“Marcus, drink this,” Charlotte said. She was fussing as she tucked a blanket over his shoulders and held out a steaming coffee in the lid of a thermos.
He leaned against the side of the ambulance and took in the scene around him, seeing the worry in her hazel eyes. He took the coffee that he didn’t want, and her hand was on his arm, rubbing. He could sense how upset she was, still feeling the hug she’d given him as she ran to him while he made his way around the body, across the yard.
“You scared the hell out of me, Marcus,” she said. “Drink the damn coffee.”
He sighed, then forced himself to take a swallow. “You’re a good woman, Charlotte,” he said.
The sun was coming up on the horizon, offering a little light from the black of night moments earlier. The ground where Tommy had bled out now held just a bloodstain. His body had been tucked into a body bag and put on a gurney, and it was now out of sight in the ambulance. He hadn’t been able to say two words to Frank and his deputy or to Lonnie, knowing they had pumped bullets into a man whose gun hadn’t even been loaded. Maybe that was why they were giving him space.
“Marcus, you should let someone take a look at that,” Ryan said as he strode over.
Charlotte was touching his arm again, the spots above his wrists, which were raw and scraped and bloody from where he had tried to rip his hands from the cuffs. He still didn’t know who had uncuffed him after he landed on the wooden porch just outside the door. Maybe that was why his shoulder was aching the way it was. He knew the chair had broken, but everything was a blur. He remembered only hands on him, pulling him up as he stared at the man lying there, unmoving—the worst possible outcome.
The only thing he had seen as he walked away was Charlotte running to him. He’d caught her and held her, and she’d hugged him, all the while fighting tears. So there was that.
“They’re fine,” Marcus said. “I’m fine. Stop worrying about me.”
“Well, that’s kind of hard after hearing you found yourself taken hostage, with a crazed man holding a gun at you,” Charlotte said. “You could have been killed, Marcus, and then what would I have done?”
If this situation hadn’t been so dire, he would have smiled in amusement, but passions, tempers, and everything were now running higher, and he’d have been the first to admit his head was far from clear.
“I’m okay,” he said. “You know it would take a lot more to take me out.”
With the look she gave him, he was sure she wanted to smack him. He knew she cared, and so did he. Maybe that was their problem.
“Don’t joke about something like that, Marcus, not to me. You do everything for everyone. So when does someone get to look after you for once? Just take a minute; give me a minute here with you.”
He could see how rattled she was, and he didn’t miss the way Ryan took a step back to give them space. She was touching him again, standing right next to him, and then she leaned her head against his shoulder. Something about this awful moment gave him something to settle into. He leaned over and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
“You should really go on home,” he said. “Not much for you to do.”
She still had her head rested against his shoulder, her arm linked with his. “Why would I want to do that, Marcus? I’m fine right here with you.”
It would be so easy to say okay. “Charlotte, you’ve got to leave Jimmy,” he said. “You’ve still got one foot in the door with him.”
This time, she did lift her head. “I have left him, long ago. He just won’t leave my house. I filed for separation. It’s just…” She was so damn stubborn.
“Yeah, it’s about a house,” he said, and he knew Ryan was doing his best not to listen to them. “I know. You keep saying that, but a house is just that, Charlotte—four walls made of wood. Don’t you want to be happy?”
This time, she looked up to him, moving right in front of him, so close anyone would think they were together. He could see so many things in the face of this woman he’d known forever. He knew there was something there, but he wasn’t about to let himself act on it, not when she still lived with the man she’d married.
She was the one who had kissed Marcus so long ago, six months into a marriage that should never have been. Jimmy Roy had seen it from across the room. Could he blame him for the sucker punch, for busting his lip? Not really.
“You need to eat something, Marcus,” she said. “I picked up sandwiches because I didn’t know what else to do.”
He just couldn’t help himself. He touched her cheek, brushing back the dark hair that had slipped from her ponytail. “You see to it that Reine and Eva got fed? They were hungry. I hope someone had the presence of mind to see that they ate and were looked after.”
Ryan was still lingering a few steps away, an odd expression on his face. Marcus knew it well, and he took in the scene, the cops, the paramedics. He’d expected to see Suzanne there, but evidently, she hadn’t gotten the call.
“I don’t see them here,” Marcus said. “Please tell me they didn’t see what happened to Tommy?”
Something in Ryan’s expression told him there was something else he wasn’t going to like. That sick, heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach had left him numb. Charlotte turned, her hand on his arm again, her expression one of angst. Anyone else would have taken a step back, but not Charlotte. She stepped closer as if she could somehow be a voice of reason.
“Lonnie cuffed Reine Colbert and stuffed her in the back of the kid’s car,” she said. “Colby was just leaving when Social services got here and took Eva.”
He just stared down at Charlotte and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This was absolute bullshit. He dragged his gaze back over to Ryan. “On what fucking charges? What the fuck?” he yelled, tossing the thermos lid on the ground. The coffee splashed out. He wanted to put his hands around someone’s neck and squeeze. Charlotte had stepped back.
“Aiding and abetting, and child endangerment,” Ryan said. “Look, we didn’t know what the fuck was going on in there. I’m not a cop, and you know I have no authority. I’m here for you, eyes and ears. You remember we were standing with you when she came out on that porch and said she was fine, and Lonnie said she gave him away when he tried to get in the back. He was pissed about what went down, said she was responsible for it turning into the shitshow it did. Said it looked like she was working alongside him, that she alerted Tommy. Sheriff Frank said to book her. Our hands were tied. If it didn’t go down that way, then you can straighten it out. Voice of reason, Marcus. I get it, but from the outside, it didn’t look as if this was all that cut and dried.”
Ryan’s hands were shoved in his coat pockets, and Marcus could see none of this was sitting right with him, either. Then he spotted Lonnie talking with the other cops, running his hands through his hair, managing the crime scene, which was something he should’ve been doing.
He stepped away from the ambulance, letting the blanket fall. He felt a hand on his arm and knew it was Charlotte as he started toward Lonnie, really digging into each step.
“Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing, arresting Reine Colbert?” he shouted. “She’s a victim here! And sending her kid into social services?” He took in their faces as he strode toward them. Ryan was beside him too now, his hand on his shoulder, but there wasn’t a chance he was stopping him. He grabbed Lonnie by his vest.
“Marcus, what the fuck? Let him go!” Ryan yelled.
He wasn’t in any state of mind to be reasoned with, though. He was gutted by everything that had happened. “You son of a bitch!” he yelled. “You really fucked up…”
Everyone seemed to be pulling at him, trying to break his hold, but he’d be damned if he let go.
Lonnie was furious. “The hell she’s a victim! I was the one trying to get in and save them. She outright refused and instead gave me away, which put the kid in danger. I have a mind to add a bunch more charges.”
“Total, absolute bullshit, Lonnie! All of those charges are going to be dropped. I ordered you to watch the back, not to go rogue and do your own fucking thing. You put everyone in danger, escalating this to where a man is now lying on a slab in the morgue. You wouldn’t have forced his back to the wall if you’d just followed my orders, and I wouldn’t have ended up cuffed to a chair. That’s totally on you. His gun was empty, not a bullet in it… I knew it and tried to stop you.”
Sheriff Frank stepped in. He was a big man, same height as Marcus, with about twenty years and fifty pounds or so added. “Hey, enough already! She’ll get her day in court. This could have been a whole lot worse, and you seem to forget we have discretion over when, where, and to what extent we decide to prioritize and enforce laws. The charges stand unless your sheriff has other reasons they shouldn’t. Just where the hell is Bert, anyways?”
“He’s not available,” was all he managed to get out as he dragged his gaze over to Charlotte and felt her hand pulling on his arm. Lonnie said nothing, and Marcus turned to him again. “And you never did tell me how much you had to drink before showing up here,” he started, but Frank set his hand on his shoulder and somehow had him moved back and away from everyone.
“Look, son, I understand you’re upset,” he said. “I get it. None of this ended the way any of us wanted it, but it doesn’t always work out. You know that, especially in situations like this, when there’s a gun and heads are far from cool. You seem to forget that everyone here is doing their best. That boy came out of the cabin as a threat, gun in hand. You know there was no way for us to know the gun wasn’t loaded. The perceived threat was very real.
“Do you need a reminder on backing up your brothers in arms? I’m acting sheriff here right now, and I gave a direct order. You know how the chain of command works. Sounds to me as if you’re ready to hang a fellow officer out to dry. I think maybe you’re not clear, and maybe you’re confused after having a gun in your face, being held hostage. So let me remind you how things work. I’m not unsympathetic to the woman here, but she had some responsibility, too. Let me ask, who cuffed you? Did she stand by and do nothing? Did she have a gun on her, making her do what she did?”
Marcus just stared into Frank’s face, but he said nothing. It was Reine who had cuffed him. Could he lie if asked? No, it would be in the report. He needed to take more than another minute to consider everything, how all of it had gone down. The bleakness of her situation wasn’t being taken into account.
“Just as I thought,” Frank said. “Take a few days, son, and get your head clear. It’ll all work out just fine. The kid’s safe now, the bad guy’s taken out, and Ms. Colbert will face her part in this before a judge.” Then he patted his shoulder and strode back over to Lonnie, whose ass Marcus still wanted to kick.