For the next week, you can get the first book in the Lake Fisher series for only 99 cents!
My name is Aaron Thompson and, while I might be an important part of this story, this story isn’t mine. It’s my best friend Bess’s story, and I was just lucky enough to be part of it. Bess met her husband Eli when we were still kids, they fell in love, they got married, and then their marriage fell apart. They hate one another now, and they can barely be in the same room together for more than five minutes without Bess wanting to scratch Eli’s eyes out. Before they can finalize the divorce, however, they have to clean out the old cabin at Lake Fisher, so they can sell it.
You see, this is where I come into the story, mainly because the safety and care of three precious little beings rests on whether or not they can find their way back together. I won’t ask them to pretend like they’re in love; it’s obvious how much disdain they have for one another. All I ask is that they give me one more summer.
I do have my own reasons for wanting to help them, which I will explain in more detail. But right now, just know that Bess and Eli’s story is an important one, and that I was honored to play a part in it.
Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth. The rest of the time it goes for the balls. In my case it went for everything.
“Are we there yet?” Kerry-Anne scrubs her eyes as she looks out the side window of the van. She stares into the darkness, and I am pretty sure she can’t see anything beyond the road that is illuminated by my headlights.
“You’ve asked that no less than fifty times in the past hour,” Sam grouses from the other side of the van. I watch in the rearview mirror as she scrubs her face into the pillow that rests against the window and settles back down with a scowl on her face.
“Are we there yet, Daddy?” Kerry-Anne asks again quietly, her voice soft as a kitten’s purr in the back seat.
Kerry-Anne isn’t the baby of the family. At six years of age, she is squarely in the middle of the other two. Yet Kerry-Anne has the softest soul of anyone I’ve ever met. She’s gentle and kind and…well, the opposite of Sam. Sam is abrasive and rude and combative. She’s pretty much everything that makes those big spiders you see on nature shows want to eat their young. She has just turned twelve, and next week she’ll be twenty-one. Or so it feels.
Just then, I see the sign for Lake Fisher, and I take the exit, one step closer to the only place I want to be right now. “Just a few more miles, Kerr Bear,” I say. “We’re almost there.”
“Yay,” Sam says, her voice droll and lifeless.
“Sam,” I scold. “Cut it out.”
“Yes, sir,” she snarks back at me.
Sam hadn’t wanted to leave home. She doesn’t want anything to change. But change is inevitable. It comes for you, even when you try to keep it away. I don’t want change, either. But it’s coming, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
I see the sign for the campground first. Lake Fisher. Home of the biggest bass and the clearest lake water you ever will find. It’s also home to my childhood, or at least the summers. Every year from the time I can remember, my parents brought me here to spend the summer.
One side of the complex houses a campground, and you will see anything from the smallest of tents and pop-up campers to great big pull-behind monstrosities of decadence with satellite TVs and hot tubs on top. Right now, it’s early June, so the campground is populated with little tents and pop-up campers. The camper lots that aren’t occupied, since it’s a weekday, show their emptiness with the power poles and septic hookups exposed in my headlights.
The road we drive in on is not much more than a path, and I have to take it slow and straddle the ruts in the road at times. Kerry-Anne giggles as she jostles from side to side, and Sam kicks the back of my seat.
“Sam,” I warn, my voice harsh.
A grunt is her only response.
We’ve been driving for eight hours and I am just as ready to be done as she is.
After we pass the campground, my heart eases a little when I see the tiny cottages all neatly lined up in rows. They are the original tiny houses, but without the glam that you see on TV. They’re made of wood with aluminum roofs, and when I see them standing there like sentries on a battlefield, I feel like I’ve come home. Finally. I am home. And I have the most important people in my life with me. I have Sam. I have Kerry-Anne. And I have Miles. Miles is tucked into his car seat, still sleeping, which means he will be up all night. But I don’t care. I am here. I am back at Lake Fisher, at the only place I want to be.
I turn at the fourth row of houses and drive to number eighty-two. It’s a tiny little cottage with two bedrooms and a kitchen that isn’t more than a sink and a stove. But it’s mine. It had belonged to my parents before me. And now it’s mine. I haven’t been here in years, and it shows. No one has been here. The paint is peeling, and the porch looks a little crooked. The wood is warped, and it isn’t the vibrant redwood color I remember. But like everything in life, it can all be fixed.
Well, almost everything can be fixed. Except me. That’s one thing that can’t be fixed.
“Can I get out?” Kerry-Anne asks, her voice full of excitement.
“Yeah, just don’t go far. It’s dark. And we need to unload.”
I cut the engine and the porch goes dark. The little cottage glares at me, limned by the light of the moon behind it. I take a deep breath and get out.
Sam sits there, her face still stuffed against her pillow.
“Let’s go, Sam,” I say.
She lifts her head, glares at me, and then bundles her pillow in her arms and throws the door open. “So, this is it?” she asks, looking toward the little cottage with a snarl to her lip.
“This is it,” I reply.
I reach in and lift the handle of Miles’s car seat. He still sleeps soundly. I hope he might sleep long enough for me to finish unloading. I lift his seat from the car and start for the front door.
The crunch of gravel behind me forces me to turn and look toward the little path I’d just rode in on. I smile when I see the red golf cart, another relic of my youth, which is just as well known to me as the man who sits on it.
“Welcome to Lake Fisher,” Mr. Jacobson says as he cuts the motor on the golf cart, then switches off the headlights.
I walk over and stick out my hand, my other hand clutching tightly to the handle of Miles’s car seat. When I was a young boy, this man scared the shit out of me. He was surly and nasty, and he had a way of making you like him anyway. Several times, he’d caught me doing things I shouldn’t have done and he’d made me clean the bathhouses. With my toothbrush. Yet I still have the utmost respect for the man, and I suspect I always will.
“It’s good to be here, Mr. Jacobson,” I say, as I take his weathered old hand in mine. He gives me a squeeze and lets my hand go.
“What do you have there?” he asks, pointing toward the car seat.
I shrug my shoulders. “It’s a kid. There are two more around here somewhere.”
He chuckles. “Set it right here so I can have a good look. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.” He motions to the seat next to him.
Mr. Jacobson has been saying that since I was a boy. His eyes are sharp as tacks. They always have been. I set the seat on the bench next to him and he looks down into Miles’s sleeping face. “They’re cute when they’re asleep,” he says.
They can be cute when they are awake, too, but not all the time. Sam is proof of that.
I feel Kerry-Anne’s little hand slide into mine and I look down at her. “Who’s that, Daddy?” she asks, standing behind my leg a little.
I brush her bangs back with my fingertips and she leans against me hard. “Kerry-Anne, this is Mr. Jacobson. He runs this place.”
“Oh, is that what he told you?” a voice booms out from behind us. Kerry-Anne leans harder against me, so I pull her closer.
“Jake,” I say loudly. He comes forward and sticks out his hand, but I bypass it and pull him in for a hug. “God, it’s good to see you.”
Jake and I had spent summers together from the time I could remember until I went off to college and real life started. He has gotten a little thicker in the middle but nothing else has changed about his smiling face. Almost every childhood memory I have involves Jake and some shenanigans that were determined to get me in trouble. And they normally did.
“Glad you’re here,” Jake says. He sobers at little. “I’m sorry the circumstances are what they are, Aaron. I really am.” He says the last part quietly, almost a whisper. But I still hear him. I’m sorry too, but there isn’t much I can do about it. He looks toward the car seat. “Did Pop already steal your baby?” he asks. “He’s good at that.”
“Looks like it.”
“Speaking of which,” Mr. Jacobson says, “I’m going to run up to the big house. I’ll be back in a minute.” He starts up the golf cart, turns on the headlights, and hits the gas. I reach for the car seat, but old man Jacobson just wraps one arm around it and takes off toward the big house, which is where the Jacobsons live. It’s a monstrosity of a house on the other side of the complex.
“He took my baby,” I say lamely as I watch the cart bounce away in the other direction.
Jake chuckles. “He’ll bring him back when he either makes noise or takes a poop. I promise.” He claps his hands together. “Need some help unloading?”
I can’t turn down an offer of help. “I’d love some.”
“Katie came down this morning and cleaned up for you. She changed the sheets and dusted. Opened some windows to air things out. Set up the portable crib.”
My heart twists in my chest. “Tell her thank you for me, will you?”
“You can tell her yourself tomorrow,” he says. “She wants you guys to come for dinner.”
“We don’t want to be any trouble.”
Jake shakes his head. “No trouble. Pop’s grilling.”
“Oh, well, in that case.” I wouldn’t miss that for the world. The old man grills better than anyone on the planet. Every Saturday night during the summer, he used to feed the whole campground.
“She’ll be glad to see you. And Gabby will be home from college tomorrow. She’s looking forward to babysitting your kids so you can do what you need to do.”
He doesn’t bring up the word. Chemo. I need to go to chemo. “I appreciate it.”
“Let’s get you unloaded so you can get some rest.” Jake stares at me a beat too long, just long enough to make me uncomfortable. Then he gets to work.
We unload suitcases and bring in boxes of toys the kids can’t do without. But we’ve traveled pretty light, considering why we’re here. I brought enough food to keep them alive, so we take that inside too.
Jake comes over and reaches out his hand again. I take it, holding it tightly. “I’m glad you’re here, A,” he says, shortening my name to the one he’s always called me. Just that makes me feel like I’ve come home.
“Me too,” I say, swallowing past the lump in my throat. I need to be here. In more ways than one.
I hear the crunch of gravel at the same time I see the headlights.
“Told you he’d bring him back,” Jake says, and I can hear Miles screaming over the rumble of the wheels. Jake snickers.
This time, old man Jacobson has a little girl hanging off the back of the cart. She leaps to the ground right in front of us, just as I reach in to take Miles and his seat.
“I’m Trixie,” she says.
Jake reaches out and touches the top of her head, pawing it like a big old bear. She looks up at him and grins. She has a tiny smear of what looks like chocolate on the corner of her mouth. “This is my daughter,” Jake says, his voice full of pride.
I pull Kerry-Anne from behind my leg. “This one is mine.” I jerk a thumb toward Sam, who still sulks on the steps. “And that one.”
Trixie ignores Sam and asks Kerry-Anne, “Do you want to play tomorrow?”
Kerry-Anne looks up at me. “Can I, Daddy?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t see why not.”
Suddenly, a dog bounds up. The thing is huge and hairy and at least a hundred and fifty pounds. I shove Kerry-Anne behind me. The big dog sits down next to Trixie, his tail swishing from side to side. Trixie jerks a thumb toward the dog. “This is Sally,” she says. “He’s my best friend.”
Mr. Jacobson says, “We need to get home, Trixie-Lou. Or else your mama’s going to come looking for us.” She hops up next to him and scoots as close as she can get. Then she pats the seat next to her and Sally jumps up too. He dangles there on the seat with his butt on the cushion as he stands on his front legs.
“See you tomorrow!” Trixie calls out as they head off, Jake following.
Kerry-Anne pulls on the hem of my shorts. “Daddy,” she says quietly.
I brush her hair back from her face. “What, baby?”
“Was that dog wearing a tutu?”
“I think so.” But I have no idea why. I laugh and usher her, Miles, and Sam inside.
When I close the door of the little cottage, I leave everything outside that isn’t important. I leave my fears about the future. I leave my anger at what is going to happen. And I bring all my love inside with me and close the door. I know the fear and the anger will still be there tomorrow, but today, I can shut them away for just a little longer.
Onlookers stood around the yellow tape, their phones at the ready, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead man. There wasn’t much to see. He had a hole right in the middle of his forehead. It was a clean shot, a shot any marksman could be proud of.
“What do you think?” the detective on duty asked.
I stood up to my full height and covered the dead body that lay exposed on the cold hard ground with a crisp white sheet. He deserved some dignity, even if he was a piece of shit wrapped in skin.
Then there was also the fact that this particular victim was a victimizer. It made my job even harder, particularly when I was glad he was dead. He’d killed his wife four years prior, and had gotten away with it because someone forgot to read him his Miranda rights. He’d been walking the streets, using his dead wife’s money to buy hookers and cocaine, for four years.
Now he was gone. I’d say good riddance if this had only happened to him, but I had no less than twelve cases just like this sitting on my desk. Dead men—not to mention a few women—who deserved to be dead. Only they weren’t dying of natural causes. They were dying because someone was taking justice into his or her own hands.
I also had cases of missing criminals that were suddenly solved. One had been found just last week tied up on the front steps of the courthouse. The security footage from that time frame had somehow been wiped; it couldn’t even be found in the cloud. Yet there the shithole sat, a rag stuffed in his mouth as he waited for the sun to come up. Then another the previous month, where a mother who had traded all her children for heroin was found tied to the fountain in the city’s busiest park. Again, no security footage could be found, even though there were cameras all over the place.
Whoever was doing this was really good at covering his tracks.
The detective cleared his throat. “Officer Clark?”
“Just Clark,” I said quietly. I wasn’t with the police department anymore, although they still contacted me when a case needed some special attention. I’d been told I had a knack for finding people who didn’t want to be found. I’d given up my badge, though. I had enough people to take care of in my private life. I didn’t need any more.
The detective looked decidedly uncomfortable. “What do you think, Clark?”
“I think he’s dead.” I popped a piece of gum into my mouth and started to chew. Even though I’d quit smoking ten years ago, I still wanted one in times of stress. My fingers got twitchy and I started patting my pockets. Gum took off some of the edge, but not all of it.
“Well, no shit,” the detective barked.
“The bullet hole in his forehead should have clued you in.” I sent him a sideways grin.
The muscle in the man’s jaw ticked as he clenched his teeth.
“Can’t say I’m sad about it. Whoever took him out did me a favor.” I’d been tracking him for months, trying to catch him doing something wrong, but I hadn’t had any luck.
“You’re going to consult on this one, right?” the detective asked.
“Don’t know why I would.” I lifted the yellow tape that cordoned off the area and ducked beneath it.
I had almost made it to my car when a blue sedan pulled up next to me. “William Clark,” a voice called. I grinned. I knew that voice. It belonged to my former boss, my mentor, my reason for still freelancing for the police department. John Spanner was my connection to my old life. A life where I wore a gun and a badge. A life where I took care of others. Now it was all I could do most days to take care of myself.
“Boss,” I replied. I rested my elbows on the top of his car and leaned toward his open window. I knew he wasn’t my boss anymore. He knew it too, but he’d always hold that place in my life. He was my conscience when I really didn’t have one. “What’s up?”
“Dead body?” He nodded toward the crime scene.
“Anyone we know?”
“Danny the dick.”
His eyebrows rose. “Danny the dick is dead?”
“Ding dong,” I sang back at him.
He whistled slowly. “Can’t say I’m sorry to hear he’s gone.”
“Whoever did it deserves a medal.”
“Any idea who that might be?”
“Danny had more enemies than friends. Could have been anyone.” I turned my head away and blew my gum out of my mouth. It had lost all its flavor.
He nodded. “Get in. I’ll buy you lunch.”
I shook my head. “Can’t. Got to go watch somebody dunk a baby.”
“What?” His brow furrowed.
“Baptism. Friend. I’m going.”
“Someone invited you out in public?”
Okay, so I was a little rough around the edges and I really didn’t give a shit what anyone thought of me, but that one did sting a little. “Some people like me.”
“Let me guess. A former client?”
I grinned. “Solve a case for someone and you become his best friend.” I patted my stomach. “I’m hoping there’s free food.”
A few months back, I’d done some surveillance work for a man named Mason Peterson when his wife Lynn was missing. It was a complicated case, and we’d eventually found her, but not without some problems along the way. They’d just had a baby boy and invited me to his christening. I’d accepted. I might be a cold, hard bastard, but I liked a happy ending. I’d never get one of my own, but I did take pleasure in other people’s.
“You’re looking good, Clark. Better than the last time I saw you.”
I nodded and stood up tall, looking into the distance, suddenly wishing this conversation could be over. “I’m going to be late.”
He nodded and pulled into a parking space. I rushed to get in my car, still thinking about the dead guy. He had been one of my cases, and now he was dead. He wasn’t the first. There had been more like him in the past few months. We had a vigilante killer on our hands. Someone was killing people who were weaker than him—or her. We also had a vigilante fixer. I’d bet ten to one that they were the same person, but I had no proof. There was no profile yet. But there would be soon. I’d keep an eye out.
Lynn was going to kill me. I was late. I couldn’t possibly be late for my nephew’s christening, but I was. I loved that kid desperately, and my sister had asked me to be his godmother. It didn’t matter that everyone else thought I was crazy. Lynn loved me. She accepted me and she had enough faith in me that she was entrusting me with the care of her child, should anything ever happen to her and Mason. At best, she was trusting me to love him and care for him. At worst, she trusted me to guide him through life.
The thought of her trusting me with something so precious made it difficult to swallow, and every time I thought about it, I got that same lump in my throat. Someone trusted me with something. Lynn trusted me. She’d never trusted me, despite all I’d done for her throughout the years. Not until now.
Lynn and I were twins, though we’d never lived together after the age of six, aside from the odd summer or weekend when they let us be together. Our parents had sent me to live with our grandmother. Lynn had stayed with our parents. Lynn had suffered unimaginable terror, and there were repercussions from her having stayed with people who didn’t value her life at all.
Finally, though, Lynn had the life she’d always wanted. At the age of thirty-seven, she was finally the woman she wanted to be. She liked running ten miles every morning, she could often be found with black nail polish adorning her slim fingers, and she liked to tinker with cars. But most of all, she loved that husband of hers. And together, they’d made a baby, a new life. They’d created something miraculous and wonderful and, since I knew I’d never have one of my own, I doted on that little guy like he was everything to me.
His name was Jason and he was named after Mason’s father. Today, Mason and Lynn would dedicate him to God, and even though I didn’t believe in such a deity that could be in charge of my life, they did, and they wanted to impart that knowledge and belief to their son. I would support them in that. I would stand in front of a group of people and promise to lead him in the ways of the church. I’d treat the church like a temple, even if it wasn’t mine. Hell, I’d become a nun if that was what it took to be in his life. Truth be told, I was always in awe of God’s power. Luckily, today, all Lynn needed was for me to stand beside her and agree with the person leading the service.
But first, I needed my good dress. I stopped really quickly at the drycleaner to pick up my favorite dress, one that Lynn gave me on my last birthday. It was a classic tan color with a flared skirt. It could have been a brown paper sack and I’d still have loved it, if Lynn gave it to me. She’d also given me the one I was wearing now, and I loved it just as much.
What most people didn’t understand was that I needed Lynn like I needed air. Without her, my lungs didn’t work, my heart stopped beating, and my brain malfunctioned. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I was only crazy where Lynn was concerned.
Well, where Lynn was concerned and when it came to those who hurt children or other people who couldn’t protect themselves. That drove me a little nuts. Not like homicidal nuts. Just like kick-your-ass kind of nuts. Only one person made me homicidal-nuts, and I’d gotten rid of him quite some time ago.
Now that I didn’t have to worry about Lynn as much, I could focus a little more on me. I dashed into the drycleaner’s and slapped my palm against the top of the tiny bell on the counter. A man came from the back of the building, his eyes dragging slowly up and down my body as he stalked toward me. I had an instant and almost insatiable urge to kick him in the balls. But now I had to be respectable. I had a nephew I was obligated to guide in life. I had to set a good example. I would try to refrain from kicking this guy in the nuts. But I wasn’t above punching him in the throat.
I passed him the claim ticket for the dress, and he dawdled around the front of the shop, letting his grubby fingers linger against mine as he took my credit card and ran it.
“How much longer will it be?” I asked, drumming my fingers on the countertop.
He laid his upper body on the counter, so he could lean closer to me. “Are you in a hurry?”
I didn’t answer. Where I was going was none of his business. “Did you ask someone to go and get my dress?”
“Mm-hmm,” he hummed, licking his lips. His eyes did that slow slide down my body again.
“My dress?” I said, a little less kindly.
He lifted one side of the hinged counter and motioned for me to walk through. “Come on. You can help me get it.”
“Thank you, but I’ll wait here.” I began to tap my foot on the floor.
“Scared?” he teased.
“No, but you should be.” I leaned toward him. “Go get my fucking dress.”
His eyes lost the teasing glint that had been present. “I was just trying to get to know you,” he said, his eyes darkening. It was almost imperceptible, but I knew dark. And I also knew he hadn’t seen dark yet.
“I’m not interested in getting to know you,” I replied. “I am interested in picking up my dress, so if you’d go and get it, I’d really appreciate it.” I bit back the filthy retort that had momentarily rested on the edge of my tongue. Keeping it to myself was tough, but I did it.
He dropped the edge of the counter and closed the divide. “Be right back.”
I kept an eye on my watch. When five minutes had passed, I slapped the bell on the counter again. When no one appeared, I looked at my watch again. I was going to be late. I lifted the countertop so I could walk through, toward the back of the shop. When I rounded the corner, I saw him sitting on a chair, playing a game with popping bubbles on his phone.
“My dress,” I said loudly. He looked up for just a moment, and then back down at his game.
“Just a minute,” he muttered.
I walked over and plucked his phone from his hand.
He looked up at me, his mouth falling open. He reached for the phone, but I stepped back. “Your phone for the dress,” I said.
He reached to grab me, and I slammed my fist into his throat. He dropped like a stone, gasping for breath. I looked down at him. “You should have just gotten my fucking dress, asshole.”
I stepped over him and started searching the racks. They were labeled by date, so I went to the most recent group. I found my dress, laid it over my arm, and walked back across the room. He was still trying to take a deep breath. He’d be fine. I stepped over him again and walked out. I’d already paid, so I wasn’t worried about that. On a normal day, I would have left a tip for him, but this wasn’t a normal day and he wasn’t a normal man. He was one of them. One of those people I despised.
He had better be glad I let him live.
I drove as fast as I could to the church, and then I went in the backdoor. I knew there were some rooms back here where brides changed into their wedding gowns, so I ducked into one and hung my dress on a peg. I really had to pee, so I ran across the hall and skidded into the bathroom stall. As soon as I arrived, I realized I really didn’t have time for a bathroom break after all, and I opened the door to leave, but my dress got hung on the sliding bolt on the door.
I froze, and then very gently tried to pry it free, but it was stuck. The dress I needed was in the other room. Maybe if I got out of this one, I could dash across the hall and get it, but first I had to get out of this one. I unbuttoned it and bent so I could slip it over my head. I stood there for a second, doubting the wisdom of my plan, but Lynn and Mason and their child, they were all waiting. My phone buzzed from the pocket of the dress I no longer wore. I pulled it out. It was Lynn wanting to know where I was.
I took a deep breath, opened the bathroom door, and stuck my head out. No one was in the hallway. I was around the corner from the sanctuary, so no one could possibly see me. Could they? I took a deep breath, stepped out, and then I froze, because he was there. Damn it. Couldn’t a girl have a weak moment once in a while without witnesses? The very day I decided not to wear a bra, I had to streak nearly naked through a church, and he had to be the one to bump into me.
I didn’t really bump into him, because that would mean skin-on-skin contact, and all we had right now was eye contact. That is, until his eyes started that slide down my body. My face heated and my pulse hammered. He looked away almost as quickly as he’d looked down, and his eyes looked everywhere but at me, which was good, I guessed. He could have been a letch. He obviously wasn’t.
He was a good guy, I knew that much. I knew because he’d helped my sister last year. And me, too, for that matter. Had I ever thanked him? I probably should do that.
I pressed my fingertips over my nipples and said the only thing I could think to say. “Why are you back here, Clark?”
Available August 12, 2019
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Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Doubt-Reed-Brothers-Book-ebook/dp/B07SRDGTDP/
For most people, going back home never seems as exciting as leaving. I’m not most people. For me, going home means going back to New York City. It means reconnecting with long lost friends and people who had, once upon a time, saved my life.
Sometimes when I say that to myself, even within the recesses of my mind, it seems trite. It seems impossible, yet it’s not. The Reeds and their families saved my life, not to mention that of my sister, Penny. I look over at her in the passenger seat of the car and marvel at the young lady she’s becoming. She’s turned into someone wonderful, in spite of me. In spite of the fact that we lost our parents when we were young, and in spite of the really bad choices I had to make at one point, she has turned into a smart, kind young girl, and the very sight of her makes my heart clench.
Sometimes she makes my fists clench too, but that’s what happens when you raise children, or so I hear. You can go quickly from loving them to wondering why you chose to have children in the first place. Only I never chose to have Penny. My parents did. Then they died. They left us alone in a city that was as ruthless as it was impractical.
With no family and no money, we had no one to lean on, until we met a family called the Reeds. They own a famous tattoo shop downtown, and almost everyone has heard of them. There are five brothers, all blond, tatted up, and amazing. Then there are their wives, who are just as fabulous. Add to them all their fabulous friends, and you have the group of people who set me on my path.
And now, my path has led me back to New York, back to the only people I’ve had on my team in a really long time, and back to the only place where I have ever felt such immense shame.
Going home hurts almost as much as leaving it.
The radio in our car quit working last year, and I’m almost surprised the car has made the trip home without breaking down. Penny lies slumped in her seat like a rag doll. She has been asleep for the past fifty miles or so. I should probably wake her up, but I’ve been enjoying the quiet.
When Penny is awake, she never stops talking. She prattles on about nothing and everything. It’s almost like she’s afraid that if she doesn’t use all the words, she’ll lose them. So she does. She uses all the words. All the time. She never stops.
It’s been me and Penny against the world for a very long time. I can barely remember the way my parents looked or the sounds of their voices. I try not to think about them because thinking about them hurts.
My family lived in a small apartment in an old building, but we were happy. Both my mom and dad worked, and I spent a lot of my time with Penny. Then after they died, I spent all my time with Penny. I was still a child, but I was suddenly raising one. Social Services came to get us, to put us in foster care, but we left before they could separate us, with the clothes on our backs and a bag with a few extra items of clothing. I took Penny out of potential harm’s way and threw her directly into its path.
Then we met the Reeds one Christmas Eve. They gave us an apartment for three months, helped me become emancipated and get custody of Penny, and helped me get my GED and get into college. I’m pretty sure they paid for my education, too, because huge scholarships don’t just fall out of the sky. But the college said that I got “some rare scholarships” and that I should feel very lucky.
I do. I feel extremely lucky. Penny and I have been living paycheck to paycheck, but we have been doing it all on our own, aside from the “scholarships.” I haven’t done anything immoral or illegal in a really long time. Yet at times the past still wakes me from my sleep, my body slicked with a cold sweat, terror in my heart and a lack of warmth deep down in my soul.
I hold tightly to the wheel and stare out over the highway. Coming home has never seemed so sweet, even if I don’t really have a home to come to. It feels like home, and that’s all that matters. I have my sister, I have a college degree, and I have a future to look forward to. I’d like to begin it with the people who’d made it possible.
Suddenly, my car swerves to the right. I grab the wheel with both hands and guide the car over to the side of the road.
“What happened?” Penny mutters with the innocence of a child who knows her world will keep turning, because it always has.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I think we have a flat tire.”
Penny sits up and grabs for the door handle after the car comes to a stop.
“Stay in the car,” I bark.
Penny mutters something under her breath and settles heavily in the seat.
I get out and see that the back tire is slack around the rim. A complete blow out. Great. Just what I need. I get back in and slam the door.
Penny rolls her eyes dramatically and makes a show of picking up my phone, and dials a number that has been programmed there but almost never used. She hands the phone to me, one brow arching with her almost-ten-years-old wisdom.
“Fine,” I grunt, taking the phone from her.
“Hello?” a voice says.
“And Penny,” Penny yells out. I cover my ear with my palm to block her out.
“And Penny,” I add.
“Avery and Penny?” She must turn away from the phone because I hear her say a little more loudly, “Logan, it’s Avery and Penny!”
Logan and Emily are the ones who plucked me and Penny from the streets and gave us a home.
“Hey, Avery and Penny!” I hear Logan yell from the background toward the phone.
“How are you guys?” Emily asks. “How was graduation?”
“It was great. Glad to be done. I got the flowers you sent. Thank you for them. They were lovely.” I’d invited them to come to my graduation, but one of their children was sick with an ear infection and they were unable to travel.
“It’s the least we could do. We really wanted to be there.” She pauses and I know she’s being honest. They did want to be there. “So what are you up to now?” Emily asks. When I talk to Emily, I feel like I get all her attention. While I was away at school, I tried not to bug her too often. She has a job and a husband and two kids. But it’s really good to hear her voice.
“We’re on our way back, actually. We’re about a hundred miles from where you are.”
“Well, hurry up and get here! We can’t wait to see you.”
“That’s just it,” I rush to explain. “We have a flat tire.”
“Oh,” Emily says. She speaks to Logan again. “They have a flat tire.” I hear them mutter to one another for a moment, and then Emily says, “Tell me where you are and I’ll send someone.”
“We’re still a long way away,” I say, feeling ridiculous and totally unworthy.
“You’re almost home, dummy.”
That warm feeling settles inside me when she says the words, the words that always make me feel like I belong. “I’m almost home,” I whisper back, emotion clogging my throat and making it tough to swallow.
“Tell me where you are,” she prompts again. I tell her the closest mile marker and she says, “Hang tight. Logan is sending someone to pick you up. Lock the doors and keep the windows rolled up, okay?”
“Yes, Mom,” I say with a laugh. But deep down inside, it’s nice to know that someone has my back. “I don’t have any money,” I suddenly blurt out.
“Oh, pish,” Emily scoffs. “Do you want me to stay on the phone with you until help arrives?”
“Oh, no, I’m sure you have things to do.”
“Nothing is more important than catching up with you,” Emily says softly.
So that’s what we do. I talk to Emily, telling her everything about everything, until I hear the beep of the tow truck as it backs up in front of me.
“They’re here,” I tell Emily.
“Oh, good,” she says. “I’m so glad.”
“I had better go.”
“Avery,” she says, her voice urgent.
“I want you to come here. I won’t take no for an answer, so I expect to see you tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whisper. I clear my throat. “We’ll be there.”
“I don’t care what time it is or what happens. I want you to come home. Here. Do you understand?” Her voice is firm and unyielding.
“Yes,” I reply, but I can barely get the words out. “I’m on the way.”
“I’m glad you’re coming home, Avery,” she says, and then the line goes dead.
The sharp rap of knuckles striking my window gets my attention. I roll it down to find the one person who I am sure never wanted to see me again, ever. My breath stalls in my throat, and I look out the front window, avoiding his gaze.
“Avery,” he says. His tone is brusque. He has never been a man of many words. He passes them out like good behavior tokens. But that one word—my own name—falls on my ears like the strike of a hammer.
“Edward,” I reply. I continue to stare straight out in front of me because I’m afraid to look at him.
“Edward!” Penny suddenly yells when she recognizes him. She climbs over me to get to him, elbowing me in the side of my head and poking me in the thigh with her knobby knee, trying to hug him through the window. He grabs her and pulls her right out and into his arms.
“What’s up, Nickel?” he asks as he spins Penny around, her feet flying out behind her as he hugs her tightly.
What’s bad is that I want to react the same way Penny is, but I’m pretty sure he won’t be so happy if I hug him. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if Penny wasn’t with me, he’d already be gone.
He sets Penny down.
“My name is Penny,” she corrects him. He has always called her Nickel just to tease her. He tousles her hair and she beams up at him.
“What are you guys doing here?” he asks her.
“We’re going home. To stay.” Penny smiles up at him, her hand still threaded with his.
His eyes finally meet mine. “Is that so?” he says quietly, more to himself than to either of us.
Edward is tall and lean, with green eyes and a slender face. He has a light shadow of beard stubble on his chin, and he reaches up to scratch it. He pulls a New York Skyscrapers ball cap from his back pocket and puts it on, making it even harder to read his expression.
“Go climb in the cab of the truck,” he says, giving Penny a nudge. She scampers away, and I finally get out of the car.
“Thank you for coming to get us,” I say quietly as I move to stand beside him.
He nods and says, “I’m guessing you don’t have a spare.”
“No.” If I did, I would have already changed the tire myself.
He gets to work hooking the car up and pulling it up on the flat bed. He says nothing else to me, not a word the whole time he works on loading the car.
When he’s done, he dusts his hands together and looks at me. “Is it going to kill you to ride with me?” he asks carefully.
“I’ll be fine,” I toss back, squaring my shoulders and lifting my chin. I don’t cower for anyone. Not anymore.
“You always are,” he says softly. Then he opens the driver’s side door and ushers me into the truck. I slide across the bench until I’m next to Penny. It’s a tight fit, and I have to sit with my legs on each side of the gear shift.
I flinch as he reaches across my lap to slip the truck into first gear.
His gaze jerks up to meet mine.
“What?” I ask.
“Habit,” I reply.
I broke every speed limit law trying to get to her. And now…now all I can think about is how I can make this ride last a little longer so I can keep her for a few more minutes.
I could call her “the girl who got away,” but I’d be lying to myself. Avery is the girl who ran as far and as fast from me as she could. She went to a different state, for fuck’s sake, just to get away from me. Well, college was also waiting for her, but at the root of all of it was her desire to put a few states between me and her that sent her packing. All because of a few poorly chosen words. They’re words I still regret.
The words I said in anger are the reason why she sits, her back straight as a board, next to me. She flinches and jerks her leg away every time her knee brushes mine. When I reach over to change the gears, she holds her breath until I take my hand away.
It’s my fault, all of it. I just hope that while she’s in town she’ll give me an opportunity to tell her how sorry I am. Words have the power to heal, but they also have the power to hurt, and the words I said to her dredged up a past she wanted to forget. They also judged her for it. It was wrong, and I’m sorry.
Penny has talked nonstop ever since we got in the truck. I swear, the kid has barely taken a breath since I closed the door.
“Where’s Susan?” Penny suddenly asks. Susan is my younger sister and Penny met her before they moved away.
“She had better be at home waiting for me,” I say quietly. If not, I’m going to kill her.
“She lives with you now?”
I nod and shift the gears as I come to a stop light. Avery heaves in a breath and doesn’t let it go until I move my arm away. “She came to live with me about a year ago,” I explain.
Susan was in foster care for a while, and I had some legal issues I had to straighten out before I could even think about seeking custody of her. Susan is older than Penny. She aged out of the foster care system before I could petition for custody. Now she’s a Junior at NYU, a college that’s close to where we live. Susan lives at home with me and attends classes. She also has a part-time job and a boyfriend, so I don’t see her quite as often as I’d like.
I make a mental note to check in with her and see how she’s doing. I try to do that as often as I can. I try to make dates to check with my sister about her life; otherwise, I fall out of the loop and don’t know what’s going on with her. And that simply cannot happen. I let it happen before, and I’ll never let it happen again.
“Is she still dating Gonzo?” Penny wants to know.
Thinking of him makes me smile. “Yes. They’ve been together for a while now.”
Penny nods her head. “He’s cool.”
He really is. One of my favorite kids of all time. Technically, he’s not a kid anymore. I met him at a camp for kids with disabilities many years ago, the same camp where I met Pete Reed. I can’t help but think I’d like Gonzo better, though, if he wasn’t sleeping with my little sister. They try to keep it a secret, but sometimes a man can see the look in another man’s eyes and just know.
I try to stay out of their love life, but it’s hard.
Gonzo is good for Susan, though. He accepts everything about her, and she does the same for him. They’re good for one another. Gonzo is in a wheelchair and has some serious medical issues that necessitate him having a tracheostomy tube. He uses a special machine to talk, or sign language when he’s with us.
Avery clears her throat. “I’m glad Susan came to live with you,” she says, her voice as soft as a whisper. “I know it was important to you.”
“Thanks. It was.”
I pull over and find a parking space when I see Logan’s building. Parking a tow truck isn’t easy, and I can’t take it into the underground garage, so I take up two spots on the street and turn on my lights.
“Sit still,” I say. “It’s a big jump down.”
I get out, slam my door, and run around to the other side. I open the door and Penny jumps right out into my arms. She does it with blind trust, knowing somewhere inside herself that I’m going to catch her. Hell, I’d fall onto the ground and let her land on me if I couldn’t catch her. I’d do anything to break her fall.
I spin her around and set her down. Then I look up to find Avery staring at me, her eyes watchful and worried. She turns herself around and starts to climb down using the foot holds. I reach out to steady her, but then realize she probably doesn’t want my hands anywhere on her, and I just hover there over her back in case she slips. She doesn’t, though, and she lands safely on the sidewalk.
“Thanks for coming to get us,” Avery says. “How much do I owe you?” She worries her lower lip with her teeth.
“I’ll send you a bill,” I say casually. I’m not going to do anything of the sort, of course.
“Are you going to unload the car here?” she asks, her brows drawing together.
“I’m going to take it with me,” I inform her.
She jerks to face me. “When will I get it back?”
“Oh.” She scuffs the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe, looking everywhere but at me. “Well, thanks,” she says.
“C’mon, Avery!” Penny says. “I want to go see Emily and Logan.” Penny tugs on the hem of Avery’s shirt, and Avery brushes her hands away, only to take one of them firmly. With her free hand, she reaches into her pocket and pulls her keys out. She holds them out to me.
“You might need these,” she says.
“Do you need any of your luggage?” I ask. Her backseat is packed full of boxes and bags.
“There’s a backpack in the front seat that has what we’ll need for one night,” she says. She appraises the truck like she’s trying to figure out how to climb up the side.
“I’ll get it,” I say. I climb up and get the bag, lowering it down to her. “Do you need anything else?”
“Not tonight,” she says.
I lock her doors and climb back down. “I’ll try to get it back to you tomorrow.”
“Thanks again for coming to our rescue.”
I’d do just about anything for you. “You’re welcome.”
“Be sure and send me a bill. I can’t pay it immediately, but…well…soon, okay?” Even in the dark, I can see the way her cheeks turn pink.
“I know how to find you.” I smile at her, suddenly worried that sounded a little pervy.
“We’ll be staying with Emily and Logan.”
I nod. “It’s good to see that you’re doing so well.”
Finally, she smiles at me, although it’s definitely a cautious smile. “You too. ’Night.” She turns Penny with a hand on her shoulder and they go into the building.
I pull out my phone and text Logan.
Me: All her stuff is in her car. Where do you want me to put it?
Logan: She’s going to stay in the empty apartment on your floor. 4D. Hang on and I’ll come help you.
I climb back up and start to unload her car, putting all her things gingerly on the platform of the truck so Logan can reach them with me when he comes down.
But it’s not just Logan who comes down. It’s Logan, Paul, Pete, Sam, and Matt, all at once. And right behind them rolls up their friend Josh.
“She didn’t bring much, did she?” Paul says as he starts to hand out the boxes and bags. They all grab a few.
“I don’t think she had much to bring,” Logan says as he loads Josh’s lap with a couple of unwieldy boxes.
I notice that one of the boxes says “Mom and Dad” on the side. It’s written in black magic marker. I carry that one myself.
In one trip, we get it all upstairs and leave it for her to unpack.
Everyone leaves to go back to their apartments, but Logan lingers. “Something on your mind?” he asks me.
“No, nothing.” I shake my head and let myself out of her apartment. It just happens to be the apartment right next to mine. I can’t decide if I should be happy or sad about that.
I take her car to the shop, drop it off, and then drive my car back to the apartment building. I let myself in my front door and find Susan sleeping on the couch, her mouth open wide, her books spread across her lap.
She stirs when she hears the door click shut behind me. “You’re home,” she mutters.
“How was your day?” She closes her books, gets up, and pads into the kitchen on her bare feet.
She grins. “So I heard the craziest thing tonight.”
“Oh yeah?” I get a bottle of water from the fridge. “What did you hear?”
Her grin grows even wider as she props her elbow on the counter and holds her chin up with the heel of her upturned hand. “I heard Avery and Penny are here.”
I nod and glug down the whole bottle of water. I toss it into the recycling bin. “They are.”
She raps her fingertips on the countertop like she’s a drummer waiting for someone to thwack a cymbal. “And?” she prompts. “How long is she staying? Have you seen her?”
“I don’t know. And yes. I just saw her.”
She leans back, stunned a little. “And how did that go?”
It hurt like a motherfucker. “Fine.”
“Fine,” she repeats, glaring at me. “Just fine?”
“Yes. Just fine.” I walk over and give her a quick kiss on the forehead. “Go to bed.”
She heaves out a sigh. “You suck.”
I turn back before walking into the living room. “Do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow?”
Her gaze softens and she smiles. “I’d love to.”
She nods, and then she takes a bag of chips off the counter and goes back to the couch. “’Night!” she calls out.
I wave a hand in her direction and head for my bedroom.
I hear the door next door close, and I know that Avery and Penny are on the other side of the wall, probably checking out the apartment. I press my ear to the wall and hear the faint whine of a complaining voice. Then I hear Avery’s firm voice, and Penny’s voice goes quiet. Apartment walls can be pretty thin.
A few minutes later, my phone chimes and I look down to find a text from Emily.
Emily: She’s all settled in the apartment next to yours.
Me: That’s good.
Emily: Thanks for taking care of her. Will you send me the bill for the tow?
Me: It’s already taken care of. Tire too. I’ll give her car a once-over tomorrow too, just to be sure it’s safe enough.
Emily: Send me the bill for that, okay?
I don’t respond, because she knows I could never send her a bill. Not any of them. Not for any reason.
Emily: Should I assume that’s taken care of too?
Me: That would be wise.
Emily: Good night, Edward. We love you.
Me: Love you too. Good night.
I hear a sudden thump next door, and then it happens again. In my head, I can see Penny jumping on the bed, and it makes me smile.
Everything about them makes me smile. I just wish it didn’t. It would be easier to keep my distance if I didn’t still love Avery so fucking much.
If the Duke of Robinsworth had known it would be so difficult to raise a daughter alone, he never would have killed his wife. He would have coddled her, wrapped her in lace and taffeta, and put her on a shelf so the whole world could view her beauty.
Even though he’d never admitted it, everyone knew he’d killed her. And though he refused to share the details, they were all correct.
His daughter broke him from his reverie when she stomped her foot and demanded that he purchase not one, but two, sweets from the vendor.
Ashley was quite used to the antics of his daughter, and although they were annoying, they never bothered him overmuch. When she became too unruly, he simply left her with a nurse. If it happened at home, he left the manor. He’d even left the country once. But she was always there when he returned, always just as petulant as she had been the day he left. He’d resigned himself to the fact that she would never change.
Anne was a perfect re-creation of his late wife. Her long blond curls danced around her face. Her porcelain skin and blue eyes reminded him of a doll he’d seen once in a shop window. The only difference: the doll didn’t have a temper like Anne. Yes, she had inherited that from her mother, too.
When Anne was younger, she would drop to the ground and kick and scream when she didn’t get her way, flopping about like a fish out of water. Now she simply scrunched up her pert little nose and screeched.
Ashley winced as she shrieked out the words, “I want it!”
He took a step toward the child, fully prepared to throw her over his shoulder and drag her back to her nurse, who waited on a park bench nearby, when a woman stepped forward. His breath caught in his throat as she entered his line of sight. She was the opposite of his late wife, who’d been blond and thin and fragile.
His gaze traveled over the woman’s rounded hips to her ample breasts, nearly hidden among the frills and folds of her light-blue gown. He lingered there, imagining how she would look in a gown that didn’t have quite so many trimmings hiding her curves. When his eyes finally rose to meet hers, her flashing hazel orbs held censure. Ashley coughed into his hand in a horrible attempt to hide the smile that wanted to erupt. It had been years since he’d been so well scolded. And she’d yet to even speak to him.
Before he could say a word to her, the auburn-haired nymph looked down her nose at his daughter and said, “Ladies do not shriek.”
His own little termagant rolled her eyes in a horrid display of social ineptitude.
The woman raised her eyebrows at Anne and said, her voice a bit crisper, “Ladies do not roll their eyes.”
“But I want another,” Anne snarled, stomping her foot.
The beautiful woman smiled at his daughter, a dimple appearing in her left cheek. People very rarely smiled at Anne because she was so obnoxious that most gentlewomen turned from her in disgust.
“May I tell you a secret?” she asked of Anne. Then she looked at Ashley, who nearly fell over trying to avoid leaning toward her so he could hear her soft voice as she spoke to Anne. “Do you mind?” she asked, smiling as she asked him for permission to speak to the girl.
“No,” Ashley said, waving his hand negligently. “You may disclose all the secrets you wish.” He wanted to add that she could whisper a few in his ear as well, but he assumed she’d take that as an insult.
She knelt down to Anne’s level and whispered in her ear. Anne’s nose turned down slightly until she suddenly smiled. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and giggled.
“Go on.” She nudged Anne forward. “Try it.” She shot Ashley a quick look that encouraged him to play along.
Anne tugged gently on his sleeve. “Yes, Anne?” he said quickly, finding it painful to tear his gaze away from the stranger long enough to look down at his own daughter. But when he did, he was surprised to see the pleasant smile that curled her lips.
“Papa, may I please have another treat? I regret to inform you that they are pitifully small.”
Ashley glanced up at the lady, who smiled at what must have been his perplexed look. He stared at her for a moment, unable to draw his eyes away, until Anne tugged at his sleeve and whispered, “I should like to grow up to be as sweet as the lady someday.”
Ashley turned to the street vendor and asked for two more treats. He promptly gave one to his daughter, who was delighted by her newfound ability to win her father’s favor. Then he looked over at the lady who’d transformed his daughter and winked.
* * *
Sophia felt certain she turned ten shades of red when the man turned and winked at her. It was such a masculine gesture, and not one that was commonly tossed in her direction. Of course, considering that he was the Duke of Robinsworth, Ashley Trimble, to be more exact, it was completely fitting.
It did gratify Sophia a bit to see that the child took her advice and approached her father in a gracious and respectful way. She smiled softly when he placed the treat in the girl’s hands and bent to kiss her forehead.
Sophia turned to walk away but heard quick footsteps behind her. “Miss?” The child called for her. Sophia looked down at her smiling face. She held up a second treat and said, “My papa said this one is for you.”
Sophia hesitated for a moment before she took the wrapped square from the child. “Thank you very much.”
“Wait.” When the girl’s father’s voice reached her, it hit her like a runaway horse, making the hair on her neck stand up and her belly drop toward her toes. His quick footsteps hurried across the cobblestone walk toward her. He stopped, his blue eyes darting to and fro in the nearly empty park. “If your chaperone sees me speak to you, I fear she’ll steal you away almost as quickly as you appeared.” He let the last trail off as he waited for her to fill the empty space.
Quite the opposite. Her grandmother had contrived the scheme so they could meet in the first place. “I appreciate the flattery, but I have not required a chaperone for a number of years. We do things differently where I’m from, you see.”
“And where might that be?” His blue eyes danced at her.
Unpardonable Error Number Three: Never share the existence of the fae. “I’m certain you’ve never heard of it.”
His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. Should she extend her hand to him? Try as she might, she was unable to remember all the social proprieties this world was based upon. Her grandmother had repeatedly tried to drill them into her throughout the years. And failed. “My name is Sophia Thorne, Your Grace,” she finally provided.
His gaze grew shuttered at the words “Your Grace,” almost as though a heavy curtain dropped between them that was difficult to see through. She wished she could bite the words back as soon as they left her lips.
“My reputation must precede me,” he said as he looked away. Sadness suddenly overwhelmed his features. “I’ll let you be on your way.” He bowed slightly and turned from her.
“Your Grace?” Sophia called. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, no hint of the playfulness she’d seen earlier present in his gaze.
“I’ve never rested much faith upon the opinions of others, Your Grace,” she said slowly. “I prefer to draw my own conclusions.”
A sardonic smile broke across his face. “You could very well ruin your reputation by being seen in my company, Miss Thorne.”
She shrugged. “One must have a reputation in order to ruin it, Your Grace. And to be more succinct, one must care.”
A smile that might be genuine slowly lifted the corners of his lips. “I thank you for the help with my daughter. How did you do it?”
She shrugged again. She’d simply treated the child with respect and firmness, both of which the girl was surely lacking. But that was neither here nor there. “Most women learn to manage men at an early age,” she laughed. “It appears as though your daughter has not.”
“Not until today.”
“I was happy to help.” Sophia held up the wrapped square of candy. “And these are my favorite,” she admitted, unable to keep from smiling at him.
The little girl tugged at her father’s sleeve. “Can we go home now, Papa?”
The duke pulled his watch fob from his pocket and flipped it open. “Actually, I do have some things to attend to,” he said apologetically as he touched the top of his daughter’s head. “Tell Miss Thorne good-bye and thank you,” he instructed her.
Instead of dropping into a curtsy, the girl locked her arms around Sophia’s waist and squeezed. Sophia was almost too surprised to return the embrace.
“Perhaps I’ll see you again another day,” she said to the little blonde.
“I can only hope,” the duke said quietly, his gaze meeting hers only briefly before he turned away, took his daughter’s hand, and started down the lane that led to the entrance of the park.
Sophia took a moment to catch her breath. It wouldn’t do for her to swoon in the middle of the park. Not at a mere suggestion from the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth. The man was a walking scandal. A walking scandal that made her pulse pound so loudly she could hear it.
“Well, that went better than I expected, dear,” her grandmother said as she stepped into her line of sight.
“Better than I thought,” Sophia lamented.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to feign the mannerisms of the British ton. But you did fairly well.”
She certainly still had a lot to learn about this world. The land of the fae might look similar, but none of its magic was present in this world. Here, people wore full clothing, and not a single one of them had wings or pointy ears the way she did. Just willing her own wings away was difficult and not something she usually had to concentrate so hard to do.
“He seemed discontent about my lack of a chaperone,” Sophia said. “Do you think I need one, to look like one of them?”
“Perhaps we should have Margaret shadow you a little more,” her grandmother suggested.
Sophia moaned. The idea of Margaret watching everything she did made her nervous. The house faerie didn’t like this world or anything about it, including its people. The maid wouldn’t say why, but she had a feeling it had something to do with Sophia’s mother. “I need to learn to walk like them.”
“Stiffly and unyielding?” her grandmother said with a laugh. In their world, comfort reigned. Clothing was serviceable. There were no layers worn simply for show. In order to fit through keyholes and slide under doors, one must be appropriately attired.
“Maybe I should have saved this mission for Claire after all.” Indecision rose within her. No. She could do this. She could help the Duke of Robinsworth’s daughter.
“You must learn to use your senses, your mind, and your heart more than your magic. You can do it, Sophia. I wouldn’t have allowed you to come if I didn’t believe it.”
“Oh, come now,” Sophia cajoled. “You wanted an opportunity to come through the portal, to see the fish.”
“I’d love to know their crimes. Knowing they were once fae scares me a little.” Her grandmother shivered lightly.
“They seemed amiable enough.”
“Only because you had something they wanted to trade for passage. Otherwise, we’d still be at home waiting for the night of the full moon.”
The fish that guarded the portal were granted a reprieve on the night of the moonful, the night the midnight wind swirled, carrying passengers from the fae world to this one. Any other night, wary travelers must trade something of value to get past the fish and away from the land of the fae.
“This mission is very unlike my others,” Sophia said, more to herself than to her grandmother.
“Most missions don’t include a handsome duke.” She grinned. “A duke who makes one’s heart go pitter-patter.” For some reason, her grandmother’s mild, cherubic smile sent fear skittering up Sophia’s spine, making her wonder what devious plot was hiding behind her grandmother’s innocent facade.
Ashley stepped through the front door of his home to find his butler, Wilkins, standing at attention in the entryway. The regal, spry old servant rushed forward to take his hat and coat.
“Any news for me, Wilkins?” Ashley asked absently as he shrugged out of his jacket, took the correspondence the butler placed in his hands, and sorted through the stack of notes quickly.
“Your brother awaits you in your study,” the butler said.
A smile broke across Ashley’s face. “I imagine he’s sampling my best whiskey?”
Wilkins smiled, then added glibly, “Not since I removed all the decanters upon his arrival, Your Grace. You should be aware that he partook of more than his share of spirits before he arrived.”
His brother had never been one for taking spirits in moderation. Ashley chuckled. “That bad, is he?”
“Worse, Your Grace,” Wilkins said, nodding his head slightly.
“Oh,” Ashley said as he turned and held up a finger. “Did you have any luck finding a suitable governess for Anne?”
The man sighed. “Unfortunately, no. The agency refuses to send another of their applicants. Not after what happened the last time.”
Ashley tried to remember.
“Remind me of what happened last time.”
“Lady Anne set the governess’s hair on fire. On purpose.”
“Oh, yes. I remember. There was a stench for days.” Wilkins’s lip curled as he obviously remembered the same smell. “Are there other agencies you can try?”
“I’ll keep looking.”
“Thank you.” Ashley smiled as he walked down the corridor and turned the corner to enter his study. There, seated in a deep leather chair, was his younger brother, Lord Phineas, or Finn, as his friends called him. “I heard a rumor that you were in my study and that evasive maneuvers had to be taken to keep you out of my stock,” Ashley said, extending his hand.
Finn rose to his feet unsteadily, grasping for the arm of his chair as he lost his balance. The man looked positively miserable, his eyes rimmed with red, his face blotchy and pale. “Ah, yes. But he forgot the bottle you keep in your private stash,” Finn said as he held up a glass, lisping a little on the last word.
Of course, his brother would feel free to invade his private space at will. Never one to mince words, Ashley said, “You look like hell.”
“I feel like hell,” Finn grumbled back.
“Dare I ask what the matter is? It’s a bit early in the day to be so deep in your cups.” He urged his brother to sit before he toppled over. He was nearly as big as Ashley, so it would take at least two footmen to bring him back upright.
“Oh, I had a bit more enjoyment than I’d planned,” Finn groaned as he adjusted himself in the chair.
Ashley sat behind his desk and steepled his hands in front of him, waiting for the man to tell him what the matter was. It didn’t take as long as he thought for his brother to unburden himself.
“Do you remember the chit I set up in Mayfair?”
“Vaguely.” If Ashley remembered correctly, there was nothing truly remarkable about the girl.
“She’s up and left me.”
“And?” Certainly, worse things could happen to a man. Like being shunned for killing one’s wife.
“And she started a bit of a rumor.”
“My lack of physical attributes and attention to her needs,” Finn mumbled.
Ashley tried to hide his chuckle behind a cough into his closed fist.
“It’s not amusing,” Finn pointed out.
“Certainly, it is,” Ashley said, laughing a bit louder.
“How do you deal with it? The whispers behind your back? The constant judgment from your peers?”
Ashley shrugged. “One becomes accustomed to it with time.” He’d had seven years to learn to accept his lot in life. The only time it rankled was when he met a lady like Miss Thorne. Then he wished he was anyone but himself.
Finn reached for the whiskey bottle again. Ashley intercepted it and moved it out of his brother’s reach. “Drinking any more will be a waste, because you’ll not remember the taste of it when you wake up.”
Ashley stood and called for Wilkins. The man appeared within moments. “Let’s find a room for Lord Phineas and help him to it, shall we?” he asked of the butler.
Wilkins nodded his head and called for footmen to assist. “If I may be so bold, Your Grace, the rest of London should know what a good man you can be,” Wilkins said.
“I prefer to let them think the worst.” Ashley sighed. “They’ve no expectations of me that way.”
Ashley returned to his study and began to open his correspondence. Despite his sordid past, he was a bit too well connected to be ousted completely from society. For the first two or three years following his wife’s death, he’d been avoided as though he had a communicable disease, as though the propensity to murder was contagious.
Then the few friends he had, namely his brother Finn, Matthew Lanford, and Jonathon Roberts, whom he’d met at Eton many years before, had rallied around him and forced him to resume his place in the House of Lords and step back into society. They all believed him innocent of any wrongdoing. It was unfortunate that they were all incorrect.
The clip of quickly moving slippers in the corridor made him groan and hang his head. Within seconds, the Duchess of Robinsworth flung open his door and burst inside his sanctuary, without even the good graces to knock.
“Mother,” was his only response as he looked down at the note before him. “What brings you to my home?”
“You really should replace that butler,” she scolded.
“And why should I do that?” he asked as he closed his ledger. She obviously had a purpose for visiting. And would most likely get to it as soon as she got over whatever slight Wilkins had given her. He would curse the man, but the butler seemed to be one of the only people who could keep his mother in line.
“He’s impertinent. And rude.”
Said the pot about the kettle.
“He blocked my entrance to the old library. The one in the west wing. He stood right there in the doorway and refused to let me pass. Of all the nerve.” She harrumphed and dropped into a chair.
That wing of the old house had been closed for longer than Ashley could remember. Since before his father had died when he was a boy. “And what purpose did you have for visiting the west wing, Mother?” he asked as he poured himself a liberal dose of the whiskey Finn had left behind.
“It’s awfully early to be drinking, dear,” she scolded.
“It’s awfully early for you to be visiting, Mother,” he returned. His mother never rose from bed before the luncheon hour. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping off the excesses of the night’s activities?”
“I wouldn’t call them excesses,” she mumbled.
He fished a note from the pile of correspondence Wilkins had given him. “You do not find one thousand pounds to be an excess?” he questioned.
“Give me that.” She held out her hand and leveled him with a stare that would have made him quake in his boots when he was younger. With her icy glare and pinched brows, she could freeze him in his tracks when he was a boy, but no longer.
“I think not,” he returned. Then he took a deep breath and dove directly into the issue at hand. “I believe it’s time for you to move back to the Hall, Mother.” He would hate having her underfoot, but he couldn’t keep an eye on her if she wasn’t at hand.
She pulled back and turned up her nose. “I’ll do no such thing. My town house is perfectly acceptable.”
“You mean my town house,” he clarified.
“It’s mine in theory,” she huffed as she sank primly onto a chair across from him.
“The amount of money you’re losing at the gaming tables is tremendous,” he said as he withdrew more notes from his drawer. They arrived nearly every day. From people his mother had gambled with and lost. They all knew she wasn’t good for the debts. Yet they played with her anyway because the Duke of Robinsworth never left a debt unpaid. His presence in their drawing rooms might not be valued. But his purse certainly was.
“I’ll take those,” she said again.
“Why, Mother? You cannot begin to pay them.”
Her face fell. “I do not know why you feel you have to be so cruel,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears.
“I do not understand why you gamble with money you don’t have.” He tapped the cards on the table. Then he made a clucking sound with his tongue. “But I’m prepared to pay them in full.”
“As you must, Robin,” she said quietly, using his childhood nickname.
“On one condition,” he amended.
Her face contorted slightly. “Which is?” she said from between gritted teeth.
“I’m closing the town house effective immediately. You’ll be moving back to the Hall.”
She jumped to her feet. “I will do no such thing,” she gasped.
He continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “I will reconcile your debts. Every last one of them. Then you will cease gambling with money you do not have. You may use your pin money any way you see fit.”
“But there’s not enough,” she protested.
Still, he continued. “You will spend nothing more than your pin money. You will move back to the Hall. You will assist me with my daughter.”
“Anne hates me.”
Anne hated everyone. “You will assist me with your granddaughter. She could use a feminine presence. You will behave respectably and set a good example for her.”
“You need a wife,” she snapped. “It’s unfortunate that no one of respectable breeding will have you.”
Oh, his mother knew how to throw the barbs that would hurt the most. “Then I am free from the wife search, it seems, since no respectable woman would pay me her favors.” He leveled her with a glare. Though Miss Thorne had graced him with a smile and no fear in her eyes.
“It took years for me to get over your past deeds. To find my way back into society. You have no idea how arduous the task was.” He couldn’t gather sympathy for her, despite the look of anguish in her eyes. “If I move back to the Hall, I will once again be cast beneath your dark cloud of suspicion.”
“Do you think I killed my wife, Mother?” he clipped out.
“Of course not,” she rushed on.
“Then I would assume a mother who finds no fault with her son will be quite content to return to the family estate.”
“My friends won’t know what to think.”
“Quite frankly, Mother, I don’t give a damn what they think,” he drawled. “I’ll have Wilkins begin the preparations to move your household.”
“And just when do you think this will take place?”
“As soon as I bellow down the hallway,” Ashley replied. Wilkins would take great pride in ruffling the duchess’s feathers.
“That man hates me,” she grunted. “When I’m in residence, I’ll expect him to treat me as befits my station.”
“He’ll treat you as well as you treat him, Mother.”
“I’d prefer being dropped into a vat of hot oil over being nice to that man.” She jumped to her feet and headed for the door.
“I’m certain that can be arranged,” Ashley called to her retreating back.
The duchess arrived the following afternoon in a flurry of activity. Ashley leaned against the newel post and surveyed the staff who scurried up and down the corridors of his home.
“How did you do it so quickly?” Ashley asked, shaking his head in wonder.
“Sheer strength of will, Your Grace,” Wilkins replied with a haughty smirk.
“One would think you’d be hesitant to take on such a task, since doing so means you’ll have to see Mother on a daily basis.” Then Ashley caught the direction of Wilkins’s gaze as he stared at his mother’s housekeeper, whose bottom was in the air as she rummaged through an open trunk. “The effort could come with a boon, it would seem?” Ashley tossed in casually.
The man’s face flushed for a moment. But only for a moment. “I certainly hope it will be worth it,” he finally said with a grin.
“At least one of us might get to enjoy the favors of a benevolent lass,” Ashley lamented.
This caught his butler’s attention. “I can send a message to—”
Ashley held up a hand to stop his offer. The last time Wilkins had arranged for an assignation, Ashley had found himself with a beguiling lady, one who quaked in her slippers at the very sight of him. It simply wasn’t worth the effort. They were all the same, be they barmaids, wenches, whores, or members of the gentry. They all saw him as tarnished. As fearsome. As the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth.
Ashley clapped Wilkins on the back with a smile. “Good luck with that little piece of baggage,” he said with a good-natured chuckle as his very staid and very proper butler picked up a valise and followed the housekeeper down the corridor. Wilkins never carried baggage. It was well beneath his station. Yet, it was quite apparent that performing below his station might yield some results beneath the housekeeper’s skirts.
The very thought brought Ashley’s mind back to the comely little lass he’d met in the park that afternoon. Little wasn’t a good description at all. She was tiny compared to him. Tall by most standards, she came up to his chin. He could probably tuck her beneath his chin and hold her close.
“Robin,” interrupted a voice from the doorway. He turned and found his mother, her face red with what he assumed must be anger. “Why is it that Wilkins insists on interrupting my beauty rest?”
He raised one brow. “Because he enjoys torturing you?”
“He could at least have waited until after luncheon.”
“Where would the humor be in that?”
“I hope you don’t regret your decision to bring me here,” she said.
“Regret having my mother under my roof?” He already regretted it. But he continued smoothly. “Never.”
His mother’s smile suddenly brightened. “I had the most wonderful idea last night when I was discussing my new accommodations with some friends.”
“Crying over” would probably be a more apt description of this discussion. Or “hysterically wailing.” “I assume you plan to tell me of your idea?” he prompted.
“I plan to have a house party,” she answered, the smile on her face evidence that she was immensely pleased with herself.
“Absolutely not,” he bit out. Of course, she would want a house party. His mother had always lived to entertain.
“You could allow me to tell you why, Robin,” she sniffed, “before you say no.”
He took a deep breath. A room full of nosy gentlemen and ladies, all of whom would attend if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth. “Why do you want to have a house party at my home, Mother?” he acquiesced.
“So that my friends can see what a dear boy you are, of course,” she explained. “They see so little of you that naturally everyone is curious.”
Now he was a carnival attraction. Fabulous. “No,” he clipped out.
“My friends have been led to believe by many who are in Town for the season that you are more than just a recluse. That you’re a murderer. That you killed your wife. That you have two heads. That you have a curved backbone that twists your body into absurd proportions.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Yes, all of those things have been whispered about. I want to show them that you’re none of those things.”
More likely, she wanted to show off the Hall. Show off her position in society. Show off her wealth. Or his wealth, actually. But, to her, it wouldn’t matter. “And just who do you plan to invite to this gathering?” That would make all the difference in the world.
His mother began to tick off names of prominent members of society, many of whom had marriageable daughters.
“Absolutely not, Mother!” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “I will not allow you to play match-maker.” Truth be told, none of those women would have him. They’d quiver and stare and stammer when he came into a room. They’d pretend to be interested in him, but only long enough to gather fodder for the scandal sheets.
“Don’t you think a house party sounds like a grand idea?” She beamed with pride as she glanced around the marble entryway of their ancestral home. “The estate has been much too quiet of late. It’s like a great sleeping beast and only needs someone to breathe some life into it.”
“No more than ten guests, Mother,” he sighed. “And I will not be attending. So, do not think you will find a wife for me.” He turned on his heel, trying to avoid his mother’s frantic clapping and shrill shriek, but she reached for his sleeve.
She patted his arm. “I could find a mistress for you, if you prefer. It would help your temper greatly.”
A mistress? Good Lord. “I have no need of a mistress, Mother,” he ground out.
“How long has it been, Son?” she whispered dramatically. “Years? Months?” She nodded to herself, a silly smile playing about her lips. “A paid woman would accept you.”
“Mother,” he snarled.
“Oh, never mind,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I promise not to even try to make a match for you.”
“No courtesans. No widows.” If he kept going, the party would cancel itself simply by lack of participants.
She mulled it over, tipping her head from side to side. “I accept,” she finally said.
He turned to walk back to his study. “No matchmaking, Mother,” he called back to her.
“You won’t regret this, Robin,” she called to him.
He already did.
* * *
Sophia cringed as her grandmother placed a vial of shimmery pink dust in her hand. “This one is for truth. Use it sparingly, Sophia,” she said with a frown.
“I am not certain I’m ready for this one.”
“I completely agree, but you’ve been taxed with unlocking the secrets in a little girl’s mind. They’re secrets she’s not even aware she’s carrying.” Her grandmother took Sophia’s hands in hers and squeezed. “Use it with great caution. Because if you use it for the wrong reason, the results can be disastrous.”
“Disastrous? In what way?”
“In a way that will affect your life forever,” her grandmother warned.
Sophia tucked the dust vial into her reticule and stood. She glanced quickly around the rooms her grandmother had let upon their arrival in London. The accommodations weren’t too different from the land she came from. But the clothing certainly was. Sophia tugged at her bodice. She wasn’t used to wearing so many layers of clothing. She turned to face the family matriarch. “What type of dust did you use to coerce the dowager duchess into inviting us to her house party?”
“None at all, my dear.” Her grandmother smiled benevolently at her. “I simply paid her a visit. She was deep in her cups at the time, but she still remembered me.”
“You’ve walked between the two worlds enough that you have old friends?” How odd that her grandmother had never told her of her escapades.
“Indeed, I have,” she said cryptically.
“How long has it been since you’ve been on a mission? I don’t remember you traveling when we were younger.” In fact, she remembered her grandmother as always being a solid presence in her life. Much more solid than the parents she’d never met.
“My own travels were before you were a light in your mother’s eye,” her grandmother said softly.
“Do you plan to see her while we’re here?” Sophia asked, instantly hating the way her voice quivered.
Grandmother’s face softened. “Do you?” she returned.
Tears pricked at the back of Sophia’s lashes. She tried to blink them away. She had no memory of her mother. Perhaps it was best that way.
“It’s all right if you want to go and see her,” Grandmother advised. “I can help you find her.”
“I’d rather not.” Sophia swiped a hand across her nose. Her mother probably wouldn’t even recognize her.
Her grandmother closed and locked the last trunk and turned to face Sophia. “That’s enough lamenting about the past.”
No one had ever told Sophia or her two siblings why their mother had to leave the land of the fae, never to return. Why she wasn’t a part of their lives. But in the quiet times at night, she’d heard whispers of her mother’s misdeeds from the other beings who occupied the land where she came from. Those fireflies were a blasted nuisance. And, despite their beauty, they liked to tell tall tales. Tall tales full of doom and gloom. And remorse.
Sophia shook the thoughts away. She’d long since given up her search for answers about her mother. This was certainly not the time to rekindle them. This was the time to work her fae magic for a little girl. And she might even get to help the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth in the process.
The man looked haunted behind those sky-blue eyes, and pain rolled from him in waves when she was in his company. She’d very nearly swooned from the power of it when he’d realized she knew about the stigma attached to his name. It wouldn’t do for her to go reeling into the bushes at the mere presence of the man. She’d have to work on her response to him. To his pain. To his daughter. To his past.
Unpardonable Error Number Two: Never let your dust fall into the hands of the untrained. She opened her reticule and glanced inside, wondering about the vials of dust she had stored in the small space. Each had a different purpose, most of which were benign. Yet the dust for truth, the newest one, made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. What if the truth was too burdensome to bear?
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“I thought what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her… until it did.”
The buzzer on my desk phone went off and I ignored it, preferring to push papers around on my desk, pretending to look busy. I had patient charts to review, medications to approve, and a plethora of patients who were waiting for me to make my rounds. But first…first I had to find her. I had to find Lynn.
I had to at least try, although in my heart of hearts I knew she wouldn’t be found until she was good and ready.
The phone buzzed again, and I hit the appropriate button to mark myself busy so no one could buzz me anymore. I had too much on my mind. I knew I might even have to take a few days off so I could get my shit together.
I’d checked her bank accounts. I’d checked her credit cards. Her social media profile. Her phone. I’d checked everything, and I still had no idea where she was.
Suddenly, the door of my office flew open, slammed hard against the opposite wall, and in rolled a ball of fire.
My secretary followed her, trying to stop her forward trajectory, to no avail.
“What the fuck did you do?” the intruder snarled, bending over my desk so she could slam her fist on the wood in front of me.
My heart eased a little. If Ash was here, things would be okay. She could help me find Lynn. She might already know where she was.
I sat back in my chair and made a steeple of my hands in front of me. “Ash,” I said with a nod. “Always a pleasure.”
“Dr. Peterson, I’m so sorry,” my secretary stammered from behind Ash. “I told her you didn’t want to be disturbed, but she wouldn’t listen.” She reached for Ash’s arm, but Ash jerked back and then made a move like a charging bull at the poor woman. Mrs. Anderson blanched and backed up against the wall, her hand upon her heart.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Anderson,” I said calmly.
“I told her, Dr. Peterson, I really did,” she said, her voice shaking in the presence of the fury that was Ash.
“It’s okay,” I said again calmly. “She can stay. Can you close the door on your way out?”
“Do you want me to call security?” Her gaze dragged up and down Ash’s clothing, stopping on the torn jeans where we could all see a little too much of Ash’s thigh. Then paused again on the cropped shirt that was short enough to show a strip of soft, supple stomach. The lace of her bra, which stuck out the top of the ripped shirt she wore, was torn and frayed. The dirty, scuffed, overfilled backpack she carried had all her worldly possessions in it, I was sure. Ash liked to travel light. And dirty.
“No,” I said, still not moving. “You can close the door. We have a little business to take care of.”
“Are you certain, Dr. Peterson?” she insisted, her gaze jumping from me to Ash and back.
Ash lifted her voice high and mocked Mrs. Anderson. “Are you certain, Dr. Peterson?” she chimed. “Of course he’s certain, bitch. Now get out.” Ash made a move like she was going to jump toward Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Anderson scurried quickly to the door. Ash slammed it shut behind her.
“So nice to see you, Ash,” I said slowly.
“Where the fuck is she?” Ash perched her curvy little ass on the edge of the chair on the other side of my desk. She rested her arms on the desk and glared at me.
“What makes you think she’s gone?” I asked. I pretended to be occupied with the papers on my desk, stacking them into organized piles.
“I just left your house. She’s not there.”
“Lynn’s not a prisoner, you know,” I reminded her. Although, if I was truly honest, I knew she kind of was. She didn’t leave home, not unless something was terribly wrong, or one of her closest friends was with her, or unless I was with her.
“Lynn’s not a prisoner,” she parroted. “What did you do?” She glared at me.
“When was the last time you had a shower?” I countered.
She froze, but didn’t answer my question.
Ash was a friend of Lynn’s, and she lived on the streets most of the time when she was in town. She did odd jobs, a little waitressing when she could find someone with poor enough standards to hire her. With her heavy eyeliner, deep-black lipstick, and combat boots, she was a study in contradictions. Deep down, I knew she was good. But on the surface, she was bad. Very, very bad.
“Where have you been sleeping?” I asked mildly.
“Here and there.” She kicked back in the chair and lifted her scuffed and worn combat boots to rest on the edge of my desk.
“While Lynn’s gone, I want you to stay at our house.” I got up and walked around to her. “Take a shower. Get cleaned up. I’ll come home later and we can talk.” I sat on the edge of the desk and scooted over until her feet were against my hip. She softened as soon as I touched her, just like she always did. She might be tough as shoe leather on the outside, but on the inside, she was as soft as cotton. “We can make a plan. Find her.”
“Do you want her back?” she asked. Her eyes skittered around, looking everywhere but at me, so I bent over and captured her chin with my fingers.
“I always want her back,” I said. “Always.” The vehemence of my words startled even me.
“What did you do?” she asked again.
“I didn’t do anything.” Not this time.
“The last time she vanished like this was when you asked her to marry you,” Ash reminded me.
“I know.” She was gone for almost two weeks. I had to deal with Ash then, too. And several of Lynn’s other friends. “She came back, though. She always comes back.”
“I’m worried about her,” Ash whispered.
“I am too.” I laid my hand on her shin and gave it a squeeze. Her eyes fell closed and a tiny tear escaped, streaking across her black makeup, leaving a sooty trail down her cheek.
“I need for her to come back. It’s been a long time since she’s done this.” Ash laid her head back against the back of the chair, following her words with a damp, tear-stricken groan.
Two years, four days, and twenty-two hours since the last time Lynn vanished. “Did she say anything to you? Give you any indication she was stressed over something?”
She shrugged. “It’s not like she talks to me every day.”
“I know.” I patted her leg again, lingering just a little too long. Her eyes flew open and her gaze met mine. “Go home. Take a shower. You stink. I’ll be there later. We’ll talk.”
She glanced toward where my hand rested comfortably on her leg. “Talk,” she repeated.
“Yes, talk.” I couldn’t keep the corners of my lips from tipping up into a grin.
She lowered her feet to the floor and slowly stood up beside me, pressing her lithe body against mine. “Last time she was gone, we did more than talk.”
I remembered. “That was a mistake.”
Her eyes roamed up and down my body. “A mistake that tasted like it was right.” She licked her lips. “Damn. I missed you.”
In my own fucked-up way, I missed her too. “Go home. I’ll be there in a few hours. I have some things I have to do here.”
She nodded. Then she stepped onto her tiptoes and waited, her face tilted up toward mine. I bent and kissed her lips quickly and softly. “Later,” I whispered. “I’ll see you later.”
She nodded and walked toward the door. I opened it for her and stepped to the side, my back against the open door. She lifted her hand, each finger tipped with black nail polish, and stroked her finger down my tie.
“Not here,” I whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back. “Because I’m not her.”
I studied her face, searching for the features I knew so very well. “No, you’re not her.”
She nodded sadly and left.
I closed my door and rushed across the room to pick up the phone. I dialed my mom’s emergency number.
“Mason,” my mom said as soon as the phone rang once. She sounded out of breath. “Did you find her?”
“No, but Ash was here.”
Silence was the only response. “Mom?” I prompted.
“If Ash was there, Lynn’s okay.”
I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier. “I want Lynn back.”
“I know you do, son. Just give it time. These things have a way of cycling around.”
“Mom…” I heaved out a sigh.
“I know,” she said softly. “But you know she’s safe. That’s what matters.”
What mattered was getting Lynn back, and I’d do anything to make that happen.
Available Nov. 1, 2017
I push through the doors of the tattoo shop with my heart in my throat. Paul Reed looks up, and I’m stunned, just like every other woman who looks at him is immediately taken aback by all his ink, the piercings over his eyebrows, the metal in his ears, and the blue of his eyes. Startling. There’s no other word to describe him. Except for kind. Kindness seeps from Paul Reed’s pores. You just have to be willing to look past the gruff exterior to see it.
His back is bent over a client as he works on a tattoo for a man who has almost as much metal on his face as I have on my car.
Paul smiles at me. “Hey, Wren,” he says. “What’s up?” He lifts his tattoo machine for no more than a moment, and then he looks back down and keeps working.
“Hey, Paul,” I reply. I swallow hard.
“What can I do for you?” Paul asks. He’s the only one in the shop today, since it’s early in the morning.
“I was hoping Friday might be here,” I say tentatively.
He tilts his head toward the back of the shop. “She’s cursing in the office right now, trying to balance the bank account.”
I hear a filthy curse come from the back room, and I bite back a grin. “Is it okay if I go back to talk to her?”
He nods. “If you’re brave enough.” Then he lets out a heavy sigh. “She threatened to chop my dick off when I took her a cup of coffee. So proceed at your own risk.”
“Thanks.” I walk toward the office and stop when I see the door is cracked. I rap my knuckles lightly and call out her name. “Friday?”
She looks up and blows a lock of dark hair from her eyes as the door opens just a little. I’m always startled when I see her looking like this. She doesn’t have a swipe of makeup on and she’s in jeans and a t-shirt. There are no high heels, no short skirts, no fishnet stockings, and no kissable red lips. She’s just Friday.
“Hey,” she says. She smiles at me. “Come on in.”
“Are you sure I’m not interrupting?” I step into the room and drop hesitantly into a chair across from her desk.
“I needed a break anyway.” She puts her pencil down and crosses her hands on her desk. “You doing okay?” she asks, her voice soft.
“Oh, yeah,” I say with a breezy wave. “I’m fine.”
“Good,” she says with a nod. “I’ve been worried about you.”
I bite my lips together.
“So, I’m guessing you didn’t just come here to shoot the shit.”
I scratch the tip of my nose. “I was wondering…” I heave in a breath. “I was hoping you might draw a tattoo for me.
Her brow rises. “What did you have in mind?”
“Just something simple to remember the…you know.”
“The baby?” she clarifies, her voice a lot stronger than mine.
“The miscarriage,” I say, clearing the lump that’s suddenly clogging my throat.
“The baby,” she says again, staring hard at me.
“Yeah, that.” I lift my thumbnail to my teeth and rip a piece of it off. I was almost three months pregnant when I miscarried. That was two months ago.
“Did you have something in mind?”
“Well, there’s no marker, no grave…no baby. Not really. So I want something simple. Just something to mark that he was here. It was an early miscarriage, so some people might even argue that he never existed. Since he never took a breath and all that.”
Her eyes narrow. “He may have never taken a breath, but he existed, and you were one hundred percent pregnant. You’re allowed to feel one hundred percent of the grief.”
Tears sting my eyes and I blink them back.
“I’ll draw something up for you and let you take a look. Want me to text it to you?”
I nod. “That would be great.” I get up and start for the door.
“Hey, Wren,” Friday calls out.
I turn back and look at her, waiting for her to speak. “Yeah?”
“Why didn’t you ask one of the guys to draw something up for you?”
I look everywhere but at her. “Well,” I start. But then I stop and bite my lips together.
“Well?” she prompts. But her face is all kindness and affection.
“You’re a mom,” I say.
She nods, her head going up and down slowly. “I am.”
“And I thought you might, you know, know a little something about loss.” I play with the corner of a poster on the door.
“I do,” she says with another nod. She heaves out a sigh. “I’ll draw something up for you, okay? If you don’t like it, we can go back and forth until we find the right memorial tattoo for you.”
“Do you think it’s stupid?” I ask quickly. I want to bite the words back as soon as they leave my lips. “Never mind.”
She gets up and comes to stand in front of me. She’s about six inches shorter than I am, but she looks dead into my eyes. “Some tattoos are about the past, and some are about the future. Some are about healing, and some just let the pain out. Some mark happy moments, and others commemorate the sadness. No tattoos are stupid. Well, except for ones people put on their dicks. I never did understand those. And since you don’t have a dick…” She finally grins and squeezes my shoulder. “I’m glad you’re doing okay.”
“It was good to see you.” I turn to walk out.
“Hey,” Friday calls out to me again. “Give your sisters a call. I know they’re worried about you too, okay?”
I nod and leave the shop, the bells over the door tinkling as the door closes behind me.
I step out onto the busy street and take in the hustle and bustle of morning in the city. I pull my phone out of my pocket and text my four sisters all at once.
Me: You guys want to go to karaoke tonight?
Finny: Bitch, it’s about time you texted us. And yes. I’m in.
Star: I’m in, if Marta can watch the baby.
Peck: Sam says we’re in.
Finny: Are we bringing men?
Peck: Sam says we are. LOL
Lark: We’ll meet you there at 7
Me: See you then!
Lark: Umm…Ryan wants to know if Mick can come.
Star: That’s up to Wren. Wren?
Me: It’s fine.
Star: It won’t be too weird for you?
Me: No. It’s fine.
It’s not fine. Not fine at all. But he’s Ryan’s brother. I can’t avoid him forever, can I?
I have four sisters. They are all blissfully happy.
Sam, one of the Reed brothers, met my sister Peck and they have a son and another baby on the way.
Josh, who works at the Reed brothers’ tattoo parlor, married my sister Star and they have a new baby, a little girl.
Tag is living with my sister Finny, and she’s pregnant. Tag already has a little boy, Benji. Tag wants to marry Finny, but she swears she doesn’t need a piece of paper.
Ryan, who also works as a tattoo artist at Reeds’, married my sister Lark. She’s not pregnant yet, but they’re trying. Lots.
And then there’s me.
And then there’s Mick.
And he was with me the day I lost my baby. And I haven’t seen him since.
And he’ll be at karaoke tonight. Shit.
What do you get when you put together one matchmaking doorman, some Reed brothers with good intentions, and five sisters, one of whom is a little lost? You get Tammy Falkner’s newest book, I’M IN IT.
Mick fell in love with Wren at the worst possible time. She was in the midst of something wonderful, and then she wasn’t. Her life changed in the blink of an eye. And in this situation, it wasn’t a change for the better. He can still remember when she felt the first cramp. When she pressed her knees together tightly in the front seat of his car as though she could hold that life inside herself by sheer will alone. And if will were all it took, she’d have succeeded.
But she didn’t succeed, and they were over before they began. She was too hurt. She was too raw. She was wishing for what could have been, while he was wishing for what was. And what was… well, it was nothing. At least not to her.