t say anything,” he said. “And no, didn’t get around to making a reservation. We don’t need it.”

She wondered at times what it was about him that had her wanting to pull her hair out. “It’s new and it’s busy. We need a reservation or it’s going to be fish tacos at the stand again—and I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”

He only angled his head, those blue eyes flickering, too good to look at. She knew he would rather argue than just go along with what he was supposed to do. But that seemed to be who they were and how this thing, whatever this was between them, worked.

“You worry too much,” he said.

At the jab, she felt her hands fisting at her sides. “And you seem to think we can just walk right in there and…what, we’ll be given a table?”

He flicked his jacket back as if trying to make a point, resting his hand right beside his badge, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He said nothing.

“You seriously think you can just show your badge and they’ll bump us right to the front of the line?” she said.

He made a rude noise, one she’d heard from him too many times when she just didn’t go along with his way of thinking. “You make it sound like a bad thing. Everyone knows who I am…”

She could tell exactly what he’d been thinking by the way he trailed off. “And you don’t think there’s anything wrong with that? Walking right in, past all the people who actually thought ahead to make reservations, past anyone else waiting their turn on the list? You seriously think

that just because you’re a cop here, you get priority?” She flicked off the light in the bathroom and stepped out.

He suddenly seemed at a loss for words. “Now, wait a second. That wasn’t what I meant.”

She angled her head. He stepped back, and she walked around him to the island, where her cell phone was plugged in and charging. She took a second to check that it was in the green, at one hundred percent. As she looked over, she thought he dropped an F-bomb under his breath before pulling his cell phone from his pocket and dialing.

“Yeah, this is Detective Mark Friessen. This is probably short notice, but do you have a table available for dinner for two? I was planning on coming now and just showing up, but it was pointed out to me that you’re likely busy, and…”

She could hear someone talking on the other end.

“Uh-huh,” was all Mark said. As he flicked his gaze over to her, his blue eyes seemed to simmer with something. “Sounds great. We’re on our way,” he said, then hung up and tucked his phone in his pocket.

She stared at what seemed to be smugness in his expression.

“Apparently there’s always a table available for me,” he said. Then he shrugged. “I called like you said. You should be happy now.” He gestured as if she’d made a big deal out of nothing.

“Yet you just couldn’t help yourself from using your detective title before asking for a table,” she said. “Mark, it’s the same as if you’d walked in there and flashed your badge. Ever heard of abuse of authority? There shouldn’t always be a table for you. That is very much someone giving you something for a favor.” She tucked her phone in her bag.

He narrowed his gaze. “I am the last person to use my position to get something. Seriously, I don’t work that way. I can’t be bought and don’t give out special favors. You’re making it sound as if I’m taking a kickback or something. I pay my own way. I don’t take gifts or bribes.”

She pulled her arms over her chest, taking in how defensive he suddenly sounded. “I hate to tell you this, but a table in a crowded restaurant is a kickback, whatever you want to call it, if you got it using your position in the community.”

“Do you want me to cancel? Is that what this is?”

She realized in that second that he didn’t get it. He stared at her with what she thought was the usual frustration that happened in their discussions, where she had one idea and he seemed to pull counterarguments from his ass.

“No, I’m hungry,” she said. “Let’s go.”

He stood there for a second as if he didn’t believe her. “There’s a test in here, right?”

She didn’t smile. She didn’t say anything. She simply took in her three-legged cat, Harley, as he hopped up onto the sofa. Mark looked down at her with the same kind of apprehension with which he might have looked at a ticking timebomb.

“Don’t look so worried,” she finally said. “Let’s go. But hear me on this: If we get there and there’s a crowd waiting, and, sure enough, they’ve bumped you to the front of the line because of your phone call, you say no to the table and ask them to put us in the queue, where we should have been to begin with.”

He lifted his hands as if surrendering. “Fine. Point made,” he said, then gestured to the door.

Billy Jo had to remind herself that it wasn’t healthy to enjoy this butting of heads that seemed to come naturally between her and Mark.


New Audio Release


Narrated by Leo Jones

Follow the social worker and the cop, an unlikely couple drawn together on a small, secluded Pacific Northwest island where nothing is as it seems.

Includes Nothing as it Seems, Hiding in Plain Sight and The Cold Case.

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Recent Release

“Riveting…gave me chills and many questions to ponder.” ★★★★★ Rebmay, Amazon Canada Reviewer

The Trap

The Trap

On a cold and rainy night, Billy Jo McCabe receives a troubling phone call about a child in trouble. But when she shows up alone, things quickly go sideways, and she realizes her mistake.

 

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Now in Print

The first two books in The O’Connells romantic suspense series are now available in print! 

Hardcover:
THE NEIGHBOR
THE THIRD CALL

Paperback:
THE THIRD CALL

Stay tuned for more print offerings.


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The Free Friday Read

An unpublished short, a new audio release & much more!

Happy weekend, everyone!  Today I have another unpublished short story for you, SOMETHING HE WANTS, which followed LONG PAST DAWN in The Friessens series. There’s also a new audio release, a giveaway and free audio codes to enjoy.  Have a fabulous Friday & take good care– Lorhainne

Something He Wants

There was something about the concrete, the barred windows, the miles of wires, and the guards perched a hundred feet up, watching him now with a threat or a warning, protecting these walls and keeping the angry, horrible monsters locked away. Every one of the men inside this prison had been someone’s child, with hopes and dreams of his own, and somewhere along the way, something had gone horribly wrong.

Everything about it was unfeeling, and as Andy Friessen stood outside in the cold, taking in the pale concrete against the gray sky, he knew nothing good could come from a place like this.

The wind picked up and rustled his neatly cut salt and pepper hair as he pulled at the collar of his black coat and shoved his hands in his pockets. He spotted a car in the distance and waited until the silver Malibu parked beside his rental SUV in the lot. He didn’t move as the door opened and a woman he’d known for more than two decades stepped out.

Jan Brown had short dark hair and a round face, and she wore blue jeans and a tan wool coat. A dark-haired young woman stepped out the other side of the car, her wool coat frayed on the arms, her skirt wrinkled from sitting, and her boots scuffed.

“You been here long?” Jan said. She stood only five foot six, he thought, and he towered over her. The other woman was likely an inch shorter but a size or two bigger. She said nothing to him.

“Just got here,” he replied. “So he’s still willing to see us?”

Jan nodded, and he could see her breath as she exhaled. “As of last night, my last call to the warden. Let’s remain cautiously optimistic and remember what the warden said: He can’t be trusted, so don’t tell him anything personal.”

Andy stilled as he thought of his beautiful wife back home and his daughter Sara, who was the image of her. He thought of all his kids, who were just making their way in this world despite the roadblocks that seemed to be tossed in their paths. There was one thing about Andy: When cornered, he came out swinging, and right now, the man they were meeting had something he wanted.

“How long have we known each other?” Andy said.

There it was, the hint of a smile. Jan was the woman who made sure no one ever fucked with Andy, but she kept her personal life neatly tucked away. He’d heard rumors about a divorce long ago from a husband who’d picked her bank account clean, and now a new lover half her age.

“Long time,” she said. “Well, let’s do this. I have other cases, and I want this wrapped up so I can move on.”

He liked that about her, her straightforwardness. The other woman had fallen in beside Jan without a word, not commenting or needing to fill the awkward moment with frivolous small talk.

“Andy, this is Kizzy, a law student,” Jan said, then turned to her. “So we’re clear on your role, you won’t talk to him, and I already filled you in on what the warden said about him. Any interest he sends your way, you won’t engage. Give him nothing. Just sit there and do not answer.”

“Yes, I understand,” Kizzy replied. “So what if he doesn’t sign the agreement or confess?”

The guard at the door buzzed them in. The concrete floor and walls were dark and dingy.

“You just sit there quietly,” Jan said. “That’s why I picked you to come, because of your ability to handle a delicate situation. He thinks he holds all the cards, and right now, unfortunately, he does. We go in there, and we need to all be on the same page so that he believes we have all the power. If he doesn’t agree to our terms, then we’ll walk, and he has nothing. This is it, all or nothing, and we have only one shot at this.” She turned back to him. “This is for your daughter, Andy, and her fiancé. That’s the only reason I’m here, working this.”

There was another buzz as another barred door opened, and Andy waited for Jan and Kizzy to walk through and over to the square window.

A guard was on the other side, a light shining behind him. “Sign here, and leave your bags and coats,” he instructed. “Cell phones, too. Anything you plan to take in will have to be searched first.”

They handed all their personal effects over and signed in to the prison, and Andy took in the knitted black V-cut shirt Kizzy wore. She had a full bust (he suspected a D cup), and her skirt was tight at the hips. Her full lips were unsmiling.

He knew a few things from having read Jan’s notes on her: She had the third-highest marks in her class, definitely competitive, and ass-kickingly good, but with a deadbeat leech of a boyfriend. Andy wondered how long it would take for Kizzy to figure that out.

What was it about strong, capable women that made them magnets for the losers of the world? He supposed Kizzy was simply following in Jan’s footsteps in that regard. At the same time, he’d learned long ago that even people who could be relied on were not always heroes. Case in point, he definitely wasn’t.

He took the clip-on visitor badge that the guard handed to him and clipped it to the pocket of his shirt, then looked up after he heard another buzz, seeing a different guard now, uniformed, wearing the same deadpan expression as the two before.

“We have only thirty minutes,” Jan said, holding her briefcase again, first through the barred door.

Andy gestured for Kizzy, who hadn’t pulled her gaze from him, to follow.

“I didn’t expect you to be coming with us, Mr. Friessen,” she said. She had fallen in beside him as Jan led the way, following the guard down another hallway, concrete and more bars ahead.

“Why wouldn’t I?” was all he said.

She didn’t shrug, just kept walking. There was something about the walls that seemed to ooze with death. Maybe that was why his heart was pounding, and he reminded himself to breathe past the feeling of panic in his chest. He wondered if this was what every man felt when he walked through these doors, many to never step outside again. At least he would be going home.

How many doors had they passed? There was an echo, the squeak of metal, the clang of keys, footsteps, voices, then shouting as another door was opened and closed. He figured they were inside the prison by now, and he and Kizzy followed Jan and the guard into a concrete room with a metal table, chairs, a light in the ceiling, and no window.

He listened to chains and the echo of footsteps, and then a man appeared, dark, tall, handcuffed, with prison tattoos on his forearms. Darnell Watson was big and strong, and Andy wondered if he could snap a man’s neck if given a chance. He was put into the chair, and his dark eyes locked on to Andy’s as a guard cuffed his ankle to the floor. Andy listened to the clang of the metal as the cuffs fell away.

Darnell rubbed his wrists, taking in Jan before his gaze landed on Kizzy and he made a sound of appreciation.

“I’ll be just outside,” the guard said. “Call if you need me.”

Andy leaned against the concrete wall, looking down on this man, who was doing life.

“So is this pretty mama here for my conjugal visit?” Darnell said.

His tone had Andy stiffening, but Kizzy only flicked Darnell what he thought was a “Fuck you” expression. She kept it together. Good girl!

“Mr. Watson, we’re here about Tiera Reed,” Jan said. “You know, the woman who’s doing life after taking the fall for you and your stolen guns. Right now, you could do the right thing and come clean. It will mean no more time is added to your sentence, and if you do, there’s a deal that could even make your time easier.”

Darnell laughed, deep in his chest. Andy took in the cut of the muscles in his forearms and the way he sat in the chair, shamelessly undressing Kizzy with his eyes. It took everything in him for Andy not to grab that piece of shit and make him mind himself, but Jan had already tossed him a look that told him to pull it together.

“Tiera who?” Darnell said.

Right, that was why they were there. Darnell wouldn’t come clean for the crime he’d done, for grooming one woman after another, hiding behind them and taking cover. After all, it seemed he saw women as nothing but collateral damage.

“Are you finished being an asshole?” Jan said. “This is a time-sensitive offer, and the clock is ticking. Tiera Reed, young mother of two boys. Come on, you know what you did, telling her she’d get just a couple years and be out, yet the three-strike rule got her. She didn’t hear from you again. You moved on, but the next woman was smarter. She wouldn’t take the fall, and here you are.”

He said nothing at first, then angled his head to Kizzy like a dog sniffing around a bitch in heat. “So who’s she?”

“My assistant, another lawyer,” Jan said. “So how about it, Darnell? Come clean and your life gets a lot easier.”

The quiet echoed in the concrete room.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Kizzy said. She had leaned forward, and even he could see the cleavage she didn’t try to hide.

Darnell pulled back. “Not good enough,” he said.

“So doing the right thing isn’t for you?” Jan said. “I see that, but then, how many women have you talked into doing your bidding? They take the fall, carry the guns and the drugs, and you pick at them bit by bit, like a vulture.”

He smiled. “So who’s the angry white man in the corner who looks like he’d rather slit my

throat than talk?” he said.

Andy didn’t move and didn’t uncross his arms.

“No one of importance,” Jan said. “He’s just here observing. Pretty sure you were offered something you’ll never get otherwise.”

Andy made a point of looking at his watch.

“Ten minutes is all you have,” Jan continued, “and then we walk out that door and never come back, and you go back to that cell that you share with a man who cries himself to sleep every night, to the crazies who howl all the time. Bet you never expect to have a good night’s sleep again. I can’t imagine what that would be like, kind of like losing your mind bit by bit every day—and because this is a federal max in Pennsylvania, they don’t allow conjugals. But what if you were transferred to a medium security, say, over in Washington, where it seems more like a country club?”

Darnell wasn’t smiling anymore. Andy guessed he’d figured out who held all the power here.

“Say I do confess to something,” he said. “How do I know that I’ll get my transfer, that I’ll get what you say? It seems to me that I have something you want, so let’s do this. You get me the west coast, and get my sentence reduced.”

There was just something about Darnell that told Andy the man wouldn’t give them what they wanted. Of course, that would have been too easy.

Jan had her file open and wrote something down, then clicked her pen, closed the file, and tucked it into her briefcase. “Well, I guess we have our answer. I’d say that’s time.” She scraped back her chair, and Kizzy took her time getting up. Andy didn’t miss Darnell’s panic, his anger, the animalistic expression that said he could hurt them.

“Whoa, wait a second! What’s going on?” he said. “You’re not going. We’re just negotiating. We’re just getting started. Come on, sit back down.”

But Jan had her hand on Kizzy’s back and had moved her around the table, then tapped on the door. The chair scraped back, and Darnell was on his feet, but the chain clanged, and he couldn’t move. The guard was there in an instant, slamming him down on the metal table. The sounds, the scent, the feeling of desperation—Andy wondered how many showers he would have to take to wash it all away.

“Don’t go,” Darnell called out. “What the fuck? I want a deal. You said you’d get me moved. I know her! Yes, I talked that stupid bitch into owning it. She was easy, like putty. You

want to know everything? I’ll tell you…”

He was still yelling, though the guard had him face down, his arms pinned back. Andy took in Jan’s determined gaze, which flicked over to him.

“That will be fine then, Darnell,” she said. “Guard, if you could sit him down?”

As Jan walked back around the table and the guard had Darnell sitting again, Andy appreciated how she could fool anyone into thinking she was soft and easy. He knew that he and Kizzy had been dismissed, and they started toward the door.

“So, Mr. Watson, just so we’re clear,” Jan continued behind them, “this in contingent on you coming clean on the crime, providing details that can be corroborated so that Tiera Reed, who is doing life for you, will then be free…”

“So that’s it,” Kizzy said as they walked back through the prison, led by another guard.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Andy replied. He stopped at the window with her, signing out, taking their things back. “I suppose this was a long way to come to just watch and listen,” he added.

She stood before him as they waited for the guard to open the door. “With all due respect, Mr. Friessen, I’m not a fool,” she replied. “I know you both used me because I’m his type, and that’s the only reason I’m here.”

For a second, he paused. He didn’t know what to say, and he took in the guard ahead of them, who was expressionless but whose watchful eyes said he knew exactly what Andy and Jan had done.

He should’ve been ashamed, but instead he said, “I won’t apologize. You’re a smart woman. I owe you, so here is my gift to you: I want you to know that when you fly home with Jan tonight, you’re going to walk in on your boyfriend with another woman in your bed, or you’re going to check your bank account and find it’s down another five hundred, and it’s because you’re that same strong, confident type that men like Darnell Watson find, groom, and take everything from.”

Her face gave away nothing. When she went to answer, the guard interrupted them.

“He’s right, ma’am,” he said. “I see it every day. The signs are right there in front of you. You just need to open your eyes and see them.”

The End


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On a cold and rainy night, Billy Jo McCabe receives a troubling phone call about a child in trouble. But when she shows up alone, things quickly go sideways, and she realizes her mistake.

 

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Happy weekend, all!  It’s Preview Friday, and I’ve got your sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery, THE TRAP!  This upcoming release is due out at the end of this month, but you can pre-order your copy AND read the first five chapters here today.  Plus claim some free Audible codes and check out an Authors XP contest.  Have a wonderful weekend!  –Lorhainne

The Trap

The Trap

On a cold and rainy night, Billy Jo McCabe receives a troubling phone call about a child in trouble. But when she shows up alone, things quickly go sideways, and she realizes her mistake.

 

More info →
Buy from Smashwords
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Apple Books
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****

Chapter 1

What was that sound?

The ringing came from a distance as Billy Jo stared at the arrogant redhead. He seemed to look right through her…

When she jolted awake, she realized it was her phone ringing from somewhere in the apartment.

Mark Friessen had been in her dreams.

She tossed back the covers, and her bare feet hit the icy floor in the pitch black. She flicked on her bedside light and hurried out of the bedroom. Her cell phone was on the island in the kitchen, and the screen was lit up when she landed on it.

“Hello?” she said, then cleared her throat, still feeling the cobwebs of sleep and her anger at how Mark had looked at her. The red digital clock on the stove read 1:10 a.m.

“Ms. McCabe, this is the program director from DCFS. I’m filling in for Grant. I apologize for calling at this late hour, but we have an emergency.”

She didn’t recognize the voice. What had he said his name was?

“I’m sorry, who is this?” she said, shivering as she strode back to her bedroom, where Harley was curled up asleep on the bed, half under the covers she’d tossed back. He didn’t stir.

“Lane Fuller,” the man said. “Again, I apologize for the late hour, but a report has come in about a child in trouble. I need you to immediately pick up the child and arrange for emergency placement.”

Her hand went to her head, and she brushed back her hair, which she knew was sticking up everywhere. She grabbed her ratty plush gray housecoat and shrugged one arm in as she hurried back into the kitchen, then flicked on the bright overhead light. She blinked, her heart thudding with the familiar warning that came at her every time she woke in the night.

“What happened?” she said. She spotted her bag and juggled the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she pulled out the pen and notebook she always kept tucked inside. She instinctively rolled her shoulders, feeling the chill of the night.

“Not sure on the details. All I know is we’re to pick up the kid. The name here is…” The sound he made was cold and unfeeling, and she couldn’t shake the suspicion that he possessed the familiar trait of too many in this business. She’d become accustomed to the desensitization, just something it seemed came with this job. Otherwise, it could eat people up. She, though, still saw the eyes of all the children, the hope that dimmed there, every night before she slept.

Maybe that was why she felt haunted now.

“Ah, here it is,” he said. “Whitney Chandler, and here’s the address.” He rattled it off, and she scribbled it down, wondering whether this job ever got easier.

“And how old is the child? Did something happen? The parents…?”

“I told you this is all I have. It’s just an emergency placement. Go get her, find a bed for her tonight, and you can iron out all the details in the morning,” he said. Then he hung up, and Billy Jo just stared at the disconnected phone, glancing at the time again and wondering why it seemed emergencies happened only in the middle of the night.

She hated this. Worse, she hadn’t even met the child but could already feel her anguish.

She pulled on thick socks and opted for sweats and a sweatshirt, then ran a brush over her hair, hearing the rain pattering on the roof. She reached for her heavy warm raincoat and shoved her feet into her lined rainboots, then quickly searched up the address. It was a part of the island that she knew was rural and dark.

Great, just perfect for a late-night visit!

“Seriously, why does the bad kind of shit have to happen after dark?” she muttered, pissed off. There was something about the night that always had her on edge.

Billy Jo reached for her phone, seeing Mark’s name in her contacts, and could feel the unease. It was just a dream, she reminded herself as she thumbed past his name. She opened Pam’s contact and dialed, then put it on speaker and listened to it ring once, twice. Then it went to voicemail.

“Ah, dammit… Pam, it’s Billy Jo. I need you to get up. I got a call from some guy filling in for Grant, and I’m doing an emergency placement. There’s a kid in trouble. Not sure of any of the details, but I need you to find me a bed for her tonight…” She heard the beep and knew she’d just been cut off.

She reached for her bag and then opened the drawer in the kitchen island to pull out a flashlight to tuck into it. As she strode to the door, the phone to her ear, dialing Pam again, she held the notebook open to the address.

“What!”

At least this time she answered.

“This is Billy Jo. I just left you a message. Sorry to call in the middle of the night.” She pulled open the door and flicked on the outside light. The rain was heavy, pounding down, making everything impossible—seeing, driving, just being out in it. “I just got a call from the program supervisor. I think he said his name was Lane. I have to pick up a kid in trouble.”

She rattled off the address and then tucked the notebook in her coat pocket as she stood in the open doorway, her hood up. Then she stepped out and pulled the door closed, the rain pelting down on her. “Look, I’m driving out there now, so find me a bed if you can. Call me back and let me know where to take her.”

The way Pam sighed on the other end summed up exactly what she was feeling. “I’ll see what I can find. Why is it that it seems these calls happen only in the middle of the night?”

Hadn’t she just thought the same thing? She didn’t answer, remembering her nights in foster care, lying there in the dark. That was when everything bad could and would happen.

“Oh, and Pam, whatever place you find, try to make sure I won’t have to worry that I’m pulling this kid from one bad situation and sticking her in another.”

“I’ll do my best,” was all she said.

Billy Jo hung up and tucked the phone in her bag, then made her way down the steps, the rain making everything difficult. She splashed through the puddles to her new Nissan and yanked open the door, then tossed her bag in across to the passenger side and climbed in.

She should have brought a towel, as the water dripped off her. She stared at the outside light and started her car, letting it warm for a second before flicking on the heat and pulling down the darkened driveway to the road.

The wipers were on high, whirring back and forth so fast as she gripped the steering wheel, trying to see, but the rain came down so hard that they couldn’t clear it fast enough. Worse, the fog had settled in, and she white-knuckled the steering wheel.

“Damn, I hate nights like this,” she said as she struggled to see, searching for the faded white lines on the road as she rounded a bend. The road was treelined on both sides now, and she slowed as the water splashed under her wheels. She turned right and had to flick on her high-beams, seeing darkened driveways, some with numbers, some without.

“114, where are you?” she said over and over, slowing to a crawl, seeing trees and driveways, only two with numbers by the road. “Sometimes I really hate this island.”

She slammed on the brakes when she spotted a small sign with an address in white letters, realizing she’d gone too far. She pulled out her notebook and flipped to the page with the address, remembering the directions she’d pulled up, feeling uneasy because of the night and the quiet.

With her foot on the brake, the car idling, she reached for her phone in her bag and saw that it had only one bar of battery left. How had she managed not to charge it when it had been plugged in and supposedly charging in the kitchen? Or had it?

“Stupid, stupid, Billy Jo.” She made a rude noise and tapped the phone to her forehead. Her frustration only added to the unease in her stomach, that sick feeling she didn’t think was ever far away. “Come on, keep it together,” she muttered as she rummaged through her purse for her charger, which wasn’t there. “Shit! Idiot!”

She slapped the steering wheel, then forced herself to pull in a breath and put her car in reverse. She flicked on the rear wipers and backed up until she stopped at a rutted treelined driveway she was positive had to belong to the house she was looking for. She flicked off her high-beams when the fog had her seeing a sea of white—and then she saw it, a darkened house with what looked to be an older pickup parked out front.

She squeezed the steering wheel with both hands and pulled up beside the truck, then took in the house, a small two-story. She thought she saw a light on upstairs. At the same time, she’d expected someone to be there already.

The police? That would be Mark, who she again reminded herself was both arrogant and unhealthy for her wellbeing. The dream had been a reminder that she was depending on him in ways that would end up breaking her.

She turned off her car and picked up her phone, but when she went to call Pam again, the phone flashed from one bar to no service. She lifted it and moved it until she saw the bar again, then pulled up Mark’s number and wrote a quick text: Got a call to pick up a kid in trouble. Wondering if you received anything? Here now, but no one else is…

Her thumb hovered over the send button. She wanted to kick herself for doing exactly what she shouldn’t be. “Nope, nope, not happening,” she said as she deleted the message. The battery was now in the red.

“This is just great, Billy Jo,” she said under her breath. “Pam can’t even call you now to let you know where to take the kid, and where are you but in between crazytown and creepyville?”

She opened her door and gave it a shove, then reached for the flashlight in her purse. She stepped out right into a puddle, the rain still pouring down. She closed the door and flicked on the flashlight, her breath fogging as she started past the truck to the three wide steps up to the front door. Solid wood and no doorbell.

Her hand was wet and cold. She fisted it to knock, feeling the hair rise on the back of her neck and that same sick feeling she’d had as a kid, when everything had always gone from bad to worse. It was the strange doors she remembered so vividly: old, worn, dirty, marked up or scraped and patched. Strange doors leading to strange people and houses, and a feeling of desperation and anger that never went away.

Billy Jo forced herself to knock on the wooden door and took another second to see where she was. There was no one around. Rain was the only sound she heard as she pictured her uncharged cell phone in the car. Then she knocked again, and this time she knew someone was on the other side of the door. It was just a feeling.

“Hello? Can you open the door, please? My name is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. We got a call about…”

She heard the click of the door being unlocked, then the squeak as it opened. She was suddenly aware of a faint light on the other side—then a clang of metal. She focused everything on that sound of a gun being cocked, a sound she knew too well. She stared in horror, seeing everything and nothing as she reminded herself to breathe.

Someone with a raspy voice said, “Well, then I guess you’d better come in.”

At the icy chill that ricocheted straight down through her, she realized her mistake. She was there alone, with no backup, no help. As she stared at the steel of the gun and the white hand holding it, she knew that whatever this was, she was in over her head.

Chapter 2

“Mark, Pam Hunt is on the line for you.” Gail gestured toward him with the phone. Her bulky purse was already packed, resting on her desk, one of the signs he knew well that she was getting ready to leave and the chief was likely two steps from opening the door. Gail stood behind the desk and rested the black office phone back in the cradle. Her gaze was pointed in that motherly way of hers.

Mark walked back to his desk, holding his steaming coffee, staring at the office door, still expecting the chief any second. “Pam Hunt… Should I know who that is?” He glanced to the clock, coming up on ten. Yay. This would be a really long day with the chief. The dread was there, as they had been circling each other constantly like dogs.

“Pam, who runs the DCFS office here. Come on, Mark, you should know her. Doesn’t she work with your girlfriend?”

He wasn’t sure what expression was on his face. Gail was already looking away, pulling a compact from her bag and sliding some lipstick over her lips. “Billy Jo is not my girlfriend,” he said. “We’re friends. That’s it. Why do I have to keep telling everyone?”

There it was, the flash of humor in her light blue eyes. She pressed her lips together, giving him that odd smile of hers as she tossed her lipstick and compact back in her bag. She again flicked him that motherly look. “Lighten up, Mark. Just having fun at your expense.”

He only shook his head and reached for the phone. Why would Pam be calling him? As he held the receiver, he watched the blinking light of the line. “She asked for me by name?”

“Yes, Mark, she asked for you. That’s why she’s waiting there on hold and why I said she’s on the phone for you. So why don’t you pick up and ask her nicely what you can help her with? You know, be the good cop you’re supposed to be—helpful, community minded…” Her tone dripped with sarcasm.

He glanced to Carmen’s empty desk. He hadn’t seen her this morning, which was unusual. He pressed the button on the office phone and picked it up, unsure whether he’d ever had a conversation with Pam. “Detective Friessen,” he said, knowing he was keeping it cool.

“Hi, Detective, this is Pam Hunt. I don’t know if you remember me. I work with Billy Jo, and I’m wondering if maybe you’ve heard from her… Maybe last night or this morning?”

He wasn’t sure what he was picking up on in her voice, in her tone. There was an edge to it. He thought about the last time he’d seen Billy Jo, walking out of the post office how many days earlier. She had ducked her head and he’d kept walking. Evidently, they were back to that again.

“Not recently. Why, what’s up?” He took a swallow of his coffee, watching Gail tuck files from the cabinet behind her into her bag. Case files?

“Well, I haven’t seen her this morning. She was supposed to pick up a girl last night, a late-night call, but this morning I got a call from the Pearsons, the placement home, and they said they waited up all night and no one showed up. And she’s not answering her cell phone.”

Gail had her keys in hand and had lifted her bag over her shoulder. He wanted to know what files she was taking, of course. Maybe the chief had asked her to bring them home?

“I’m sure there’s an explanation,” he said. “A late-night call… Maybe she went back to bed. Maybe there wasn’t an issue after all. I’ll try her cell phone, but it’s likely she’s sleeping.”

“Look, I’ve called her cell phone four times,” Pam said. “If she was answering, I wouldn’t be calling you now, would I? This isn’t like her. She’s had late-night calls before, but she’s still always first here. She said she’d been told to pick up a girl. She’d have left me a message if something had changed.”

He pulled in a breath, knowing he was going to have to drive over to her place. He’d have to talk to her. He could already imagine the awkwardness that lingered between them now because he knew her better than he ever had any girl before. Sharing, talking… She knew too many of the kinds of secrets he didn’t share with anyone.

“I’ll call her and then drive over to her place,” he said. “She’ll likely be pissed because I woke her up.”

He heard the sigh on the other end of the phone. “Well, tell her to call me, because I have to call the Pearsons back on whether to expect the girl she was supposed to drop off. They aren’t happy. No, scratch that. They’re furious, actually, and are on my ass, ready to take a chunk out, so to speak. You know what I mean? It’s hard enough to find people ready and willing to take a kid in on a moment’s notice…”

He didn’t miss the sharpness in her tone. He lifted his gaze to the ceiling, wondering how her worry had suddenly turned into a rant. “I hear what you’re saying, Pam, but I’m sure it’s—”

“What? That she forgot to call, or was it something else?” She cut him off as if she were scolding him.

He was well aware that forgetting to call back was something Billy Jo didn’t do. Before he could add anything, Pam continued.

“You just let her know that Jill Pearson waited up all night after I called and told her a girl was being dropped off. She’s tired and angry. Billy Jo can call her back and explain and smooth it over with her, because I won’t.”

It wasn’t lost on him how quickly her worry had changed to annoyance. “I will let her know. Anything else?”

There was silence for a second. “I think that’s all—other than to let her know that when she doesn’t show up in the morning, I’m the one who has to field questions and calls with no answers to give, and I don’t appreciate it.”

He only nodded, figuring Pam could go on and on. “Duly noted, Pam. I’m sure Billy Jo didn’t go out of her way to make things difficult for you. How about I just go over to hers and let her know she needs to talk to you, and then the two of you can work this out?”

He could feel Gail watching him, but he didn’t look over to her. There was silence on the other end. “Anything else I can do for you, Pam?” he finally said, keeping his tone professional, wondering for only a second what this was between the two women. The last thing he wanted was to step into it.

“I think that’s all. Just…”

“Okay, Pam. The quicker I get out to Billy Jo’s and get you two back in touch with each other, the quicker she can handle whatever needs to be handled,” he said, then hung up before she could add one more thing.

“What’s going on? Problem?” was all Gail said. Did she have any idea that Pam could go on and on?

Just then, the front door opened and the chief walked in. Mark yanked open his drawer and pulled out the keys for his Jeep, then glanced down at the dog he still hadn’t named, who was curled up on the dog bed Gail had picked up.

“Billy Jo hasn’t checked in at the office this morning. The short of it, from what Pam said, is that she had a late-night call to pick up a girl who was supposed to be taken to some foster place for the night, but she didn’t show, so I’m heading over to her place. I’ll knock on her door. She’s probably asleep. Maybe it wasn’t the situation she expected, and if she was up most of the night, it’s likely she and Pam got their wires crossed. Come on, dog,” he called out.

From across the room, the chief was staring at him with that hard, unsmiling gaze, those icy blue eyes that he knew carried a world of secrets, the kinds he didn’t want to get too close to. He just waited, feeling as if something was coming. The dog nudged his side, and he found himself looking back over to Gail, who was only nodding as she slid her hand over the strap of her bag across her shoulder.

“Well, you’d better get going,” was all she said.

The chief didn’t pull his gaze from him, but he did step back and drawl, “When you’re back from your errand, Mark, I need you here, manning the phones.” He was a big man, and for a moment he could feel the tension that would likely always be there.

“Tolly, you have your own work to do and a number of messages on your desk,” Gail said, gesturing.

The chief dragged his gaze over to her, then stepped back again, and this time Mark walked past him and pulled open the door. The dog trotted out ahead of him. When he glanced back to Gail and the chief, it seemed something else was going on there. Based on the tension, he definitely didn’t want to know what that was about.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, then pulled the door closed behind him and started over to his Jeep.

He didn’t know why, but it seemed this stalemate with the chief was going in only one direction, from bad to worse.

Chapter 3

Billy Jo’s car wasn’t at her place.

Mark rolled the windows down in the Jeep. “Stay,” was all he said to the dog, who was sitting in the passenger side, before he closed the door and took in her apartment above the garage. The big house the Lancasters owned and lived in sat in the distance, with trees and grass around it. Everything looked quiet.

He pulled out his phone and dialed Billy Jo’s number, wondering if maybe he’d just missed her. Likely, he was on a wild goose chase, but at least it had been enough to get him out of the office and away from the chief.

He held the phone to his ear, and it immediately went to voicemail: “This is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. If this is an emergency, call the office. Otherwise, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

“Hey, I’m outside your place,” he said. “Can you call me back as soon as you get this? Pam called, looking for you, so here I am, doing my due diligence, checking up on you. I’m figuring you’re likely already at the office and have sorted out this mess with Pam. But call me back and let me know so I can take this off my plate.”

He hung up, figuring she’d either call back or ignore him. When had things become so awkward?

Then he spotted someone walking his way, waving at him. It was Lesley, the owner of the place, a little heavyset, in yoga pants and a tank.

“Yoo-hoo, hey there!” she called out in a happy singsong. He could hear the smile on her face before he could see it as she hurried over to him. “Detective, isn’t it?”

They’d met a few times, and from the vibes she threw off, he was positive she had no boundaries.

“Yes, Mark Friessen,” he said.

“That’s right, the young detective friend of Billy Jo’s. I saw you pull in and was wondering who was coming up here. Billy Jo isn’t in. Is she expecting you? That girl is an early bird who gets the worm. Lorne said he heard her pull out last night during that downpour in the wee hours, I think. I was planning on bringing some muffins down, and I looked out as I was making coffee and saw she was already gone. That girl works so hard, a really dedicated type. We like her.”

Right. Another thing about Lesley was that she could go on and on, too.

“You said she pulled out last night,” he said. “What time did she come back?”

The woman was smiling brightly, showing crooked lower teeth, but then she frowned, looking up at Billy Jo’s place. “I don’t rightly know. It had to have been early because, as I said, I looked out when I got up and her car was gone. Is something wrong? Did you two get your wires crossed or something?”

The woman was perceptive, too. The way she asked that last part, he picked up on a hidden meaning he didn’t want to dive too deeply into.

Mark pulled in a breath. “She’s not at the office. That’s why I’m out here. And no, I haven’t talked to her.”

Lesley frowned again, then opened her mouth to say something. She looked up to the apartment, at the closed door, and took in the quiet around them. “Well, did you try calling her?”

“Wouldn’t be here if she’d answered her phone. Goes right to voicemail.”

Lesley waved her hand as if it were nothing. “Oh, that girl always forgets to charge her phone—or is there something I should be worried about? You two are talking, right?” She winked and shot him a flirty smile. What was it with everyone sticking their noses into his business?

Mark glanced to the stairs. “I haven’t talked to her in a while. A call came in this morning to the station, looking for her, so that’s why I’m here, just to make sure everything is okay.”

Lesley wasn’t smiling anymore. “You’re thinking something’s happened to her?”

He only shook his head. “Don’t know. That’s why I’m out here. You mind if I go up and have a look inside?”

She hesitated, and he wondered whether she would say no. “Well, you are a friend. I suppose it’ll be all right. I’ll get the key.” She turned around and called out to the man out front of the big house, pushing a wheelbarrow. “Lorne, bring the key down for the apartment!”

Mark had his foot on the first step and started up as the man yelled back, “What for?”

“Just bring it! The detective here, he needs to get in,” she yelled with the kind of voice that carried.

He took in the big window and the three-legged cat who jumped up to the sill, meowing. He didn’t see anyone as he cupped his hand over his eyes past the glare of the sun and peered through the glass. Nothing, just the cat.

As he stepped back, Lesley was waving at her husband at the foot of the stairs to hurry, he thought. He put his hand on the knob and turned. Of course, the door opened. Apparently, that little talk he’d had with Billy Jo about locking her door had failed to sink in.

“Forget the key,” he said. “She left the door open.” He stepped inside as the cat meowed and hopped across the floor. “Billy Jo, it’s Mark,” he called out, but he heard nothing, already knowing she wasn’t there.

He took in the neat and tidy counter. The cat hopped to the kitchen, where his bowl of water was on its side, empty. His food dish had only a few kibbles left in it.

“You thirsty, hungry? Where’s Billy Jo?” he said to the cat, then leaned down, lifted the bowl, and walked over to the sink to fill it up.

“She left the door unlocked?”

He glanced over his shoulder, seeing Lesley walk in, her husband following. Lorne’s hair was salt and pepper, and he was of medium height, a little on the heavyset side as well.

“What’s going on?” Lorne said, looking around, a frown knitting his brow. “Did something happen to Billy Jo?”

Mark settled the bowl of water on the floor for Harley. “Do you know where Billy Jo keeps the cat food? I think he’s hungry.” He gestured to the cat, who was at his water dish.

Lesley made her way into the small kitchen to open a cupboard and pull out a container. “Are you hungry there, you poor little misfit?” she said, fussing over the cat.

Mark strode out of the small open kitchen and down the hall, stopping in her bedroom to see that her blankets and sheets were tossed back as if she’d just climbed out of bed and left. He didn’t have any idea if she was the kind of girl who made her bed or just got up and went, but by the look of everything in this place, neat and tidy, he thought maybe she did if she wasn’t running out in the middle of the night.

He flicked on the light in the bathroom to reveal the usual toiletries, hairbrush, toothbrush, and towels. Nothing seemed out of place. When he strode back into the living room, Lesley had fed the cat, and Lorne was standing with his arms crossed.

“Nothing seems out of place here,” he said. Maybe she was still at the call she’d gotten the night before. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed her office.

“Family Services. This is Pam.”

“Hey, it’s Mark. Has Billy Jo shown up at the office? Because I’m at her house, and she isn’t here.”

“No, she hasn’t. I take it you haven’t found her?”

He shook his head and lifted his gaze to the Lancasters, who were quiet, listening to him. “Nope. I’m at her place now, and it looks like she left in a hurry. Where is it you said she went, again? I think you’d better give me all the details, the name, the address. She could still be out there. Maybe there’s more going on than you know about. You spoke to her how long ago?” He heard a sigh on the other end.

“She called me in the middle of the night. I think it was after one a.m., maybe closer to two?”

He dragged his gaze over to the clock on the stove. It was 11:20 a.m. He felt that off feeling he’d felt too many times. “Okay, and you haven’t seen her, and you know for sure she didn’t go into the office, even before you got there?”

“Look, she wasn’t here. I’m in at eight, but this morning I came in early, just after seven, because there’s always a lot to do when a kid is picked up the night before. Emergency placements are just that. Then there are the reports and the matter of finding something permanent. No one has any idea of the amount of paper and details that—”

“Okay, I get it,” he cut in, realizing Pam could quickly stray off into topics that weren’t helpful. “But right now, I’m trying to find out where Billy Jo is, so tell me who she went to see—the name, the address, and the reason she went out there. I’ll start there. As I said, maybe she’s still there.” He could hear rustling on the other end, maybe paper.

“She called me, as I said, between one and two. Said she got a call from the program supervisor to pick up a girl by the name of…” She paused. “Here it is. Her name is Whitney Chandler. No other details. Do you want the address?”

“Text it to me at this number.” He looked over to Lesley and Lorne and could see their worry.

“Okay, sending it to you now,” Pam said.

“All right. I’ll call you if there’s anything else,” he said, then hung up before Pam could add something. His phone dinged, and there was the address, another rural spot on the island, just what he loved.

“Should we be worried? Should we call her parents?” Lesley said.

Mark looked over to the couple and shook his head. “No sense worrying them. I’m sure wires were just crossed and Billy Jo is still at the home, is all. I’ll drive out there. Don’t worry. She’ll likely be back here soon. In case she shows up before I find her, though, give me a call.” He reached into the breast pocket of his jean jacket and pulled out a card, which he held out to Lorne, who took it.

“Sure, we’ll call, but if she is out there, let us know. Because now we’re worried,” Lesley added.

All Mark did was nod and glance down to the cat, who was now eating. He walked over to the door. “Oh, again, don’t call Chase and Rose McCabe. If I’ve learned anything, you’ll likely be jumping the gun, and then Billy Jo will have a worried father and mother on the next ferry over.”

The way they looked at each other, though, Mark had a feeling that as soon as he walked out the door, Lesley would be on the phone to Billy Jo’s parents.

There was one thing he knew well about Billy Jo: She loved her family, but she was about as private as they came, and having a bunch of people fussing and showing up worried about her was exactly what she wouldn’t want.

He strode down the stairs, seeing the dog hanging his head out the Jeep window as he started over toward it. This feeling he had, the one that settled deep in his gut, had him wondering whether he had become too close with Billy Jo, fast treading into that territory where he was beginning to care too much for her.

“Yeah, your judgement’s clouded. That’s all, Friessen. Pull your head out of your ass and do your job. Treat her like anyone else,” he said out loud as he yanked open the door.

But her image popped into his mind again, the last time he’d seen her, with that smile she never offered, the awkwardness that had become too real. He had never pictured her as the kind of girl who would eventually shred his heart.

Chapter 4

“Hello?” Billy Jo yelled, pounding the metal wall, hearing it rattle. Very little light came into the room from the cracks in the walls as she kept pounding, with not a clue where she was.

What had happened after she woke up on the floor of this room in the dark? It was kind of fuzzy, but she knew there had been a gun, a man. She was in trouble.

“Hey, I know you’re out there! Open up! What do you want? Look, I’m not sure who you are, but I got a call to come out here and pick up Whitney Chandler, a young girl who’s in trouble. Is she out there? Hello?” she yelled again, banging with her fist. But no one was answering.

She was sweating in her heavy raincoat and track pants. She shrugged off her coat, but not before feeling the small flashlight with her extra keys in her pocket. She pulled it out and flicked it on before tossing her raincoat on the ground at her feet, taking in what looked like the inside of a metal cargo trailer. She knew cargo trailers, but she didn’t have any idea where she was. Where were her bag and her cell phone, which wasn’t charged?

“Idiot,” she muttered under her breath, remembering her car, the rain, and where she’d left her bag and phone the night before.

She shut her eyes for a second, thinking of the text she should have sent to Mark. But why would she do that when she was furious with him? And over what? Her ego, her own issues, because he’d found a way under her skin and gotten too close to her. Right now it seemed ridiculous, and she was already kicking herself. But then, she’d also told Pam where she was, and that program director, Lane, who’d said he was filling in for Grant. That didn’t exactly leave her with a warm and fuzzy feeling, though.

“Pam, please tell me you’ve got this handled, that you’ve figured out I’m in trouble and called in the cavalry.” Her words echoed in the empty trailer.

Where was she, exactly? She couldn’t remember anything past having the gun in her face and then waking up in this box. Why was there a big blank? She tapped her forehead with her fist as she struggled to remember.

She was hungry, and she needed to pee. She shone her flashlight around the box, empty except for her. She walked to the door and pushed on it, but of course it was locked, so she kicked it with her booted foot. The rattle was loud, and there was no give.

“Hey, knock it off in there!”

She heard the voice, the same male twang that had accompanied the gun in her face. She was positive it had to be the same voice. Right? Everything had gone into slow motion when she heard the click of the metal. She remembered the long pull of her breath, the icy fear that had scraped through her, seeing the barrel of the gun in her face.

The door unlocked with a heavy clang. A trailer for sure. She flicked off the flashlight and shoved it down the side of her bulky boot, then took one step back and another. Only one of the doors swung open, and there was a man with dark shoulder-length hair in need of a cut, with a beard. He was big, likely close to six feet, and something about the way he looked at her with those dark eyes reminded her of one of her foster parents, Mr. Humbolt, a man who’d loved his guns. Her father, Chase McCabe, had saved her from him. Maybe that was why her heart was hammering in her chest.

“What do you want with me? And where’s Whitney? Who the hell are you?” she demanded—and damn, did she sound confident even though she was shaking inside, fighting the instincts of a scared little girl, alone with no one to help her.

The man had big hands, and he gestured for her to move back. He rested a bucket in the corner and tossed a plastic bag on the floor.

“Look, I don’t know what this is, but let me out,” she said. “I’m Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. I don’t know what your problem is, but let me see Whitney. Is she all right? What do you want with me? And who are you?” She rested her hands on her hips mainly because she couldn’t stop them from shaking.

“You ask a lot of questions, and you’re making too much noise,” he said.

She couldn’t figure out what she was looking at behind him, seeing the sun coming through cracks in the wood wall. A barn or maybe a big shed? She didn’t know for sure.

“You haven’t answered me,” she said. “Who are you? Where’s Whitney? You know keeping me here isn’t going to work too well for you. You think people don’t know I’m here? My boss, the police…”

There was a smile, she thought. Then it was gone. He didn’t pull his gaze, and those eyes were freaking her out, because they held the kind of hate and anger she knew meant he wouldn’t be reasoned with.

“Oh, I’m counting on that,” he said. “But if you don’t quiet down, I’ll tie you up and gag you. Are we clear?”

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

He gestured to the bag. “Water and a sandwich.” Then he stepped back, his hand on the door. She knew he was about to shut it and lock it, so she hurried to it and slapped her hand on it.

“Wait! Who are you? What do you want with me?”

He stopped. The way he let his gaze linger on her had a shiver running through her. Anger, rage… He didn’t seem too inclined to answer her. He simply pulled the gun from the waistband of his jeans, at the small of his back, and flicked it at her. “Back,” he snapped, gesturing with it.

She lifted her hands and took a step, knowing as soon as that door closed, there would be no way out. “Please, why? Just answer me that.”

“You’re a means to an end.”

She wondered whether her confusion showed. “I don’t know who you are, but you know me?”

He was still holding that gun at her. His finger rested at the side of the trigger, holding it like a pro. “Oh, I know who you are, Billy Jo McCabe. Asked around, and it seems you’re as new to the island as Detective Friessen.”

She was never at a loss for words, but for a moment she felt as if she’d been pulled into a game without knowing any of the rules. “Okay, and you have an issue with me…?” She let it hang, very aware of that steel door that would close and lock any second.

He didn’t look away. “Didn’t say it was about you now, did I? Just that I know who you are. You know anything about hunting?”

That was exactly what she didn’t want to hear from someone holding a gun.

“Some. Why? What is this?”

“Then you know you have to track down your prey. You have to wait, and you have to be patient, knowing it takes as long as it’s going to take. Sometimes you need bait that will attract who you’re hunting. You’re my bait.”

He was serious. She realized his anger wasn’t for her: She was just collateral, staring into the eyes of a man who wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep if he pulled the trigger and shot her.

“This is about Detective Friessen?” she said, and the way the man kept staring at her, she knew she was right.

“We have unfinished business,” was all he said.

Her stomach knotted as she pictured a trap being set for a man she realized she cared far too much for. She needed to keep this guy talking.

“Well, then you have the wrong person. I’m just a social worker. I barely know him…”

He laughed and shook his head. “Really? You think I didn’t do my homework? I know exactly who Mark Friessen is close to on this island, which cabin he lives in, which dog he took in. You’re the one he cares for, whether as friends or something more. The talk in town is about the social worker and the cop and the fact that he’d do anything for you. A man doesn’t do that for a woman he barely knows. He does it for a woman he loves. I’d say that makes you the perfect bait.”

What the hell? How was this possible, a stranger knowing all this about her and Mark? Who was he?

“You still haven’t told me who you are. What’s your name? What are you planning on doing to the detective?”

“You ask a lot of questions. It doesn’t matter who I am. All that matters is I have you. The detective and I have some unfinished business, and I plan to make him look me in the eye, to hold him accountable. Retribution… I’ve waited a long time, and I’ll have it.”

So she was only a pawn. “What did he do?”

He shook his head. “I think the question is what he didn’t do.” He tucked the gun in his waistband and moved his hand to the door to shut it.

“There is no Whitney, is there?”

He made a face and shook his head. “Nope, not anymore.”

Chapter 5

Mark took in the dirt driveway and overgrown grass, the rutted tire tracks, now dry after the heavy rain from the night before, as he pulled up in front of an old two-story house with the kind of clapboard siding that said it was more of an amateur project than something done by a builder. An old truck was parked in front, and the porch had three wide wooden steps, no railing, and wood that looked as if it had seen better days.

“You stay,” he said to the dog, who was already panting as the day warmed, his window down. The dog was the best companion he’d ever had.

He stepped out of his Jeep and closed the door, his hand resting on the open window frame. The windows of the house were single paned and dirty. An old sheet, he thought, hung in one. He turned his head, seeing trees, overgrown grass, and bushes, but he didn’t hear anything other than birds.

It was deserted and quiet. Too quiet.

He walked around the front of the Jeep and took in the old truck, which didn’t look as if it even ran, let alone had moved in a while. The side was rusty, the seat inside was torn, and one of the tires was flat. He patted it, and the sound echoed.

A breeze picked up, and he pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them in his shirtfront as he walked up the wooden steps, hearing each creak under his weight. He was sweating under his jean jacket. Something about this place left him with the kind of unsettled feeling that had him looking over his shoulder again.

He dragged his gaze back to the old wooden door, with no doorbell, scraped, dinged, and dirty, and he fisted his hand and knocked, then listened for anything as he waited. One, two… he counted in his head, then knocked again, louder. “Roche Harbor Police! Open up,” he called out.

If someone was in there, whoever it was would have heard him. At the same time, there was no sign of Billy Jo or her car. Was this the right place? Maybe the address was wrong.

He couldn’t shake that off feeling again. The hair on the back of his neck stood, and he turned around, narrowing his gaze, unable to shake the sense that someone was watching him. But all he saw were trees and bushes, nothing else.

“Hey!” he called out, expecting someone to come out of the bushes, but there was nothing except his dog hanging his head out the open window, panting, loyal and patient.

Mark turned back to the door, hearing nothing, and reached for the knob. It turned, but it was locked.

He strode down the steps, feeling his holstered gun at his side, and walked to the side of the house, looking up at the windows of the second story. Around back, the overgrown grass appeared undisturbed, as if no one had been back there. He took in the old back entry, a small boxlike porch, an old door, and dirty glass.

Behind him, what looked like junk had been tossed here and there. He fanned his hand over his eyes and looked up, then pulling his phone from his pocket and dialed Pam. Evidently, he was missing something.

“DCFS. Can I help you?”

“Pam, this is Mark. I’m at that address you gave me, but it appears to be some rundown old place with no one around. Billy Jo’s car isn’t here, either. You sure you gave me the right address? I need you to tell me again exactly what Billy Jo said when she called you.”

There was a pause on the other end before she rattled off the same address to him, and he nodded to himself with that sinking feeling.

“Your sure that’s the one she gave you?”

“Look, it may have been the middle of the night, but it’s the one she told me. I wrote it down. Maybe she gave the wrong address.”

There was something about this place that he didn’t like.

“Who called her, again?” he said. He could hear papers rustling in the background.

“The program supervisor. She said his name was Lorne—or Lane, I think? Shit, I know I wrote it down here somewhere…”

He waited and pulled his hand over the back of his neck, taking in the bushes, no longer feeling that odd sense of being watched.

“Okay, maybe I didn’t,” she said. “Just the program supervisor. I guess Grant must be away. I’ll call his office and find out who called her. Likely it’s just a matter of it being the wrong address or something, but that still doesn’t explain why she hasn’t called or shown up with Whitney…”

It was the “or something” he was worried about. The unease he hadn’t felt before was starting to sink in now. Maybe he should call her dad, her mom? Or maybe there was a simple explanation for all this.

“You know what?” he said. “Call whoever called her. Find out who it was, and I want to talk to him. What did you say the reason was? If a girl was in trouble, why weren’t we called? I have no report from last night. Don’t you think that’s rather odd?”

There was silence for a second on the other end. “I guess I never considered that, but the police aren’t always involved,” Pam said. “Evidently, I don’t have the whole story. Do you think something happened, on this island, in our community?”

He could hear the doubt—but what was she expecting him to say, that nothing could happen here? Of course it could, and it did. Most people had no idea what went on right next door, not really.

“Don’t start speculating,” he said. “One thing at a time. I want to talk to the program supervisor, and I need the details of the call, the correct address, and to know why we weren’t contacted. Better yet, send me the number of whoever called her, because I want to talk to him. I want all the details of what Billy Jo was sent into.”

“Yeah, of course,” Pam said before she hung up.

Mark thumbed through his phone and sent a quick text off to Carmen: Where are you?

Maybe she had an idea of what had happened, considering he hadn’t seen her that morning, which was in itself unusual.

Busy, handling something. What do you want? she texted back.

Okay, so she was her usual self.

Looking for Billy Jo. You haven’t heard from her, have you?

He waited for the three dots and watched them pop up as if she was texting something, but then there was nothing. He lifted his gaze again and looked around, seeing nothing but junk, and took a step to the window of what looked like a kitchen. He glanced back to his cell phone and saw the message: Nope.

That was it.

He shook his head, tucking his cell phone in the back pocket of his jeans, as he looked up to the kitchen window and then back to an old barrel and pallets leaning against the house. He dragged one under the window and rested his booted foot on it, testing it to see if it would give, then climbed up and pressed his hands against the wall.

He cupped his hand against the dirty window and peered in, seeing an empty old kitchen, paper and boxes on the floor, empty cupboard doors open. A pot sat on an old stove, dirty, dusty. The place was abandoned, maybe.

He jumped back down and pulled his phone from his pocket to send another text to Carmen. Can you pull up this address for me? Looks abandoned. Find out who owns it, who lives here, everything.

He waited for a response and got a thumbs up, then tucked his phone back in his pocket and strode back around the house. When he took in his Jeep, he froze. Something white fluttered under his wiper blade.

“What the hell…?”

He slapped his hand to his side, reaching for his gun as he stared at the fluttering paper, which hadn’t been there before. As he moved closer to the side of the house, looking around, that feeling of being watched was there again, making the hair stand on the back of his neck.

He pulled in a breath, feeling the pounding of his heart as he took one step and then another, staying close to the side of the house, his hands on his gun, tracking everything as he glanced around the corner. But there was nothing. He knelt to glance under his Jeep too, but there was nothing there, no feet or anyone.

He hurried over and reached for the paper someone had put there when he was behind the house. Someone was watching him.

He realized the dog hadn’t barked, and he glanced inside to find that he was gone.

When he flicked open the paper, he was met with black handwriting in big letters:

Payback is a bitch.

I’ve got someone you’re looking for.


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