The Third Call

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Chapter 12

Marcus stood under the spray in the walk-in shower, letting the hot water take some of the ache out of his shoulder, which was beginning to stiffen. His bathroom was small, with a single sink and a toilet. It didn’t have a bathtub, but that didn’t matter to him.

As he considered everything about what happened, he made a mental note of what he needed to do now. At the same time, he was well aware that Charlotte was in his kitchen, making coffee and something for him to eat, and he was still stuck on what she’d said. This dance and attraction he’d ignored between them had lingered for how many years now? A long time.

When the water went cold, he turned off the shower and reached for a thin navy towel on a hook. He dried himself off, feeling the sting on his wrists, and took in how nasty they looked. The bruising was already starting to set in. He ran the towel over his head and then looped it around his waist, then wiped the steam from the mirror. In his reflection, his eyes were bloodshot, and the scab on his face was oozing blood again. He could use a shave.

He grabbed some toilet paper and dabbed at the blood, then dumped it in the toilet and flushed. He ran his fingers through his thick dark hair, then over his face, then shut his eyes and hung his head for a second as he rested both hands on the edges of the sink, trying to understand the shitstorm that had to be cleaned up and everything that still had to be done. So many difficult personalities were involved, people that wouldn’t take a back seat to anyone, just like him.

He pulled open the bathroom door, hearing Charlotte humming some tune. She really did have a nice voice, and that alone added something to the dinginess of his one-room bachelor pad. The high-ceilinged loft was built in a warehouse style, with red brick and a window that filled one entire wall. His unmade bed and easy chair had seen better days, but he had a new flat-screen TV.

In the small open kitchen, Charlotte was frying something on the stove, and it didn’t seem as empty as it normally did. He breathed in the smell of coffee and took in the woman who was fussing over him now.

“I made you a cheese omelette and toast.” She slid a fluffy omelette onto a plate on the butcherblock counter, with two pieces of buttered toast, and then reached for a mug from the open shelf and poured coffee in it. When she pulled open his fridge and took a whiff of a carton of milk, she made a face. “I think you might have to drink your coffee black. Your milk has soured—and you need some groceries.”

She dumped the carton of milk into the farmhouse sink and rested the mug of coffee on the small island he used as a table. He was very aware of the towel still looped around his waist, and she wasn’t shy as she took him in, letting her gaze wander over all of him.

“You really should have your shoulder looked at,” she said.

He pulled out a stool and sat down before lifting the coffee and taking a swallow. “Not bad. Wouldn’t even know it needs milk. Maybe the fact that I didn’t make it has something to do with it.”

She smiled as she pulled open a drawer and brought a fork and a knife over him, resting them beside his plate. She really was giving him the full treatment, but then, he wondered when she hadn’t looked after him in the office.

“You don’t have to wait on me, you know, but I appreciate this,” he said. He picked up the fork even though he didn’t think he was hungry, and he forced a piece of the steaming omelette into his mouth. The orange cheese oozed as he took a bite. “It’s good.”

She drank from her own mug as she walked around the island, then took the stool beside him.

“Did you make yourself something?” He gestured to her with his fork, then took another bite of the perfectly seasoned omelette. Maybe he was hungrier than he’d thought.

“No, I’m fine,” she said. “This is for you. Someone has to look after you, Marcus. You spend all your time taking care of everyone else, everything else, and maybe this helps me settle a bit.” The way she said it, she suddenly seemed so shy, awkward. At the same time, he was aware how comfortable she was here and with him.

“Hmm,” was all he said. He forked a piece of his omelette and held it up to her lips, and she opened and took a bite.

“It’s good,” she said. There it was, that smile again. “I love you, Marcus, but I think you know that already.”

He hadn’t expected her to say it. He finished chewing and swallowing his bite of eggs, then lifted his mug and took a swallow of coffee. He remembered how it had felt to kiss her so long ago. Would they always be thinking of that close call? Even he felt some nostalgia and what-ifs, if he was being honest.

“You know I love you too, but you made your choice, and here we are,” he said. “You really want to rehash the past seven years when nothing has changed? That kiss sent your husband over the edge. It shouldn’t have happened. It never happened again.”

She nodded. “You think I don’t know that? At the same time, I never should have married Jimmy. I had doubts right until he put the ring on my finger. I never loved him the way I love you. Marcus, I never expected you to turn your life around the way you did.”

There it was, the reason nothing had ever happened between them: He’d been young and stupid, headed in a direction that could have seen him behind bars. At least she’d been smart enough to see that.

“And yet here we are,” he said. “You’re still married to him, and I know you don’t need to say it again, that it’s because of the house, but the thing is, Charlotte, this dance we’re doing is going to be just that until you figure it out and end it with him. Is the house worth giving up another five years, ten? Because I won’t wait around forever. Separated is still married. We may not have talked about anything, but here we are.”

He wasn’t sure what she was going to say. His cell rang from the island beside her, and maybe out of habit, she reached for it.

“It’s the sheriff,” she said, handing him the phone, and he saw Bert’s caller ID on screen.

He stood up from the stool and answered. “Bert?”

“What the fuck, Marcus, you okay? I just got off the phone with Sheriff Frank about the ruckus that went on last night. He just left the scene, and I’m heading out there now. The woman is being arraigned at two, and you still need to get your report in and filed. I’ve got to talk with the coroner…”

Break time was over.

“I’m on my way back into the office,” he said. “Look, this whole thing is a mess. Reine Colbert shouldn’t have been arrested. Lonnie completely fucked that one up. She was a victim there, and so was her daughter, who’s been taken by social services. Then there’s Tommy Marshall. His dad was on his way. Has anyone thought to contact him?”

Something in Charlotte’s expression had him pausing. He knew she could hear everything.

“Don’t know nothing about him,” Bert said. “Look, my car is still at the Lighthouse. I’ve got Lonnie swinging by to pick me up. We’ll sort it out, Marcus. I’ll meet you at the office.” Then he hung up, sounding as if this would be just a hiccup when it was anything but.

“I’d better get dressed,” Marcus said.

Charlotte reached for his arm. “I guess in the commotion of everything, no one thought to tell you. Tulli did speak with Thomas Marshall, Senior, but the truth of the matter is that he decided not to come out.”

That sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was back. “Seriously? What did he say?”

Did it really matter, considering his son was likely now on a steel slab, ice cold under the knife of the coroner, who was counting the bullets that had been pumped into him and determining which one had officially taken his life?

“Oh, nothing good,” Charlotte said. “He said his son made his bed, had done everything he could not to follow in his footsteps. He said Tommy basically spat in the face of all authority and said he wasn’t worth his time or the extra breath, considering he’d chosen to sign up as a grunt in the army instead of having a position that could have made him great. He said Tommy disgraced them all by beating a superior officer in the army, kissing his life away, and he wasn’t about to lift a finger to help, considering the Marshalls didn’t have criminals in the family. He basically told Tulli to get Tommy out of his cabin, and he expected our office to file additional charges of trespassing and breaking and entering…” She paused.

Marcus was having trouble picturing a father who would do that to his child. Maybe because of everything Tommy had shared with him, he knew the man had been experiencing a dark night of the soul.

“Not everyone is a good person, Marcus.” Charlotte angled her head, and he pulled his hand over his jaw, hearing the scrape, then over his bare chest and the towel that was looped around his waist.

“So whose idea was it to lie and tell Tommy his dad was coming? Just so you know, he didn’t believe it. At least now I know why.” He started across the room and pulled open a chest of drawers to fish out clean underwear and socks, then dumped them on the bed along with the towel. He stepped into his underwear before turning around to Charlotte. It should have been awkward, but it wasn’t. He sat on the unmade bed, pulling on thick black socks, and then walked over to the armoire, his only closet.

“It was Lonnie’s,” Charlotte said, “but I would have done the same. It was a desperate situation, not the time to tell a man with a gun that his father hates him and his family’s written him off. You would have, too, Marcus.”

He glanced over his shoulder to her as he shook out a pair of clean uniform pants and stepped into them, then pulled on a shirt. As he faced her, he had to remind himself that maybe she was right, but it was hard, considering how he struggled to cut Lonnie any slack now.

“Marcus, come on,” she said. “I know you’re angry, and you have a right to be, but you would have done the same thing.”

“Fine, you want me to say it? You’re right. It just doesn’t help the situation. You know Tommy planned to leave Reine and her daughter there in that cabin, to give them that place, a place he said his family never used. It was just sitting there, empty…” He swore under his breath as he buttoned his shirt and tucked it into his pants, then walked over to the old bar table by the front door where he’d dumped his duty belt. It was missing his cuffs, which he knew were still at the scene. Evidence, of course. He pulled it on, taking in Charlotte, who had slid around and was watching him.

“I understand, Marcus. Everything about this was shitty, but that’s what life is sometimes, unfair. I know you don’t want to hear this, because I can see how torn up you are by it all, and I wasn’t in there with you, but the only thing I cared about was that you walked out of there okay.”

She had slid off the stool and made her way over to him, and now she was standing right in front of him. Her hand pressed to his chest, his stomach, and he settled his hand over hers. “And I don’t care if this sounds cruel, but if there had to be a choice between you being on that slab or Tommy, then I choose him.”

He could see it in her face, in her expression: She was truly afraid.

“Maybe that was the wakeup call I needed, Marcus, because I won’t lose you,” she said. She was so close, and she rose up on her toes. Her hands slid over both his cheeks, and she pulled him closer and pressed a kiss to his lips. It was soft, tender, the kind of kiss that said everything about what she felt for him.

He allowed his hand to brush back her hair, skim over her cheek. Then he pulled in a breath and ran his hand over her arm before stepping away and saying, “We’d better get going.”

As he reached for his shoes and the keys to the cruiser, he knew he should say something else. He took in the woman he’d never get out of his mind as she walked over to his easy chair and reached for her coat and bag, and when she turned back to him, he just shoved his feet into his shoes and laced them up.

She was waiting for him to say something, but all he could do was pull open the loft door and hold it for her. After she stepped through, he followed her out and locked it behind them.

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