“Don’t think I’ve seen Mom so happy,” said Suzanne. “First Ryan and the surprise teenage granddaughter, Alison, and now you with Eva.” She held out a beer to him, a light lager, where he lingered in his mom’s backyard.
Owen was flipping burgers, appearing unusually quiet. His mom, whom he could see through the open back door, was in the kitchen with Karen, Charlotte, Alison, Jenny, and Eva, who was perched on a stool at the island, tucked between Charlotte and Alison and being fussed over by everyone.
“You know that little girl has stolen everyone’s hearts,” Suzanne said.
What could he say? From the moment he’d picked her up from Rita’s house, he’d breathed out a sigh of relief for the first time since this shitstorm had started. “I know,” he said. “I see Mom is spoiling her in there.”
“Mom expects to look after her when you and Charlotte are working. Heard you’re taking her to see her mom at the prison this weekend, too. You think it’s okay, taking her into a place a kid shouldn’t be?”
He didn’t miss the overprotectiveness in her tone. As soon as his family had learned about Eva and realized she was now a part of their family, they had circled the wagons around her. How could he explain that he’d promised Reine, and he knew how much Eva needed to see her?
Owen tossed him a look over his shoulder, clearly having listened in. “Suzanne’s right. You may do more harm than good, Marcus. She’s only six.”
He’d never heard his brother talk like that. “It’s worse if she doesn’t see her. She’ll be fine. I’ll see to it, and so will Charlotte.”
Ryan stepped out of the house in his park uniform, taking them in. “Mom said to throw on another hot dog for Eva in case she wants two,” he said.
Marcus just took in his brother, who hadn’t really said anything to him since he’d told him that Reine had signed over temporary guardianship to him and Charlotte while she served her time. Karen had been furious that he’d talked with Reine behind her back, but she’d honored her wishes and agreed that Charlotte and Marcus would be a better solution to looking after Eva. She’d handled the agreement, getting it signed before a judge, and Marcus and Charlotte had picked her up before she had to spend one more night under a roof with a woman who wouldn’t let herself care too much.
“So did you smooth things over with Karen yet?” Ryan asked. Suzanne made a face, and Owen added another dog to the barbecue and pretended not to listen.
“I plan to tonight,” Marcus said, knowing that Karen wouldn’t make it easy, which was why he was out back and she was inside the kitchen. He could hear the laughter, and he knew he couldn’t wait any longer. “Well, can’t put it off. Wish me luck.” He took a swallow of beer and started to the house, feeling Ryan pat his shoulder as he passed.
When he stepped into the kitchen, six pairs of eyes landed on him, and everyone went quiet.
“So this is where the fun is,” he said. He took in Eva, who was still perched on a stool between Alison, who had appointed herself her official big sister, and Charlotte, who he knew had fallen in love with her the first night they’d brought her home.
“Is Owen almost finished out there? The kids are getting hungry,” his mom said.
Meanwhile, Karen gave everything to the glass of wine she was holding. Just that stubborn O’Connell streak. She was refusing to make this easy on him.
“Shouldn’t be much longer,” he said.
His mom started to the back door with an empty platter. She was in blue jeans and a floral peasant shirt, with tiny pearls in her ears, her hair short and stylish. She stopped beside him and set her hand on his arm, looking up at him with that motherly look she adopted when she had something on her mind. “You did a good thing, getting that girl. She’s now a part of our family. You know that, though. You and Charlotte are working tomorrow, so I’m taking both my granddaughters shopping—and I plan to spoil Eva, just so you know. You did all you could, so give yourself a break, and go make it right with your sister.”
As his mom stepped outside, he took in how Charlotte and Jenny were leaned against the island, wine in hand, talking, both very aware of the showdown that was likely to happen.
“Karen, can I have a word?” he said, and what did his sister do but drag her gaze over and then start into the living room? No one said anything. Both Charlotte and Jenny gave him a look of sympathy.
He stepped around the island and rested his hand on Alison’s brown hair, which was still growing out, and then on Eva’s. Then he settled his hand on Eva’s shoulder when she smiled up at him. “Hot dogs are almost ready,” he said. “Your grandma’s getting some for you.”
He knew it was the first time he’d said it, even though his mom had insisted from day one that Eva call her Grandma. Then he walked into the living room, where his brooding sister was lounging in the spot where his brother Luke always sat when he was home on leave.
He forced himself to sit on the stool across from her, then really looked at the living room. It had changed some over the years, but it was still the same. “You going to continue giving me the silent treatment?” he finally said.
Karen lifted those O’Connell blue eyes to him, and they really packed a punch. “Is that your way of apologizing, Marcus? Because if it is, it sucks big time.” She was direct and to the point.
“If you want me to say I’m sorry for seeing your client without talking to you first, I’ll say I’m sorry—but I’m not, because maybe things wouldn’t have turned out this way otherwise. You know Charlotte had to hold Eva until she fell asleep the first two nights? She woke up twice, crying, nightmares.”
For now, Eva was sleeping on a cot only five feet from Charlotte’s side of the bed in their one-room bachelor pad.
Karen said nothing, but he didn’t miss the way she flinched. “I didn’t know,” she said. “Heard you’re looking for a bigger place.”
Actually, he’d found one already, a small house, two bedrooms, a block from his mom’s house. He just hadn’t told everyone yet. He’d signed the lease papers with Charlotte that morning, and they were taking possession on the first of the coming month.
“A bachelor pad doesn’t work with an instant family,” he said. “We’re crammed in like sardines, and Charlotte and I kind of need our own bedroom with a door. You know, can’t remember the last time I slept in pajamas. Never owned a pair, so there I was in the store, having to buy some.”
His sister couldn’t help smiling. Then she turned serious. “I like Charlotte, always have. I think she’s good for you. Heard Jimmy signed the divorce papers.”
He grunted. “She let him have the house. Left him with nothing else to argue about, so he had no reason to keep on fighting.”
Karen swirled her wine and was staring across the table at him. He knew she had something else on her mind. “I heard back from Reine’s father,” she said. “I reached out to him for Reine. He’s going to see her. Sounds like he’s going to bring in his own lawyer and try to appeal. You should know he said he wants to see Eva.”
The knot that had eased only a few days ago returned. He could lose her. He dragged his gaze back to the kitchen, seeing how Eva was tucked close to Charlotte and how much she loved her already.
“But he’s not planning on seeking custody,” Karen said. “He’s remarried and travels. He said as long as Eva is happy and taken care of…”
He pulled his gaze back to his sister. “So he won’t be stepping in and taking her?”
She just shook her head. “No. He spoke with Reine and said he’d respect her wishes. Seems she said you and Charlotte taking Eva will make her time easier. She could see how much you cared and that Eva will be okay, that you’ll make sure of it. I told her we’re a big family, and we’ll all make sure she’s okay and looked after. Seemed to be what she needed to hear.”
He just nodded and dangled his beer, feeling as if there was more.
“Heard Bert stepped down, too,” Karen said. “Next week, you’re officially the new sheriff until the next election.”
Then there was that.
“Just came a little too late,” he said. “If only…”
Karen pulled in a breath. “Well, Marcus, if anything good will come out of this, at least you’ll run things differently. The kindness you showed Reine… Marcus, you’ve always treated everyone with the same respect and dignity you would want to be treated with in the same circumstances. I remember you saying that once, but seeing it now, you really are going to make a difference here.”
From the backyard, Owen called out, “Burgers are ready! Come and dish up.”
Karen stood up and rested her hand on his shoulder as she went to walk past. “Heard too that you’ve been ordered by the city council to hire a woman for the new deputy position.”
Right. There was that as well, the political side of things. He groaned as he thought of the resumes he’d been provided by the mayor. “Yeah,” was all he said.
Karen smiled down on him. “Well, if anyone can handle the task, I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” she said.
He followed her into the kitchen, seeing Alison helping Eva dress a dog with a bottle of mustard, and he took in the woman he loved as she strode over to him and slid her arm around his waist.
“So, everything good?” she said.
He knew what she was asking, and he looked over to Karen, who was laughing over something Suzanne had said. The only one missing was Luke. He just hoped that tomorrow, they’d hear when he’d finally be coming home.
“Yeah, everything’s perfect,” he said, then leaned down and kissed Charlotte. He was no longer single but a man with an instant family. It really didn’t get any better than this.
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