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The Charity

The Charity

Police Chief Mark Friessen along with his wife social worker Billy Jo McCabe keep a watchful eye on their small island town in the Pacific Northwest. As the couple come to grips with the hub of crime by the political elite that had turned what they’d believed to be a quiet sleepy island into a playground for the rich and powerful, a young executive of a major international charity moves to Roche Harbor. Mark and Billy Jo once again find themselves digging deep into the secrets and lies that seem to trail this man, but what they uncover is a twisted truth they may wish they’d never looked into.

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Chapter 1

Sleeping in was something Billy Jo didn’t do, but for the past four days, Mark had opened his eyes to find his wife sound asleep. As he stood in the kitchen, the stove blinking a digital blue 8:10 a.m., he realized he needed to wake her soon. 

The coffeemaker beeped, and Mark poured himself a cup of the steaming brew before turning back to the island, on which a file lay open, revealing notes on another thirty of the island’s residents. Hesitating only a second, he wondered when he’d become that cop who went digging into civilians’ lives, looking for any secrets they might have. 

Oh, yeah. When a bunch of criminal elites took up using his island as their personal playground. 

He had to roll his shoulders, feeling that punch in the gut again, silently hating the world of people who, at times, were untouchable. 

“You didn’t wake me.” 

He turned to see Billy Jo in a blue robe, yawning as she walked sock-footed past him and pulled a glass from the cupboard to fill with water. 

“Figured you needed sleep,” he said. “Was going to give you another ten minutes before waking you. You feeling okay?” 

She brushed her shoulder-length brown bed hair away from her face and shook her head before drinking down the water. “Fine. Just tossed and turned because of your snoring. What are you doing?” 

She settled her glass in the sink, then reached for his coffee and took a swallow of it. As she looked down at the open file, her brow furrowed. He realized she wasn’t giving the coffee back, and he couldn’t believe she had tossed out that comment about his snoring, considering she had fallen asleep before him. 

He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then filled a second mug, a matching green one, from the many wedding gifts that seemed to still be arriving daily from people on the island he’d met only a time or two. 

“Looking into the folks who live here,” he said, “why they live here, what they do, especially the ones who look too clean. Who lives here full time, part time, and what hidden secrets do they have? You know, the usual investigative thing I do, looking for red flags and skeletons.” 

Mark filled the mug with coffee and settled the carafe back on the burner. Billy Jo angled her head, glancing over to him in that way of hers. She was complex, with many moods, and he figured something else was coming. 

“You were serious, then?” she said, flattening her hand over the file, the notes he’d been reading on Shirley and Tom Campbell, and pulling it closer to her. “You’re really going to investigate every person who lives here and dissect their lives even though they’ve done nothing wrong? Isn’t there some law against that, let alone the fact that you’re overstepping a bit?” 

She didn’t smile and didn’t pull that fiery gaze from him. She was the complete package, a woman who was his best friend, his lover, his wife, and she knew how to push every one of his buttons. Damn, he loved everything about her. 

He reached for the file in front of her and pulled it away. “Knowing who’s on this island and what they’re about is something I should have done long ago. You forget what happened here? I don’t want that kind of evil ever sneaking in. So yeah, I plan to dissect the lives of everyone who lives here to make sure the members of this community are decent, honest, not looking to set up some criminal enterprise, thinking they can do anything. And that includes our politicians. Consider it my new pastime. I plan to find out everything about them, what they do, who they see, to really dig into their lives. If they are honest people, then they become the people I’m protecting. But how many more criminals are still here, so deep underground that I haven’t found them yet? And yet is the key word.” 

She looked up at him, and a smile touched her lips as she leaned against the island, so close to him. “You know all the right things to say sometimes,” she said. “Go dig and dissect the lives of anyone and everyone. Oh, and make sure, will you, that you take a second and third look at everyone collecting a check from the DCFS, and especially who rubber-stamped their approvals?” 

“They’re first on the list—kids and animals.” He leaned down and kissed her forehead. 

“You’re the best,” she said. “Damn, I’m going to be late.” She lifted the mug and took a swallow. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you we’re going to drop in and see Gail tonight. I’ll swing by the station after I’m done and we’ll head over. I told her we’ll bring dinner…” 

She had trailed off as she walked back to the bedroom. Then she turned in the doorway, looking back, when he hadn’t said anything. The tightness that came every time he thought of Tolly Shephard returned deep in his chest. He knew he’d made a face. 

“You have to figure out a way to get past that, Mark,” she said. “Gail is our friend.” 

“Her husband was part of a child trafficking ring.” 

She let out a heavy sigh. “I know what Tolly Shephard did and didn’t do—and what they did to his son to gain his compliance when he played both sides. He’s dead, but Gail isn’t, and she still has to get up every morning and come to terms with all the secrets Tolly had. Mark, you’ve turned this island upside down and woken up a lot of people to what has been happening behind their backs. No one saw it. The town council is in a state of flux. You have interim appointees, as the mayor and councilors are now charged, awaiting trial. The entire CPS department has been turned upside down, and jobs are still being vacated. You’re a hero for the children, Mark, but you have to know many of the island folks have turned on Gail. Their anger is misdirected. Her truck was spray painted with CHILD KILLER. People she’s known forever on the island have phoned and said some horrible things…” 

“Someone vandalized her truck?” he cut in. “Why didn’t she call me? When did this happen?” 

Billy Jo glanced over to the window. Her three-legged cat was curled up on the cat tree, whereas Lucky had padded into the kitchen and was lapping water out of his dog bowl. She started back toward him in the fuzzy robe that was more warm than flattering, and he didn’t know what to make of the shadows around her eyes. He knew well the places her head went when she struggled. What she was thinking, he had no idea. 

“Gail won’t phone you,” she said. “Not that she thinks you wouldn’t show up and file a report, because she knows you would, but I think she believes that because of what Tolly did, she deserves every hateful thing coming at her. Yet every time someone lashes out at her, it kills a little piece of her soul. I can see it. I know Tolly wasn’t strong enough to end things the way you did. But I also know he hid it well. So tonight we’ll take a pizza over, talk to her and be civilized, and let her know she’s a human being and we care.” 

Maybe it was the way she’d said it, but he wondered whether she understood how he felt about Gail. He couldn’t look at her without seeing Tolly. 

Instead of saying something, he took another swallow of coffee. 

“She thinks you hate her, Mark,” Billy Jo said, striding back over to him. She put her mug down on the island, not looking away from what he knew was likely shock staring back at her. 

“Excuse me?” he said. “I don’t hate her. Where would she ever get an idea like that?” 

Billy Jo took another step toward him, sliding her hand on the island to touch the file again, likely seeing the names listed. “Maybe it’s because you make excuses never to go and see her. I show up alone, and every time I do, she asks about you, and I feel like I’m cheating when I say you’re great but busy, or else you’d be there too. She doesn’t believe one word of it, because she can see in my face that I’m lying. Or maybe it’s because the last time she saw you was when you told her about Tolly.” 

Mark pulled his hand over his face, knowing she was right. He could feel the heavy sigh of frustration before it passed his lips. 

“You going to make me go alone?” Billy Jo said, pulling her arms over her chest, not looking away. 

“I don’t hate her,” he said. “I just don’t know what to say to her. There’s a difference.” 

Billy Jo glanced away, pulling in a deep breath. Then she lifted her gaze, which had softened just a bit. “Sometimes just being there is all that’s needed. Don’t say anything. Don’t pretend. Just pick up a piece of pizza and eat. Can you do that?” 

He’d never known Billy Jo to be so reasonable. “I can do that.” 

She ran her hand over his arm, rose up on her tiptoes, and kissed his cheek. “Good. And you may also want to consider asking Gail to help you dig into the people here. Pick her brain,” she said as she reached for her mug and topped it with more coffee. 

He wondered if she’d lost her mind. “Breaking bread with Gail is one thing, Billy Jo, but I’m not having her anywhere near this.” He knew it had come out rather sharply. He had felt the bite in his words. 

Billy Jo blew on the steaming coffee and took a swallow. “Well, that’s too bad, because I’m sure she could fill in a lot of holes about a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And it may help her feel as if she’s doing something to make up for what Tolly did. It’s a helpless feeling, Mark, feeling responsible even though it’s not logical. You could dig and miss something Gail knows that you would never have figured out in a million years. She’s been here, like, forever.” She tapped his arm again. “Think about it, Mark. That’s all I ask.” 

Then she walked away, and he watched her, her heavy socks, her warm housecoat. This time, she didn’t look back. 

He reached for the file, seeing the names, as the shower popped on. 

“Yeah, there’s no way I’m asking Tolly Shephard’s widow for help when it comes to anyone on this island,” he muttered. Lucky brushed his leg, then looked up at him and whined. “Now, don’t go looking at me like that. We’ll go see her, eat pizza, and then leave.” 

There it was again, that sinking feeling he got every time he thought of Gail. As he took in the open file and the notes that only scratched the surface, he couldn’t help thinking Billy Jo was too often right. But he wouldn’t ask Gail even though she could clear up a lot of questions about a lot of people. 

No, involving Gail was exactly what he wasn’t going to do. 

Chapter 2

Mark dropped the files on his desk just as Carmen walked into his office, wearing a dark blue sweater over blue jeans, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was holding a file of her own, unsmiling, and her badge was pinned to the waistband of her jeans, her gun holstered. 

She closed the door. “You know, there’s a point where I wonder whether I’ll go to hell,” she said as she held out the file to Mark. “You have any idea how hard it was for me not to look at Lacy while I was digging into her personal life, learning the kinds of things I shouldn’t and don’t want to know? God damn, Chief, we all have something in our closets. Now I know way too much.” 

Mark reached for the file and glanced out of his glassed-in office to where Lacy was filling Lucky’s dog dish with more kibble. Her hair was short, a mix of white and dark. The scent of fresh brewing coffee was a reminder he needed another cup. He set the file atop the others on his desk, then shrugged out of his jean jacket and tossed it on a hook on the spindly old coat tree that had come with the office. “Good morning to you, too,” he said to Carmen, noting the impatience in her expression and how stiffly she stood. “Any red flags? Anything stick out that I need to see?” 

Carmen pulled her arms over her chest and made a rude noise as she shook her head. “Let’s see. She’s had a total of four different cell phones. Seems she cancels one when she gets a better deal somewhere else. Maybe I should ask her about that, considering my own carrier seems to be screwing me over and over. She has accounts at three different banks. The highest balance is with the local credit union, just over three thousand, give or take. The other two carry balances of only around fifty dollars. 

“She’s been divorced twice. Has a daughter who’s married, living in New Mexico. Ex number one is the father. Looks like the scumbag drained their bank account and took out a second and third mortgage on the house they owned, then lost everything to gambling debts, drinking, and a fondness for cocaine. The only good thing he did for her was up and leave. Lacy and her daughter were on food stamps and welfare for six months. 

“Then she worked a job in Astoria for three months before picking up odd jobs back on the island and living in an old travel trailer on the north end for a year. She worked at the cheese factory, one of the local farms, the brewery, and the grocery store, then cleaned houses and waited tables at four of the restaurants on the island. Deadbeat number two she married and divorced in six months. During that time, roughly ten years back, there was a complaint on file that Tolly responded to.” 

Mark opened the file, taking in the pages of notes. Hearing the name of the old chief, he was still having trouble coming to terms with his death. It sucker-punched him every time. Those last moments he had seen Tolly alive still haunted him. 

“What kind of trouble was it?” he said, flipping the pages. 

Carmen leaned on his desk and pointed to the third page, halfway down. “She pulled a shotgun on deadbeat number two and threw him out of the house, her house, which she bought after scraping together enough money. The deadbeat called Tolly, saying she was trying to kill him, which apparently was how Tolly found her when he arrived on scene. He took the shotgun and talked the deadbeat into leaving quietly. Looks like the deadbeat hired a lawyer to push it further, though, and ended up getting half of what Lacy had managed to put away. A nice fat payday. Evidently, he had taken up with Dori Little, who runs the post office, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Lacy busted him for the affair. Lacy had to move, because him taking half meant selling the only thing that was hers. That put her in the little house she now owns by the cove.” 

Mark flicked his gaze over to Carmen. He knew by the way she had hesitated that she wasn’t done. He lifted a brow but said nothing, and she gestured toward the file again. 

“If you’re wondering whether Dori is still with the deadbeat, no. Seems she saw the light not long after. For the record, I can see why Lacy has decided men aren’t worth the effort. She’s remained single, and for that she’s kept her house and her bank accounts.” Carmen pulled in a heavy breath and tossed an uneasy glance over her shoulder. “Now how the hell am I supposed to look her in the eye, knowing what I know about her messy personal life? God dammit, Chief, if anyone looked into my past…” She angled her head. “Wait, you looked into my past?” 

At the sharpness in her tone, he felt pinned by her scrutiny. He made himself clear his throat. “You were always a tough one to read. I looked into you long ago, Carmen. For the record, you were screwed over. Always bothered me what happened with your kid. But, cards on the table, I’m pretty sure you’ve done your own digging into my life, probably before I got here. So now that we all know everything about each other, let’s move past it. Good to know there’s nothing to worry about with Lacy and my instincts about her were right on.” 

There it was, the blank look Carmen had mastered. She blew out a breath. Maybe she was still stuck on the fact that he knew she was human just like he was. “Fine,” was all she said, with a ton of snark. She glanced away just as there was a tap on the door and it popped open. 

“Chief, coffee’s ready,” Lacy said, leaning in. “Lucky is out of kibble, so I’m going to make a quick run to the corner store.” 

Carmen was quiet, with an expression that gave nothing away. She pulled her arms over her chest, awkward. 

“Oh, and are you done dissecting my past, Carmen?” Lacy continued. “Found all my skeletons? My bank called with one of those automated alerts, said someone had pulled my credit, which I thought was odd, since I’m not in the market to buy anything. I’ve learned the hard way from deadbeats trying to steal from me, so I know when someone is doing something they shouldn’t behind my back. Then there was the fact that you couldn’t look me in the eye for two days. 

“Well, I’m not an idiot. I know you’re looking into everyone on this island. Wondered when my turn was coming. Guess I have my answer. Yes, I’m not perfect. My credit is average. Never understood the world of finance, but I did figure out how to balance my own checkbook after living in a moldy trailer for a year with my daughter. Never put all my money in one bank, either, and I’ve finally figured out how to stop paying endless fees. I’ve never stolen anything except for the candy I pocketed when I was five and my mother wasn’t looking. My car I own outright, and I have no secret stash of cash anywhere. Wish I did. Oh, and I’ve been binge-watching Netflix before I cancel that subscription. I’m too cheap to purchase cable, and I have time on my hands since spring is coming and I’m waiting for the ground to thaw so I can expand my garden. Any other questions?” 

Carmen appeared uncomfortable in the face of Lacy’s calm. Damn, he really liked her. 

“Just one candy?” Mark said as he closed Lacy’s file. 

A twitch of a smile pulled at the edges of her lips. She only shook her head. 

“Thanks, Lacy,” he said. “Appreciate it, you taking care of my dog.” He pulled a twenty from his wallet and held it out to her, and she walked around Carmen, saying nothing. The icy chill that lingered had him wincing. 

“Oh, and, Chief,” Lacy said as she took the twenty, “you may want to stop in and have a word with Shana Guzman. She owns the local pub, the Dog and Whistle. She mentioned last night that her ex surprised the hell out of her by moving here after she hadn’t heard from him in, like, forever. She was downright pissed, too. Apparently, he said something about wanting to make amends.” 

Mark dragged his gaze to Carmen, who had an odd expression—curiosity or pensiveness, he wasn’t sure. “Shana and her ex, what do we know about them?” he said. 

Carmen lifted her hands. “I know nothing about him. Shana has a kid, I think…” 

“Shana grew up here,” Lacy said. “Nice lady. Locals know her. She’s a straight shooter but, like many of us, attracts the wrong kind. She’s always been hard working. Hasn’t heard from her ex since her daughter was two. Just saying, because I know you want to know about everyone on the island, he apparently bought forty acres on the west side. Showed up the other day, and I’ve never seen Shana so angry. All I know is she doesn’t trust him.” Lacy stepped back. “You’ll listen for the phone?” 

“Yeah, we got it,” Mark said, and Lacy was already walking back to her desk. 

“You want me to take that one, add it to the list?” Carmen said. 

Mark watched Lacy grab her purse and head out. It was suddenly so quiet, and that sinking feeling he had too often was back. “Nope, I’ve got this one. You just keep working through everyone in town.” The coffee smelled tempting, but the knot in his stomach and the tightness that pulled across his shoulders had him glancing at the clock on the wall and reaching for his jacket on the coat tree. “I’m going to have a word with Shana, find out who this ex is. You hold down the fort and try to smooth things over with Lacy.” 

“What do you want me to say?” Carmen said. “You’re the one who told me to check into her, yet she’s pissed at me.” 

Mark knew he had winced. He’d never understood why women were harder on other women than on men. “You want me to talk to her?” 

Carmen uncrossed her arms and flicked her hand at him, giving him the pissed-off vibe that seemed to roll off her at times. “I don’t need anyone running interference for me,” she said, then walked out of his office past Lucky, who was walking in. 

Mark considered this for only a second before reaching for his keys and saying, “Come on, boy, let’s go.” 

Chapter 3

Mark could feel the rain in the air as he stepped out of his Jeep into the parking lot, empty except for an older green Subaru. 

“Come on, boy,” he said, then waited for Lucky to jump down before he closed the door. 

His cowboy boots scraped the gravel as he took in the old clapboard building, painted a light tan, and the old neon sign for the Dog and Whistle, which had wires sticking out, wrapped in electrical tape. There were beer bottles on the railing of the old porch. 

He pulled open the door and heard the clink of glasses. The scent of stale beer hit him as he pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them in his shirtfront. 

“I’m closed. Don’t open until eleven,” Shana called out with her back to him, her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, carrying a handful of dirty glasses. Then she turned around. 

“I can see that,” he said. “Hoping to have a word or two with you, Shana.” 

She set the glasses on a tray, then reached for a gray dish bin and headed toward a table still covered with dirty glasses. She was a short woman, not much taller than Billy Jo, with a round face. He figured she was in her late thirties, give or take. “You want a word with me, Chief? What about? Something happen I need to worry about? Can tell you it was a quiet night yesterday aside from a few of the usual rowdies, who otherwise behaved themselves.” 

Mark took in the tables, the old wood chairs, and a pool table at the far end. 

“Your dog going to behave himself too?” Shana said, her gaze going right to Lucky. “I just mopped the floor and don’t intend to wash it again.” She jutted her chin to a bucket and mop in the corner. 

“Don’t worry about him,” he said. 

“Mm-hmm,” was all she said in response. 

“Lacy said something about your ex moving back here?” 

Shana shook her head, clearing off the table, and reached for the bar towel over the shoulder of her black t-shirt. When she straightened, wiping her hands, she gave him a scowl he hadn’t expected. “Walter? You want to talk to me about Walter? What the hell did he do? What is this really about?” She tossed the towel back over her shoulder and lifted her hands, oozing tension. Evidently, there was more than a story here. 

“You know we’ve had some trouble on the island,” he said. “Just doing my due diligence when I heard he recently moved back. You’ve had problems with him?” 

She shook her head and frowned before letting out a rough laugh. “Problems? The man did me a favor by walking out on us without a word when Haley, my daughter, was two. At the time, he didn’t give me the time of day or return one call. Now he suddenly shows up and says he wants to make amends after basically telling me to go fuck myself without saying a word? I’m pissed that he thinks he can just walk back into my life, my daughter’s life. He bought a place, not just any place but a nice piece of property, forty acres, a nice big house, yet he couldn’t give two cents to his kid? No, no problems. I’m totally peachy,” she said with a bite. 

Mark never had been able to navigate women’s emotions. “Didn’t know that,” he said. “An expensive property? So he’s worth something.” 

Shana made a rude noise as she lifted the gray bin, glasses clinking, and walked back around the bar. “Guess that all depends on how you define being worth something.” 

Mark walked over to the bar and gestured to Lucky to sit. “You have any idea why he suddenly moved here?” 

Shana was now wiping down the bar again, her face not hiding her dislike. “No idea. As I said, he showed up here, walked in after years without a word, and said he wanted to make things right. I told him to go fuck himself. He asked me to hear him out, said he had reasons for doing what he did. I told him at one time I might have listened, but I really don’t give a shit now. As a matter of fact, I told him to leave and not set foot back in my bar.” She pointed to the bar top before picking up the rag again and scrubbing at it. “This is my place. Now, why he’s here is the million-dollar question. I really don’t care, but if he has any ideas about inserting himself into Haley’s life or mine, he won’t get that chance, and I told him as much. But you haven’t told me what he’s done or why you’re asking about him.” She had finally stopped wiping the scratched dark brown bar counter and looked up at him, unsmiling. 

“Just doing my due diligence, Shana. I don’t have anything on him. Lacy mentioned him to me this morning, and I just want to make sure everything is on the up and up, that he’s not moving here to cause problems. Is he retired, working? I mean, what does he do?” 

Shana glanced away and then smiled. “Ah, Lacy. Love her. Didn’t expect her to go to you. You planning on paying him a visit? Maybe you can ask him all that, because me asking would mean I give a shit, and I don’t. And, while you’re at it, remind him of the fact that he walked out of our lives, so he should stay out.” 

Now he had more questions. 

“Well, you’re my first stop, and he’s my next,” he said. “I’ll be sure to ask him. So what can you tell me about him, Walter Guzman?” 

“Crandall,” she said. “His name is Walter Crandall. I kept my name, and in fact, my daughter has my name too. Of every bad choice I made, giving her his name was not one, though I’ve had no shortage of people forcing their opinions on me about how not okay that was. As far as I know, he’s never been in trouble with the law. He never cheated on me, either, as far as I know. Instead, he worked all the time. Yes, his first love was his career, and I was second. He has a fondness for vanilla ice cream, hates seafood. Used to run in his younger days, but only when he was stressed. He doesn’t much care for animals, would never allow me to get a cat or dog. He’s a neat freak, can’t stand dirt, to the point that a glass can’t even be left in the sink. He has a thing for shoes. Hates beer but has a fondness for chocolate-flavored whiskey. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this. Hates most sports except cricket.” 

Mark was getting a picture of someone he didn’t see fitting in on the island. Maybe his expression said so, as an odd smile pulled at the corners of Shana’s lips. 

“Wondering how someone like me could end up with someone like that?” she said. 

He had to remind himself he hadn’t yet met this man, but the image she had painted wasn’t flattering. He made himself shake his head. “I’m not going there. So, as far as you know, he’s not involved in anything questionable?” 

“Define questionable.” She leaned on the bar, her brows raised, her gaze intense. 

“Anything that raises a red flag.” 

She leaned back. “You’ll have to ask him, because even now, I’m wondering how I could have ever fallen for him. The best thing that came out of our being together was my daughter, and the next was him leaving. Other than that…” She lifted her hands and gave her head another shake. “Seriously, I have no idea why he’s here. I didn’t ask. Red flags? I don’t know. He works all the time. When he wasn’t working, he was always thinking of work. Anything else?” 

The way she’d said it, he realized she really didn’t want to know. That was something else he hadn’t expected. 

“What does he do for work?” he said. 

She pulled in a breath. “He’s a corporate executive. Marketing, that kind of thing. On a big scale, though. He runs a department for a big company, with a sizable staff working under him. He was always giving presentations, putting together sales pitches, closing deals. Nothing that interests me in the least. Are you looking for his specific job duties? That’s not something we discussed, ever, because I have no interest. All I know is he works with the kind of people I’m not interested in meeting, the kind of people who don’t bat an eye at paying a thousand dollars for dinner. I didn’t attend anything with him after we were married. And only one miserably embarrassing time before we were married, which I will not go into. At the time, I told myself it was because he knew I wasn’t interested, wouldn’t know the difference between a butter knife and a table knife, and failed miserably at bullshit small talk. He found it amusing. Whatever events he went to, he went alone. But in hindsight, I often wonder why he was so willing to keep me out of it.” 

He just stared at her, again wondering why that unsettled feeling just wouldn’t go away. Her gaze seemed to soften, and he wasn’t sure what she was thinking as she let out a sigh. 

“Yeah, we really weren’t a match,” she said. “Sorry, Chief, that’s all I can tell you. Again, as to why he’s really here, your guess is as good as mine.” 

“Thanks, Shana,” Mark said. “Anything else? Oh, and do you have his address, by any chance?” 

She turned and reached into a box behind the bar to pull out a card. “I can do better than that. He left his card with a phone number and address.” She held it out to him, and Mark reached for it. 

“I can take a photo with my phone,” he said, but she only waved him off. 

“Keep it, really. He left it on the bar, and instead of tossing it, I kept it. Seriously, you’ll be doing me a favor.” 

Mark shoved the card with the address scribbled on the back in his jacket pocket, then started to the door, saying, “Come on, Lucky.” 

“Oh, and, Chief, one more thing,” Shana called out. 

He turned back to her, his hand already on the door. 

“When you see Walter, give him a message for me. Tell him Haley and I are doing fine, better than fine, and if he gives a shit about his daughter, he’ll stay away from us. She doesn’t need him walking back into her life now to mess things up. And as far as making things right, tell him I’m not interested.” 

He didn’t know what to say, taking in the sharpness in her gaze. “I’ll give him your message. Thanks again, Shana,” he said. Then he walked out the door, his dog following him. 

He felt the rain sprinkling down as he pulled open the door to the Jeep and said, “Get in there, boy.” As Lucky jumped in, he took another second to observe the old bar, which wasn’t much to look at, and he wondered what kinds of things his digging would turn up on Walter Crandall. 

A man who wanted to make amends was someone who’d done something he needed to make amends for. Was it just the fact that he’d walked out on a wife and kid? 

Mark climbed in his Jeep and started the engine. Running his hand over his dog in the passenger seat, he took in the old car he knew belonged to Shana. Something about all of this just didn’t sit right. 

Chapter 4

Billy Jo’s windshield wipers flicked back and forth in the light rain as she pulled down a paved circular driveway bordered by trees and bushes, taking in the gloom and dreariness that seemed to affect more people than not on the island. The once landscaped front yard, always neat and tidy, was now piled with old wet leaves and debris that appeared forgotten. 

As she pulled up in front of Gail’s house, the siding that she thought had been white seemed mostly filled with hints of gray. So much had changed, as if the life of the home were slowly seeping away. It was just a feeling she got. Something about this house, this once welcoming property, seemed so empty. Loss hung heavy in the air. 

Gail’s pickup was parked in front of an older tan Explorer she knew had to be Tolly’s with a bad paint job she knew was to cover up the vandalism. She put her car in park and turned off the engine, breathing in the large shrimp and mushroom pizza, which she knew was Gail’s favorite. Damn, she wished she could do more for her. 

She reached for her cell phone and saw nothing from Mark, a silence she hoped wasn’t his way of saying he wouldn’t show. There were times she wanted to wring his neck. She typed out a quick text: Where are you? I’m at Gail’s and you’re not! Don’t you dare not show. 

She waited for a moment, feeling the knot in her stomach before she saw the three dots and then his text back: On my way. Do you need me to pick up pizza? 

She let out a breath. The front door had opened, and Gail was standing there, her arms crossed. Damn, she looked as if she’d lost more weight. She didn’t smile but lifted her hand in a wave. 

Billy Jo sent off a reply. No, I already did. Just hurry your ass up before it gets cold. 

His message popped up again: Five minutes, promise. 

Billy Jo shoved her phone in her purse, reached for the pizza box, and climbed out, juggling the box as she lifted her bulky purse over her shoulder. “Hi, Gail. Mark’s on his way,” she said. 

Just then, she heard his Jeep and spotted him driving in fast, the way he always did. He parked behind her as she shoved her door closed, and she waited as he climbed out and held the door for Lucky to jump down, his tail wagging all the way over to her. 

“Hey, you.” She gave him a rub with her free hand, and then he took off to Gail as Mark strode over to her. “You made it,” she couldn’t help herself from saying. 

He lifted his hand and called out, “Hey, Gail!” before he reached for the pizza box, then leaned in and kissed her. 

“How was your day?” she said, not knowing what to make of his blue eyes. Something was on his mind, or maybe whatever emotion she saw there was because she was making him break bread with Gail. She knew how much trouble he was having with all of this. She reached over and touched his arm, feeling his heavy jean jacket. The rain was beginning to pick up a bit. 

“Fine, busy,” he said. “Some crazy stuff and more crap. How was yours? Thought you were going to drop by the station first?” He managed to turn her and slide his hand over her lower back to have them walking to the open door, which Lucky had already gone through. 

“Couldn’t because my day got away from me.” And the pizza place was closer to Gail’s than town. “I sent you a text.” 

Mark said nothing at the same time Billy Jo didn’t miss the shadows that filled Gail’s eyes as she stared at Mark, not trying to force a smile, and said, “How have you been?” 

The edge in her tone gave away how much she was struggling. A good day, a bad day? Billy Jo figured the latter, by the gray sweats and bulky beige sweater, which she was pretty sure was Tolly’s. 

“I’m good, Gail,” Mark said. “See you have some yard work that needs taking care of.” 

Gail didn’t pull her gaze from Mark. The fondness that had always been there between them was now a wariness. “Had other things on my mind,” she said, and there it was, an awkwardness that lingered. Billy Jo had to fight the urge to wince. 

“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m absolutely starving,” she said. “I see Lucky has already made himself at home.” 

Gail stepped back. “Come on in, you two. Sorry this is still kind of awkward. I don’t have many stopping by. It’s been quite a while, Mark.” 

Billy Jo kicked off her shoes, and Mark closed the door behind him and gave his cowboy boots a quick wipe but kept them on. 

“Well, can I get either of you a beer?” Gail said. “I don’t have any wine left and haven’t worked up enough nerve to go into town. Plan on making another trip off island to stock up on things.” She had walked on ahead into the kitchen. 

Billy Jo tapped Mark on the chest and looked up to him, making a face. 

“What?” he said in a low voice. “I’m here, aren’t I?” 

She only shook her head as she walked ahead of him, and Mark called out, “Beer sounds good, Gail.” 

Gail had filled a bowl with water and set it on the floor, and Lucky was already lapping it up. Billy Jo took in the counter, which was filled with empty bottles: wine, beer, a few liquors. In the family room, boxes were stacked in the corner, and in the fireplace she could see half-burned paper. She made herself look over at Gail. “Never been a beer drinker,” she said. “I’ll just have some water.” 

Gail pulled a beer from the fridge and held it out to Mark, saying, “Here you go.” 

“Thanks, Gail.” Mark twisted off the cap. 

Billy Jo listened to Lucky lapping up the water as she shrugged out of her dark blue jacket and set it over the back of the chair. Mark had settled the pizza box on the counter. She realized Gail was already drinking a beer, evidently having started before they came. She was distracted, carrying the weight of everything on her shoulders. She’d already forgotten about Billy Jo’s water. 

“Let me get some plates,” she said. 

Damn, this was awkward. Maybe she should have come alone. She glanced over to Mark, who was looking around, staring at the boxes. He took a swallow of beer and shot her a look, having picked up on the problem. Billy Jo listened to the clatter as Gail set the plates down along with a roll of paper towels, then lifted the box lid. 

“Mark, come on,” she said. “I know you never shy away from eating. Dig in, considering you brought the pizza.” 

Billy Jo didn’t wait. She dropped a piece of pizza on a plate and handed it to Mark, and his blue eyes didn’t pull away. He really was struggling with being there. What was it with guys? She supposed Mark never got into an emotional black hole when he was struggling. She dropped another piece on a second plate and said, “Here, Gail,” then waited for Gail to take it before getting a piece for herself. 

Mark sat at the head of the table with a scrape of his chair, Gail at the other end, and Billy Jo took a bite of the pizza before she walked over to the cupboard and pulled out a glass. 

“Oh, geez, Billy Jo, I forgot about your water,” Gail said, scooting back her chair to get up. 

“Don’t worry, I got it,” Billy Jo said. “Sit down, Gail.” She filled the glass from the tap, brought it and her plate to the table, and fetched the box from the island as well before sitting down at the empty chair in the middle. 

Mark shoved the last of his piece in his mouth and reached for another. Gail took the tiniest bite ever and kept looking awkwardly over to Mark. Damn, the silence was unnerving. 

“So what’s with the empty bottles?” Billy Jo said after taking another bite. “You been drinking alone or cleaning house?” 

Gail dropped her half-eaten pizza on her plate and wiped her hands together before leaning back, reaching for her beer, and tipping it to drink. She looked over to Billy Jo, gesturing with the beer in her hand as she said, “Cleaning up, you could say. Those are from a while ago. Knowing you were coming, the place was…well, let’s just say I’m not much of a cleaner lately. It was so bad that I realized I needed to at least run the vacuum. But once I started vacuuming, I had to pick up, and one thing led to another…” Gail took another swallow of her beer and finished it. 

Billy Jo couldn’t help wondering how much she’d been drinking. She took in the short haircut she was sporting and the dark circles that had appeared under her eyes since Mark had told her about Tolly. “You sleeping?” she asked. 

Gail shrugged. 

Mark had finished off another piece and reached for a third, but this time he shot a quick glance to Billy Jo and then to Gail, and she realized he was listening more than she’d realized. 

“Is that a yes or a no?” she said. “I see you’ve lost more weight, too.” 

Gail let out a heavy sigh and a rough laugh. “Yes, Mom, the nights suck because that’s when the ghosts come out.” She reached for her pizza again and made herself take a bite. “I’m sleeping a few hours at a time. Had a nap before you came, so there is that. But I’d rather talk about anything else. You two, you look happy, good. Tell me what’s going on with you, the new house, anything. Come on, I need a distraction.” 

Billy Jo had to fight the urge to redirect the conversation back and make her talk about the ghosts, her feelings, and how she was really doing. 

“I’m investigating everyone on the island,” Mark said, leaning back in his chair with a creak. He took another bite and chewed, then swallowed, and his heavy gaze connected with hers. She felt every day that they were more and more on the same page, but then there was this. 

“You’re investigating everyone? Why? For what?” Gail leaned on the table, her pizza back on her plate. 

“We had a den of pedophiles here in positions of power, and the entire time I’ve been on this island, there has been one bad actor after another. It seems the elite of the world use this place as their personal playground. I’m looking into everyone. I want to know why everyone is here, how they make their money, and any secrets they’re hiding. Everyone has them, so I’m going to do my due diligence and find out what everyone is about, one by one. I will look into everyone’s closet so that never again will shenanigans of any kind happen on this island.” 

Mark hadn’t pulled his gaze from Gail. For a moment, Billy Jo couldn’t wrap her head around what he was doing, bringing up the very thing he’d said he didn’t want Gail anywhere near. 

“You’re investigating people who haven’t done anything?” Gail said. “Kind of stepping over the line there, Mark.” She put her pizza down and brushed her hands together. “But I have to say I agree with you.” 

Billy Jo turned to Gail, taking in the awkwardness and a hint of something she hadn’t seen in a long time. She wondered sometimes about the shadows that haunted her still. When would Tolly and what he’d done, what he’d been part of, leave her? 

Gail glanced out the window and then back to Mark. “Can I help?” 

Billy Jo turned to Mark, she was still holding her pizza. Mark was considering as he finished chewing, wearing that look he had when he was focused, saying nothing. She dragged her gaze back over to Gail, who was watching Mark expectantly. For a moment, she wanted to kick him under the table. 

“Yeah, actually, you can,” he said. 

Billy Jo whipped her head back to him. This had been her idea, and he’d said hell no. He must have realized she was staring at him, but he didn’t look her way. 

“Wonderful,” Gail said. “How?” 

Billy Jo angled her head, and now Mark did glance her way. 

“What can you tell me about Shana Guzman, who owns the Dog and Whistle, and her ex, Walter Crandall, who just moved back to the island?” he said. “She hates him. He disappeared for a while and now wants to make amends, though I don’t know for what, exactly.” He moved in the wooden chair, and it creaked again as he leaned back, setting a hand on the table. “Let’s start there. Tell me everything you know about both of them—who he is, what he does, and any ideas you have about why he’s suddenly back on the island. I want to know what he did and for whom, because I have to tell you, something about this and him isn’t sitting right.” 

Mark had that look about him again. Billy Jo didn’t know who the hell he was talking about, but he glanced back over to her as he said, “I get a feeling when something is off, and I have it now. Walter Crandall and Shana Guzman, I want to know everything about their story and what, exactly, he’s hiding in his closet.” 

Chapter 5

Billy Jo had a way of watching him that felt as if she were shooting daggers his way. She was intense, bold, and he couldn’t pull anything on her. He knew he should have talked to her before bringing up Shana and her ex, because Billy Jo and surprises couldn’t coexist. In fact, she was likely to pull him out of the room soon and ask him what the fuck he was doing. 

But instead of letting her, he leaned forward and set his hand over hers, and she stiffened. She settled down only when she was damn good and ready. Then there was Gail, who had seemed to brighten from the sadness and despair that was sucking the very life out of her. 

“Sorry, babe,” Mark said. “I know I should have mentioned this. Just been a shitty day. Never know what’s going to come out of left field. Gail, you should know that my wife suggested I ask you to lend a hand and give your insight into the people here, and I think she’s right. I mean, you know the people on this island better than I do, better than most, and could likely save me a lot of time and digging.” 

Gail leaned back, having suddenly gone quiet, and he didn’t know what to make of the expression on her face. “You know, Mark, I do know the people on this island, but some of the people I thought I knew, I realized I didn’t know them at all. You’re right about one thing: People can hide horrible secrets, and what you see isn’t always what’s real.” 

Now he knew she was talking about the preacher and Tolly. He wondered if he’d ever get the image of the last moments of Tolly’s life out of his head. He knew Billy Jo was right; he was going to have to sit down and talk with Gail about Tolly, only he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to find the words. 

“Yes, that’s true about everyone, Gail,” Billy Jo said, “but you know people here, and I think you can help make it easier for Mark so he’s not starting from scratch when he’s looking into them. This island has a lot of people who own places here but live elsewhere. You know who parks their money in real estate, who visits maybe a few weeks a year, and who lives here full time, and you know who the original residents of the island are. I bet you know a lot of secrets Mark doesn’t.” 

Mark hadn’t expected this reasonable encouragement from Billy Jo, who had pulled her hand out from under his and leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest. At times, she was so damn hard to read, and he knew he had to tread carefully. 

“Did you have any idea of the wise woman you were marrying, Mark?” Gail said. 

He had to remind himself every day. “I know how lucky I am,” he replied. 

Billy Jo didn’t look at him right away, but when she did, that familiar awkwardness was there. She still didn’t know how to take a compliment. Gail was watching them both closely, and Billy Jo didn’t appear amused. 

“Okay, so Shana and Walter,” Mark said, then sighed and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table after he had pushed his plate away. He reached for his beer and took a swallow. Billy Jo was still watching him, and he knew she wanted a word or two with him. 

“Shana is a damn hard worker,” Gail said. “She and Walter were never a match. You know how some men marry beneath them? Well, Walter comes from that world. With his people, with the circles he moved in, Shana never fit. I have no idea how they met, but I do know Shana is one of the island kids. She grew up with backwoods bonfires, swimming at the local lakes, roasting hotdogs over a fire, and crushing peanuts on the floor of the old bar, whereas Walter is all about black tie events, Gucci, and getting a reservation at a five-star restaurant where the dinner service placement confuses the hell out of the average person. Shana wouldn’t have a clue which fork to use, or which knife, or that the drinkware depends on the wine you choose. Don’t even get me started on the bread plate and whether it goes on the right or left. The types of formal dinners Walter was accustomed to have a dress code, jacket and tie or dress and heels, with butlers and etiquette to boot. 

“I remember hearing from her once what a nightmare it was the one time he took her to a charity dinner, a work dinner. She was expecting something resembling what you might see with a local charity, maybe auctions or something with the money going to the needy. After all, what is a charity for? But she was humiliated when she discovered the dinner was only about getting money for a large foundation. She never really understood the people there, who she never in a million years could have fit in with. She said everything about the night was all show. She messed up every protocol possible, using the wrong fork, taking bread from the plate of the man to her right, not having a clue what the hell anyone was talking about. She drank too much and spilled her last glass of wine. 

“That was all she shared. She was embarrassed and uncomfortable, and she said Walter was furious with her. When they got home, she told him not to ever take her to an event like that again. Apparently, he didn’t. He went alone, and she worked at her bar, and eventually he went off island to wherever he went. Never saw them together at all. I do know he worked for some big philanthropic foundation, and when I say big, I mean big, all about money. The people he worked with lived in a world the average person is never invited to. 

“Shana didn’t want any part of it. What exactly he did I can’t tell you, but I do know he worked with private family foundations, handling the kind of money you and I will never see in this lifetime. To tell you the truth, it’s not so much that he and Shana were opposites, because opposites do work at times. It was that Shana didn’t belong in his world. Anyway, he was always away, traveling for work, I suppose, and it wasn’t as if they had been together that long. Don’t know why he married her—on a whim, maybe. But then she was pregnant, and if I recall, he wasn’t even in town when his daughter was born.” She pulled her arms across her chest, and her brow knit. She was thinking. 

“Shana said he walked out when her daughter was two,” Mark said. “He didn’t provide any support, just left.” 

Gail shrugged. “I don’t know about that, but I heard that one day he was there and the next he was gone. Shana kept her head up and moved on. News came that they divorced, but she didn’t share much about it. You said Walter has moved back to the island?” 

Mark didn’t have to look over to his wife to know she was still watching him closely. He tapped the table. “Yes. I stopped in and had a word with Shana. He bought a big property on the west end.” 

“You mean the forty waterfront acres with the boat house and caretaker’s house?” Gail said. “It’s a gated property that was listed at twelve million and change.” 

He really didn’t know the island like Gail. Now he did glance at Billy Jo. “Well, I didn’t have a chance to check that part, but it sounds about right. Take it you know the property? I had Carmen run the address and tax records. Haven’t paid him a visit yet, but I plan to after I run a few checks on him first.” 

Billy Jo had looked away and become unusually quiet. 

“Where would you look first?” Mark said, flicking his gaze to Gail, who looked between Billy Jo and him. 

“Well, I would find out why he’s here,” she said. “Go talk to him face to face and get a read on him before you start digging into his past, his life. Come on, Mark. You have the best instincts in a cop, and you know when someone’s lying to you or something is off. But at the same time, and this is just a word of advice, you also want to be careful how much you dig, because the kind of investigating you’re doing could lead you down rabbit holes you may not want to go down. Everyone has secrets, things they’d never want anyone to know about them. And sometimes those secrets can be dark and dirty, and they change how people see you in the community. If he’s a bad guy, sure, you expose the shit out of him. But if you’re not one hundred percent sure, remember that in the wrong hands, a well-placed lie or assumption can spread like wildfire. And that can destroy someone.” 

He wondered whether they were talking about her now, about how the people of the island had tarred and feathered her over what Tolly had done. Billy Jo still said nothing. 

“I know very well how misinformation and disinformation are used,” Mark said, “and I’m also well aware of how to destroy someone’s credibility with a well-placed and believable lie. You probably know who on the island is trustworthy, who is questionable, who not to trust, and who looks too good to be true.” 

The quiet was unsettling. Gail flicked her blue eyes, which were filled with the weight of the world, over to him as she said, “So how does this work? You want to call me or just swing by when you have questions?” 

Billy Jo pulled in a rather deep breath. “How it works is that you’ll need to leave this house, Gail. You’ll work out of the station,” she said, then turned her sharp gaze on Mark, who knew he was frowning. “That works for you, doesn’t it, Mark?” 

Now what the hell was he supposed to say? He tapped his fingers on the table and took in the tightness around his wife’s mouth. 

“Sure,” was all he said, though he suspected that having Gail work out of the station was not a good idea at all. 


Are you all caught up?

Billy Jo McCabe Mystery
Nothing As It Seems
Hiding in Plain Sight
The Cold Case

The Trap

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Above the Law

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Above the Law

The Stranger at the Door

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The Stranger at the Door

The Children

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The Children

The Last Stand

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The Last Stand

The Charity

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The Charity

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The Charity

The Charity

Police Chief Mark Friessen along with his wife social worker Billy Jo McCabe keep a watchful eye on their small island town in the Pacific Northwest. As the couple come to grips with the hub of crime by the political elite that had turned what they’d believed to be a quiet sleepy island into a playground for the rich and powerful, a young executive of a major international charity moves to Roche Harbor. Mark and Billy Jo once again find themselves digging deep into the secrets and lies that seem to trail this man, but what they uncover is a twisted truth they may wish they’d never looked into.

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****

Chapter 1

Sleeping in was something Billy Jo didn’t do, but for the past four days, Mark had opened his eyes to find his wife sound asleep. As he stood in the kitchen, the stove blinking a digital blue 8:10 a.m., he realized he needed to wake her soon.

The coffeemaker beeped, and Mark poured himself a cup of the steaming brew before turning back to the island, on which a file lay open, revealing notes on another thirty of the island’s residents. Hesitating only a second, he wondered when he’d become that cop who went digging into civilians’ lives, looking for any secrets they might have.

Oh, yeah. When a bunch of criminal elites took up using his island as their personal playground.

He had to roll his shoulders, feeling that punch in the gut again, silently hating the world of people who, at times, were untouchable.

“You didn’t wake me.”

He turned to see Billy Jo in a blue robe, yawning as she walked sock-footed past him and pulled a glass from the cupboard to fill with water.

“Figured you needed sleep,” he said. “Was going to give you another ten minutes before waking you. You feeling okay?”

She brushed her shoulder-length brown bed hair away from her face and shook her head before drinking down the water. “Fine. Just tossed and turned because of your snoring. What are you doing?”

She settled her glass in the sink, then reached for his coffee and took a swallow of it. As she looked down at the open file, her brow furrowed. He realized she wasn’t giving the coffee back, and he couldn’t believe she had tossed out that comment about his snoring, considering she had fallen asleep before him.

He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then filled a second mug, a matching green one, from the many wedding gifts that seemed to still be arriving daily from people on the island he’d met only a time or two.

“Looking into the folks who live here,” he said, “why they live here, what they do, especially the ones who look too clean. Who lives here full time, part time, and what hidden secrets do they have? You know, the usual investigative thing I do, looking for red flags and skeletons.”

Mark filled the mug with coffee and settled the carafe back on the burner. Billy Jo angled her head, glancing over to him in that way of hers. She was complex, with many moods, and he figured something else was coming.

“You were serious, then?” she said, flattening her hand over the file, the notes he’d been reading on Shirley and Tom Campbell, and pulling it closer to her. “You’re really going to investigate every person who lives here and dissect their lives even though they’ve done nothing wrong? Isn’t there some law against that, let alone the fact that you’re overstepping a bit?”

She didn’t smile and didn’t pull that fiery gaze from him. She was the complete package, a woman who was his best friend, his lover, his wife, and she knew how to push every one of his buttons. Damn, he loved everything about her.

He reached for the file in front of her and pulled it away. “Knowing who’s on this island and what they’re about is something I should have done long ago. You forget what happened here? I don’t want that kind of evil ever sneaking in. So yeah, I plan to dissect the lives of everyone who lives here to make sure the members of this community are decent, honest, not looking to set up some criminal enterprise, thinking they can do anything. And that includes our politicians.

Consider it my new pastime. I plan to find out everything about them, what they do, who they see, to really dig into their lives. If they are honest people, then they become the people I’m protecting. But how many more criminals are still here, so deep underground that I haven’t found them yet? And yet is the key word.”

She looked up at him, and a smile touched her lips as she leaned against the island, so close to him. “You know all the right things to say sometimes,” she said. “Go dig and dissect the lives of anyone and everyone. Oh, and make sure, will you, that you take a second and third look at everyone collecting a check from the DCFS, and especially who rubber-stamped their approvals?”

“They’re first on the list—kids and animals.” He leaned down and kissed her forehead.

“You’re the best,” she said. “Damn, I’m going to be late.” She lifted the mug and took a swallow. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you we’re going to drop in and see Gail tonight. I’ll swing by the station after I’m done and we’ll head over. I told her we’ll bring dinner…”

She had trailed off as she walked back to the bedroom. Then she turned in the doorway, looking back, when he hadn’t said anything. The tightness that came every time he thought of Tolly Shephard returned deep in his chest. He knew he’d made a face.

“You have to figure out a way to get past that, Mark,” she said. “Gail is our friend.”

“Her husband was part of a child trafficking ring.”

She let out a heavy sigh. “I know what Tolly Shephard did and didn’t do—and what they did to his son to gain his compliance when he played both sides. He’s dead, but Gail isn’t, and she still has to get up every morning and come to terms with all the secrets Tolly had. Mark, you’ve turned this island upside down and woken up a lot of people to what has been happening behind their backs. No one saw it. The town council is in a state of flux. You have interim appointees, as the mayor and councilors are now charged, awaiting trial. The entire CPS department has been turned upside down, and jobs are still being vacated. You’re a hero for the children, Mark, but you have to know many of the island folks have turned on Gail. Their anger is misdirected. Her truck was spray painted with CHILD KILLER. People she’s known forever on the island have phoned and said some horrible things…”

“Someone vandalized her truck?” he cut in. “Why didn’t she call me? When did this happen?”

Billy Jo glanced over to the window. Her three-legged cat was curled up on the cat tree, whereas Lucky had padded into the kitchen and was lapping water out of his dog bowl. She started back toward him in the fuzzy robe that was more warm than flattering, and he didn’t know what to make of the shadow in her face. He knew well the places her head went when she struggled. What she was thinking, he had no idea.

“Gail won’t phone you,” she said. “Not that she thinks you wouldn’t show up and file a report, because she knows you would, but I think she believes that because of what Tolly did, she deserves every hateful thing coming at her. Yet every time someone lashes out at her, it kills a little piece of her soul. I can see it. I know Tolly wasn’t strong enough to end things the way you did. But I also know he hid it well. So tonight we’ll take a pizza over, talk to her and be civilized, and let her know she’s a human being and we care.”

Maybe it was the way she’d said it, but he wondered whether she understood how he felt about Gail. He couldn’t look at her without seeing Tolly.

Instead of saying something, he took another swallow of coffee.

“She thinks you hate her, Mark,” Billy Jo said, striding back over to him. She put her mug down on the island, not looking away from what he knew was likely shock staring back at her.

“Excuse me?” he said. “I don’t hate her. Where would she ever get an idea like that?”

Billy Jo took another step toward him, sliding her hand on the island to touch the file again, likely seeing the names listed. “Maybe it’s because you make excuses never to go and see her. I show up alone, and every time I do, she asks about you, and I feel like I’m cheating when I say you’re great but busy, or else you’d be there too. She doesn’t believe one word of it, because she can see in my face that I’m lying. Or maybe it’s because the last time she saw you was when you told her about Tolly.”

Mark pulled his hand over his face, knowing she was right. He could feel the heavy sigh of frustration before it passed his lips.

“You going to make me go alone?” Billy Jo said, pulling her arms over her chest, not looking away.

“I don’t hate her,” he said. “I just don’t know what to say to her. There’s a difference.”

Billy Jo glanced away, pulling in a deep breath. Then she lifted her gaze, which had softened just a bit. “Sometimes just being there is all that’s needed. Don’t say anything. Don’t pretend. Just pick up a piece of pizza and eat. Can you do that?”

He’d never known Billy Jo to be so reasonable. “I can do that.”

She ran her hand over his arm, rose up on her tiptoes, and kissed his cheek. “Good. And you may also want to consider asking Gail to help you dig into the people here. Pick her brain,” she said as she reached for her mug and topped it with more coffee.

He wondered if she’d lost her mind. “Breaking bread with Gail is one thing, Billy Jo, but I’m not having her anywhere near this.” He knew it had come out rather sharply. He had felt the bite in his words.

Billy Jo blew on the steaming coffee and took a swallow. “Well, that’s too bad, because I’m sure she could fill in a lot of holes about a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And it may help her feel as if she’s doing something to make up for what Tolly did. It’s a helpless feeling, Mark, feeling responsible even though it’s not logical. You could dig and miss something Gail knows that you would never have figured out in a million years. She’s been here, like, forever.” She tapped his arm again. “Think about it, Mark. That’s all I ask.”

Then she walked away, and he watched her, her heavy socks, her warm housecoat. This time, she didn’t look back.

He reached for the file, seeing the names, as the shower popped on.

“Yeah, there’s no way I’m asking Tolly Shephard’s widow for help when it comes to anyone on this island,” he muttered. Lucky brushed his leg, then looked up at him and whined. “Now, don’t go looking at me like that. We’ll go see her, eat pizza, and then leave.”

There it was again, that sinking feeling he got every time he thought of Gail. As he took in the open file and the notes that only scratched the surface, he couldn’t help thinking Billy Jo was too often right. But he wouldn’t ask Gail even though she could clear up a lot of questions about a lot of people.

No, involving Gail was exactly what he wasn’t going to do.


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The Free Friday Read

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The Last Stand

The Last Stand

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

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Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lacy,” he called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?” he said to the man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?”

She really looked at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, anything?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Jo turned to her mom and Diana. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She heard the front door kick open. 

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence for a second. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it say?” Danny asked again. 

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Mark said. 

“A kill list?” Chris said. 

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

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


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He can have any woman, except the one he wants.

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The Free Friday Read

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

Coming Soon

The Last Stand

The Last Stand

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

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Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lacy,” he called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?” he said to the man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Newly Released

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

Finding Home

Finding Home

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

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

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

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

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Narrated by Arlene Seberg

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

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The Free Friday Read

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 Apple Books
Buy from Google Play
Buy from Kobo
Buy from Barnes and Noble Nook
Buy from Smashwords
Buy from GoodReads

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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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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The Free Friday Read

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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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Narrated by Leo Jones

His crime was unforgivable, but the law protects him.

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Here is a sneak peek into Broken Promises a new O’Connells novel coming July 31

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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The Neighbor

The Third Call

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The Third Call

The Secret Husband

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The Secret Husband

The Quiet Day

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The Quiet Day

The Commitment

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The Commitment

The Missing Father

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The Missing  Father

The Hometown Hero

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The Hometown Hero

Justice Audiobook

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Justice Audiobook

The Family Secret Audiobook

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The Family Secret Audiobook
The Fallen O’Connell Audiobook

The Return of the O’Connells

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The Return of the O’Connells
And Then She Was Gone – audiobook

The Stalker Audiobook

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The Stalker Audiobook

Broken Promises Audiobook

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Broken Promises Audiobook

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“Totally Engrossing.  You know there hasn’t been a story in this series that hasn’t had a powerful message, and this one is no exception.” ★★★★★ Catlou, Amazon Reviewer

Above the Law

Above the Law

His crime was unforgivable, but the law protects him.

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