The Third Call

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Chapter 15

“Take the beer, Marcus,” Suzanne said.

He was lounging in a patio chair on the front porch of Jenny and Ryan’s. His brother had moved into the place, because Jenny wasn’t about to move from a house she said was hers. What was it with women and houses?

Suzanne dangled the can in front of him, and he noted it was a pale ale rather than the dark ale only she drank. He popped the tab, and she took one of the five patio chairs lined up side by side on the porch beside him. Owen was out back, barbecuing, Jenny was in the kitchen with his mom, and Alison and Ryan were, he thought, watching the game in the living room. Karen still hadn’t shown up, but then, he himself had arrived only five minutes ago, and after dutifully poking in his head to say hi, he had gone back outside. No one had said anything else.

“I need to leave in a minute,” he said. “I’m only here following Mom’s orders.” He lifted the beer and took a swallow, feeling the weariness. He knew he should eat, but instead he leaned forward and dragged his hand over his face, hearing the scrape of whiskers.

“Yeah, well, we were worried. I can tell you Mom is breathing a sigh of relief inside. Ryan told me what happened to Reine Colbert’s husband, a firefighter…”

He took in the modest homes on this street, a neighborhood of respectable families. He could actually picture Reine and her daughter and her husband having something just like this.

“It doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzy American dream feeling, does it?” she said. “He’s there to save everyone, but then the same system turns its back on him. You know, we don’t talk about it at the station, but we all know we’re at higher risk for cancer, with the kind of fires we walk into, the chemicals we breathe in, what we’re exposed to. Then add in medical insurance…” She was shaking her head. “We’ve heard the stories. Some of the insurance companies are denying coverage based on obscure clauses that no average person can really understand. Of course, if you had unlimited resources, you could fight it and win, but after how many years, after you’ve lost everything? The sad thing, Marcus, is that what happened to Reine’s husband, to Reine and Eva, could happen to anyone. No one is safe from that. It’s terrifying, you know. They were fighting a giant who had everything on its side.”

He took in the neighbors across the way, the early evening. The sun had dipped low on the horizon. He spotted Karen’s practical four-door Honda pulling up in front, and when he heard the screen door behind him, he didn’t have to look back to see that it was Ryan. He could hear the voices inside as they all watched Karen step out of her car. She was in a dark suit, skirt, and pumps, and her red hair was tied back in a ponytail, all a giveaway that she’d been in Thompson’s court.

“So I heard they’re talking about a deal for Reine,” Ryan said. He was dressed in blue jeans and a faded blue shirt.

“She shouldn’t have to settle,” Suzanne replied.

Marcus didn’t think he had anything left to say, considering he was of the mind that she’d gotten the short end of the stick. She hadn’t been granted bail at the arraignment, not that she would’ve been able to afford it, anyways.

They all watched Karen start up the walk toward them, but she stopped at the bottom of the steps, giving them that look she had when a case didn’t turn out the way she wanted. She just stared at each of them with those O’Connell blue eyes, then finally unbuttoned her blazer, revealing a white sleeveless blouse underneath. “Well, is there wine?” she said.

“Chilling in the fridge,” Ryan said. “I’ll grab you a glass.”

Karen bent down and pulled off her pumps, standing barefoot now on the bottom step as she groaned. “Just bring the bottle, too. I may need more than one.” She climbed up the steps and took the other chair on the porch, then reached over and rested her hand on Marcus’s arm.

“How’s Reine doing?” he said. He didn’t look over to Karen, still taking in the neighborhood where his brother lived, the cars parked on the street, his cruiser parked in the driveway. What could his sister say? She was behind bars. It didn’t get much worse.

“As good as can be expected. She took the deal. We’ll be signing it in the morning. Don’t beat yourself up, Marcus. You did all you could, and so did I. The law wasn’t on her side in this one.”

Not exactly the words of wisdom he wanted to hear. He lifted the beer and took another swallow, feeling the chill of the can and taking in the sounds of his family. “She was screwed over, Karen.”

Ryan pushed open the screen and stepped out with a bottle of white wine and a glass filled halfway. He handed it to her, and she lifted her glass to him and took a big swallow. Ryan set the bottle on the porch by her bare feet.

“Ah, that’s good,” she said. “Thank you.”

Ryan leaned again on the rail, and no one said anything for another minute.

“It could have been worse, Marcus,” Karen said. “I got her sentence down to eight years. They wanted a ridiculous amount, thirty-five. She’ll be out in three on good behavior. I’d consider that a win, given they also wanted to strip her rights as a parent. At least now she’ll get a chance to see Eva.”

“She shouldn’t be in at all,” he said, dragging his gaze over to his sister and seeing how frustrated she was, too.

“That’s not the way it works. You know that. The jails are filled with people who shouldn’t be there. I did what I could, but Eileen won’t budge on this one, and neither will the DA. The judge is known for going hard on these kinds of crimes.”

The chair creaked as Suzanne leaned forward around Marcus and really took in Karen. “So why is Eileen being such a hard-ass on this?”

Karen swirled her glass of wine and took another swallow. “All I know is these kinds of cases are personal to her. She’s made it known that if the kinds of laws that are supposed to protect kids had been around when she was growing up, her sister would still be alive. She grew up in a house with her mother’s boyfriend, and there were guns and bad people. Her sister got caught in the crossfire. She said a child should never have a gun shoved in her face. The circumstances were different, but she won’t see it any other way.”

No one said anything else for a second.

“And Eva Colbert, what’s going to happen to her?” Ryan asked. “Were you able to find out where she is?”

Marcus had already pulled up the name of the home where Eva had been placed, with other foster kids, under the care of an old woman. No one was ever there long. It was a bed, a roof, but not much else.

“I know where she is. I’ll keep an eye out,” Marcus said. It was all he could do in a system that had the worse record for turning out well-adjusted kids. He downed the rest of his beer and stood up, then handed the empty can to Ryan. His sisters were watching him, too. “Tell Mom I have to go, but I’ll stop by tomorrow. And say goodbye to that niece of mine, Jenny, and Owen.” He started down the steps, then turned back to his siblings. “Anyone hear from Luke when he’s coming back?”

It had been nearly three months since their brother had shipped out. To where, exactly, none of them knew. They’d heard from him only once in the past month.

“No, it could be any day or several more weeks,” Suzanne said. “Who knows what part of the world they’ve sent him and his team?”

Marcus simply nodded as he listened to the goodbyes and walked back to his cruiser. He climbed behind the wheel, seeing his cell phone and the fact that there were no messages. He needed sleep and food, as he thought of the omelette he hadn’t finished that morning at his loft. Maybe he’d order some Chinese, considering he lived right above the takeout restaurant.

Then there was Charlotte. Normally, he never went this long in a day without talking to her.

He took in the town as he drove home, and the street where he lived, and the Subaru that looked a lot like Charlotte’s parked between a minivan and a pickup in front of the Chinese restaurant.

Marcus pulled into a reserved spot and stepped out of his cruiser and onto the sidewalk. Charlotte was standing by the door that led up to his loft. There was a duffle bag on the ground at her feet, and she was wearing a faded brown sweater and blue jeans. Her dark hair was hanging loose over her shoulders.

“You look tired, Marcus,” she said as he stepped closer and stopping right in front of her.

“So what is this?” He gestured to her bag on the ground and the way she stood before him.

She lifted her ringless hand and pressed it over his chest. “Someone gave me some really good advice, and I figured it was time I listened.” She didn’t pull those hazel eyes from his. “I gave him the house.”

For a minute, he didn’t think he’d heard her right.

“But you love that house,” Marcus said.

All she did was shake her head, and the way she was looking up at him held sorrow, passion, and so much more. “It’s just four walls made of wood, Marcus. You told me that. A house can’t make you happy, and I guess I finally realized that holding on to something, even though it was my grandparents’ and had been in my family, wasn’t going to bring me love. It’s just a house, Marcus. I love you more.”

He stepped closer, resting his hand over hers on his chest. Her other slid up and touched his cheek, running over the scab. “So you’re just giving up, giving the house to Jimmy Roy?”

She pulled in a breath, licked her lips, and sighed. “No, I’m not giving up, Marcus. I’m choosing to move on. There’s a difference. I spoke with Jimmy, told him he could have the house, but I was done fighting. I want the divorce now. I told him I was sorry and told him to take anything he wanted.”

He took in the duffle bag at her feet. “So you’re moving in?”

She slid her arms over his shoulders, and he settled his arms around her, feeling her heat against him. “I am, if that’s all right?” she said softly.

“You know I don’t care about a house, right? This is all I need, this place here,” he said, wondering if she’d be okay in an old loft that was small and cramped.

She lifted her lips to meet him halfway, kissing him slow and easy. “Your place is cute, Marcus. As you’ve reminded me how many times, it’s just four walls, and they won’t bring you happiness. You, Marcus, you’ve always made me happy. That day so long ago when I was still with Jimmy and kissed you, do you remember what you said to me after he saw us, after you ate his fist?”

He just looked at her. He remembered well. He’d said he wasn’t a homewrecker and would never be one. He slid his hand over her cheek, and she rested her hand over his.

“You were never a homewrecker, Marcus,” she said. “I just never realized how much I really loved you. If I was honest then with myself, I’d have told you. You were never in the wrong. I was, for staying with him. I should have left Jimmy then.”

He could see she wasn’t going to pretend anymore that this, between them, wasn’t real. He couldn’t help himself from leaning down and kissing her again before pulling back, feeling an ease settle in after what had been a really crappy day.

“Well, then, let’s get you moved in,” he said, then reached for her duffle bag and unlocked the door that led up to his loft, gesturing for her to go first.

“Just one more thing, Marcus,” Charlotte added. She turned and faced him again, touching him, running her hand over his chest, a touch that he knew he could get used to every day, every night. “When my divorce is final, I expect you’ll ask me to marry you.”

He took in the passion in her hazel eyes, the hint of a smile, before she turned and started up the stairs in front of him, and he just took in the curves of the woman he’d loved for a long time.

“Yes, and I won’t wait a second longer, Charlotte,” he said under his breath. Then he locked the door behind him and started up to his loft, behind the woman he’d started to believe could be his.

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