Derek’s voice cut through the car at a decibel that endangered our eardrums.
“D, noooooo,” I begged.
He only cast his gaze in my direction, belting out lyrics I could barely make out about wanting to know what love was.
I couldn’t help the laughter that escaped. Even on the worst days, the ones where I thought I might drown with the weight balanced on my shoulders, he could always make me laugh.
I reached over and took the hand currently drumming a beat on his thigh. A hand I knew better than any other. Each callus and scar. Every bump and ridge. The familiarity brought a sense of comfort I couldn’t find anywhere else. I linked my fingers with his.
“Love you, D.”
His singing trailed off, and he gripped my hand tighter. “I’d do anything for you, Angel.”
“I know.” That kind of gift for someone like me…it was everything.
Lights flashed behind us, and Derek’s gaze snapped to the rearview mirror.
I swiveled to look. The cop car definitely had us in its sights. I glanced at the odometer. He was only five over the limit. “They probably just want to give you a warning.”
Derek didn’t say a word, and he didn’t pull over.
“Can’t get pulled over.”
My heart picked up its pace. “Why not?”
He didn’t look away from the road in front of us as he pressed his foot down on the gas pedal. “I’m sorry, Anna.”
Cascading red and blue. I concentrated on the way the colors blended from one into the next. As my vision went unfocused, the two almost melded into purple. I wanted to fall into that new color, hoping it would take me somewhere else. Anywhere but here.
I found myself leaning towards it, but the bite of the handcuffs around my wrists brought me out of the haze. The little bit of numbness that meant blessed relief from the panic fled with it. The thrum of my pulse picked up again.
“Anna,” Derek hissed.
I didn’t turn to look at him. Couldn’t. Not when I watched as three police officers unloaded an array of what I knew had to be drugs from the trunk of his car. A car that had been the scene of so many firsts for me: Date. Kiss. Whispered “I love you.” A car that had been my refuge from a home I would’ve given anything to escape.
How did the same ton of metal I’d once seen as a lifeline now seem like the weight that would drag me under? I swallowed against the burn rising in my throat as one of the cops lifted another bag and pointed at me. It was the rocker Hello Kitty makeup bag I’d left at Derek’s a few months ago. I’d brought over some toiletries to have on hand after he finally got an apartment.
My parents didn’t know that he had his own place now. But they knew almost nothing about me and hated what they could see. Perhaps they had been right to feel that way. Maybe I was reckless. And now, I was going to add moron on top of it. Because inside that makeup bag with the skulls I had thought were so cute were little baggies filled with pills.
“What did you do?” The words ripped out of me without my permission.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I needed money to get the apartment. We needed it, Angel.”
“Quiet,” one of the cops barked, moving closer to cut off any conversation.
That was for the best. Because no excuse I heard from the boy I loved would cut it. The boy who had always been my safe place. Who now was anything but.
“Get them loaded up. Separate cars. I don’t want them talking,” an older cop told the one standing between us.
The younger one bent, grabbed hold of my arm, and tugged me to my feet. “Come on.”
I went without argument or complaint. I didn’t say a word as he forced my head down and shoved me into the back of the squad car. I didn’t cry out when the metal of the cuffs bit into my skin, tearing at it. I stared straight ahead as we pulled away, and I didn’t once look back at the boy I loved with everything I had.
“Do you really think the cuffs need to stay on?” A man dressed in khakis and a button-down scowled at the officer standing next to my chair.
“Do you want to see photos of the stash we pulled from her and her boyfriend’s car? They could’ve kept the whole county high for weeks.”
“Uncuff her, McAdams,” the older man ordered.
The cop grumbled something under his breath but did as he was told. I felt blessed relief as the metal dropped away from my wrists. I brought my arms around, rubbing at the red marks.
The older man scowled as he took in the abraded skin. “You’re done here, McAdams.”
“Happy to be,” the officer spat as he left the interrogation room.
The man eased himself into a chair opposite me. He folded his hands, letting them rest on the table. The gold of his wedding band glinted against the dark brown of his skin. “Would you like some water?”
“No, thank you.”
“You let me know if that changes. I’m Detective Markum. You’re in some pretty serious trouble. But I’d like to help you as much as I can.”
The burn was back in my throat. And no amount of swallowing alleviated the pain. “Did you call my parents?”
“I did. They weren’t home, but I left a message with your sister for them to call me as soon as they return.”
Date night. Their ritual where they left their cell phones at home and went out together. I glanced at the clock on the wall. I had at least another thirty minutes of respite before they returned. Thirty minutes before the hammer came down.
I could already feel the sting of the slap. The burn of the punch that would land somewhere on my torso—anywhere clothing would cover. Never on the face. The one time he’d been overzealous and had broken several ribs, my mother had invented a story about me jumping on my bed and taking a tumble. The hospital had believed it hook, line, and sinker.
“Anna, did you hear me?”
Detective Markum’s voice brought me out of the memory. “Sorry, what?”
“You can wait until you’ve spoken with them to talk to me.”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to hurry up and get this over with. The conversation. The punishment that would come after my parents picked me up. Everything. “I’ll tell you anything you want. But I don’t think I know much.”
Markum nodded slowly. “That’s not what Derek is saying.”
I stiffened at the way the detective said my boyfriend’s name. As if it were a bomb just waiting to go off. “What did he say?”
“He said the drugs were yours. Said he was just holding them for you.”
“What?!” The word came out on a panicked shriek. “I’ve never even done drugs.” Sure, I drank at parties, but every time Derek smoked pot or took a pill, I always declined.
“Evidence is pointing to you both being involved.”
My breaths started coming faster, one after the other. Each one seemed to tumble over the last with the urge to get out and be free. “I-I’m not. I didn’t.” My fingers began to tingle as I struggled to suck in air.
Markum rose, coming around the table. “Easy now. Just breathe. Nice and slow. Follow me.”
He took a long, slow breath, raising his hand with his inhale and lowering it with his exhale. I tried to follow him, but it took several tries before I could. After a few minutes, the tingling in my hands started to retreat. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
He patted my shoulder. “No need to apologize. We’re going to figure this out. We just have to take it one step at a time.”
“Test me.” I straightened at the genius of the thought. “You guys can do that, right? I can pee in a cup or give you some of my hair.”
“We’ll do that. And if it’s negative—”
“It will be.”
“Then that will be in your favor.” Markum pulled out a little notepad and pen from his pocket. “But right now, I need you to tell me about Derek. Did you know he was involved in drugs?”
I stared down at the table as if it held all the answers in the world.
“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth.”
I looked up at the detective. “Pot and some pills. I don’t know what they were. Usually, just at parties…at least, that’s what I thought.” But apparently there were all sorts of things I didn’t know about my boyfriend.
“How long have you been together?”
“Since I was fourteen, and he was sixteen.” A lifetime in teenage years. Longer than any of our friends. We were simply waiting for my eighteenth birthday so I could move in with him. So that I could be free. I had the two-and-a-half-year countdown on my calendar at home.
Markum jotted down something on his notepad. “And when did he start using?”
“I think he always smoked pot. I mean, he started before I met him.” He’d hidden it from me for a while, and then one night at a get-together with some friends, he’d taken the joint someone offered him. He hadn’t even asked me if I wanted it. He knew better. But that was how everything had gone. A slow evolution. Before I knew it, the parties were more frequent, and there was pressure for me to join him on the ride.
“Have you ever seen him dealing?”
“Never. I—” My words cut off as I thought about all of the times he’d had to drop something off at friends’ houses when we were out and about. Friends that I didn’t know or recognize. Times when he kissed me and told me he’d be right back. “Oh, God. I’m such an idiot.”
I could hear my father’s voice in my head. “I don’t know how you’re my daughter. Insolent and stupid. Why can’t you be more like Chelsea?” My sister broke her back to make sure she never displeased our dad. She rarely found herself on the receiving end of his fists. But his cruelty only made me want to rebel more.
Markum bent to meet my gaze. “You’re not an idiot. You put your trust in someone you shouldn’t have.”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
“That’s what we’re going to figure out. I’m going to talk to the district attorney and your parents. If you cooperate like you are now, I’m hoping the charges will be minimal.”
Charges. That meant court. Maybe jail. Some sort of juvenile facility? My breaths started coming quicker again.
A knock sounded on the door, and a female officer poked her head in. “You’ve got a call, Markum.”
He looked at me. “I’ll be right back. Officer Stapleton will wait with you.”
Thankfully, she didn’t try to make conversation. I closed my eyes and pictured the way Detective Markum had breathed. I counted to five as I inhaled and then out to five with the exhale. Any time I saw Derek’s face in my mind, felt the way his arms had always made me feel so safe, I shoved it out. Any time I began to panic about judges and jails, I counted my breaths.
The door squeaked as it swung into the room, and my eyes flew open. Markum had a pretty good poker face, but I could still see the lines of concern. I dug my fingers into my thighs. “What is it?”
“I spoke with your father.”
My nails bit into the denim. “What did he say?”
“He and your mother declined to come down to the station or to get you a lawyer.”
My eyes shut again for the briefest of moments. I had expected a silently seething father and a mother with disappointment in her eyes. But still, parents with a lawyer in tow. “They’re not coming?”
“So, what happens to me now?”
Markum shifted on his feet. “I can call a court-appointed lawyer for you, but unless you have someone who can post bail, I’m afraid you’ll have to stay in holding for tonight, at least.”
Derek. He was the person I would’ve called. The one I could always count on. Yet he was sitting a few rooms over, betraying me to anyone who would listen. Selling our love in hopes of getting off scot-free.
“Is there someone else I can call? A grandparent or aunt?”
I stared down at my hands, saw the red marks from the handcuffs, my peeling purple nail polish, the fraying tear in the knee of my jeans. “No, there’s no one you can call.” Because I was completely and totally alone.
“Are you wearing your mesh glove, Kenz? I don’t want you to lose a finger.”
Kennedy let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m not going to chop off a finger.”
I set my knife down on the cutting board and turned to face my friend. “Do you not remember that hot man of yours gluing your finger closed after you sliced it open?”
“That was one time. I swear, neither of you will let me live it down.”
I couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of me. “You’re lucky we let you back here after all the near disasters you’ve had.” But I had to admit it was nice to have her here again. Being the head honcho of the Community Center meant she was in charge of all the big-picture stuff and had less time to be in the trenches with me. So, when we got afternoons like this one where we cooked for the shelter’s thirty or so residents, I soaked them up.
“Traitors,” she grumbled under her breath.
“Traitors who care about keeping all of your fingers and toes firmly attached.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re just lucky I love you both.”
“Good thing because you’re stuck with me for life.”
My phone buzzed in my back pocket. I quickly wiped my hands on a towel and pulled it out. Being permanently attached to my phone was just one of the requirements of being head of Hope House. The shelter could have any number of emergencies pop up at any time, and I had to be ready to put out the fires.
The corners of my mouth tipped up as I saw my sister’s name on the screen.
Chelsea: How are the hooligans? Making you pull out your hair yet?
Me: I bribed them with beer and cigarettes. That seemed to do the trick.
There was a pause for at least thirty seconds, and I started to question if we were ready for those kinds of jokes. It had taken us a long time to get back to a place where we could be in each other’s lives, where Chelsea believed my truth about what had really happened all of those years ago. The fact that she was moving to Sutter Lake and trusting me with her kids while she wrapped up her life in Portland was a huge step.
Chelsea: Don’t waste the good stuff on them. Natty Light is all they need.
A laugh burst out of me, startling Kennedy. She let out a rather creative curse. “If you don’t want me to lose a finger, don’t scare me like that.”
“Who is it, anyway? New boyfriend?” She waggled her eyebrows in my direction.
I rolled my eyes and shoved my phone back into my pocket. Boyfriends had not been on the docket for me. Not since my first and last had landed me in juvenile detention for two and a half years. I’d gone on dates here and there, but it never quite seemed worth the risk. And I’d had other things to worry about—like staying alive.
“It was Chelsea, checking on Lyla and Justin.”
“Where are they, anyway?”
“They’re helping watch the younger ones on the playground.” There was little that made me happier than seeing my niece and nephew fall in love with the shelter. From the first time they’d visited with Chelsea, staying in my small cottage at the back of the property, they had simply understood the special nature of Hope House. And they always wanted to help.
Kennedy dumped a pile of carrots into the pot that would be beef stew in a few hours. “They have a way with them. It’s not typical for an eleven-year-old boy to be so eager to play babysitter.”
“Justin has a tender heart under that preteen bravado.”
A gentle smile stretched across Kennedy’s face. “You’re right there. And Lyla is the sister all the little girls wish they had.”
I chuckled as I remembered the gymnastics camp my niece had held yesterday afternoon. She’d taught cartwheels, handstands, and other things I didn’t know the names of. “The gymnastics teacher over in the rec center asked if she could hire her.”
“It’s not a bad idea. She’s got the touch.”
I poured my pile of veggies into the pot and turned down the heat. “Okay, this just needs to simmer for a few hours. Want to go find the munchkins, or do you need to get home to Cain?”
Kennedy took off her apron, hanging it on a peg. “I’m with you this afternoon.”
I hung my apron up by hers and headed for the door. “How is Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome?”
The goofy smile that stretched across Kennedy’s face had me averting my gaze. “He’s good. Busy. They’re about to start on a big new project.”
Kennedy’s husband had built a second headquarters for his security company in Sutter Lake. Halo was one of the best in the business and had brought a lot of new jobs into the community. “That’s exciting.”
“I don’t understand a word he says when he’s talking about it, but it’s adorable how excited he gets.”
I snickered as I pulled open one of the double doors that led to a massive outdoor space with a playground, sports fields, and a picnic area. “Somehow, I don’t think Cain would appreciate being called ‘adorable.’”
Kennedy bit her lip. “Probably not. Better to only call him that behind his back.”
“Smart woman.” My steps faltered as I took in the scene on the playground. Kids ran around screaming and laughing, a whirling flash of limbs as Justin chased them. But in the center of it all, a tall man held Lyla and another little girl upside down by one ankle each as they cackled. “What’s he thinking?” I asked as I started towards the fray.
Kennedy caught my arm. “Mason?”
“Yes, Mason. That’s dangerous. One of them could fall and get seriously hurt.” I could only imagine how injuring one of her children would halt the progress of my slowly mending relationship with Chelsea.
Kennedy’s lips twitched. “He’s like six-foot-four and has muscles for days. I’m pretty sure Mase isn’t going to drop them.”
My cheeks heated. I knew what he looked like. It was the kind of size that was hard to ignore. But he was always gentle and unassuming as he moved through the shelter, as if he understood that his size could be intimidating to the women and children there—people who had fled situations where size had been used to terrorize. “It doesn’t matter how many muscles he has. Accidents happen.”
She sobered, studying my face. “What is it with you and him?”
I clamped my mouth shut. It was impossible to explain just how or why Mason Decker got on every last nerve I had. “He…he’s too nice.”
A laugh bubbled up out of Kennedy, building on itself until she had to brace an arm on my shoulder to hold herself upright. “I’m sorry, did you say he’s too nice?”
I scowled in her direction. “No one’s that nice all the time. It’s weird.”
She patted my shoulder. “Oh, my paranoid friend. It’s no wonder you and Cain get along so well. You both think everyone is a potential serial killer.”
“Hey, if you would listen to those true crime podcasts I keep sending you, you would, too.” I kept my tone light, but pain lit a path along my sternum. A sensation carved by all the stories I’d heard in juvie. All of the things I’d seen. Hellish nightmares that would never leave. I knew that the worst of humanity could hide under a pleasant expression. Worse, it could hide under a face you’d always trusted.
Kennedy wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “I think it might be time for a breather from the creepy podcasts.”
“One woman’s creepy is another woman’s Zen.”
“That’s really messed up.”
“Anna! Anna! Did you see? I was upside down, and Mase made me fly.” Lyla ran at me, crashing into my middle and wrapping her arms around me with an oomph.
“I did see. Looked like…fun.” Incredibly dangerous fun, but at least she’d have a high before her concussion.
“Hey, Kenz. Anna.”
I looked up from my niece’s face to meet swirling hazel eyes. Something about the dance between gold and green was hypnotizing, which only annoyed me more.
“Hey, Mason,” Kennedy greeted.
I nodded in his direction. “Mason.”
The corner of his mouth quirked. “I’ve told you time and again, call me Mase.”
“Sure.” But something about using his nickname was simply too familiar, too comfortable. I wanted clear boundaries. Those had been hard to come by since Mason had started volunteering here. Cain had a program where he encouraged his employees to get involved with organizations in the community for a certain number of hours a month while still getting paid as if they were working at their desks. As vice-president and chief operations officer of the company, Mason led by example and worked every single one of his hours at Hope House.
“I need to head back to Halo. But, Anna, the kids want to come over and go fishing in the lake this weekend. They’re welcome anytime. Just text me.”
I ground my back teeth together. “If we have time.”
“Pleeeeeeease,” Lyla begged. “I want to catch a fish.”
Justin appeared next to Mason. “Yeah, it would be fun. Can’t we go?”
“How about Sunday? I’ll even provide the lunch,” Mason offered.
I heard a soft laugh coming from Kennedy’s direction. I studiously ignored it and did my best not to bite Mason’s head off for offering this outing to Justin and Lyla without running it by me first. “Sure. That would be nice. Just tell me what I need to bring, and what time to be there.”
“You don’t need to bring a thing. And how about eleven?”
“Sure, just text me your address.” All of the shelter volunteers had my phone number in case they ever needed to change shifts or ran into an emergency. But having Mason text me for personal reasons made me twitchy.
“See you then.” He gave Justin a knuckle bump and Lyla a high-five and then headed for the parking lot.
Justin gave me a pleading look. “Can I have a snack?”
My eyes bugged. “Are you about to have a growth spurt? I swear you need to be fed every hour.”
He grinned. “Mom says I’m definitely going to be over six feet.”
He was already well on his way. I waved them inside. “Come on. Can’t have you wasting away on my watch.”
The kids ran ahead, and Kennedy fell into step beside me, bumping her shoulder against mine. “I see what you mean. He’s scary-friendly. Definite serial killer vibes.”
She wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Love you, Anna. But at some point, you’re going to have to realize that there are good people out there. Ones who simply want to help or make a difference.”
I knew she was right. I’d seen it in the group of friends I’d started to build here. In the way the town supported our work at the shelter and the community center. But I couldn’t simply turn off the little voice inside me that told me to be on guard. And if I felt chemistry with someone? That alert was on in full force.
“How was everything at the center?” Cain asked as I slid into a chair opposite his desk.
“Good. Sorry I’m late getting back. I got caught up.”
“You never have to apologize about that.” He leaned back in his chair. “Anna tear you a new one this time?”
The corner of my mouth kicked up as I pictured Anna’s annoyed expression. “I’ve never known a woman who got so frustrated by me trying to be helpful.”
“What’s even more interesting is why you find that so compelling.”
He had a point. I had no idea why Anna was so fascinating to me, but she had been from the first day I started volunteering at the shelter. And the pricklier she was with me, the more I wanted to know what lay beneath that spiny exterior. “I admire her.”
That much was true. She ran Hope House with a mixture of drill-sergeant exactness and empathetic kindness. I’d seen her put a burly man three times her size in his place and hold a young mother as she cried after leaving an abusive marriage. It was a heady combination.
Cain arched a brow. “Admire her? Attraction has nothing to do with it?”
Heat crept up the back of my neck. The fact that I could imagine just how well Anna’s petite, curvy form would fit against me might have a little to do with it. “Can we get back to the business at hand?”
Cain chuckled. “All the answer I need.” He sobered. “Just tread carefully there. I don’t know her whole story, but I don’t think it’s an easy one.”
I swallowed against the burn in my throat. I’d gotten the same feeling. Anna hadn’t shared anything about her past around me. Not even where she’d grown up. All I knew was that she’d been a shelter resident for years before taking on a managerial role. Justin and Lyla had let a few things slip, but it wasn’t anything that helped me put together the pieces of who Anna really was.
“I’m just trying to get her to see I’m not an ax murderer.”
Cain barked out a laugh. “That’s where Anna and I are of the same mind. Suspect everyone. Maybe if I showed her your extensive background check, she’d let up a little.”
“It’s not a bad idea. I’ll sign off on you taking it public.”
“I’ll find a way to slip it onto her desk.”
“You’re a true friend.” I slid my phone out of my pocket and opened my notes app. “Now, let’s talk about phase two.”
My role at Halo was the dream job. A blend of business and tech, working for someone who I truly respected and who treated me as more of a partner than a second-in-command. Cain and I worked effortlessly together, brainstorming ways to take the company to the next level.
For the next hour, we talked through a new version of our home security line. How we would bring it to market and at what price point. It was important to both of us that a feeling of safety be affordable to all who might need it. Each new incarnation of our systems had varied levels and expenses to ensure it could be in everyone’s hands.
I’d even started a program where we gave out our personal alarms at no cost to people who might not be able to afford one or had been the victim of a crime. Pocket devices that let out an ear-splitting scream when you pulled the pin. We’d distributed thousands so far, including one to any resident of the shelter who wanted one.
Cain flipped his laptop closed and checked his watch. “I think that does it for today. I need to get home before Kenz decides to burn down the kitchen.”
“I thought she was getting better.”
He grimaced. “She is. Until she decides to try some fancy something or other. Sunday, there were literal flames coming out of the oven.”
I tried to stifle my laughter and failed. “Well, she’s got Funfetti cake down.”
The smile that came to Cain’s face was one that had me wanting to look away. One that spoke of contentment and peace and having everything you could ever want. “That she does.” He pushed to his feet and slipped his laptop into a messenger bag. “You heading out?”
There was no risk of anyone burning down my kitchen. No one waiting on dinner until I got home. “I think I’ll put in another hour or so. I want to go over our plan one more time. See if I’m overlooking anything.”
Cain clapped me on the shoulder as I stood. “Don’t work too hard. Oh, and Saturday, barbeque at the lake house. We’ll get started around noon.”
“I’ll be there. Need me to bring anything?”
“Nope. We’ve got it covered.”
“See you then.” I headed for my office just down the hall. The place was mostly empty, the vast majority of employees already having gone home to their families. The sound of my boots hitting the hardwood echoed through the halls.
I pushed open one of the double doors to my office. I would never get tired of the view that greeted me. Expanses of green forests that met up with craggy mountains capped with snow, even as we moved into summer. The views from my place in San Francisco hadn’t been anything to sneeze at, but this view spoke to me more.
When I arrived in Sutter Lake to interview for the V.P. position, I’d felt a sense of peace I hadn’t experienced since…a much simpler time. Before my childhood had been blown apart. I eased into the chair behind my desk, letting my gaze settle on the two photos. One of my mother and me. In the picture, she held my hands as she helped me to balance while I learned to walk. And one of my sister at her college graduation, her bright smile beaming at the camera.
My phone buzzed in my hand, and I glanced down at the screen. Juliette flashed on the display. I hit accept. “Think of the devil…”
“Careful who you’re calling devil, big brother.”
I grinned, leaning back in my chair. “If the shoe fits…”
“I’m an angel.”
I nearly choked on my cough. Juliette was the reason I had salt and pepper at my temples at the age of thirty-six. “Keep telling yourself that. How are you? How are classes?”
Juliette sighed, and I could picture her curling up in her favorite chair in her apartment off campus. “Killing me. Remind me why I thought it was a good idea to go to Stanford again?”
“Because you’re going to be the most kick-ass lawyer I’ve ever known.”
“I really hope so. But I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have taken a summer class. I need a break.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “Why don’t you come up here for a week? You said this one’s online, right?” I wanted to lay eyes on my baby sister. Make sure she wasn’t pushing herself too hard.
“So you can make sure I’m eating properly and taking my vitamins?”
“Don’t be a worrywart. I’m fine. I just wanted to whine.”
I picked up a pen from my desk and twirled it between my fingers. “You know you can always whine to me.”
“And I love you for it.” She was quiet for a moment. “I was actually thinking about heading to Cabo for a long weekend with some girlfriends. Beaches and a few margaritas. What do you say, big brother?”
“Is that an invitation?”
She choked on a laugh. “You might be a bit of a buzzkill…”
“Let me guess, you want me to foot the bill.”
“You love me, right? And you know how hard I’m working.”
I did, and Juliette deserved a break to blow off some steam. “Fine, put it on my credit card. But no presidential suites, Jules.”
I’d learned the hard way that I had to give that disclaimer.
“A suite might be fun…” She let the words dangle.
“Jules,” I warned.
“Oh, all right. We’ll stay in one of the tiny regular rooms.” Her voice got faraway for a moment. “Hey, I’ve got another call, I need to jump.”
She groaned. “Mason…”
“Tell him if he hurts you, I’ll kill him.”
“I’ll be sure to relay exactly that to my study buddy.”
“He might say he wants to study, but really—”
“Mason!” Juliette cut me off. “I do not want to have this conversation with you. The first time was awkward enough.”
My twenty-something-self trying to talk to sixteen-year-old Juliette about birth control and safe sex had been painful, to say the least. “Trust me, I have zero desire to repeat that.”
“Thank God. Talk to you later, brother bear.”
She hung up before I could tell her I loved her. I stared at the photos on my desk. Two. It seemed empty. Despite the dream job and amazing friends, I felt so damn alone sometimes. I’d spent most of my dating years raising Jules, and I’d missed the train on finding someone. I didn’t regret it for a moment. But it didn’t change the fact that things simply felt lonely now.
Lyla ran out of the lake, making a beeline for me. She threw her arms around me. I shrieked as the freezing-cold water dripped off her and onto my bare legs. “You little monster.” I went for her sides, tickling her.
She dissolved into giggles, falling into my lap. “I love it here. I’m so happy we moved.”
Her words were music to my ears. I’d been nervous when Chelsea had first broached the subject. Sutter Lake was different from Portland, and I wasn’t sure if she and the kids would love it as much as I did. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The last two weeks I’d spent taking care of my niece and nephew, they’d bloomed in this slower pace of life. They’d also fallen right into my group of friends.
I blew a raspberry on Lyla’s neck. “I’m so glad.”
She leapt from my lap and ran back to the water, swimming out towards the massive inflatable trampoline Kennedy and Cain had installed this year. She made it to the ladder in under two minutes.
“She swims like a fish,” Kennedy said, adjusting her sunglasses.
“I don’t know how. She’s barely had lessons.”
Our friend Taylor looked up from the little girl in her arms. “She’s got a gift. You should get her in lessons at the center. She might be a good candidate for the swim team. I help out a couple of times a week and can put you in touch with the coach.”
“That would be great.” School didn’t start for months, but the kids needed ways to meet friends and stay active. I typed out a quick text to Chelsea.
Me: What do you think about swim team for Lyla? I can sign her up.
I dropped the phone back into my lap as Jensen let out a loud catcall whistle.
Tessa covered her ears. “Are you trying to make me lose my hearing?”
J shrugged. “I want those sexy men to know they’re appreciated.”
“That’s my girl,” Jensen’s grandmother, Irma, said as she looked up from her book. “And a fine bunch of specimens they are. We should make ourselves a calendar.”
“Mom,” Sarah chastised as she handed her a glass of lemonade.
“What? I’m old, not dead. I can appreciate those abs of steel. And those v-things. Those are my favorite.”
Sarah let out an exasperated sigh. “One of those men is your grandson.”
“I’m not looking at him. I’m looking at the others.”
A laugh bubbled up as I glanced out at the trampoline. But that sound died in my throat. I knew the other guys were there, tossing laughing kids off the floating structure, some in life jackets, others only in swimsuits. But my eyes seemed to be pulled to only one form. Lightly tanned skin and lean muscle. Mason’s head tipped back as he laughed. So damn carefree as if he’d never had a worry in the world.
“You’ve got a little drool there,” Kennedy whispered.
I snapped my gaze away. “Sorry, I spaced.”
“Mm-hmm. You know, you could always try talking to him.”
“I do talk to him.”
She rolled her eyes. “To bark orders at him or scowl in his direction. Try not looking like you want to murder him and ask him something normal, like how it’s been settling into Sutter Lake.”
“You know I don’t do normal well.”
Kennedy laid a hand on my forearm. “Normal was a bad word choice. Normal is overrated and boring.”
I couldn’t help looking out at the trampoline again. Mason launched Lyla into the air as she shrieked in delight. That man screamed: normal. He would want a wife who baked cookies and gave him two-point-five kids and adopted a golden retriever. He wouldn’t want someone who had a permanent record and countless demons.
Kenz squeezed my arm. “You have a messed-up idea of who you are and what you’re worth. Your past doesn’t determine who you are now.”
I wished I could believe that, but I knew the truth. The past determined everything. It haunted and taunted, popping up when you least expected it with a sucker punch to the solar plexus. “I’m happy as I am. I don’t need anything more than what I have.”
“Just because you’re content doesn’t mean you can’t reach for more. You deserve mind-blowing happiness.”
A yell from Jensen broke off our conversation. “Tucker Harris, you put me down right now. That water is freezing.”
He gave Jensen a playful swat on the butt. “Oh, I’ll put you down, Wilder…”
Her words were cut off as he launched her into the lake water. Their son, Noah, hooted and hollered. “She’s gonna kill you for that.”
Tuck gave him a high-five and then picked up their other son, Drew, hoisting him on top of his shoulders. “Did you see Mommy fly?”
The little boy nodded. “She went far.”
Jensen burst out of the water, spluttering. “You. Are going to pay for that.”
“Aw, come on, Wilder, I just wanted to see you all wet.”
I choked on a laugh. Tessa turned bright red and bent to cover Taylor’s daughter’s ears. “They’re all going to get sent home from school on their first day for saying inappropriate things.”
Taylor rolled her eyes. “First day of kindergarten, I got called into the office because Cooper said s-h-i-t. I almost murdered Walker.”
Kennedy sent me a wavering smile before turning back to our group. I reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. She and Cain had been going through the foster-to-adopt program and had gotten their hearts broken more times than I could count. “At least we know we’ll never be bored.”
As my gaze traveled around the group, I couldn’t help but think about how my friendship bucket overflowed. I’d landed in this amazing community. Yet, I still felt unsettled. As if I were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Countless years had passed, and I was still waiting. Maybe I always would be.
“I told Kenz I would take over for her on dishes.”
I jolted at the deep timbre of Mason’s voice, almost dropping the dish I was putting into the dishwasher. “Hasn’t anyone told you that sneaking up on a woman is a bad idea? You could’ve gotten a knee to the junk.”
The corner of his mouth kicked up. “I wasn’t sneaking, but I’ll keep that warning in mind.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I didn’t need my mouth running away from me any more than it already had.
“I’ll rinse. You put in the dishwasher?”
He looked so damn hopeful. Like a puppy I couldn’t bear to kick. Nice. Normal. I repeated the words in my mind. “Sure.”
“You would’ve thought I’d asked for a kidney, not to help with the dishes.”
“I had a system down.”
“And I’m forever messing up your systems.”
He was, damn it. Messing up my carefully boundaried life with his smiles and offers of help. With his ideas for the shelter. And, even more infuriatingly, they were usually good ones. The personal alarms he’d offered to the tenants had given them an extra sense of safety I hadn’t seen coming.
I slid the plate I was holding into its appropriate slot. “You are kind of an interfering bastard.”
Mason barked out a laugh. “At least, you’re honest.”
“But I think your heart is in the right place.”
He turned to face me, clutching at his chest. “Anna, was that a compliment?”
My face heated, and I grabbed a bowl from his other hand. “I’ll take it back if you keep this up.”
“Okay, I’ll shut up. I just wish I’d had a recorder running. It might be the only one I get from you.”
God, I could be a bitch. But it was only when something hammered against my defenses. And this man, he was a threat to them all. “At this rate, it will be.”
He chuckled and pulled another dish from the stack, washing off the excess food before handing it to me. “Just you wait. I’m going to win you over with my wit and charm.”
I blinked up at him. “Charm? Wit? Are you talking about Tuck?”
“You wound me.”
I couldn’t help the curve of my lips as I put the dish in the washer. “I’m sure I’m the only one.” I knew plenty of women in town had their eyes on the bachelor. From what I’d heard, Mason had been on a handful of dates, but nothing had ever gotten serious. I wanted to know why. Did he have some crazy standards that no one could possibly live up to? Was he intent on being a bachelor forever? As I studied him out of the corner of my eye, I didn’t feel that either scenario really fit.
“The only one who what?”
His brows pulled together. “You certainly seem to be my toughest critic.”
Shit. I’d been harder on him than I’d intended. Time to rein it in. My phone buzzed in my back pocket, and I slid it out. I didn’t recognize the number or area code, but I answered anyway. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d gotten a call asking if we could place a resident from somewhere out of state.
“Hello, this is Anna.”
A female voice cut across the line. “Anna Foley?”
“Yes, this is she.”
“I’m Detective Johnson with the Las Vegas Police Department.”
I leaned a hip against the counter, waiting for her to say more. She didn’t. “Do you have someone who needs to be placed at Hope House?”
“I’m sorry, Hope House?”
“The shelter in Sutter Lake. I assumed that’s why you were calling.”
“No, it’s not regarding that.”
I stiffened, my fingers curling tighter around the phone. Flashes of memories danced in my mind. Images that were dark enough to take me under. I focused on my breathing, keeping my voice even. “What can I help you with?”
“You were in Chelsea Foley’s phone as her emergency contact.”
Everything in me seized. “Yes, that’s my sister. Is she okay? Was she hurt?”
Mason shut off the water and moved in closer. I didn’t have the energy or focus to move away.
“I’m so sorry, but your sister was found dead early this morning.”
“What? N-no. That’s impossible. Chelsea wasn’t even in Las Vegas. She was in Portland.” My legs began to tremble. I had no control over them—as if they had suddenly turned to mush.
Mason caught me just as I was about to go down, half guiding, half carrying me over to a chair at the kitchen table. I hardly noticed that either. I could barely hear the detective over the blood rushing in my ears.
“Your sister’s fingerprints were on file from when she was a child. It’s a program a lot of schools have in case a student ever goes missing. Between that and the match to her identification, we know it’s her.”
My fingers began to tingle, and I realized I wasn’t breathing. “How?”
“Do you know if your sister struggled with depression or addiction?”
“What? No. Neither of those.” The question gave me a jolt of adrenaline that my system desperately needed. “She’s one of the healthiest people I know.” Chelsea wouldn’t even let herself or her kids drink soda, saying it was poison.
“Sometimes, people can hide that kind of thing from the ones they love the most.”
Derek’s face flashed in my mind. I knew all about the things people could hide. I knew how those lives could rip apart your existence. But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt that this wasn’t a lie Chelsea would’ve been wrapped up in. It had taken almost a decade for my sister to even speak to me again. Another year before she believed that I was telling the truth, that Derek had lied to the police about my involvement in his operation.
I’d missed so much. Her wedding. The birth of her babies. I’d missed supporting her when her marriage fell apart just weeks after Lyla was born. I’d missed Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays. The only thing I hadn’t regretted missing out on was seeing my so-called parents. They had been something I’d been happy to leave in my past.
“She wouldn’t.” I said the words with finality. “She’d never do that to her kids. To me. To herself.” My voice cracked on the last word, but I refused to let the tears come.
Mason wove his fingers through mine, squeezing tightly. I didn’t have the heart to pull away. In that moment, it felt like he was the only thing tethering me to this Earth.
“She had a lethal dose of methamphetamine in her system when she was discovered at a motel just off the Strip.”
My hand clamped down on Mason’s, squeezing hard. “There’s been a mistake. You have the wrong person.”
“Ms. Foley, there’s been no mistake. I’m sorry, but your sister is gone. I know this has likely been a shock for you, but I do need to ask you some questions.”
I could barely comprehend what Detective Johnson was saying. I tried my best to answer what she asked. No, I didn’t know what Chelsea had been doing in Vegas. Yes, I had her children with me. I told her that she was in the process of moving from Portland to Sutter Lake. My eyes burned as I remembered how happy she’d been the day we registered the kids for school next year. How happy I’d been that I was getting a fresh start with the only family I had left.
The click of a pen sounded over the line. “I think that’s everything. You have my number if you need anything. I’ve left a message for your parents, but if you’d like to call them instead—”
Her words cut off in my mind. Just the mention of them sent me hurtling back. I could feel the sting of a slap. The loss of air when an especially vicious punch landed just below my ribs. The physical scars of my father’s anger had long since faded, but the emotional scars would never leave.
Mason seemed to understand that I was losing it and pulled the phone from my grasp. “This is Mason Decker. I’m a friend of Anna’s. She’s understandably upset right now. Can we call you back?”
There was a pause.
“Thank you. We’ll be in touch.”
He hung up and set the phone down on the kitchen table. Without a word, he pulled me up and into his arms. I didn’t resist. I simply held on. As if gripping his t-shirt and feeling his strong arms around me could solve all of my problems.
“I’m so sorry, Anna.”
I wanted to break then. So badly wanted to let the sob tear out of my chest and cut through the air. To scream and rage. But I swallowed it all down. My pain didn’t matter. There were kids in the other room who would be destroyed by this.
But that wasn’t what scared me the most. What terrified me down to my bones was that my parents could get their hands on Lyla and Justin. I couldn’t let that happen. Refused. Those little ones who held my whole heart would not be subjected to what I had been growing up. I’d do whatever I had to do to protect them. Even if that meant running.
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