“You can’t leave her in that house, Marcus,” Charlotte said for the fourth time as they drove to the office. “That’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
Even though he wanted to do something to get Eva out of that house, physically taking her was something he couldn’t do, because social services were in charge. It would take a call and a whole lot of persuasion to do anything.
“You think I didn’t want to pack her up and take her out of there?” he said. “Then what, Charlotte? You know it doesn’t work that way.”
“They’re not fit to look after a child,” she said, sitting stubbornly in the passenger side. Of course, she was upset. So was he.
“It’s passable, and there’re worse places,” he said. “I’ll make a call to the social worker and find out what’s what.”
He knew she was giving him everything as he pulled up and parked beside the sheriff’s car. So he was in the office that morning. Good.
“You do more than that, Marcus,” she said. “She can’t spend another night there.”
He let out a sigh as he turned off the cruiser and just stared up at the building, seeing Colby, the kid, walk in ahead of them. He didn’t answer, though, as he pulled his hand over his face. He really did need to shave, but it seemed there were just more important things right now.
“There may not be anywhere else for her,” he said. “If they were living on the streets, I would think no close family could take her. I’m sure they’re looking.”
Then there was Reine, who was in jail now. He really needed to talk to her.
He dragged his gaze over to Charlotte and opened his door. At the same time, she opened hers and stepped out. The sun was bright; the day was warm. He walked around and met her halfway, stopping on the sidewalk in front of the cruiser. She tapped his arm, and he pulled her closer, her hands settling over his duty belt, around his waist. She let out a sigh.
“I can see you’re upset,” he said. “It’s not sitting right with me, either. Go on. You need to get into work and man the phones.”
She nodded, but she didn’t step away.
“I’ll figure something out,” he continued. “I’ll find another option for her.”
This time, she did step back, and the look she gave him was that stubborn look he’d seen too many times. “And what option would that be? You think I don’t know that her being where she is means they couldn’t really find a place for her? I know how flawed it is. Too many kids need a place, and there aren’t enough good ones for them.” She paused. “Let’s take her.”
He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. He lifted his gaze to the sheriff’s office, knowing he needed to make his presence known, but that would be after he saw Reine. “Take her where, exactly, Charlotte? I have a bachelor pad that’s barely big enough for the two of us, nowhere to put your stuff. Where would we put her? Even if I wanted to, I don’t know how it could work.” He was shaking his head, but Charlotte didn’t pull her gaze from him and seemed to dig in further.
“Then we’ll get a bigger place,” she said. “We’ll make do until we do. Don’t make it difficult, Marcus. I saw the way you looked at her. You care.”
What kind of statement was that? “Of course I care. I’m not a monster. Anyone with a beating heart would care, but how would us taking her make it any better for her?”
He didn’t need her to answer that, though. He knew it would.
“It would make a difference, Marcus, but I think you already know that. We could make it work.”
It was the way she said it. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to her lips, letting it linger, before he pulled back and spotted Lonnie stepping out of the station, hesitating, watching them. Then he was coming their way.
Of course, Charlotte sensed the anger he was now feeling, which he couldn’t hide, not from her. “You go see Reine,” she said, “but call the social worker, too. See if you can work something out.” Then she ran her hand over his chest and stepped away just as Lonnie approached. “Hey there, Lonnie,” was all she said as she lifted her hand in a wave and strode away up the steps.
“So, you and Charlotte…” Lonnie started.
Marcus gave him everything in that moment. He wondered if he had any idea right now how much he would rather be talking to anyone else. “Where’re you off to?” he finally said, crossing his arms, wondering what it was about Lonnie that seemed rattled, off.
“On a call,” he said. “Another vandalism. Kids, they think. Nuisance, really. Look, I’m sorry for how everything went down. The sheriff is doing well today.” He gestured behind him.
Marcus was glad for that much. Maybe Bert had realized how much he was needed. He said nothing.
“Listen, Marcus, I don’t want this to be a thing,” he said. “I heard that Ms. Colbert took a deal.”
There it was, exactly what he didn’t want to talk about with him.
“Still shouldn’t have happened, Lonnie,” he said. “She didn’t get a fair shake. I was in the house, not you. You were wrong, what you did. Sheriff Frank was, too, and Bert. Still can’t believe he let it stand.”
Lonnie reached over and rested his hand on Marcus’s shoulder, and of course his gaze went right there. He pulled his hand away and stepped back. “It’s not on you, Marcus. The law isn’t always fair. Bert said he was stepping down, and you’ll be taking his place as sheriff.”
So maybe that was it. Lonnie wanted to make sure there was still a place for him. Marcus just dragged his gaze up to the office and then back to his fellow officer.
“You run into any problems, you let me know out there,” he said. It was all he could make himself say. He walked back to his cruiser and climbed behind the wheel.
After a short drive, he parked behind the jail, a place he’d been too many times, dragging people he’d arrested and having them booked. But this time he felt as if he were seeing everything through different eyes. It was concrete, loud.
Getting in to see Reine Colbert was easy, considering he was the deputy in charge. He was waiting in a room when she was led in, wearing cuffs and an orange baggy jumpsuit that seemed to hang off her frame. He wasn’t sure what to make of the way she was looking at him.
“You can take off the cuffs,” he said to the female guard.
Reine acknowledged him with a nod, then rubbed her wrists, which had him remembering the bite of cuffs on his own wrists. “Your sister said I wasn’t supposed to talk to you.”
Of course she had. Karen was good.
“Since you made a deal, Reine, it’s kind of a moot point now,” he said, then gestured to one of the steel chairs by the table, where he knew lawyer after lawyer had sat with their clients. The walls were gray. The place was depressing. “Wanted to check on you and see how you’re doing. I stopped in to see Eva this morning.”
She slid into one of the chairs, but she couldn’t hide the tear that spilled out. “How is she?” She sounded desperate. How could she not? She wasn’t a mother who didn’t care.
“She’s good,” he said. Of course, she wasn’t, but telling her mother what he’d seen would only drive her crazy in a place where she could do nothing for her daughter. “Do you have any family, Reine? Anyone who could take Eva while you’re doing your time?”
She said nothing for a second as she pulled her lower lip between her teeth and shook her head. “No one who could do anything. I’m estranged from my father. I have an aunt in Glasgow, Scotland, who I met twice when I was a kid. My husband’s mother is down in New Mexico, but she suffers from bipolar. His brother is a used car salesman in Spokane, last we heard. They were never close. I met his mom. She’s good if she’s on her meds, a disaster if she’s not. My husband never wanted her in Eva’s life.” She made a face and clasped her hands, resting them on the steel table. “Your sister asked me to reach out to my father, at least for Eva.”
He waited for more. Maybe she was still considering, from the way she looked away and wiped the tear from her face. He pulled out the chair across from her and sat down, and she forced a smile to her face, but he suspected it was because she didn’t know what else to do.
“You should, unless there’s a reason he shouldn’t know about Eva?” he said.
She was shaking her head. “He’s not a bad man in that way, so to speak. We’re just estranged. He never liked Vern, my husband, but how many fathers really like the men involved with their daughters? He told me to end it, I said no, and he said Vern would never amount to anything. I said he was wrong. My husband was a hero, a good man. My father never showed up for my wedding. That said everything.”
So it was anger. Marcus wondered if the man would show up now, considering where his daughter was.
“Karen said the DA wants to strip me of my parental rights,” Reine said. “I said no, and the only reason I took the deal offered was because I can’t gamble on never seeing my daughter again. I could be out in three years, your sister said. Eva will be nine. I can live with that. Life without her? I can’t.”
He wondered if she understood what three years in the system would do to a kid. “I’m sorry it went down this way,” he said. “You don’t deserve this.”
“So are you lying to me, Deputy O’Connell, about my daughter? I don’t know how she could be okay after what happened. I didn’t know anything about Tommy, but he was the only one who tried to help us. You know, he brought food for people in the camp who were hungry. He wasn’t a bad man. I didn’t realize until later that he was haunted by his time in the military. There was just a look in his eyes: One minute he was there, and the next he wasn’t. He never meant to scare us.”
“I know that,” he said, taking Reine in. He knew Tommy would never have shared what really had happened, what had made him snap and attack his captain. He couldn’t help wondering now why Tommy had shared that haunting story with him.
“You were nice to us, Deputy,” Reine said. “The way you tried to reason with Tommy, you’re a good man. You remind me so much of Vern. You’re a lot like him.”
“I want to take Eva while you’re here,” he said suddenly. “She should be with people who care. My girlfriend, Charlotte, and I would like to take her. I wanted to talk to you about it.”
She shut her eyes for a second and then looked over to him. “You would look out for her, wouldn’t you?” she said. From the way she asked, he knew she just wanted someone to do something.
He nodded. “With everything I have. You have my word. Charlotte and I will make sure she’s looked after and loved.”
She sniffed and wiped at more tears that continued to fall. “If I could go back, I wouldn’t have cuffed you to that chair,” she said. “I didn’t know…” Then she nodded. “Yes, I think you would look after her. Would you bring her to see me?”
He just looked over to the woman he wished his sister could have done more for. “Of course we will,” he said. “You’re still her mother.”