Out of Focus

Harlequin Super Romance | Share

by Fallon DeMornay

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Pitch

Eva Turner’s a single mom in witness protection hoping to start over and establish lifelong roots on Haven Island. But things get complicated when her small-scale photography business goes viral.

Marshall Davies is a world-weary investigative journalist (suffering PTSD) with his eye on a coveted promotion that will get him out of the field (and line of fire.) He’s exposed terrorists and slippery politicians; a single mother should be child’s play.

While passion blooms and her past closes in, Eva has to somehow elude the spotlight (and charismatic Marshall) or risk losing not only her new life/identity, but custody of her girls.

Chapter One

Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.

Wise words. More than just a motto or mantra that Eva Turner could relate to, but her survival strategy. Her lifeline. She’d typed the phrase beneath the edited digital image of scarred hands folded over bent knees, the nails ripped and filthy. A single, blunt finger crooked, inviting you to proceed but at your own caution.

I’ll tell you, but you may not like it, he’d said when she’d stopped him that evening for the photograph. Everyone had secrets. Eva was in the business of capturing them. And this man’s had been particularly…surprising.

Deleting the phrase, Eva replaced it with: Proceed with Caution. Sat back. Nodded. Yes, that’s what she’d call it.

Bleary, she knuckled her eyelids and yawned. Five solid hours of editing was hell on the corneas and a sinus headache threatened to bloom, flashing along the left curve of her brow. The door whispered open at her back and the irritating notes of crisp perfume flooded the closet-sized space.

“Are you seriously going to spend all day crammed in here?” Jenelle Davies leaned in, half over the threshold. “We got a walk-in that I think is going to bite. Why don’t you take this one? A little break from the screen and some client interaction will do you good.”

Eva lifted bloodshot eyes to scowl at her best friend and gallery manager. “I thought that’s why I hired you?”

“The first smart decision you ever made.” Jenelle tousled copper waves, radiant as morning sun wrapped in a cobalt dress. “Now do as I said: get up.”

“I’m busy.” Eva sighed, the bones in her neck cracking as she angled her head left then right.

“And I’m taking five.”

“Son of a…” Eva scowled at her retreating back, fingers drumming against an overburdened desk. Who, she thought, was supposed to be the damn employee? Pushing to her feet, Eva marched out from the back and into the heart of Out of Focus Gallery where the chemical scent of paint slapped her straight, reminding her for the third time that she should have listened to Jenelle’s recommendation of closing up to properly air the place out. Well, at least it hadn’t chased off patrons from swinging in and exploring.

She’d opted for muted colours, nothing too harsh or ostentatious to take away from the artwork. Her photography. Here, surrounded by bits and pieces of the people she’d captured—connected to them through canvas and secrets—she didn’t feel so alone.

Or…exposed.

There were only a few people milling about, but the woman fixed near the front, lost in a moment of silent reflection, drew her eye. As Eva approached, she took in details.

Long hair hung straight without a kink or wave, more brown than black. She had the curvy frame of a woman who didn’t mind carrying around a few extra pounds, especially when they migrated to all the right places, giving a sense of lush femininity.

She stood hipshot, arms crossed and head tilted to the left, admiring a portrait blown up to the size of a small TV. One of Eva’s first and, in truth, one of her most favourite.

An old man’s face was just visible in the curved sphere of a beer bottle, a mostly toothless mouth turned up into a guffawing laugh. But the closer his face veered to the thickened ringed curve of dark green glass, that smile transformed from a grin into a wail. A single bead of brew ran along the bend, following the withered cheek like a tear.

One of joy? Sorrow? Eva had left that open to interpretation.

“This one’s called: Bottom of the Beer Bottle. He’s a character, isn’t he?” Eva stood next to her, shoulder to shoulder, in study.

“It’s like I know him,” she said, voice smooth and clean. The young woman glanced over and a radiant smile danced in almond shaped eyes. Given the locals on Haven mostly descended from one of the three local tribes, Eva recognized the raw-boned features of Native American bloodline.

Her fingers itched for her camera.

“This photographer…is incredible. Amazing. Such…depth. And life. I keep meaning to walk away, to look at the others, but this one—he calls me back and I can’t move. I don’t want to.”

“He had that effect, more so in person.” Eva scraped a hand over torso where her camera should have been resting, felt the grit of spaghetti sauce dried over cotton against her palm.

“I think I wasted more than half the morning listening to him.” She remembered the whitewashed sky, clouds stretched so far and thin that not a scrap of blue was visible for miles over the harbour. He’d sat on the edge of a dock, bottles lined up next to him and spaced an inch apart in rows of three by three. She’d counted twelve when she’d first sat down to join him.

There’d been quite a few more by the time she’d left.

“He had a cadence to his voice. And loved to talk. About anything really, kicking back beers and lighting cigarette after cigarette that he didn’t take a drag from once.”

The woman’s gaze shifted to her, awestruck. “You’re Eddie Blake? The photographer?”

Shit, Eva thought. And this is why she didn’t like interfacing with people. “No. Just a grunt,” she said, back-peddling. “I tag along, maybe snap a pic or two, but Eddie’s the genius behind the lens.”

Whether she bought the lie or not, Eva couldn’t say for sure. After a brief pause, she thrust out a hand bearing a diamond large enough to sink the island, but on the wrong finger. “I’m Niobe. Niobe Pierce.”

Eva accepted the proffered hand, shook once.

“My employer will love this. How much?”

“A hundred and fifty for a print this size.” Eva gestured to the small tag at the bottom left corner. “And if you don’t like the framing we can have it swapped out for a custom look at a small charge.”

“No, no this is perfect. This weathered wood. He looks a bit like an old sea captain, don’t you think? With that tattered sailors cap and collared shirt beneath his coat? All that’s missing is the pipe. Sort of a geriatric Popeye.”

Eva snorted at the comparison. “I think he would have liked that.”

“So…” An excited gleam flushed beneath dusky skin. “Can I take a peek? Since I’m buying him?”

Reaching for the frame, Eva turned the portrait around to reveal the trademark bronzed plaque beneath. She watched as Niobe’s eyes raced to soak up the words. The rush of awe and wistful surprise, the wonder and shock, it never got old. Those eyes lifted, and when she finally spoke, her voice was soft as a dream.

“Don’t you want to see?”

“Don’t need to. I never forget a face, or a story.” Eva mounted the photo back to its place on the wall. Levelled it. “He’s yours now. Jenelle will process payment and we’ll have him wrapped up and ready for you to take, or we could have it delivered to your hotel.”

“Delivery would be fantastic. I’m staying at the Fairmont Hotel, on the mainland.”

“I know the place.” Pricey. And sold out, last she’d heard, by a film crew shooting some high octane thriller. Eva waved Jenelle over and let her store manager do what she did best. Manage the customers. Twenty minutes later, Jenelle sashayed to where Eva stood, staring out the front window.

“What a sale! Two prints, custom matting and earlier I put the bug in Nancy Leung’s ear about a baby shower present for—God, help me.” Jenelle’s smile dropped. “I can’t believe you faced a client looking like that.” She wagged an accusatory finger at Eva, motioning from choppy, dark hair down to tattered converse.

“I always look like this.”

“More’s the pity. Couldn’t you at least have put on a clean shirt?”

Eva glanced down at the quarter-sized splatter of red sauce smeared into the pale blue denim of her oversized-button up and shrugged. “It’s mostly clean. Besides, I told you I didn’t want to do it. Maybe next time you’ll listen.”

“You’ve such a pretty face.” Jenelle pushed back the uneven layers of Eva’s bangs to reveal the delicate shape hidden beneath. “I don’t understand why you insist on dressing like a slob.”

“Give me a break.” Eva forked fingers through her hair, disordering the locks Jenelle had smoothed down. “Next to you anyone is going to look like a slob.”

“Well,” pleased, she batted long lashes around silver eyes, “one cannot be faulted for natural beauty.”

And she was, Eva thought, from her stellar bone structure to her long legs. Though she was a complete and utter sweetheart, Jenelle Davies lacked a single humble bone in her killer body.

“Hey, before you dive back behind the computer, I want to talk to you about our social media presence.”

Because her back was still throbbing from hours hunched in her chair, Eva lifted her arms and spun them in large, winging circles. “What about it?”

“How about the fact that we don’t have one?”

Eva dropped her arms. Scowled. “Christ on a crutch, Jenelle. Not this again.”

“Do you have any idea how many new businesses fail within their first year? Within their first five years?”

Here we go.

“Sixty percent,” Jenelle ploughed on. “Sixty. I don’t want that to be us. Our numbers are looking good. Solid. But after six months we could be doing so much better.”

“And how are a couple of hashtags and likes going to change that?”

“By making us relevant.” Jenelle’s hands shot up in exasperation as Eva walked off. “By giving us exposure.”

“I thought that’s why I was forking out a large chunk of money for our company website?”

“That’s not enough these days. Not even close.” Hot on her heels, Jenelle caught Eva by the arm, brought her back around so they stood face to face. Or as close as possible when Jenelle clocked in at a runway five eleven. “I’m talking about building a brand. Social media is crucial. We need to get connected to the world through Facebook, Twitter—a blog!”

Eva rubbed a sweaty palm across her chest where a panicked heart kicked. “No.”

“I can manage the extra work, alright? For now at least. Once things pick up we could look into hiring a Social Media manager to—”

“No. I said no. No.”

Jenelle’s face fell in to flat lines of irritation. “Won’t you at least think about it?”

“You said our numbers are looking good, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then don’t talk to me about a damn Facebook page until sales start to dip, okay?” Rolling her wrist, Eva looked at the time and winced. Christ, she was cutting it close. “I’ve got to run and get the girls. You good to close up on your own?”

“Sure.” Jenelle waved a hand, stiff with annoyance. “Go home and get an early night; you’re starting to look like hell.”

“Love you, too, bitch.”Eva flashed a sarcastic grin and softened Jenelle up with a noisy kiss to her cheek.

Pulling into the school parking lot with five minutes to spare, Eva slid into the last available spot closest to the main doors. From here she had clear sightlines of the entrance to Dallington Middle School.

Turning off the engine she thrust the gear into park, and watched the flock of moms and dads loitering by the gates with a mixture of avarice and apathy. How nice to be so carefree. To wake in the mornings and know that the world hadn’t changed; that life would go on with its simple and menial routines.

That the most challenging decision of the day being what to make for dinner? What shirt to wear? Which bill to pay first? And Eva wondered if life would ever be so…easy for her again?

Reaching into the stash tucked under the passenger seat, she found the box of granola bars, ripped one open with her teeth and spat out a sliver of wrapping as the bells tolled. Bodies poured through the front doors, her eyes searched and peeled.

Where the heck is Hailey? And took a venomous bite.

Eva glanced up at the sound of fingers tapping musically against her window, sending her heart—and a chunk of granola bar—into her throat. Claire Willows, a tidy blonde with an infectious smile, waited patiently for Eva to recover from her coughing fit.

“Hi, sorry—you looked like you’re in a rush and I wanted to catch you quickly before you take off.”

“Actually,” throat burning, Eva wiped moisture from the corners of her eyes, “I can’t. I’m—”

“Oh, I know. This won’t take long.” Claire curled her fingers over the partition of glass, lowering so that they were almost level. “Hailey’s with Sam—Samantha—my daughter. Over by the tree.” Eva followed Claire’s slender hand pointing off to the left and sure enough there was Hailey making a pointed effort not to look in their direction.

“Girls!” Claire called out, waving them over before turning back to Eva, voice hushed. “Sam would love to have Hailey over. And I could drop them off at school together in the morning. No trouble.”

“Thanks, but that’s not a good idea.”

“I know it’s incredibly last minute but—”

“No.”

“If you’re worried that it’s a school night, I can promise Hailey won’t be up late. Scouts honour.” Those pretty eyes beamed with such simple honesty, it was hard not to feel like an ogre snarling in the face of the beautiful princess.

“Claire, is it?” Eva tipped down her sunglasses, gripped the wheel with her other hand. “I don’t allow my girls to have sleepovers. Period. Just a personal thing, okay?”

“Oh.” Claire popped straight, stray golden curls tugged by the wind and a note of wounded hurt in her voice. “Okay. Sure. Girls,” she sang, quickly composing that sunny little grin on her face so quick Eva was hard pressed not to feel a small tug of admiration. “Ms. Turner and I were having a little chat, turns out tonight isn’t going to work.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Hailey grumbled with a roll of her eyes, sending Eva’s already heated blood to boil.

“I know you’re disappointed.” Claire smoothed a hand over Hailey’s shoulder. Those soft eyes flitted to Eva, timid as a small bird. Hopeful. “Summer’s rolling in soon…maybe we could arrange for something?”

“Fat chance.”

“Cool it, missy.” Irritated, Eva pushed her shades back in place. “I’ve said my piece and if you keep at it you can forget about that intensive drama program next week.”

Hailey’s face tightened, her lips pressed into a firm white line as she bit down on whatever mutinous and snide remark Eva saw flashing in her eyes.

“Get in the car.” She jerked a thumb at the passenger seat. “I’m late for your sisters. Move. Your. Butt.”

Hailey yanked open the door, heaved in her knapsack with a dramatic growl.

“Oh, well, nice chatting with you, Eva.” Claire looped an arm around Samantha’s shoulder, a perfect miniature replica of her mother.

Offering a non-committal nod and smile, Eva rolled the window back up, turning the key in the ignition.

“You didn’t have to be so rude, y’know.”

“I wouldn’t need to be if you didn’t set up Sam’s mom to ambush me,” Eva snapped irritably, angling around in her seat so she as she pushed the car into reverse.

“Wasn’t my idea.”

Eva snorted, turning the car out onto the residential street. “Why don’t I buy that?”

“You never let me do anything.”

“With good reason, Hail.” She looked over at her daughter; body turned towards the window and her face a crumpled ruin of righteous disappointment.

“You know it’s too risky.”

“Whatever.” Hailey traced a finger over the window in swirling, despondent circles of hate. There was no way to reach her like this. No way to breech that twelve year-old sullen, hormonal amour. And, once again, playing the Bad Guy meant Eva was going to face the wrath of Hurricane Hail for the rest of the week.

Great, Eva thought, returning her eyes to the road. Just perfect.

Waking to a hot lick of dog’s breath was not Marshall Davies idea of a great start to the day. Swiping a hand across his face, he rolled away from an avid, slobbering tongue.

“Down. Down, LeBron. Jesus,” he muttered, pushing eighty pounds of hyper Labrador off of him. Sitting up straight, Marshall’s head spun on his shoulders and a spike of pain ripped down his right arm.

Fast, sharp. He swore a vicious stream, hugging the limb to his body.

Breathing through the worst of it, he waited for his heart to kick back down to normal before he tested for range of movement. Rolling his right shoulder, the joint whined like a bitch in heat, but what else was new? Served him right for sleeping on it.

Lifting his hand, Marshall flexed his fingers, rotated his wrist and shook it out, willing the sensation to fade. At least his arm wasn’t shaking, he thought. And when he pressed his thumb to fingertips, he found no lingering threads of discomfort or weakness in the grip. Be patient, he told himself, stuffing his left hand into the back pocket of the jeans he’d slept in and cursed.

No smokes. This was two weeks in to Going-Cold-Turkey 4.0.

So, to curb the itch, he dug around in a kitchen drawer for a pack of gum and punched a couple of tablets from the plastic casing. Cinnamon worked best for soothing his nerves. The heat and spice coating his tongue and firing down his throat. But it was a poor, poor substitute for the smoky pull of nicotine.

While the coffeemaker gurgled to life, Marshall snatched up his laptop and plunked down on a weathered sectional, kicking his feet up on the length. A few clicks and he was in his email, pushing and wading through until he found the one he was looking for from his editor, Danni Dobre.

Clock’s ticking, buddy. Gervais isn’t going to sit on this forever. Time to make a decision. Tell me I haven’t backed the wrong horse?

While LeBron whipped around in spastic circles, bounding from kitchen to living room and back, Marshall sat in frowning silence.

He could read the subtext easy enough. Slapping the top down with a muttered oath, he set the computer aside.

Nearly six months since that stray bullet pumped from a Nigerian rebel’s gun knocked him clean off his feet and straight into physical rehab, you’d think the guy could get a bit of break? For ten years he’d circled the world, three times over, covering political unrest, global suffrage and terrorist uprisings.

He’d lived for the rush and thrill, and prided himself on digging deep to find the heavy-hitting cases that struck the jugular, and newspaper gold. At thirty-four he’d carved out a pretty impressive reputation.

Deadline Davies. The man who got the impossible done. The man without fear.

The man who was now secretly scared shitless after a near brush with death.

Tingling worked down his arm, shooting from elbow to wrist, spiking into his fingers. Nerve damage and residual bruising, the doctors had said, from the bullet ripping through muscle. Most of the damage had been reversed with rehab, but it was possible that it would never quite go away. That he’d live with this for the rest of his life.

Clock’s ticking, buddy…Yeah, it fucking was. This time last year he’d been at the top of his game. A force to be reckoned with. Now he had to ask himself which way he wanted to go. Back to the grind and pulse hammering beat of chasing a killer story, or spiralling down the drain to land with the rest of the bloodied corpses of the broken and burnt out…

In his kitchen, Marshall rummaged around, between bottles and debris, for his phone. Punching in Danni’s number, he waited all of three rings for her to answer with a firm, no-nonsense, “What?”

“Dee,” he said, leaning against the counter.

“Marshall. Bout freaking time. What the hell took you so long?”

“You sent me that email only six hours ago.”

“Yeah. A whopping five and a half longer then Deadline Davies would have wasted, once upon a time.”

“So what’s the deal?” he asked, brushing a hand over his face, palm clammy with sweat. “Gervais looking to push me out? Downgrade me to the advice column?”

Danni snorted over the line and hearing her strained laughter had a knot seize in his guts. Here he was, fate hanging in the balance, potentially about to lose everything he had and she was laughing?

“It’s not funny, Dee.”

“Actually, you moron, it is. Did you even read the damn email I flipped you?”

“Course I did.”

“All of it?”

Marshall’s scowl deepened as he swiped through his cupboard for a clean mug. Poured in a heavy stream of black coffee. “Most of it.”

“Idiot,” she sighed. “I don’t know if I should be surprised. Let me guess, you hit as far as ‘new direction’ and your balls shrunk to marbles?”

He chugged down the first half of the scalding brew in a single, bracing swallow. Hissed against the delicious burn. “Maybe. Can you blame me? We all know what new direction is code for, Dee.” Lightheaded, Marshall set down his cup. God dammit, he wasn’t going to let it happen. Not now. He hadn’t had a panic attack in weeks.

Sucking in slow, easy breaths he willed his body to relax. To unwind.

Sensing his waves of unease, LeBron bounded over, nuzzled a wet nose into his trembling hand. Marshall stroked that soft head, and soaked up comfort like a dry sponge.

“In most cases, sure. But not this time.” Over the line he heard the rapid-fire tapping of keys and pictured Danni, blonde hair a wild mess atop her head—held in place by a gnawed on pencil—shoulders hunched and bare feet tucked up on her seat.

“What if I told you that CTV is looking to bring in some new blood for their evening news desk?”

His heart kicked into an unnatural rhythm, but this time it was excitement instead of white-knuckled terror.

“What if I told you,” those fingers stilled and the line went very, very quiet, “that LaFlamme is stepping down?”

“No way.”

“Way.”

“Why?”

“Cancer. Stage four. In her bones, so I’m told. Off the record, for now. Producers want to keep this quiet until they’ve secured her replacement. We’ve got little over three months to push you up the short-list.”

“Shit.” Legs weak, Marshall slid to the floor. Laughed. LeBron stretched across his lap, stroking his neck with long, lavishing licks. “Holy shit.”

“Don’t get too psyched, yet. You’ve got competition and it’s a doozy.”

Clearing the fog from his brain, Marshall whipped through the possibilities, and one in particular shot to the forefront. “Clear.”

“That why I love you, buddy. Good to see the time off hasn’t dulled your smarts. Since your messy break-up, Catherine’s been Gervais’ favourite, and he’s pushing her hard while you’ve been off.”

“Jesus, Dee, I’ve been fighting for my life. You make it sound like I’ve been on extended holiday in a resort spa, or something.”

“I’m sorry, okay? But you know how this works—the moment you’re off the radar you’re irrelevant. Doesn’t matter why. And Gervais thinks you’re washed up. Over. I need Deadline Davis back.”

Marshall pressed a hand to his belly, swallowed the rise of vomit. “You want me back on the ground?”

“No. Thank God. Not that. After the Boko Haram incident, Canada loves you. And CTV loves that Canada loves you. But they’re not entirely sold. We need to show them you’re more than bullets and blood and bombs.”

More? What more could they possibly want? Or need?

“A softer side,” Danni continued. “This is good news, buddy. If you nail this then you can kiss the trenches goodbye. Your days of dodging danger are over. You’ll be at the top. The youngest CTV evening news anchor to assume the mantle. A legend.”

LeBron popped up at his side and Marshall locked eyes with that kind, patient face.

“Dee,” he said after a long, bracing pause. “Do you think I’m washed up?”

She didn’t even hesitate. “Fuck no, buddy. You’ve got this. I believe in you.”

Marshall closed his eyes. Smiled. And within him, somewhere deep inside, a spark blossomed…

“I want my life back, Dee. I want to be me again.”

“Atta boy. Why don’t you put your ear to the ground, get the rust off those gears? We’ll meet next week and set up a game plan.”

“Alright. Okay.” Ending the call, Marshall lurched to his feet, whistled for LeBron. He bounded up with an excited yip, and wound around Marshall’s legs as he led him out to the backdoor, cracked it open and LeBron took off like a shot. Birds scattered to the trees, squirrels bounded out of his path. Above a crisp, blue sky stretched far as Marshall could see.

A gorgeous day. Following his last session of rehabilitation therapy, he’d been holed away in this cabin by the lake for near four weeks.

Time to re-join the land of the living.

From the corner of his vision, Marshall caught sight of a tattered, scrap of leather. Tucking his phone into his pocket, he crossed the room and freed the bundle from its place in the corner, buried under a tumbled stack of books he’d poured himself into day and night for the last month.

The leather satchel was scarred. Weathered. Beat to hell and back. This damn thing had seen him through most of his career. Even had a bullet-hole from a civil uprising in Cairo.

Marshall stuck his finger in that hole, wiggled it around. After all that he’d seen, crawling belly down in three inches of jungle mud in Borneo, walking away from a rolled jeep in the Congo…two weeks as a hostage in a terrorist camp…he was lucky to be alive. He’d survived.

And, like this satchel, he was a long way off from falling apart at the seams.

The wrath of Hailey spewed hot and heavy for four days before weathering out to cool indifference. Nerves frayed from the shocking extremes, if this was Hailey at twelve, Eva dreaded the teenager years yet to come.

She woke to the sound of her alarm that went off every morning at precisely 5:30am. Not that she needed it. Her body was so aptly attuned with impending sunrise she was awake at least a full minute before the first chime. Rising from the couch bed, she folded sheets and tucked in the pull-out mattress, replacing cushions and pillows.

There, she thought, hands on her hips. No one would ever know she’d slept down here, night after night.

Stretching through a yawn, Eva lumbered upstairs, pausing to poke her head into the two spare bedrooms. Sleepy snores drifted to her and she smiled, remembering the weekend they’d devoted to painting and decorating. Payton and Lucy had squabbled over colours, one wanting blue, the other a pale pink. Eva had resolved the dispute by painting a wall each, the rest of the room in soft, harmonious cream.

As for Hailey, she had required some coaxing and nudging, eventually conceding on a colour scheme of fuchsia and tangerine. A bit on the eye-glaring side, but Eva knew when to pick and choose her battles and let Hailey do as she wished.

Slipping into an untouched master bedroom, Eva navigated around stacked boxes, a mattress and frame still in its factory wrapping, and into the adjoining bathroom. There, she faced her morning reflection with a scowl.

A shock of dark hair fell into her eyes and she pushed it back with an impatient hand. It grew fast and took over, like dandelions in a lawn. Uneven layers hung around long, lean features, framing a face dominated by large brown eyes. Her mother’s eyes, she thought with a lurch of pain remembering always brought.

Threading her hair in her hands, she examined the new growth. At least three inches in the last month leaving the end result almost…flattering. Eva’s scowl deepened.

Well, she’d just have to do something about that. And reached for the scissors inside the medicine cabinet. With no real thought or interest to aesthetics, she cut and snipped, black strands floating and falling around her like ash.

When the necessary was finished, Eva dressed in worn jeans, faded converse and one of a dozen oversized button-up shirts she cuffed at the elbows. This one a pale blue with faded white stripes. As part of her morning routine, and one of only a few things she indulged in, Eva took her coffee out to the bluffs just off the backyard.

There, among the quiet of the rocks, trees and naked ocean waters, she watched the glory of the rising sun, her heart swelling with happiness and fear.

Haven was aptly named. With its lush greenery, surrounded by brilliant blue waters, it felt a world away from everything. Even though she could see the spires and protrusions of the Vancouver cityscape along the horizon, only a two-hour ferry ride, but to her mind distant as the stars.

Here, where the cliffs rose thirty feet above the water, waves crashing against the rock-face, she breathed in the salty air and hoped. Hoped for peace of mind and security. Hoped for happiness and a simple, unassuming life that most took for granted.

And most of all, she hoped that her long, terrible and gut-wrenching road had finally come to a stop. Now she was home. Such a simple word, so easily overlooked and taken for granted. How long since she had felt that way about a place? About a community? But she had almost the instant she’d arrived in Haven. It was here Eva had begun to put down roots. Roots that she wanted to sink deep; so deep that no one could wrench them from the ground ever again.

She looked up at the house they’d moved into. Lavender Cottage, the locals called it. All white trim and shutters and walls painted a barnyard red despite its name, sitting high on the island’s south point, poised between water and stone.

The raised deck gave way to a wild tangle of flower beds and a stretch of vegetable garden she’d taken great care and pride to plant last year. While it wasn’t hers in name, the home was hers in spirit. In heart. And her hopes were once Out of Focus earned enough, she could take an offer to the owner so that Lavender Cottage could be hers in entirety.

Home. This was home. And, this time, she’d fight like hell to stay.


Chapter Two

Finished her coffee, Eva returned to find Lottie on the porch rocking away in a faded red chair. Slipping on shades against the glare of rising sun, Eva joined on her on the veranda.

“Morning.” Eva swooped in to plant a kiss against a powder soft cheek. Grey curls, just about every shade possible and soft as fine mink, were cut into a short wedge. From what she could see, there wasn’t much of Jenelle in her, Eva mused. But they shared the same laugh. A rich, bawdy sort that brought a room to stitches every time.

“You’ve been at yourself again.” Lottie glanced up from a narrow face tucked behind round spectacles and brushed a hand over Eva’s freshly shorn hair. “Looks like you tangled with a lawnmower and lost.”

“Yeah. But you should see the mower.” Eva plopped into the wicker seat next to her and boosted her feet onto the paint-chipped rail. “Got my licks in, too.”

Lottie chuckled at that, toying with water blue stones draped at her ears and throat. She had the wide hips of a woman who’d birthed seven children, but the toned discipline of one who knew the importance of keeping fit and healthy. Eva could only hope that she’d look half as good at her age.

“I brought some of my chowder with me for the girls.” Lottie rocked gently. “There should be enough left over for you to enjoy for dinner when you get back.”

“Great. Now I’ll be daydreaming about your soup while I’m stuck at the gallery.”

“Planning a long one, today?” she asked when Eva grumbled wearily.

“Not too late, promise. I know you’ve got the committee to worry about.”

“I can manage from here just fine,” Lottie dismissed, patting her arm. “I brought my laptop with me, in case. And besides, the Bartelli’s don’t arrive until Thursday. Plenty of time to roll out the Welcome Wagon.” Blue eyes, quiet and steady as a mountain stream, returned to Eva. “I remember when you and your girls first showed up on Haven. Such a quiet, skinny and reclusive little thing you were. Jumped at every noise. So…unsettled.”

Eva squirmed, the cushion padding suddenly hot as the sun baked rocks along the bluffs. She would always remember that day, too. She hadn’t expected the likes of Lottie Davies, head of Haven’s Welcome Wagon Committee, a woman who had hammered and chiselled until Eva had no choice but to let her in. She was every bit as stubborn as her headstrong daughter, Jenelle. And just as observant as her eldest son, Ethan, the head of Haven’s police department.

“You rolled in like you’d weathered a hurricane. I always wondered what brought you here to us.”

“Change of scenery,” Eva said. The same answer she gave time and time again.

“Now I’ve never asked. I’ve never pried.”

Eva softened, all defensive instincts calming. “I know.”

“And I won’t,” Lottie assured, gripping Eva’s hand firmly. “Just promise me something? That should you ever feel the need…remember that I’m here? That I love you?”

Dammit, Eva cautioned, you’re not going to cry. “I will.” And before emotion gave way to weakness, she decided now was a good time to leave.

Saying goodbye, and another quick kiss on the way, she rounded the house to the front driveway where her car sat, a battered little hatchback she’d purchased second-hand off island. The trunk already loaded with supplies that needed to be brought to the gallery stockroom.

As she stepped out into the drive, Eva glanced up in time to see Kevin, her neighbour, loping up the street. Eva prayed for him to keep going and muttered a curse when he caught sight of her and changed his course.

“Morning, beautiful.” His white t-shirt clung to a doughy torso, all sweaty and panting.

“Kevin.” She attempted a thin smile. The strain of the forced gesture tightened the muscles of her face.

“So, I was thinking,” the back of his thumbnail skimmed across his nose while beads of moisture dripped from his chin, “there’s a new restaurant opening up in Main Street. Italian.”

“Don’t think so.” Turning from him, Eva jingled her keys as she reached for the car door. He skipped around her, cutting her off.

“At least let a guy ask the question before you refuse him,” Kevin laughed, threading fingers through damp hair, cut short to hide the fact he was balding.

“Kevin.” Adjusting her tone to firm but friendly, Eva squared off with him, elbow propped on the hardtop of her vehicle. “We’ve been neighbours now, what? Going on a year?”

He pursed his lips, shrugged. “Bit longer than that, but sure.”

“And you’ve asked me out at least two dozen times?”

His smile flashed again in an altogether not unpleasant face dominated by a long nose and heavy lidded eyes. He had at least ten years on her, but made up for it with morning runs to burn off the onset of middle-aged paunch. “Thereabouts.”

“Can you please stop?”

“Eva.” He moved to touch her shoulder but she evaded by shrugging his hand away. “Can’t you just give me a chance? What’s a guy got to do?”

“We’re neighbours, Kevin. Your kids play with my girls. I’ve told you already, I don’t want to get mixed up with anyone on the island. I live here. I work here. No dating.”

Kevin scuffed a sneakered toe along the gritty asphalt, pausing to mop up his face with the hem of his shirt flashing white skin and chest hair. “So, I guess the solutions simple then, eh? I move off island and you’re fair game. Kidding, kidding.” He raised his hands with laughter when he saw the roll of her eyes.

“You’re a tough nut, but it’s a good thing I don’t bruise easy. Have a good one.” He pushed back into a jog, tossed a wave over his shoulder. “Someday I’ll wear you down, Ms. Turner. Someday.”

Eva palmed her keys, took a deep breath, than slipped into her car. Glancing up at the review mirror, she frowned at the spiked mess of her hair.

Should’ve shaved my head bald, she thought, and pushed into drive.

Eva rolled into Out of Focus a full hour before opening, arms overburdened and mood stretched as thin as a razor. Another downside to island living? Island driving. The slow rolling, meandering sort of urgency grated her city girl nerves until she yearned for the congestion of exhaust and highway traffic.

“Good morning.” Jenelle rose from the stool behind the counter, stretched arms and back. “Oooh good, you brought coffee.”

“And croissants. Freshly baked from that new patisserie.” Eva set the goods down on the counter. Removed her shades to assess her closest and dearest friend on Haven. “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.” Jenelle kept her face glued to the screen but flickered a quick glance towards Eva.

“You get asked out a lot, right?”

Jenelle snorted a giggle, the kind of sound that should have been awkward and ugly if it had been uttered by a being less…enthralling. “Understatement. Now that its tourist season, I’ll have to drag out the stick to beat them off. Why?”

Eva set her arms to the polished stone, sighed. “Kevin.”

“Ah. Poor love-struck Kevin. Panting at your heels again?”

“I can’t get him to back off.”

“What’s wrong with Kev? He’s a total sweetheart and some serious work in the gym has upped his sex-factor exponentially. More than a few of the ladies on the island are starting to take notice. You should give him a chance.”

“Jen.” At a loss, Eva hung her head.

“Alright, alright. So, no interest at all? Not even a little? Or is this just your stupidly rigid ‘no-men-from-the-island’ rule impeding things?”

Eva thought carefully before answering. “He’s attractive in his own way, I suppose. And he’s obviously a terrific dad to Peter and Tracy,” she added, referring to his two kids, both closest in age to her eldest daughter, Hailey. “But, no. I’m not interested. No spark. No fizzle. I get more of a buzz from Mr. Rogers.”

Jenelle snorted again at that. “Oh dear. That’s not good.”

“I figured eventually he’d give up, move on. But it’s been six months. And I swear, if this continues I’ll probably move just to avoid the grief.”

“Yeah, right. Like you’d give up that spot. And the view.” Jenelle winked then drew silent, contemplating Eva’s present dire circumstances. “Well, not much you can do that you haven’t done already. But if you really want him to get the message, then maybe you need to start dating.”

Eva slanted a glare at Jenelle. “I fail to see how that would solve anything.”

“He can’t pursue you if you’re taken.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious. Kinda hard to manage if I won’t get involved with anyone local, don’t you think?”

Jenelle shrugged an absent shoulder, blowing into her coffee, heavily laced with sugar, cream and caramel. “That’s your problem.”

Seeing she was going to be of no help, Eva left to unload the car. It took three trips to haul in the printing paper, photography supplies and other sundries, the last of which was a box loaded with some film for the vintage camera she’d nabbed for a steal on eBay. A sexy little Japanese model she couldn’t wait to take out and capture the world with.

Dropping the film off on her desk, she booted up her laptop and sunk into the large, cushioned work chair; the faux leather a mess of scratches and tears. Eva often imagined the prior owner as a portly woman surrounded by a lot of cats. But it was reasonably comfy and had come at the inarguable price of free, so she wasn’t about to nitpick over its faults.

First things first, Eva dealt with the boring and menial, shifting through paperwork, bills and accounting records. Pleased to see a strong and steady profit margin in this month’s sales, thanks to Jenelle’s effective management. She was more than a beautiful face, Eva thought, but a shrewd and savvy businesswoman.

Switching over to her personal bank accounts, Eva transferred a portion of her funds over to savings, set her bottom lip between her teeth and gnawed. At the rate she was crawling, maybe in a year she could approach Declan with a decent offer. Based on property value in the surrounding neighbourhood, Eva guessed Lavender Cottage was worth somewhere in the high seven hundred thousand.

With twenty thousand currently in her savings, she hoped that maybe another twenty, or twenty-five to be safe, would be enough to have him take interest. And for the banks to clear her for financing.

One of the many pitfalls to starting over from scratch, Eva mused, was the lack of credit history to fall back on. Speaking of history…tapping a thumb against her keyboard, she hesitated only for few minutes before punching out a brief email.

Jerry: Need an ETA on money issue—ASAP. Kisses to Mama B.

And before she had a moment to question whether or not reaching out to Jerry was a good idea, Eva hit send. To take her mind off the matter, slotting in a memory card, she rolled through the pictures captured last weekend, picking out the cream of the crop and discarded the rest. Afterwards, she deferred to her notes for the matching secrets and revelations.

Her most favourite of the grouping was of a little girl, about four years old. She’d photographed her holding onto her mother’s hand, sticky with dripping ice cream. And just out of focus, from the vantage point of the child, was the blurred smiling face of her mother. To contrast and soften the world of black, white and grey, she kept the sweet, candy pink colour of the ice cream.

The message to be inscribed on the plaque: She makes me laugh; and scares away the monsters from under my bed.

She’d call it Absolute Trust.

Between that and at least a dozen others, Eva spent a solid portion of her morning tweaking lighting, colour contrast and other elements of the photos to bring them to where she’d envisioned. Sighing against sore muscles, Eva smiled, pleased with what was proving to be a productive day’s work. At this rate, she’d have half a dozen more prints ready for framing, and the rest finished before end of week.

It took the wailing grumble of her protesting stomach for her to realize she’d hadn’t touched anything aside from the coffee she’d chugged on the way in. Popping out of her seat, Eva left in search of food and was distracted in her mission by Jenelle’s giddy squeal.

“What?” Rounding the counter, Eva tried to take a look at the computer monitor but Jenelle snapped it around and out of view.

A guilty expression wormed across her striking face. “Don’t be angry.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing. Well, a little something. Tiny. Smidgin, really.” She took a breath, and then turned the screen around revealing a shocking white background with a blue header. It took Eva a whole ten seconds to process, and once the dots connected, her stomach seized like a fist.

“You opened a Facebook page?”

“Four days ago.” Wincing, Jenelle twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “And as of an hour ago we’ve shot through the stratosphere! Look.” She gestured to the header were a grouping of numbers were displayed. Eva read it three times, just to be sure.

“We’ve had over a million visitors?”

“No, not visitors. Likes. People have liked the page. And here,” she scrolled down to a collection of thumbnail images—images of Eva’s most recent collection of portraits. “Most of these have had several hundred thousand likes a piece, but this one—this one has gone viral.”

Eva waited while Jenelle pulled up another page belonging to famed actor Samuel Russell, and there smiling up at them from the bottom of a beer bottle was the laughing/weeping face of the kindly old man.

“Remember when this sold?”

“Course I do, it was just last week.” Eva leaned in closer and read the staggering number of two million views for the image on the actor’s page, and close to a hundred thousand comments and twice that in shares.

“Holy shit…”

“Right? And, and!” Excitedly, Jenelle raced from behind the main counter to the phone where she pressed the voicemail button. “Listen to this!”

Voices rang out as she skipped from one message to the next to the next until Eva’s eyes spun like dice on a craps table.

“What the heck is all that about?”

“Reporters! Journalists! They want to do a scoop on Out of Focus. They want to meet the mastermind behind the Faces of Haven, that’s what they’re calling it all over the net. Faces of Haven. Have to admit it’s pretty catchy. I used it for our page name.”

“Take it down.”

Jenelle’s sculpted brows fell into flat lines over stunned eyes. “But—?”

“I said take it down, Jen. This is too much. We’re supposed to be just a little gallery. Simple. Small. I don’t want all this publicity.”

“Are you crazy? Do you know I had a walk-in this morning willing to pay twice what The Housewife Lies is worth? And that we had a line waiting outside our door? One couple told me they rolled in to Haven just because the hype Bottom of the Beer Bottle has generated?”

The muscle in Eva’s neck tightened straight down to her shoulders, stiff and as uncompromising as her tone. “Take down the page, Jen.”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? But If I hadn’t opened this page, someone else would have. And as for the reporters, they’re going to come creeping around now whether you like it or not.”

“All the more reason for me to keep a distance.” Backing away, Eva made a beeline for her office.

Unwilling to drop matters, Jenelle followed in hot pursuit, heels clacking a determined beat against hardwood. “Hear me out, okay? I think you should arrange for an interview.” Because she had legs up to her ears, she cut Eva off, wedging her body between Eva and the office door. “My brother is kind of a big deal journalist. He’s written some award winning stuff. I could ask him to—?”

“Out of the question. No reporters. No journalists,” Eva said, drilling her finger into Jenelle’s side. “And if any of them come sniffing around—no comment, do you understand me? I don’t want them knowing my name, showing up at my door or camping on my lawn. I don’t want my face in the news, got it?”

An expression stole across Jenelle’s features; one Eva wasn’t accustomed to seeing in her friend. Oh, she’d seen it in others. It was a look she’d come to know well and grew wary of.

Speculation.

“What are you so afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Yes, you are. Question is why? Two years, Eva. We’ve been friends for two years and do you know I don’t really know anything about you?”

“Course you do.”

“No.” Jenelle took her hand, her gaze firm as her touch. “Not really. You don’t let me in. Or anyone. And people talk. They’re starting to wonder what you’re hiding.”

Panic bloomed in her throat, a hot, spiked little ball. “I’m not hiding anything.”

“Then do the article. It’ll be good for the community. And you could use the boost in sales. Marshall’s great. As your friend, and gallery manager, I’m asking you to do this.”

“I don’t like people poking at me with questions.”

“We’ll ask him to focus on the gallery. On the work. We can keep you out of it.” Jenelle’s fingers anxiously toyed with her manicured nails.

Eva took a deep breath, held it, and then released it in a weary exhalation that ruffled the choppy edge of short bangs. She could dig in and push back, no one had the market cornered on stubbornness like she did, but Jenelle was right: the ball was rolling and there was no way to stop it without being run over.

She would have to weather the storm until the buzz died down. People were fickle and would lose interest almost as quickly as it had been sparked. This was the age of viral videos and social media pandemonium.

No one knew that she was Eddie Blake, the sole artist behind the success, and because Eva didn’t have many close friends, no one really could think to point the finger in her direction.

A quick interview, nothing harmless, and then she’d put it all behind her. The hype would run its course and eventually the next big thing would leap up and claim the spotlight. Who knows, maybe she’d get super lucky and be dethroned by a dancing kitten before the damn interview took place.

“Fine. No pictures of me. I don’t want my name in the article. We focus on the work and the work, alone. Alright?”

Jenelle’s full-wattage smile punched across her face and she took Eva’s hands, bouncing with glee. “Great. I’ll let mom know. She’ll be so tickled.”

Tickled…Christ and all his fucking disciples, what the hell had she agreed to? On hands and knees, scouring her kitchen floor, her teeth clenched and knuckles cracking. With the girls fed, bathed and asleep upstairs, she’d spent the last four hours of what should have been her coveted free time vegging to Game of Thrones on a full-fledged cleaning bender.

The air thick with the chemical scent of bleach and cleanser.

Her appliances sparkled, her counters gleamed and her bathroom was so sterile she’d be proud enough to serve the Queen of England dinner in her bathtub, and still her mind was a tempest of panic. Cleaning had always soothed and calmed. Not this time.

Calm? Not even bloody close. And, if her mood was any indicator, sleep was going to be far off in the distant yonder, mocking her until sun-up.

Sitting back on her knees, Eva let out a low, grating groan. Her shirt clung to her sweaty body, moisture dripped down her neck and, god dammit, her nose itched. Tossing the sponge in the bucket at her side, Eva stripped off her gloves and shot to her feet.

Wine. Wine would soothe her frayed nerves. Clawing at the irritating itch, she dug through the lower cabinet of her kitchen pantry and found an unopened bottle of red, reserved for cooking. Or emergencies. Five minutes spent hunting down the bottle opener and wrestling with the cork, Eva sank into her couch with a bowl-sized mug filled to the brim with pinot noir and inhaled.

How am I going to get out of this? Mug clutched in her hands, she looked down at the dark pool of red and hated that she wanted to cry. Scream, too. But mostly cry. How had things taken such an insane turn? Christ, she could happily strangle Jenelle and her stubborn know-it-all self.

But never one to wallow in self-pity for long, Eva decided to dig out a notepad and a pen to brainstorm her way out of this mess. By the time she’d finished the mug of wine, all she had were a handful of pretty shitty ideas.

Cursing, Eva tossed the pad aside. “I’m screwed.” But then somewhere in her deepest corner of self-preservation a voice clamoured to the forefront.

Know your enemy. The beauty about life in a society steeped in social connectivity was that nothing was private anymore. The Internet was a hotbed of information; anyone and anything could be found if you only knew where to dig. Hadn’t her past demonstrated as much?

With her laptop set at the table, Eva decided to do some digging of her own. To know her enemy.

An hour in and the hackles slowly began to relax. Marshall Davies wasn’t hard to find. As a journalist, he was well-documented and covered. She skimmed through a few of his articles, spanning from his early days, all the way up to his last major story on the missing Nigerian school girls snatched by the Boko Haram.

She found his writing strong, insightful. He cut right to the quick, until your heart bled about as much as the poor souls he captured on the page. But everyone had layers, secrets, and Eva was determined to uncover what she could of his. She may not have been one for wasting time on Facebook or Twitter, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know how to work her way through them.

It was amazing the amount of personal information people pumped out into the net. Staggering, really.

Where they worked. Where they lived. Where their kids went to school! Their whole lives. Bam! Out there. And all you needed to do to find it was a few strokes of the keys. And most didn’t even bother to set up basic privacy or security restrictions! Only when she paused to rub the blurring glare out of her eyes did Eva realize she’d worked straight through the night.

Through the dining room window, overlooking the backyard she saw the red rim of a rising sun peaking over a watery horizon. Closing her browser, Eva checked the time on her laptop and cursed.

Clocking in at just after six.

In four hours she’d managed to compile a rather impressive folio of information, certainly not everything but enough to gather that Marshall Davies was a man of integrity and compassion. Not that she should have been surprised. Though she might not know him personally, she knew his family. Adored his family. And trusted them beyond question.

There was no way a man could grow up under the likes of Lottie Davies and not come out as a decent individual. If mothering were a sport, Lottie would be a seven-time Olympic gold medalist. Of her brood, Eva knew only three of them personally, but the rest were well spoken of. Accomplished. Settled.

Leaning back in her seat, Eva closed her eyes, rolled her head on her shoulders and sighed. Finally, finally her muscles began to unwind and sheer, exhausting fatigue settled in thick and heavy, cloaking her like a blanket.

Thankfully it was Saturday. She could crawl upstairs into bed and leave Hailey to handle breakfast for her sisters. They could binge on sugar cereal and morning cartoons. By noon she’d be somewhat rested enough to face what remained of the day.

Maybe she could take them down to that park and pack a little picnic lunch…Thoughts turning to a fuzzy mess, Eva turned and was stopped short by Hailey, her skinny frame swallowed up in one of Eva’s old t-shirts, eyes narrowed in wary speculation.

“Mom…?”

“Hey baby.” Raising a hand to her mouth, Eva yawned hugely. “Why are you up so early?” Hailey’s scowl deepened and she pushed a messy lock of dark hair out of her eyes.

“Um. Drama…” she said in that pre-teen ‘well, duh‘ tone.

“Drama?” Eva repeated, drawing a complete and utter blank. And that set a lit match to the volatile powder keg of her daughter’s hormones.

“You forgot again didn’t you!”

Shit. Today was the first day of the intensive drama program. “Yes, baby. I’m sorry, I forgot.” She eased a hip against the table; eyes squinted because at this point her lids were waging holy war to roll shut. “Listen, I can’t take you there this morning. Momma’s been up all night and—”

“I can’t believe you’re bailing on me!”

“I’m not bailing, honey, I’m exhausted. I told you I was up all night—”

“Working, yeah. Got it.” Hailey’s face twisted into a mask of blatant accusation. “Don’t you understand this is important to me? Do you even care about what I want?”

“Hailey…Not now, okay? Can we talk about this later?”

“But you promised!”

“I know. I’m sorry. Please, I just need a moment.”

“Seriously? You always do this to me! You never listen. If I was Payton, or Lucy, you’d drop everything, but when it’s important to me, you—”

“For the love of fucking Christ, Hailey, I can’t do this right now! Enough!” The look of sorrowful hurt was only a moment, but the pain of it branded Eva’s soul with instant regret. “Oh, baby…I didn’t mean it.” She reached for her but Hailey was already retreating in a hurry upstairs to her room. The resounding slam of a door followed in her wake.

Utterly beaten, Eva shuffled over to the couch, gathered a pillow to her face, and screamed.


Chapter Three

Marshall leaned against the rail, gaze stretching out over the sun-dappled water, and smiled. He dragged in the salty brine of ocean as the ferry ploughed towards the dock, people pushing in around him, readying to disembark. As May rounded in to June, tourist season was now kicking in. The beaches would be thick with families and greased bodies soaking up the brilliant summer sun, dogs clamouring in pounding surf.

The air ripe with sunscreen, hotdogs and salt.

The last time he’d been home was about this time last year, and before that…too damn long. His visits were short and not often enough. Always dragged away by the call of a story, out into the muck and mire. Marshall worked the muscle above his right shoulder, massaging and kneading the ache from the joint.

He itched for the release of meds but didn’t want to cave to the weakness. Not when they dulled his mind, taking away his keen edge of observation, a journalist’s prime asset. And even though he wasn’t facing off with a jaded senator or gun-toting religious supremacist, he preferred to maintain a sharp mind.

Anxious to get off the boat, LeBron leapt up at his side, tongue lolling out and paws folding over the rail. Marshall scratched the sweet spot behind his ears.

Danni had given him a week to find something, and four days later his sister lobbed an intriguing ball right into his lap. While LeBron dropped down to wind around him in spastic, impatient circles, Marshall thumbed through his blackberry for his text conversation with Jenelle. After his mother had called, he’d kept close tabs on the trending hype, surprised to see that interest in Faces of Haven was continuing to spike.

According to his mom, Jenelle had gone into business last year with one of Haven’s more recent acquisitions; Eva Turner, single mom of three girls. A quiet and surly sort, or so he’d been warned. But talented. A fact he had ascertained for himself after scoping out her work online, both on her website and those that had circled the world in a viral frenzy.

Her work was of people, but always non-descript. She stuck with features: eyes, mouths, hands, and paired the images secrets. Emotionally gripping or dark and harrowing, the sort of things people kept buried deep inside.

He imagined the idea behind the art was that by looking at these images, uncovering these secrets, people found a connection within themselves; creating an intimate link between the owner of the secret and the owner of the image.

All images were one of a kind, with no reprints or reproductions—no matter how much someone was willing to pay—and the secret was sold with the image. It could be shared with no one or everyone; the choice rested with the person who made the purchase. Apparently no one had elected to do so, until now. That person being Sam Russell’s assistant, no less.

And—boom—just like that, Out of Focus was now an overnight, viral success. There were sure to be reporters and journalists already on the ground clamouring for details, but only Marshall had his foot in the door with an interview scheduled for later that afternoon.

And by the time he was finished Out of Focus Gallery would launch into the stratosphere.

Securing a car rental near the dock, Marshall contented himself with a short drive through town, admiring the new sprawling neighbourhoods and housing developments.

Home to twenty thousand inhabitants, the local town of Salt Springs stood as the central hub driving the island economy. It had grown and changed shape from his days as a boy, and now had everything from shopping to trendy restaurants, amenities to art galleries, thriving farmlands and some of the most striking beaches this side of the Pacific.

Window down, LeBron’s head stuck out in tongue wagging glory, he pulled up to his eldest brother Ethan’s place. Throwing the car into park he opened the passenger door and let the dog out first.

The key was where Ethan had said it would be, behind a loose board to the left of the front door. Slotting it into the lock, he pushed inside, hauling bags and dog behind him. The place was sparsely furnished and clean as a pin. Ethan had always been anal about dust, he thought, setting it bags down and booting the door shut with his foot.

At his side, LeBron tipped back his head and sucked in deep, panting breaths. There was no mistaking the salty, fatty, salivating aroma of bacon sizzling in a pan. So Ethan was still around. And to answer the thought, a dark head poked around the corner, a pair of shrewd eyes softening at the sight of him.

“Hey, you’re early,” he said, closing the distance to catch Marshall in a bracing hug.

“Yeah. Caught an earlier flight. Shouldn’t you be out saving cats?”

Ethan’s lips pulled at the left corner, the closest thing to a smile you’d get out of him on most days. He was always a serious, no-nonsense sort, but the man had a funny bone buried under layers and layers of work ethic and responsibility. Not everyone knew where to find it, but Marshall understood his brother better than most; they both shared a deep appreciation for basketball, leggy blondes and The Fray.

“Thought you could use a bit of company. And I needed some time to breathe. Been pulling a couple of long days this week. Come on, I got beers in the fridge and lunch is almost ready. Won’t take me long to fry more eggs.” Leading the way, Marshall followed his brother to the large, newly renovated eat-in kitchen.

The house had been in rough shape five years ago when Ethan had snatched it up. Badly neglected over two long decades, it had been the place for young and horny teenagers to sneak out and hook up. Marshall recalled many a fine night here with his lips wrapped around Gillian’s, hands shoved up her shirt. God, he’d been all thumbs back then and without a damn clue.

But the man he was today was a long, long way from that awkward, clumsy boy.

“How’s the war wound?” Ethan asked while dishing out bacon atop a couple of sunny-side eggs. Pushing the plate towards Marshall, he turned back around and cracked a couple more into the hot skillet.

“Coming along with the speed of Sunday driving Granny.” Climbing onto the bar stool, Marshall plucked up a piece of bacon and lobbed it to LeBron who leapt, caught and devoured it in one, clean snap.

“It’ll get easier,” Ethan said, dusting his eggs generously with salt and pepper, before turning off the heat, and whistled for LeBron. The golden mass of slobbering fur bounded over as Ethan opened the back door and led him out to join his own dogs in the yard; a six year-old female husky and a two year-old male Sheppard. LeBron was going to be in his glory during this visit.

“He looks good on you,” Ethan rejoined Marshall in the kitchen, compiling food on his plate. While his brother pulled up a stool and tucked in, Marshall made himself at home and got the beer from the fridge.

“He’s a crazy pain in the ass,” Marshall laughed, popping off the caps, handed one to Ethan. “But the docs were right. Having him around is helping with the anxiety. Hate having to admit it, but I sleep better with him around. No more night terrors and waking in a cold sweat.”

“Two weeks as a terrorist hostage will do that to you,” Ethan said after a long, pensive swallow of brew. “I’ll never forget mom’s face when we got the call. Never seen her cry like that before. Thought she was going to jump on a plane and fly straight down there. Take out the whole Boko Haram with her own hands, if needs be, just to get you back home.”

Wincing, Marshall hung his head. Sighed. As the second born of seven, he was far from the baby of the brood, but Lottie Davies wasn’t the sort to play favourites. She loved and worried about all of her kids in equal measure. He still remembered waking up in a hospital in South Africa, the look on her face as she clutched his hands.

All white-faced and red-eyed.

She’d stayed glued to his side for all of his weeklong admittance, then made the trip back to stay with him in Toronto while he recouped through the worst of it. Holding and rocking him when he woke in the nights, a shaking, sobbing mess.

She was the first to recommend he get a dog, advice later echoed by a slew of doctors. Advice he’d stubbornly ignored for at least two months before caving from extreme exhaustion.

“I hate knowing she was so scared.”

“We all were.” Ethan set a hand over Marshall’s forearm rather than his shoulder. “Please tell me those days are over, Bro? No more standing in the line of fire? Don’t think mom’s heart could take it if you went back out there.”

“No. No I’m not going back. Even if a part of me misses it, I’m too…” And because his stomach was seizing in panicked knots, Marshall kicked back his beer and chugged the sensation away. “That’s why I’m here now. Looking for a new trajectory, so to speak.”

A pensive brow rose over Ethan’s quiet, all-seeing eyes. Blue as the pacific waters hedging beyond the fenced line of his property. While they ate and drank, Marshall brought Ethan up to speed on the call he’d had with his editor.

“You really think this gallery business could be big news?”

“If you’d asked me that five—six years ago, I would’ve said no,” Marshall confessed. “But the world is changing, and these viral trends are taking over. People are getting famous because of a six second clip, or a snapped candid taken on some kid’s iPhone. Remember that cowboy father who put six bullets in his daughter’s laptop for mouthing off about her stepmother on Facebook? What if I told you that dude had networks lining up for weeks offering the guy his own reality TV show?”

“Get the fuck out.”

Marshall laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this time next week she’s fielding offers of her own.”

Ethan shuddered in horror.

“So, tell me about this Eva chick. What’s your take on her?”

Ethan picked up a bit of bacon with his fingers, stuffed the strip into his mouth, munched thoughtfully. “Aren’t you the one with all the resources? Why are you asking me?”

“I tried running a bit of a search on her before I got here and came up bone dry. I mean nothing. She’s completely Google-proof.”

Ethan lifted a broad shoulder, a slow and lazy gesture. “Lots of people don’t get hits on Google.”

“Not like this.” Marshall frowned. “She’s too…clean. Far as I can tell she hasn’t even left a review on Amazon, for crying out loud.”

“You’re over analyzing.” Finished with his meal, Ethan brought his plate to the sink. “Well, if you want my take, she’s a keep-to-herself sort. Devoted mom. Homebody, I guess. Don’t hear her name come up too much in stray conversation, anymore, unless it’s to comment on her art. Folks around here like what she’s put together. Eva’s law-abiding—far as I can see. Mom adores her,” he added, dusting his hands. “And mom’s no patsy.”

“No, she’s not,” Marshall agreed, bringing his plate over to the large copper apron sink. Checking the time on his watch, he figured he had at least three hours to burn.

“Thanks for the grub, bro. I think I’ll grab a shower and an hour of shut eye,” he said, stifling a yawn.

“Sure. Got the guestroom all sorted for you. I’m gonna hit the trail with the dogs. Burn off some energy.”

One long, hot shower and a two-hour nap later, Marshall felt like a new man. Ready to take on the world in the form of Miss Eva Turner. Another run on the net still hadn’t landed him any information or insight into what to expect with the keep-to-herself artist and gallery owner.

Erring on the side of caution, he decided to put out some feelers with a few of his more capable connections. If anyone could find some dirt, it would be Mouse, he thought, recalling the pole-thin hacker he’d brushed shoulders with in Beirut. Leaving LeBron with his new friends, Marshall drove into Salt Springs, blasting Cold Play‘s latest album.

Finding the gallery was easy enough. She’d taken over the lease on an old two-story building that sat on the corner of the town’s busiest intersection. The pale bricks and fluted columns gave the air of historical sophistication. It had been a bank branch once, and later sat unoccupied, as last he could recall. Framed photographs were propped in the window atop easels and pillars, drawing the eye and interest.

Impressed by what he saw, Marshall pushed in through the front door and was surprised to see a sizeable crowd, the air thick with the hum of conversation and excitement, mostly tourists by his estimation. He wove through the bodies, getting a feel for the rest of what Out of Focus had to offer. Most of what hung on the walls had yellow stickers labelled ‘SOLD’ slapped over the top corner.

By his count majority were snatched up, leaving only a dozen or so available for grabs.

It was then he saw his sister, Jenelle, the middle child of the Davies brood. He watched as she surveyed the buzz of the gallery, guiding bodies and answering questions.

He’d always known his sister had a knack for garnering attention, and the brain to back it up. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, she was all ambition and creative savvy. To know that she was the driving force behind the hype for Out of Focus made him smile.

Marshall followed as she wound around the counter and into the back end of the gallery, closing the door to the crowd behind him. Sensing his presence, her eyes swung his way and he was struck by the light of her emotions—surprise, love and complete joy—seconds before she launched at him with a squeal.

Marshall caught his sister in his arms and, even though his shoulder protested, held on tight for a lingering hug. Pulling away he looked down at her, brushing his gaze across her stunning face.

“God, you’re ugly.”

Jenelle answered the dig with a laugh and a perfect right hook to his kidney. Growing up in a crowded household of two sisters and four brothers, she’d learned how to hold her own.

“Loser. Looks who’s talking. Haven’t you ever heard of a comb? Or a razor?” She brushed her fingers over his cheeks, hidden beneath two week’s worth of scruff and shoulder length hair, still damp from his shower.

“Frolicking through the Middle East doesn’t require me to look pretty,” he said. “Besides, need to keep this handsome mug under wraps. Don’t want to steal your thunder as the most attractive Davies on Haven soil.”

She punched him again, this time aiming for his shoulder. His injured shoulder. And caught herself a second before making full contact.

Oh! Oh jeez, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”

“No.” He swept a hand protectively over it, smoothing away the nerves. Man, he’d broken into a clean sweat just thinking about what the playful impact would have done. “No, we’re good. We’re okay.” His smile flashed, hiding the twist in his belly and he flicked a finger under her chin.

“Where’s this brilliant artist of yours?” he asked, changing the direction and focus of conversation.

“The hermit’s holed away in her cave,” she said, a teasing light in her voice. “Eva’s not one for crowds, and as you can see—we’re kind of busy, these days.”

“Yeah, no kidding. Soon you’re going to have to charge admission and hire a bouncer for when you’re at capacity.”

“Believe me, I’ve got plans.”

“Bet you do.”

Remembering herself, Jenelle glanced anxiously over his shoulder to the shut door where the steady drone of voices pushed through. “Look, I should get back out there. I only came in to grab a couple new frames to place on the floor. I’ll pry Eva away from her computer and—Ah! Here she is.”

Marshall turned around just as she rounded the corner and came to a full stop.

Eva was shorter then he’d imagined. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of five-four with a small face unobstructed, thanks to the awful haircut that clearly hadn’t seen a professional hand. Large eyes—gorgeous, rich brown—were decidedly blank in a face that might have been considered attractive if it wasn’t overshadowed by a sullen expression.

Both Jenelle and his mom had warned him she wasn’t happy about the notion of the interview, but he’d dragged himself across hot deserts, through miles of mud, and faced a rain of fire and bullets; Marshall Davies always got his story. Cracking the likes of Eva Turner was going to be a simple and refreshing as afternoon tea.

“Eva.” Marshall held out a hand in greeting. “Great to meet you, at last.” She looked at his proffered hand, stuffed hers into baggy jean pockets.

“If it wasn’t for the close personal association,” he said, winking at Jenelle, “I would’ve been in for a bit of a shock. Who would expect Eddie Blake to turn out to be a woman?”

“That was kind of the idea,” Eva said, voice flat. “And I would prefer if you’d address me as Ms. Turner for the duration of this interview.”

“We don’t need to be so formal, do we?” A ticked worked along his jaw but he resisted the urge to tighten up by smiling; a killer smile he reserved for the most wary of subjects. It usually melted the coldest of personalities, but Eva just set her small shoulders a little more defiantly. “Apparently we do.”

Her lips thinned to an icy smirk. “This way,” she said and strode off on sneakered feet slapping with heavy, oppressive steps of a woman walking death row. All grudge and purpose. Eva gathered if she was going to be executed then she wanted to get the damn thing over with.

The sooner she answered his stupid questions, the sooner she’d be free of him.

He wasn’t quite what she’d expected, even though she’d got a pretty clear idea of what he looked like from his field photos. All long sun bleached hair and thick dark beard. His smile was entirely disarming with friendly warmth and easy charm. Any other woman would have been putty in those large, calloused hands.

A slick of ice scored down Eva’s back with terrified fingers. She shook them off with a roll of her shoulders, pausing to hold open her office door.

Marshall stepped inside the cramped narrow room. Barely bigger than a cupboard, he thought. Not at all what he would have expected for an artist to work in. An L-shaped desk was wedge into the left corner, blinds tugged down over a sliver thin window. A bookcase dominated the right side of the space, crammed with books, binders, boxes and reams of paper, probably a high-grade sort for her prints.

There was, however, only one chair.

“You sit,” Eva offered when he turned a quizzical glance her way, and moved over to the desk. Hopping on the edge, surrounded by stacks of folders and scattered notes, she reclined against the wall, feet dangling.

“Okay.” Marshall shut the door and pulled out the chair, small wheels screeching over faded linoleum. He took a moment to set up: notebook, pencils—because he liked the feel of paper and lead as he wrote—and his cell phone that he also used as a digital recorder, so he didn’t miss a word. Or inflection of voice.

Voice, as he’d come to discover over the course of his career, could often be more telling then the choice of words. And, taking his sweet time, he noticed the distinct lack of personal touches. No family pictures or drawings decorating the walls. No little quirky knick-knacks and doodads adorning shelves. He’d seen prison cells with more personality.

Interesting. Was she really so sterile, he wondered, or had she stripped the space prior to this interview?

Either answer gave way to rather fascinating possibilities.

“So, Ms. Turner.” He flashed that full-wattage smile again, pressed the record button on his phone. “How long have you been in business?”

Eva shifted lightly where she sat, paper rustling under her bum. “Almost seven months.”

“Seven months.” He nodded appreciatively. “You’ve done pretty good for yourself then, given the excitement surrounding your art.”

“Well enough.” She shrugged a small shoulder beneath an oversized grey t-shirt that looked like it belonged in the little boy’s section of Wal-Mart.

Out of Focus Gallery, fantastic name, by the way. Some would go as far to state what you do here is ground-breaking in the art scene. What gave you the idea?”

She mulled the question over and he watched the internal war waged across her features. It was subtle and most probably wouldn’t have been perceptive enough to see the soft variations in her expression, but Marshall always had a sharp eye and hadn’t met a single person he hadn’t been able to figure out. Everyone had a ‘tell’, and Eva Turner was no different.

A long fingered hand, unadorned, reached for the curve of her left ear.

“Photography has always been an interest, but never a focus. The last couple of years I had some…flexibility that allowed me to finally explore it. When I came to Haven, I fell in love with the island. The scenery. The architecture. Obviously the people, both local and tourist, alike. They provided excellent subjects for what I considered a hobby.”

“And what drew you to the idea of secrets?”

“We all have them. Some are more ready to share than others. I capture them, through a gleam in the eye, or even in an unconscious gesture of the hand. A lifting of the mask we all wear. To hide. To protect ourselves. It’s brief and fleeting and easily missed, if you’re not looking for it. Waiting for it.” Eva’s gaze flickered to him. Held. And only when that connection broke, did Marshall feel like he was able to breathe.

“One day, as I was shooting,” she continued. “I struck up a conversation with an old woman, and she just spilled her life at my feet. I’d joked that secrets like hers would make for interesting artwork. A couple of days later, the idea sort of struck me in the shower. When I saw her wandering along White Shore beach I asked how she’d feel about me selling her picture and her secrets. I honestly thought she’d say no.”

“Why?”

“Because…well,” Eva scratched the tip of her nose, “it was kind of…illegal.”

Marshall’s pulse beat just a little faster, the way it always did when hooked by an interesting thread in a story. “Can you share?”

Eva screwed her lips, her head swaying with a thought. “I purchased it for myself, so I guess that allows me the freedom to share this one.” She hopped down and was gone but not for long. A large frame tucked under her arm.

Marshall waited for the picture, about the size of large book, to be set before him. It was an older woman’s face, or part of it. The left eye, to be more specific, with a hint of nose and mouth. The skin around the eye was surprisingly smooth and met a weathered cheek carved with deep, gouging lines and a discoloured spattering of age spots.

At the bottom edge was the barest suggestion of a smile that was so lively in that single, dark eye. In the depths of it, if he looked hard enough, Marshall thought he saw something…Perhaps the secret itself. And the longer he stared, the more certain he was that the mystery would reveal itself in that single, black orb.

“This…” he looked up at Eva to see she was watching him carefully, “this is astounding work. Truly.”

A pleased flush softened the hard edges of her in a way that made Eva almost beautiful. “Turn it over.”

He did, and mounted on the back, as advertised, was the bronzed plaque with words carved in easy to read font.

Yes, I smothered him in his sleep. No, I’m not sorry.

Marshall’s mouth popped into a surprised ‘O’ that elicited a snicker from Eva.

“I think that’s the face I made when she told me.”

Marshall set the picture down and, with great difficulty, tore his eyes away from it. “Who’d she smother?”

“Uncle. Mom’s side, if I remember correctly. Apparently he was a brute to her cousins. Raging drunk on a good day, and something much more diabolical on his worst. She was twelve, but big for her age, and had come over one afternoon. Found him plastered on the floor of the living room. She used a seat cushion from the couch. Put it over his face and sat on him.”

“Holy shit.”

“Holy shit is right. And that part of the interview is off the record.”

Marshall reached a hand to his pocket, finger itching for a pack of smokes that wasn’t there. Dammit, he thought, you picked a hell of a month to quit. Again. “How do you manage to pull these sorts of things out of complete strangers? What makes them so ready and willing to bare themselves to you?”

“In her case she was well into her eighties, so not like she had much to lose. What could they do to her at this point? But as a whole, everyone has something inside of them, something they’re burning to say aloud to anyone, only they’re too afraid.”

“Of?”

“Being judged. Laughed at. Ridiculed. I provide that outlet. To say the things that they bury deepest, knowing that I won’t. Instead I’m celebrating that truth. Embracing it. Freeing it from their conscience. People love to talk; you just have to be the sort willing to listen. And the key is listen.” She cocked a foot up onto the desk, circled an arm around the bent knee. “Not engage or relate or sympathize. Just be that open ear they crave.”

Marshall paused in his notes, tapping the edge of his pencil against his notebook. “And who do you open up to?”

Eva lowered her foot, dropped her hands to her lap and smiled thinly. “That’s not relevant to this interview.”

So she really wasn’t going to budge, he thought. She’d drawn a firm line and wasn’t stepping a single toe over it. No personal details. Well, he’d dealt with harder nuts in his career, and was certain that given the right conditions he’d find the hole, however small, to burrow under. For now he merely intended to enjoy himself.

“Do you ever photograph subjects on commission?”

“No, that’s not how I work. I find faces, people, whom speak to me. And I’ll approach them with my offer and it’s up to them to accept or decline. Some want to be photographed and keep their secrets to themselves. And that’s fine. It’s their right to choose. Others aren’t quite as bashful.”

“Have you photographed anyone who lives on the island?”

“I won’t say yes or no, but if I did they are entitled to the same privacy as anyone else I’ve photographed. That’s the unspoken contract I’ve made. The price for their honesty is allowing them to remain…unknown. They trust me to be respectful of their secrets, which they are generous enough to give in the first place.”

“Yes, I would agree. In fact, I’ve taken a peek at a couple while waiting for you. Along with this beauty right here,” he tapped a finger against the frame in front of him. “Some pretty salacious stuff.” And that had those interesting eyes flash violently with temper.

Oh, he thought with a hint of glee, he’d stepped on something there. And relished seeing what other buttons he could dance on before their time was up.

“Those secrets are supposed to remain secrets.” Her voice was strained and warning vibrated through every word. “Except to those who buy the art.”

“Bad habits of the trade. Sorry.” Though his tone implied he was anything but.

Eva worked the inside of her cheek with her teeth, gnawing viciously at what he imagined remained of her patience. “I think we’re done here, Mr. Davies.”

“I think we have at least another—”

“I said we’re done.”

“Well, it’s been brief, but entertaining.” Rising, she ignored the hand he held out, again, for her to take. So Marshall pulled it back. Smiled. “Thank you for speaking with me.”

Eva turned up her nose. “I’m sure I’ll come to regret it. Remember,” she pointed at him, “keep to the alias and no mention of me, are we clear?”

“As the toll of a church bell on a summer morning.” Marshall closed his note pad, turned off the recorder on his phone and followed her out into the corridor. “But may I ask, why?”

Arms crossed with impatience, she watched as he tucked his belongings into his battered leather satchel.

“Being faceless allows me to do my work unobstructed. If people recognize me, or realize who I am, they’ll flock and crowd and distract me from doing what I do. I work better in private. And it’s my anonymity that enables strangers to feel so relaxed in my company. The instant that changes, they’ll clam up and will be less inclined to expose themselves. That’s why I hired Jenelle to manage the gallery. She’s the face of the business, I’m just the camera.”

And the heart, but Marshall kept the observation to himself. “Understood. Well, thanks again. I’ll be in touch if I have more questions. I’ll see myself out.” And excused himself from the conversation before Eva had a chance to voice the refusal he saw forming.

Often times he was able to weasel out or extend an interview beyond the limited boundaries of a first encounter. He rarely did so, because a job was a job and the sooner he got in and out, the better.

But Eva Turner was making for a fascinating study, and admittedly he wasn’t quite ready to wrap it all up. No, he thought with a laugh, pausing for a quick glance over his shoulder when he reached the door.

Not done by a long shot.


Chapter Four

Eva rotated the image, eyes squinted in ruthless study. Today was a day where the creative muse in her was playing hard to get. Nothing was going right. Not a damn thing. The noise emanating from her usually quiet gallery was not helping matters, either.

Didn’t people realize she had work to do? This wasn’t a museum or a damn tourist attraction, but a place for art. 

Serious art. How the hell was she supposed to get anything done with all that noise?

Then the door to her office swept open and the chaos spilled in like a flood.

“Out,” Eva barked without bothering to pull her eyes away from the screen. “And shut the door behind you.”

“Easy, your majesty,” Jenelle scoffed. “God, were slammed today. I really think we should consider taking on some additional help, if this keeps up.”

“Yeah, yeah, so you’ve said only a dozen times since I got in this morning. Out. Now.”

“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine? You have a call.”

Eva’s lip curled. More reporters, no doubt. “Take a message.”

“As much as I love playing your little grunt,” Jenelle narrowed the door behind her, sealing them inside of Eva’s tiny space, “you can take your own messages, thank you. Besides, it’s your Uncle. Says it’s important.”

Now Eva did look at her, eyes glazed from hours spent in deep, artistic scrutiny. Otherwise known as the seventh circle of Hell. “Uncle?”

“Jerry,” Jenelle said the name slowly and with a hint of reservation.

“Oh. Right.” Eva snapped to her feet a little too quick and struggled to regain her calm, placid demeanor. “I’ll take it in here.”

“Sure. Okay.” Jenelle hesitated at the doorway. “Line four. You press that button next to the blinking thingy.”

When the door was completely shut behind her, Eva waited for the count of ten before answering the line. “Jerry?”

“Kiddo.” The familiar grating voice crackled across the line like pop rocks. A voice she hadn’t heard in at least six months. “How’s it going?”

“Fine.” Sitting on the edge of her desk, Eva banded an arm across her chest. “Why did you call here? I thought you were supposed to only reach me on my cell?”

“Tried. All afternoon. Couldn’t get through. Wanted to get back to ya about that email last week.”

Eva thumbed around her cluttered workspace and found her cell, the screen blank. Her thumb worked the side button. Not so much as a blip. “Oh, guess my battery died. I’ve been so caught up I forgot to charge it.”

“Never mind. Happens. Got ya here, didn’t I? We need to talk ‘bout a couple of things. Now good?”

“Yeah. Now’s fine.” Anxiously, Eva peered back to her door, half expecting Jenelle to burst in, or worse, to find her hovering outside, listening to every word. “What’s going on?”

“Spoke to Allan down at the Attorney Generals. They’ve untangled the mess of paperwork and are now able to make good on the backed-up funds.”

Eva’s heart skipped and seized with glee. “Took them long enough!”

“Tellin’ me! Anyhow, they’ve cut the cheque and are mailing it out to us tomorrow. Should have it deposited and wired out within a week.” She heard the shuffling of papers, a muttered oath. “All…twenty-seven thousand eight hundred dollars and twelve cents.”

Legs numb, Eva lowered, very carefully, back into her seat. “Holy shit.”

Jerry’s laugh barked, dry as dust. “Yeah, right.”

Head spinning, Eva answered his abrupt laugh with a weak one of her own. Twenty-seven thousand dollars! The difference this was going to make…finally. Finally they had what they needed for a fresh start. Closure. The means to set down roots—deep, long lasting, unshakable roots. It had only taken four years.

“Still can’t believe Nathan had the nerve to hold back on child support.” And as always, when thinking of her self-centered ex, Eva’s temper spiked. Didn’t he care about the girls’ welfare at all? How the hell was she supposed to do right by them—support them—when he’d did his level best to tie up everything she had in court?

Because he’s selfish, the small and dark part of her snarled, even though on the flipside she understood his frustration and hurt. As a parent, he’d lost everything. Not that he’d ever shown much care or interest when the girls were underfoot. And he could have entered the program, too, she reminded herself. 

But Nathan wasn’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices required of him and opted out. The house, the business—his friends—were all more important. Only once they were gone did Nathan change his tune.

But by then it was too late. The die had been cast, and there was no going back.

“Is he still pushing for access?”

“Course,” Jerry sighed. “Still singing the same tune. It was your actions that put the kids in danger in the first place, blah, blah, blah. Sob, sob, sob.”

Eva tightly clenched teeth ground together, locked so tight her jaw ached. Bastard would say that, she thought. And she’d agonized and blamed herself enough over the years spent in hiding. Who would have thought a night at a bar would have led her down this messy road?

“But facts haven’t changed,” Jerry continued. “He gave up parental rights a solid year before this mess. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Thinks clearing the funds is going to give him some sway, but the thing is…even if the judge does side with him in the end, there’s no way to pin ya. Not now. All that paperwork is sealed. No one’s gonna find ya. Not without deep pockets and serious connections.”

Because her heart was threatening to burst through her ribcage, Eva settled a hand over it. “Four years,” she whispered. “I’ve waited for this for four years.”

“Took longer than expected, but what can I tell ya, kiddo. This ain’t my first rodeo.”

“What about…?” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the question. Not that she needed to. There were only two things Eva ever asked whenever they had these clandestine check-ins. The first was, apparently, no longer an issue. As for the second…

The line hummed with silence. “Can’t discuss the case. You know that.”

“Come on, Jerry.” Finger curling around the cord, Eva sank on the corner of her desk. “I need to know if it’s…over. Is Randy Kincaid gone for good?”

“I’d’ve told ya if he was. As it stands now, don’t think that’s going to happen for a while yet.”

“How much longer can he possibly drag this out?”

“Let it go, kiddo, okay? Live your life. Leave the rest of the worrying to me. Nathan…Randy…both of them are not your problem anymore.”

Let it go, the simple words haunted her during the drive home from the gallery. Leaving her mind a tangled mess of the past clashing with her fragile present.

Let it go. Easier said than done, especially since Jerry knew all the pieces of the sordid puzzle where she’d been deliberately left in the dark.

No information, no details, nothing to assuage the gnawing fear and curiosity. That was the price of entering the witness protection program; her silent and willing compliance to go along and not ask questions. To abandon everything and everyone she’d ever known and start anew.

Not all of it had been such a raw deal.

There hadn’t been much in the way of a life for her in Toronto to leave behind. Only one point caused her any pain, and that was the loss of Alyssa. An identical twin she’d been forced to sever with all the ruthless efficiency a wartime doctor would a bomb-shattered leg. And like any other phantom limb, Eva still suffered the loss of it, felt it move and ache and twitch.

To lose a sibling was devastating. But there was something brutally unnatural about separating twins.

Eva’s thoughts tumbled down that long forgotten path, wondering what her sister was doing. Did she stay with Sebastian? Did she get married? Have kids? A lot could happen in four years. So much had changed for Eva.

Would her sister even recognize her now?

And the girls…Hailey had been seven when the cops had whisked them away. Payton and Lucy would have no memories of life before the program. The loss was only a wound both she and Hailey endured, the scar tissue leaving thick, silvered ridges over the tender flesh of their hearts.

Hailey never spoke about the past. Never asked questions, or mentioned old names. How much she remembered, Eva could only guess. At least Hailey’s memories would eventually fade with age and, hopefully, disappear.

But not for Eva. The penitence for each and every crippling failure meant that the past would always remain razor sharp; ready to slice to the bone at the slightest touch. She’d gotten really good, over the last couple of years, of burying it all away, like boxes in an old attic. For the most part she managed to get through her day-to-day, unscathed.

But some nights she relived it all.

Eva had been Annelise, back then. She and Nathan had gotten tangled up together in high school and, like a couple of horny, stupid kids, got knocked up at seventeen. Her mother had been furious. Livid. And above all, disappointed. But despite the threats and passive aggressive posturing, Eva hadn’t given in to scare tactics. Even if it meant leaving home and moving in with her terrified quasi-boyfriend.

A year later, Hannah was born. Beautiful, perfect and loving Hannah. Annelise’s pride and joy.

Fast-forward a handful of years and a wedding later, was it any wonder their marriage had about as much substance as a helium balloon? While she stayed home and played the missus, Nathan poured himself into his father’s business. She’d stuck around and supported him, giving up on school to accommodate his long hours and not-so-secret affairs.

Why? Maybe to prove to the world—and her mother—that having Hannah had not been a mistake. His parents came from a bit of money, so she and Nathan hadn’t been as hard up as most teens would have in their shoes, but his parents had expectations for their boy.

Set to inherit the family chain of restaurants. Learn the trade. And Nathan was only too happy to leave both her and Hannah tucked away at home with another child on the way.

Alone. Isolated. And so damn tired of feeling lonely. No friends to call on for help, or an ear to listen to her problems. Only Alyssa. Only ever Alyssa.

She’d prompted Eva to take that shaky step into single parenthood after Patience’s birth. Held her hand and gave Eva the grit to stick it out in the face of judgment and scrutiny. Helping her battle Nathan in court and obtain sole custody. And even coaxed Eva into celebrating the triumph in a night of fun and frivolous enjoyment, the first ever, with the girls.

Even now, Eva wanted to scream at her old self to walk away from that handsome stranger who’d bought a round of martinis. Begging her to see the twisted, evil snake hidden behind the beautiful mask.

Six weeks. They’d only dated for six, pitiful weeks. By all accounts it should have only been a blip in her life. A moment taken for herself. Something to help Eva regain her lost confidence.

How was she supposed to know that Randy Kincaid was crazy? That he’d go all fatal attraction, stalking her for years, and later, threatening her? Her kids?

And she’d done everything—everything—possible to get him to back off. Begging him to move on and leave her alone, calling the police when he wouldn’t. Even having him arrested and locked away—twice—for criminal harassment and probation violation.

Nothing had gotten through to him. Nothing had made a dent.

Fear and shame had driven her back into Nathan’s arms, and another pregnancy.

That’s when things with Randy got really ugly.

Eva rolled her shoulders, shook off the old ghosts that always sprung up whenever she’d had these calls with Jerry. They had grown less and less frequent over the last two years. Soon enough they’d be a relic, tucked away in the awful mess of the past and all her blunders.

Enough, she thought. No good could come from beating herself up over what couldn’t be helped or changed. If she was to be punished, she’d certainly paid her dues by now, and then some.

Let it go, she mused. Let it go, indeed.

As she pulled into the drive and her girls climbed out the backseat of the car, Eva looked up as Kevin waved, Peter and Tracy in tow, and veered their way.

“Hey. Did you hear about Ji Kim’s pups?” he asked, squinting against the glare of sun in his eyes. “They’re showing them off in the yard today.”

“Puppies?” Lucy bounced at her side, pigtails flopping over her shoulders with each spastic movement.

“That’s right. Eight weeks old and ready for homes. We’re going to take a look, aren’t we?” he said to his own children. “Would you like to join us?”

“Momma, can we go see? Can we, can we, can we?”

Eva might have been tempted to say no, to pass on the offer and haul her girls inside, had it not been for a soft, hesitant voice. One she didn’t hear very often, speak up from behind her. A sound almost swallowed up entirely by Lucy’s giddy squeals.

“I’d like to go.”

Eva whipped around and Payton took a quick step back, eyes lowering to the tips of her feet. Of her three, Payton was the shyest, most gentle and kind. Three months away from turning ten, she was starting to lose that childlike roundness in her cheeks and taking on the awkward, gangly lines of a kid about to shoot into adolescence.

Outside of school, when answering a question in class, Payton was painfully quiet and said one word to Lucy’s dozen.

“Alright, sure. Why not? Let’s drop off your stuff inside first, okay? Go on ahead, Kevin. We’ll catch up.”

She caught the look in his eyes, the hesitation, but thankfully Peter and Tracy piped up, too eager and excited to be held back much longer.

“Okay guys, okay. We’ll…see you.” Eva didn’t have to look back to know that Kevin was frowning after her. She could feel the weight of his eyes—a skill she’d learned out of necessity. He’d thought to use this opportunity to create a tag along situation, a chance to worm his way into spending time with her and the girls, obviously with the intention of working her in to finally taking him up on an offer of a date.

He wasn’t the first to try and fail. But the man was certainly persistent. Many had slammed into the high walls of her stubbornness and limped off, never to be seen or heard from again. Not Kevin. What the hell he saw in her, she couldn’t begin to fathom.

Between the ill-fitting wardrobe and god-awful haircut, Eva had done everything she could make herself as unappealing as possible to the opposite sex.

Alyssa probably would have liked him, might even have tried to talk her into giving him a chance. But Eva couldn’t justify stringing him along merely because he was…safe. Decent. A good dad. No, avoiding men was safest. Best.

She’d dipped her toe in the pool once, and look what that got her? A couple of times, Eva had been tempted to slip out for a night to the mainland and indulge in heated, reckless, anonymous sex.

But paranoia was a bitch, and an effective cure to kyboshing her libido.

Skillfully using the ploy of snacks and bathroom breaks to stretch out another twenty minutes of insurance before they headed out, catching Kevin and his kids on the way back, as she’d hoped.

Judging by the scowl he’d been wearing, Eva trusted that he’d finally take a hint and quit pestering her. 

Always full of energy, Lucy was at the head of the pack, winging down the sidewalk in circles, singing a school song at the top of her lungs. Hailey brought up the rear, headphones stuffed into her ears and music on blast.

Eva had bit the expense and purchased an iPod for her birthday last year. They’d been all the rage not so long ago. Now kids were all sporting iPhones, and trying to explain why Hailey couldn’t have one had gone over real well.

Payton walked with Eva, hand in hand. She saw far more of Nathan in her middle daughter than she did in the other two. From the shape of her features, dark blonde hair and olive complexion. But she had Eva’s eyes, for sure. A soft, quiet brown.

Eva lifted their joined hands, kissed those small, little fingers. And though Payton smiled, she stayed silent as ever.

“Excited?”

Payton nodded.

“How many do you think there are?” Eva asked, steering away from the ambiguous territory of a simple yes or no.

She lifted a shoulder in a shrug. Eva sighed.

Okay, she thought. Though Payton was soft-spoken and didn’t say much, she trusted that her daughter would speak when she needed to. Unlike Hailey, Payton’s silence wasn’t a form of punishment or passive aggressive warfare, but just who she was.

“Ooooh, Puppies!” Lucy’s shrill voice sliced through Eva’s thoughts and she looked up as Lucy skidded over to a swarming mass of yapping fur. Seeing her, the puppies immediately converged and within seconds Lucy was covered in at least six wriggling bodies of tongue lolling affection.

Squeezing her hand, Eva looked down at Payton and smiled. “Go on,” she said and let her go join in the adorable chaos. While Hailey joined her sisters, Eva moved to the older Korean gentlemen sitting in a lawn chair, all elbows and knees, newspaper in his hands.

“You must have all the kids in the area going nuts.”

He laughed at that, set his paper aside. “Do, indeed. We’ve had some of them stop by more than once, already. You guys looking for a dog?”

Eva shrugged. She’d toyed with the idea once or twice. In truth, she’d wanted to get the kids a dog when they’d lived in Toronto, but the time had never been right and Nathan was always putting his foot down. Then when they’d left…well, always moving and never sitting still long enough to catch her breath, the last thing she wanted to take on was a pet. But now?

“Maybe,” she said. “What’s their mix?”

“Mom’s a lab, dad’s a boxer. Both are a kid friendly breed. Great for families. And smart, too.” Rising from his seat, he waddled on stiff legs to where her girls sat, puppies clamouring to pile into their laps.

“Momma,” Lucy giggled while a couple fought and tugged on her pigtails, another lavishly licking her face. “Momma, they’re so funny.”

“They certainly do like you, don’t they?” The old man hiked at his slacks and stooped down, stroking a hand over squirming bodies. A circlet of jade dangled from his wrist. “Won’t give you issue with training. Already de-wormed and shots up to date.”

“Momma I want one. Can we? Can we have one? Please, momma?”

“Fat chance,” Hailey snorted, crossing skinny arms. “Don’t be such a doofus.”

Lucy’s face tipped to her big sister and she stuck out a thin tongue stripped blue from the Capri Sun she’d finished on the walk over.

Any other time Eva might have said no. After all, puppies—pets in general—were a lot of work and responsibility. The time and energy required was nothing to take lightly. But Jerry’s words came back, along with the chaotic mess of the last week, and Eva decided enough was enough. This was home. 

She’d promised her girls a settled and happy life on Haven. A fresh start. 

They had a decent yard, and summer vacation was just around the corner. Having a pet would not only show that they were finally putting down those roots she so often wished for, but could also be a great tool to bridge the ever-widening gap growing between her and Hailey, as well as teaching all three of them the value of hard work and responsibility. Thanks to recent developments, money wasn’t an issue, at the moment. 

She couldn’t give her girls much, but she could give them this.

Reaching into her back pocket, Eva pulled out her wallet. “How much for the dogs?”

The old man straightened, milky eyes lifting to her. “Oh, well, we’re not looking for a profit, Miss. Only that these pups get a good home.”

Pleased, she tucked the wallet away. Free? Who the hell could argue with that? “We’ll take three,” she said, smiled down at three awestruck faces. “Take your pick. One each.”

“Are we…for real?” Hailey’s arms uncrossed, hands stuffing into her pockets. But she’d seen the tremor and Eva’s heart lurched.

“I don’t make promises I can’t keep. They’re going to be yours, which means walking, feeding, cleaning and caring for them will be your responsibility. Do you think you can manage that?”

“I can!” Lucy shot up, arms outstretched.

“I know you can, baby.” Eva smiled.

“Yay!” Lucy squealed, struggling to take hold of a tiny, black blob of fur. “I want this one. This one is mine.”

Payton quietly stoked the head of a brindle boy, calm as she was, and nuzzled him with a grin.

“Which one do you want, Hail?”

Hailey’s eyes were wide, soft pools of brown. Eva couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen her eldest look so…wistful. For a minute Hailey searched through the remaining pups, then settled to her knees and held out her hand, snapping her fingers. A beautiful fawn coloured female with a dark nose scampered over, set paws to her chest and barked.

“There, that’s settled. Why don’t we take these guys home? Then swing into town to visit the pet store?”

“I’ve got a couple of leads inside,” Mr. Kim offered. “Nothing fancy, but at least they’ll see you home.”

Ten minutes later, her household had grown by three. And as she watched her daughters walking side by side, giggling and fawning over their new puppies, an air of contented satisfaction settled in her heart.

Tonight, she’d email Declan. Pitch her offer. And turn her eyes forward, to the future. No more looking back. No more dwelling on what couldn’t be changed.

How’s that, Eva thought, for letting go?

Marshall was a man accustomed to long, grueling flights, little sleep and hectic schedules. He’d lived for it once. Thrived on it. But now his body wanted to slow to a crawl and he hated this new, dragging weakness. So to counter against it, he’d leapt at the opportunity to fly out to Toronto for a meeting with Danni.

Excessive, perhaps, when they could have easily arranged a call over Skype, but he’d wanted a reason to pull him away from the siren’s lull of Haven.

Eager to kick off the rest of the dust settling on his shoulders, Marshall rolled into the Toronto Star bright and early. Only to find Danni had beat him to her office by at least a solid half hour, judging by the growing pile of scattered pages on the floor, hemorrhaging red with ruthless edits.

Dependable as the sun rising in the East, he thought, taking in the focused hunch of her shoulders, red pen held against a thin bottom lip. Unpainted. Danni wasn’t a woman who believed in wasting time on idle chit-chat or makeup.

He remembered the first time they’d been introduced, an off-chance meet in a ritzy hotel hosting a silent charity auction. An event he’d slipped his way in to, uninvited. His industriousness had impressed her and Danni decided to take a chance, mentoring the green and clueless kid with a keen eye and a knack for kicking in doors that otherwise wouldn’t budge. 

In journalism, those were traits worth nurturing.

Under her wings, Marshall worked up the ranks and was now one of her top journalists with a massive following that grew daily. Readers loved his snarky humor and honest style. Everything he had done and had yet to accomplish he owed to her. She’d taken a chance on him when no one else would have; Marshall would see Toronto disappear into Lake Ontario before he let her down.

When he rapped a knuckle against the doorframe, her head shot up and around. Thick dark frames haloed shrewd eyes in a face deceptively young for a woman rounding the bend of sixty.

“There’s my man.” Danni flashed her signature crooked smile. As he stepped inside, shutting the glass door behind him, she raised a venti cup of Starbucks to her lips, revealing a bright green Tinkerbell watch on a skinny wrist. One in a vast litany of her cartoonish collection.

He’d asked once what the deal was, and Danni delivered a simple answer in her usual, no-nonsense style: they were cheap and didn’t break the bank, so when one was lost—which happened often, broke or died—which happened even more often, then it didn’t matter.

And the kiddie variety made her smile. Reminded her not to take life, or time, too seriously.

“How was Island life?”

Marshall rubbed his hands on his legs. Even here in the corner suite the rush of energy in the bullpen flooded the space. A stark contrast to the calm and quiet of Ethan’s home. “Dull.”

Amused, Danni took another swig of caffeine. “No kidding. Listen, buddy, we’re getting figures in for your article and have to say, I’m impressed. Even for you, this is good. Really good.”

“Awesome,” he said, slipping his satchel strap over his head to set down at his feet. “Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming?”

“We’re in the news business.” Danni smirked with a roll of her eyes. “There’s always a ‘but’. It should come as no surprise when I say that, following your article, readership spiked and we’ve been inundated with a flood of online questions and tweets. They want more, Marshall. A lot more.”

“I was pretty thorough.”

“Yes, you really covered the gallery and the art, but people want to know more about this artist behind the phenomena.” Rummaging around her desk, she found the editor copy of the paper where his article was circled with black marker.

Never much of one to sit still, Marshall moved in slow, pensive strides, from desk to window. “I told you, the deal was we didn’t get personal.”

“Well, you’re going to have to. Who is Eddie Blake? Why does he—?”

“She,” Marshall interrupted, turning back around. “He’s a she. Eddie is a cover for Eva.” That caught her attention, he mused. And saw the notorious glint of journalistic hunger spark in Danni’s sharp blue eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because there wasn’t a need to.”

“Eddie Blake is a woman.” Danni sat back, rolling the red pen between her fingers. “Well that’s…unexpected. This could be huge. People love nothing more than the mysterious and brooding artist. The reluctant celebrity. Get me her story, Marshall. What’s her secret? What’s her unspoken truth? As the philosophy behind her art demonstrates, everyone has one. Find hers.”

Marshall swept a hand over his face, dragged it down. “We promised to keep this low scale,” he said. “I told you she wants to remain private. I have to respect her boundaries.”

“Since when do you care about honouring boundaries?”

“She’s a single mom, Dee, not an embezzling Senator with his hand up a teenager’s skirt. We had an agreement.”

Danni folded a hand over her fist, worrying the knuckles and squeezed until they cracked. A sign she was getting tense. Understandable, he mused. It wasn’t often the two of them weren’t on the same page about the direction of a story.

“Listen, this bit is skyrocketing. Networks across all of North America are picking it up and someone’s going to get to the bottom of it. Any other reporter isn’t going to care about scruples or boundaries. Depending on what they find, they’ll drag her out into the muck and mire to sanctify or crucify her.”

She released her grip, shook out her hands. “You know who she is, that gives you an advantage. A serious one. Use it.”

“Dee—”

“Do you want this fucking job with CTV or not?”

Marshall’s gaze drew out to the steady rush of the downtown core. Once he’d loved this hum of life. And he’d thought coming back into the thick of the city would invigorate him out of his slump. But standing here now he just felt drained by it all.

Deep, deep inside his bones ached for the soothing calm of Haven…Hated admitting he was already missing the stretch of beaches, the crisp sea air.

Doing a follow-up would give him the excuse he needed to go back. Maybe for a couple of weeks, just to get it out of his system? By the end of which he’d be so mind-numbingly bored the thought of returning to the city would seem like heaven.

“Well, I do have a foot in the door,” he admitted. “My sister’s her gallery manager. They’re best friends. She can help me soften Eva up.”

Long legs folded beneath her, Danni swiveled slightly behind the large desk. “I taught you well, grasshopper. And you think you can get her to agree to this? Exclusively?”

Marshall beamed, hooking his thumbs in his pockets. “C’mon, Dee. Don’t insult my skills.”

“Good.” Pleased with the turn of the tide, Danni lifted her coffee, waved it. “Go forth and pillage with my blessing.”

He cleared his throat, smoothed a hand over his chest. “I’ll need some time.”

Intrigued, that coffee paused before reaching her lips. “How much?”

Marshall worked it over in his head, went over the cues he’d noted during the interview and had to accept, grudgingly, Eva wasn’t going to be an easy sell. “Remember Bombay?”

Danni answered the question with a long, steady sip. “Take a sabbatical. Eight weeks. Ten at most. Chip away at her slowly. We’ll turn this into a weekly feature. I’ll want a proposal for the series in a week, and a rough draft for the first article shortly thereafter.”

“And if I can’t get the story?”

Danni unfolded from her chair, feet bare, and stood on thin legs that brought her to match his impressive height. “I’d like to say, ‘I’ll understand’.” Stopping in front of him, she gathered his hands in hers. 

“But this is a business, Marshall, and you’re paid a lot of money to deliver. So deliver.”


Chapter Five

Between the responsibilities of work and home, it wasn’t often that Eva had a spare morning of respite to indulge and relax. And when she did, Eva tried to make the most of them. Since Lottie had wanted to take her girls in to Salt Springs for ice cream, Eva decided to catch up on a bit of shopping in the local market.

A cheat, she knew, since buying groceries for the coming week wasn’t exactly how most would choose to spend an hour of precious freedom.

But one of the best things she loved most about Haven was the weekend Farmers Market with rows of stalls filling the heart of Centennial Park; the largest on the Island. Every Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, from Easter to Halloween, the farmers brought the very best in produce and homemade wares, from beeswax candles to jarred jams and jellies.

Pottery and woodcarvings, body lotions and jewellery. On occasion Lottie would sell handcrafted bird houses made from beach wood, moss and scraps of bark.

A tidy little hobby that kept her hands busy and heart full. The tourists and locals alike all loved them, and it wasn’t uncommon to meander through a park or a neighbouring yard and find one hanging from a tree. A happy little home for a family of swallows, blue jays or chickadees.

Eva had four.

Lifting a crate of blueberries, Eva breathed in the sweet perfume and smiled. The berries were plump, lush and, after sampling one, bursting with juice and flavour. So unlike the bland sort from an inner city grocery store, shipping in crates over land and sea.

For three dollars a pound, who could resist a bargain? The blueberries would be great for tomorrow’s breakfast of oatmeal, and she could freeze the rest for smoothies later in the week. Heck, she might even try her hand at making a pie.

Trailing her little buggy behind her, she haggled and negotiated with vendors, loading up on hearty kale, a gorgeous array of rainbow carrots and large heirloom tomatoes.

When she wasn’t stuffing her nose into the stands, breathing in the smell of ripe produce, as she strolled and meander from stall to stall, ever the artist, her eyes captured and appreciated and envied. Today was nothing but blue sky and dazzling sun, driving people from their homes and into the park, surrounded by a dense copse of trees and summer flowers.

One day, Eva vowed, she and her girls would be as much a part of this place, this community, as the streets and trees and buildings. They would belong. And, sighing, imagined a day when she would walk into town and be met with knowing smiles and waves, entertaining idle conversation instead of always looking to keep to the periphery of things.

Cutting out of events, ducking and dodging and steering clear of company and people and questions. Because that’s what always happened when striking up a chat or creating new friendships: people asked questions.

Who are you? What’s your name? Where are you from? Simple, easy and innocent, for most. But in Eva’s case it meant reinventing herself, her past. Every story, circumstance and experience had to be recreated, reshaped and god, lying on such a massive scale, trying to keep all the facts straight, was exhausting.

From nosey neighbours to well-meaning meddlers, Eva walked a dangerous line every time she opened her mouth. All it would take was a small slip of the tongue and the house of cards that was her life would tumble into ruin.

Two years on the island and the only people she knew with any certainty were the Davies, only because Lottie had refused to be brushed off. And managing even only that small circle of trust had been a feat of near Herculean proportions. How many times, she thought, had she’d almost stuck her foot in her mouth in those early days?

Thankfully the Davies, unlike most on the island, weren’t the prying sort, and embraced Eva as she was, quirks and all. And if they had any doubts or reservations, Lottie had always made a point never to dig. Maybe that was the motherly nature in her, Eva mused, always providing comfort and support, trusting that if her children needed her then they would come when they were ready. And leaving Eva free to do the same.

Over the lilt of voices and birds and bees, musicians setup near the fountain musicians, a motley trio playing guitar, keyboard and tambourine all long hair, worn denim and bright colours.

Eva snapped a few pictures, studied the frames with a smile. They would make a great addition to her candid collection. In July the park would host music festivals and evening movies with couples stretched on the grass atop blankets, under the stars. She’d taken her girls to one last year; the four of them cuddled together for a Disney feature of Beauty and the Beast. One of her favourites as a kid.

That had been the first time she’d actually let herself breathe, and believe that a new life on Haven was actually going to be possible. Three months later, she’d tamped down on what little doubt and insecurity she had left, and gave birth to Out of Focus.

Though the increasing interest in Out of Focus had led to a couple of sleepless nights, Eva was starting to see the possibilities stemming from the recent influx of attention. A soaring increase in sales, for starters, now coupled with the wired funds from her old life, had given Eva the boost, both in finances and confidence, that she needed to file an offer of purchase for Lavender Cottage.

Though the owner hadn’t expressed an interest in selling up, Eva trusted that she could help sway him with a sizable cash payout. This morning she’d woken up with a smile and a genuine feeling of elation, the first that she could recall in at least two years since she’d felt so completely happy.

Hopeful.

Working over her shopping list for the week, Eva picked through some Granny Smith apples and decided that she would finish up by the meat counter for a couple of ham hocks for the puppies.

Three girls. Three puppies. Christ, what the hell had she been smoking when she’d decided to take all of that on? Two days in and the home was a whirlwind of activity, but the girls were managing the chores without argument or complaint. Even Hailey, Eva mused. From early morning and evening walks, to feeds and cleaning up all the puddles and poops when the pups didn’t manage to make it through the door in time.

She’d let the girls pick out the names, and they’d settled on Wiggles for Lucy, Skittles, for Payton, and Hailey, shocker, had yet to make up her mind.

They were active, as puppies were known to be, but Eva trusted in time that hyper behaviour would mellow out, just as it did with children. They were good dogs, and as Mr. Kim had promised, smart. Though she assumed some form of obedience training would soon be necessary for the sake of long-term preservation of her sanity. And, for the fifth time, made a mental note to get in touch with the pet store workers to look into…

The bones in Eva’s spine locked together, forcing her straight. As a trained observer, she knew when eyes were on her. And these were not the careless, innocent sort of a passer-by. These were following her. Dissecting her.

Eva whipped her gaze around, searching until she found the source. And scowled at the guilty party. Caught in the act, he waved, walking towards her with a shameless smile.

“You.” She knotted the bag of apples, tucked it into her buggy and handed the vendor a five. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Marshall gave his own bags, bearing a few meagre items, a wiggle. “Shopping. Same as you.”

“Spare the cute comebacks. You know what I meant. Here, on Haven. Why are you here?”

Marshall slung the bag on a muscular forearm, tanned against a rolled up blue sleeve, and shrugged. He had decided to check out the Farmer’s Market on a whim after his mother had casually mentioned something about Eva’s plans for shopping. His plan was to play it smooth, casual, and set himself in her path with a series of chance encounters. Not that she needed to know that.

“Visiting. Enjoying the tourist season.”

Eva didn’t buy that for a second. And didn’t make a point of hiding it.

“Bullshit.”

As she walked off, he fell into step with her, his long stride would have no problems keeping pace so she saw little point in trying to shake him. But there was more than one way to dispense of undesirable company and Eva had made a point to master them all.

“Did you forget my family lives on the island?” he asked, hands tucked into his pockets, bags bouncing off his legs with each step.

“Family you haven’t visited in at least two years.” Eva glared up at him, all windblown hair and golden scruff against tanned skin.

Christ, he was a looker. Even if she wasn’t interested on a personal level, professionally she couldn’t fault a perfect specimen. Full-lipped, strong jaw, and a straight nose, all eclipsed by a smile that sucker punched a woman right in the damn ovaries.

She could make a fortune photographing a face like that. Annoyed, Eva dragged her gaze away and made a pointed effort not to look at him.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because that’s how long I’ve lived here and—”

“Well, for your information, I visited last June.”

Halting mid-stride, she jerked a little straighter. “I don’t remember—?”
“Only for a quick weekend,” he added, gaze cast towards the stretch of tables they passed, covered in an array of bath salts, face creams and essential oils. “Spent the time at Ethan’s beachside cottage, which is where I’m staying for now.”

Not liking the sound of that, Eva clamped down on the rise of panic. “How long are you staying?”

“Couple months. Three at most.”

Fan-freaking-tastic. “I don’t appreciate being ambushed. Or harassed. And I don’t need you chasing after me with a hard-on for the next three months.”

“Chasing? Who’s chasing?”

Eva swept out her arms to illustrate her point.

His teeth flashed as he leaned in a little closer, and she got a whiff of cinnamon and sharp soap. “Don’t worry; grubby-chic isn’t my thing. I prefer blondes. With legs up to here,” he said, skimming a finger beneath her left earlobe.

“I meant after me professionally.” Delicate nerves beneath the skin sparked at the innocent touch. Eva brushed his hand away, and hated that the off-handed comment stung. “For journalistic…stuff?”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Winking, Marshall rolled his tongue into the pocket of his cheek. “As it so happens, yes. I would like to extend my article with a series spotlighting you and your work. I swung by the gallery to pitch the idea to you yesterday, but Jenelle says you haven’t been around lately.”

Ice flashed beneath the heat of her irritation. Marshall had stopped by the gallery looking for her? And why, Eva wondered, hadn’t Jenelle thought to mention that little detail?

“I’ve been working from home,” she said, careful to keep her face neutral. A skill she’d learned to perfect out of necessity. “Out of Focus is too noisy. Thanks to you.”

“And here I thought you were avoiding me. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Eva snorted at that.

“Come on, aren’t you thrilled? The world wants more of Eddie Blake aka Eva Turner. Why the alias, by the way?”

Accepting that he wasn’t going to be dissuaded by her callous demeanour, Eva decided the sooner she got to the butcher, the sooner she could wrap up her little shopping trip and get the hell away from him. Eva might have been challenged with short legs, but she was a fast walker when required, and picked up the pace.

“I’ve already answered that question.”

“Yes, but the sake of artistic anonymity can’t be all of it,” he said, winding around from her right side over to her left with a hitch. He was all smooth and evasive, forcing her to keep off balance and on edge. His movements sleek and confident as a wolf wearing down its prey.

Like any cornered cat, she bared her teeth. “If Cher and Lady Gaga could build a career on a stage name, why can’t I?”

“Those are singers,” he countered, poking her shoulder with his finger.

“Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre under the name Currer Bell in the nineteenth century.

“Because back then only men were successful in publishing. Have you ever known a photographer to work under a pseudonym?”

Eva narrowed her eyes. “Brassai.”

“Who?”

“Famous Hungarian photographer who lived in Paris. His real name was Gyula Halasz.”

Marshall’s smiled, smooth and clean. “With a name like that it’s no wonder. Come on, Eva. Tell me. Off record, if you’d like. Why the alias?”

“Is valuing privacy and creating distance between the professional and personal aspects of one’s life really such a strange and unusual concept? Not everyone wants to be famous.”

Ten years of experience had taught him otherwise, but Marshall withheld the remark. “Fine, let’s dispense with the alias debate. For the article I was thinking perhaps I could shadow you for a day or two? Get a feel for your process. Give the readers a hint of a day in the life.”

Son of a…“Don’t you ever give up?”

“Nope.”

Clear of the market, they crossed from the park over to the sidewalk lined with shops. “Well my answer is no. And for the sake of saving breath, it’ll be no tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after,” Eva said with a dismissive wave, buggy bouncing behind her in haste. “So, now you can go away. Pester someone else.”

“Can’t. Got a job to do. I always get the story, Eva. And I never miss a deadline.”

“Not this time. Imagine that’s going to blow over real well with your editors.”

“We can play this however you want to, Eva, but either way the story is going to get out there.” Outside Hamish & Son’s, Marshall reached ahead of her, opened the door. “You realize, as a journalist, I don’t exactly need your permission?”

She stopped cold. So did her heart. Eva swung around, David squaring off with Goliath. “Are you threatening me?”

Hostility sparked from her like a live wire. Realizing he’d touch a nerve, Marshall stepped back and switched gears. Sensing he needed to proceed very carefully if he wanted to come out of this unscathed.

“Merely stating facts. I believe in you, what you’re trying to do here, Eva. I want to make sure the right story is told. Help me.”

Aggravated beyond measure, teeth clenched so tight she thought they might crack, she crossed the threshold, and rounded on him again when he moved to follow her inside.

“Back off. For five damn minutes. Back off.”

Thankfully he stayed outside, visible in the large street-facing window. Eva made a pointed effort to ignore him as she haggled with the butcher. Ten minutes later she had a couple of beef bones and ham hocks bagged and paid for.

Marshall, of course, was right where she left him.

“What’re those for?” he asked as she rejoined him back on the sidewalk, nodding towards her recent purchase.

Eager to get to her car parked only the next street down; Eva tossed a glare over her shoulder. “You’re a nosey pain in the ass.”

Unapologetic, Marshall lifted his hands. “Journalist.”

“Your mom’s teaching me to make homemade stock.”

His eyes returned to her little buggy. “That’s a lot of soup.”

“I bought extra.” Digging around in her back pocket for her keys, had a small moment of panic before finding them in the jacket tied around her waist. “For the puppies.”

“Plural, eh?”

“Yes. We have three new additions at home.” Finally at her car, Eva popped the trunk, drew up short when Marshall moved to help her and warned him off with a glare when Marshall moved to help. Taking the hint, he backed off and reclined against the front fender.

“No single parent in their right mind would take on three puppies on a whim unless they’re compensating for some perceived wrong. So,” he reached into his bag, pulled out a pear and bit into the ripe flesh, “what did you do?”

Stretched to the limits of her patience, Eva drew in slow, deep breaths as she loaded her purchases into the trunk of her car. When she was finished, she slammed the trunk shut and re-joined him on the sidewalk.

“Because I love your sister and have profound respect for your mother, I am going to phrase this as polite and succinctly as possible.” She edged closer, until dirt-smeared converse met trendy loafers. “Stay away from me.”

“Haven’s a small island.” Marshall folded his arms, pear dangling from his fingers. “Will be kinda hard to manage that.”

“Try. Try really hard.”

“Keeping a toe outside of enemy borders isn’t really my style.” He shot her a toothy grin, laughed in the heat of her frustration. “Come on, Eva. We can be friends, can’t we?”

“Sure.” She shot up her hands with an aggravated laugh. “Why not? Let’s watch girlie flicks, eat ice cream and braid each other’s hair. How’s tomorrow night?”

“Okay. French braids are cool, but I don’t do pigtails.” Marshall rubbed a hand across his scruff. “Not with these cheeks.”

“I was being sarcastic.”

“So was I.”

Growling, an inch away from pulling out hair—his—she yanked open the car door, set a hand on the hard top. “I really don’t like you.”

“Give it a week,” he said, nudging her shoulder with his arm. “I have a way of growing on people.”

Strolling off with a whistle and a smile, Marshall left her scowling in his wake.

Considering his morning efforts a success, Marshall decided to squeeze in a couple of hours behind the computer, fleshing out the bones of an essay he had buzzing around inside his head. Not the sort of thing he had planned to write once he’d sat down, but something happened the moment his fingers hit the keys.

Five hours and almost twenty pages later, Marshall saved them in a file he marked: Insanity. Seeing as the hour was drawing late and Ethan was pulling an evening shift at the office, Marshall headed out to visit to his parents. And had his fingers crossed that his mother would be up to her elbows in pasta dough because he had a serious hankering for some spaghetti. With large juicy meatballs dusted in Parmesan…

Because the weather was gorgeous and the air soft, Marshall left his rental at Ethan’s and enjoy the walk over with LeBron to his parents’ home. One of the oldest properties on the island it was a pretty little picture nestled on a staggering two-acre lot.

His mother had taken advantage and planted a variety of fruit bearing trees and a sizeable vegetable plot along with her rioting flowers and bushes. As a proud member of the Vancouver Rose Society, she was a Triple Crown winner with her prized roses.

Uncouple the lead from LeBron’s collar, he set the loon free in the fenced front yard where the golden blur chased squirrels and snapped at birds. Knowing the spare key was tucked in the small body of the birdhouse hanging on the porch, Marshall let himself in the front door, locking up behind him.

White washed walls dressed in varying sized frames crowded the foyer. Full of smiling memories, celebratory milestones and happy times spanning back as far as a hundred and fifty years. Marshall leaned in to examine his sixth grade graduation picture hung next to his grandparents wedding photo. The faded black and white of 1945 a striking contrast to the sharp colours of the late seventies.

Pushing on through the kitchen at the back of the home, Lottie Davis stood in front of the stove, humming along to Biggie streaming from her iPhone. Setting his bags on the table, Marshall encircled her from behind in a brawny hug. Chin propped atop her head, he sniffed appreciatively.

And nearly drooled at the savoury notes of meat smothered in rich spices. All thoughts of spaghetti were obliterated by the prospect of something new and intoxicating.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Lamb stew. A new Bobby Flay recipe I’ve been keen to try.”

“Then I’d like to toss my hat into the pool of willing test subjects.”

“You always did have impeccable timing,” Lottie chuckled, angling to kiss his cheek and wrinkled her nose at the scratch of facial hair. “When are you going to do something about this? Can hardly see you through all the mess.”

“I’ll have you know the ladies love a man in a beard. Gives a bit of mystery and intrigue.”

Smirking, Lottie shook her head. “Most cases it’s to hide a weak chin, cleft lip or a boring personality, all of which you don’t have.”

Marshall laughed at that, moving over to the upper cabinets to fish out shallow bowls to set the kitchen table. “I was at the market. Brought you some of that honey you love. From Bees & Trees.”

“Lovely. I could use some in this citrus vinaigrette.”

Searching through the bags, Marshall found the jar and brought it over to the counter. “Dad and Jen around?”

“Both out back. Gathering some fresh tomatoes and lettuce for a salad to go with the lamb.”

On cue the backdoor swung open and Jenelle, unusually dressed in jeans, stepped in, arms overburdened with goodies from the garden.

“Here, I got it,” he said, taking hold of the door for her.

“Why am I not surprised?” Smiling, she joined her mother by the stove, spilling her bounty on to the counter. “Whenever there’s food on the stove, Marshall comes knocking.”

“Spend months in the bush eating bugs, roots and the odd critter caught in a snare and you’ll develop a strong nose for home cooking, too.” Returning to the task of setting the table, he fished out cutlery and glassware, laying them all out as to his mother’s precise preference. A duty drummed into him from early childhood mucking about with his siblings.

His mom kept the same dishes and glasses, the drawer contained a hodgepodge of mismatched cutlery acquired over a lifetime, most of which he could remember from as far back as his mind allowed.

As he set down the forks on the left and the knives on the right, he had an uncanny shift back to an evening where he’d slept under the stars in Nigeria, looking up and thinking about this exact thing. And wondering if he’d live to do this one simple task again? To stand in his mother’s kitchen, setting the table.

Something so simple, so menial…so ordinary.

Throat thickening, his hand trembled, and Jenelle’s teasing banter faded into obscurity. He turned, looked across to his mother who was watching him in measured silence. A tearful gleam in her eyes that said she had experienced a moment of her own. Linking them. Fusing them in a single second where nothing and no one else existed.

Crossing the room, he gathered her close, held tight and breathed softly in her ear, “I’m home.”

A ripple tore through her in a single, jagged sob. And those hands, those strong capable hands of hers clutched him close.

“Aw, thanks you guys.” Marshall looked over as Jenelle slid her fingers beneath her eyes, wiping away any evidence she’d ruined her makeup. She might, for a lazy afternoon, give up her expensive threads and heels, but would never, short of cutting off an arm, face a day without mascara.

“Take over for a sec,” he said, scooping an arm around his mother’s shoulder, leading her out to the back deck where they almost collided with his father. It took one knowing look for Harold to stand aside, lips pressed tight together.

“I’ll see to things,” he said, and disappeared inside.

“Here, mom.” Marshall steered over to the porch swing. With her face buried into his shoulder, he stroked a hand over her short mess of pewter curls, and together they rocked as the sunset washed over them.

For a while they were silent, with only the song of birds and breeze to carry the stillness. And when finally Lottie cleared her throat and pulled herself straight.

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to let this happen. I promised myself I wasn’t going to let this happen.” Very carefully, Lottie swept and dabbed at her face, cleaning up the mess of tears only to have them replaced by fresh ones. “Lord help me, it’s been months and I thought I had it under control, but then I saw you there. Setting the table and it was so…familiar. Then you stopped, standing so still. And it hit me. Hit me damn hard.”

“Mom,” he sighed, leaning his brow against hers. Heart aching in his throat.

“No, you can’t understand. You can’t possibly, Marshall, you’re not a parent.” She turned to him, her hands gathered in his in his lap. Her eyes devouring his features as if desperate to soak him in.

Every nuance and detail.

“You haven’t held a life in your arms, born from your body. You haven’t watched that child grow and take off into the world, or faced the terrifying possibility that something could happen to them. Could still happen to them.” When her voice broke, Lottie clamped down until she had control.

“There isn’t a day where I don’t worry about you all. Not one. But you most of all, because of the dangers you faced for your job. I’ve always supported you. Encouraged you. Wanted the best for you. And when you were taken, I would lay up at nights and curse myself for my stupidity.”

“Mom.” He gave their joined hands a squeeze before releasing to rub the smooth skin of her arm. Stroking away that tension and fear. “I never meant to scare you.”

“I know. I know you didn’t. I told myself I wouldn’t make demands, or fault you for wanting to go back, but God how I prayed, Marshall, how I prayed you would walk away. Leave it all behind. And when Jenelle told me about your plans for CTV I thought at long last my prayers had been answered.”

Marshall swallowed the lump in his throat and cast his gaze towards the dazzling spectacle of the sunset sweeping across the horizon. The sky a blaze of fire and gold and wrenching beauty.

“Well, nothing’s set in stone, mom. No, don’t fret,” he added when she stiffened at his side. “I’m done with the field. I couldn’t go back to all that, even if I wanted to. Not now.”

Relief washed over her face, but Lottie said nothing. Only her hands gave her away, clutching at his as if she were afraid he’d disappear before her eyes.

“Do you want this job?”

“Yes.” His answer was swift, immediate, and not without threads of desperation. “Yes, I want it. Need it.” Deserve it. “But things aren’t so simple. So easy. It’s complicated and there’s politics,” he said, trying not to sound all doom and gloom, so he softened the words with a smile and a wink.

“That’s why I’m here. Chasing an angle that I hope will show I’ve got more depth than the old fogies knew I had.”

And if he failed? Then what? He’d be washed up. A broken thing, discarded and forgotten. Useless. What did he have to offer to the world, if not his ability to capture a story? To weave words and facts, drawing attention and focus, glaring—hot as a spotlight—aimed at the cancer infecting the world?

As an investigative journalist, he’d been the surgeon, cutting it out. Ripping it out at the root. Crushing it into oblivion.

“I’ve got three months, mom. Three months to make this whole thing play out the way I need it to. Otherwise…” he faltered, then as always, reached for humour to mask his unease. “Otherwise I’ll take up a job at Victoria Secrets as an experience bra fitter.”

Lottie tossed her head back with a long, rolling laugh, swatting him with her hands. “Oh you cheeky beggar. I’ll bet having you on staff will see a line winging down the block far as the eye could see.”

“I’d be insulted if it spanned less than three.” They laughed together, mother and son, and Marshall thought, it was a beautiful sound.

Beyond them the door swung open and Jenelle popped her head out. “Dinner’s served if you guys are ready to join us.”

“Just about,” Marshall answered and, with a smile, Jenelle disappeared back inside.

“Before we go in, about Eva,” Lottie spoke up, sweeping a hand across his head, brushing stray locks of burnished gold so she could see him more clearly. “She’s a strong woman. Stronger then I think she knows, but she’s also delicate.” There was worry there, he thought, and something else. Something she wrestled with and eventually reined in.

“Tread carefully, Marshall,” she said. “Be gentle with her.”


Chapter Six

Sun cresting on the horizon, Marshall unlocked the door to the little cabin tucked in the cove. Tugging on the lead, LeBron shot his nose up in the air, sniffed around.

The place was musty, the windows all shuttered and through the cracks motes danced and spun. Sheets draped over the furniture, plastic wrapped around the light fixtures, it should have looked neglected and forgotten.

But Marshall felt oddly at home here. Connected. He’d never been in any one place long enough to really establish much of a bond to…well, anywhere, besides Haven. A fact he hadn’t quite realized until rather recently.

The last ten years was a blur of airports, hotel rooms if he was lucky, and muddy hovels when he wasn’t.

Setting down his bags, he tucked the keys into his pockets.

It was small, cozy, even. And beyond the narrow yard was the beach, a private little wedge of the cove. From here, with the cliffs jutting up overhead, was Eva’s place. And through the cluster of trees, he could see Lavender Cottage.

Given that summer was in full swing, Marshall had been lucky to snatch this place up. And being a vacation rental, the price hadn’t come cheap, but hey, he was on the clock so all expenses would be covered by the paper.

Perks of the trade.

At the tinkling chime of music, Marshall slid out his phone from his pocket and, seeing ‘Mouse’ flash on screen, answered with, “Pizza Pizza, may I take your order?”

“Yo son,” a raspy voice slid out, punctuated by throbbing bass of electro. “I’ll take a loaded deep dish and a Brazilian hottie. How’s it hanging? Been a minute, still.”

“Mouse.” Marshall smiled. “Did you get my email?”

“Yeah, about that…” The bass music lowered and Marshall heard the groaning of a chair. He imagined Mouse, a skinny little Saudi kid, all hip-hop and metal, reclining behind his massive—and illegal—console. Screens lit and streaming tunes, porn and Call of Duty. “Why have you got me chasing some side-chick? I’m not into cyber-stalking so you can get laid.”

“I’m not stalking.” Phone wedged between cheek and shoulder, he worked around the room, stripping sheets off furniture. Turning his face away from the explosion of dust. “Just working an angle on a story.”

Sheets bundled on the floor in the center of the room, he crossed to the window, threw it open so a fresh breeze could help clear out the musty, stagnant room. The furniture was sparse, but apparently comfortable as LeBron stretched across the couch, rolled onto his back and yawned. Flashing white canines and a long grey tongue.

“So? Seriously, son I’ve got a rep, seen? This falls below my cred.”

“Come on, Mouse. I need you on this one.” Deciding he’d done about as much housekeeping as man on an empty stomach could manage, Marshall swung into the kitchen, found one of his mom’s Welcome Wagon baskets perched on the counter and smiled.

Stuffed with coffee beans, bottle of Merlot from one of Haven’s winery, a jar of local honey, Aleve, for his shoulder, and a note telling him to look inside the fridge.

The line crackled with a long, suffering sigh. “Time is money, son. What kind of coin we talking about?”

“I think half of your usual is fair,” he said, turning around and opening the refrigerator door. Inside was stacked with containers, each labeled with enough of his mom’s home cooked meals to see him through the week.

“Half? I’ve got expenses, yo.”

“As you said,” Marshall pulled out a container labelled Beef and Barely, peeled off the lid and popped it in the microwave. “This falls below your cred. Half your going rate for a ‘side-chick’ should be easy money for you.”

Punching in two minutes it took almost half that for Mouse to quit his grumbling.

“Fine. But this is gonna be back burner shit, seen? Got bigger things stacked so give me some flex and I’ll get it done.”

Swiping the warmed container out of the microwave, Marshall breathed in the steamy goodness.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Mouse.” Ending the call, he had barely enough time to hunt down a spoon from the drawer before his phone leapt to life again. This time with his parents’ number.

“Mom,” he said, cramming in a mouthful of savoury soup. Who said you couldn’t eat lunch for breakfast. “Thanks for stocking me up.”

“Oh, you’re welcome darling. Happy to help—Oh, dammit Harold, to the left, the left,” she ended on a screech and a curse. “Honey, if it’s not too much trouble, can you get here? I’d call Ethan but he’s already at the field and—” A clang, a bash and another stream of curses. Marshall recognized his father’s voice in the background. Full of frustration and fury.

“Sure. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing a shot gun wouldn’t solve,” Lottie said through tightly clenched teeth. “Come dressed for war, honey.” And hung up.

Despite some residual annoyance over her little hiccough with Marshall the other day, the morning had started with such promise. No surprise puddles from the puppies too anxious to wait for Eva to rise and set them loose in the yard. The girls woke in high spirits—even Hailey had a smile on her face.

She found the three of them in the backyard working with the puppies through a series of simple commands the obedience instructor down at the pet shop had shown them last night.

Roll over. Sit. Stay. Simple, easy commands. Not that they were making much progress, but watching the ensuing fit of giggles and laughter made her smile. In her bliss and content to enjoy a quiet hour to herself, Eva booted up her laptop and almost shrieked.

There. It was all there. All twenty-seven thousand glorious dollars. The transfer had finally cleared. That brought her one vital step closer. She had the means now to give the girls a home.

Hopefully this one.

Calling the girls in so they could get ready, Eva pulled a cap over her head, ran her fingers along the sides tucking in stray strands of hair and examined herself in the mirror. These days she’d taken to hiding as much of her face as possible, and avoiding peak hours at the gallery after a run in with a crowd resulted in being swarmed by a camera-phone-toting horde vying for a selfie.

Fortunately, as far as she could gather, the masses hadn’t known she was the photographer behind the trending art, so she’d escaped without incident. But how long could she keep that up?

The more buzz, sooner or later someone on Haven would speak up and point her out. How long till the buzzards were swarming her lawn? Harassing her kids?

And worse…how long until Jerry found out?

Eva worried the thought, and a thumbnail, over the course of the drive. As they rolled down the street, the Davies place came into view and her heart clutched, as it always did at the sight of it.

Eva loved this home, with its classic lines and sequestered lot overlooking the dramatic stretch of Haven’s flat lands and narrow harbour. The Davies’ home was one of the first built when a small group of settlers arrived in 1859.

The six-bedroom property had been passed down within the family and had seen a smidge of renovating over the years. But still boasted its rustic, historical charm with lofty ceilings, hardwood floors and whitewashed interior.

French doors lead from the back kitchen out to an ample deck where Lottie often hosted large dinner parties and gatherings. And Eva was grateful that the Davies extended such traditions to her girls, roping them in for family events like Thanksgiving and Christmas. It had been awkward at first, Eva recalled, but now more than ever she appreciated the sense of belonging and family.

Turning the wheel, Eva frowned. Lottie should have been waiting on the front porch but found it empty. Pulling up the drive, she threw the car into park and checked the time on the dash. They were cutting it close if they were going to make it to the pitch in time. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the anxious strain in Payton’s face and smiled.

“Don’t worry, baby. We’ve got at least twenty minutes. I’m going to pop in and see what’s keeping Miss Davies. Why don’t we give the puppies a bit of a run?”

Payton answered with a worried nod, Hailey appeared entirely ambivalent while Lucy gleefully squealed an exuberant, “Yay!”

Unloading her girls and puppies from the backseat, Eva led the rabble around to the front yard, beautifully fenced behind cedar posts. The manicured lawn dappled with shade from a trio of swaying maples.

“Stay here,” Eva said, shielding the sun from her eyes with the flat of her hand. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

While her girls tore through the grass, the pups leaping and bounding in their wake, Eva wound around the side of the home to the back deck.

And was stopped by a frothing wet trail. Following that trickling flow, Eva discovered a stream of water flowing over the threshold and down the back stairs to puddle in the walkway.

Climbing the steps, Eva threw the doors open. Lottie stood by the sink, hands on hips, her usually calm and pleasant face set in mutinous lines while the dishwasher rattled and spewed frothy foam.

Tucked under the sink, his slender body perched on his knees, was her husband Harold, muttering and clanging away. And hopelessly drenched.

“How about now?”

“It’s slowing down.” Lottie stooped next to Harold, brushed a hand over his sodden back. “Give it a couple more turns.”

“What’s going on?” Eva called out above the racket.

“Dishwasher, the utter bane of my existence, is dying a slow and painful death,” Lottie snapped, the usually calm blue eyes sizzling with temper. “I told those girls I didn’t need one. And now look at the mess!” There was a chocked wheeze and the dishwasher fell silent.

Harold emerged, frazzled and soaked. His dark hair plastered to the walls of his face, pale eyes dazed after enduring a lengthy and trying battle of the wills between man and machine.

“I’ve got the water shut off, at least. Now it’s just the swamp to deal with.”

Toeing off her converse, Eva took hold of the mop handle before Lottie could reach it, and wagged a hand at them both.
“Go on, I’ve got this.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to keep you with Payton’s game about to start.”

“We’ve got at least fifteen minutes. I can manage the mop. Got any old towels?”

“Yes, I do.” Lottie dried her hands off on her jeans. “There’s a few about a wash away from the bin. I’ll fetch them and help sop up this mess.”

“I’m going to call the plumber,” Harold said, rolling his head on his shoulders. “Have Stan haul this thing out, once and for all.” And stalked off with a mutter, his loafers squelching with each furious step.

Alone in the chaos, Eva rolled up her jeans to the knee and set to work.

And that was exactly how Marshall found her. Ankle deep in suds, Eva’s tidy little frame wiggling as she sopped up inch deep water spread across the kitchen floor. He paused at the threshold and an amused smirked danced across his face at the sight.

Music wafted from the next room. Marshall recognized the arresting robust voice of Andrea Bocelli paired with Eva’s hushed duet. This was the most relaxed, the most…at ease he’d ever seen her, here in his mother’s kitchen, twirling a mop. A pretty picture, he thought, tucking hands into his pockets, and one he almost hated to interrupt.

Clearing his throat, those delicate shoulders tensed and her head whipped up and around.

Eva planted the mop at her side and blew the uneven edge of bangs out of her eyes. “What are you doing here?”

Ignoring her question, he leaned casually against the doorjamb.

“Got a call,” he said after a stretch. “A panicked cry for help, so I came straight over.” He strolled in, reached for the mop. “Here. Let me take over.”

“I can manage on my own.”

“Didn’t say you couldn’t.” His eyes slid down. Her tiny feet with coral tipped toes met tapered ankles and the shapely calves of a woman who kept in shape. Interesting, he thought, to see that for someone who clearly didn’t care enough to put a comb through her hair, would paint her nails.

And not her hands, but her toes. An area of the body usually hidden from plain sight inside ratty shoes. Not sure what it all meant, Marshall tucked away the little detail.

Moving closer his long fingers curled around the wooden handle, just below hers. “Many hands make light work, after all.”

He’d tied his hair back, Eva noted. Shaved off his scruff of beard, so his face was unobstructed. Blatantly exposed. And handsome as hell. A little snarl of lust curled in her belly, hummed and purred. She resented it. Hated it. But her body continued to hum and purr, nonetheless. Because he was so close, so warm, Eva let go of the mop and took three large steps back.

“Oh, Marshall, thank heavens,” Lottie exclaimed from beyond them.
“We could use some muscle.” Arms overburdened, she set the stack of towels on the table and passed a couple to Eva. While Marshall soaked up water and suds, both she and Lottie worked around the kitchen from the edges in towards the center, rolling towels and water, ringing out the excess on the porch.

It was tedious work, but with the three of them on hand, they’d managed to clear up the worst of the mess shy of ten minutes.

“Stan will be here within the hour,” Harold announced, freshly changed into dry slacks and t-shirt tucked in at the waist, running a towel over his dark hair. “I’ll stay behind to see to him.”

“Good. Okay.” Lottie spun full circle, her mind a mess. “Okay. Right. I’ve got the cooler packed. The fold out chairs in the hall.” Those eyes leapt to Eva. “I don’t want you to be late. Go on ahead. I can catch a ride over with Marshall, can’t I, dear?”

“Course.”

Thankful to have a reason to escape, Eva said her goodbyes. Wrangling girls back into the car, leaving the puppies to enjoy the fenced yard, Eva made it to Dallington’s soccer field with five minutes to spare, every second of which she had to squeeze down to the last nano helping Payton into her kit.

Finished lacing her cleats, Eva pulled Payton’s soccer jersey over her head, adjusting the blue and gold shirt over her skinny frame.

“There,” she said, smiling up at her daughter. “How’s my little soccer star?”

Payton’s face beamed bright with excitement as she thrust up two thumbs.

“Good. That’s what I want to see. Remember, pace yourself, okay? Eye on the ball and do your best, baby. Win or lose, you’re a champ.”

Payton nodded again. A lock of dark honey hair fell into her eyes.

“How are your cleats? Are the laces too tight?” Eva asked while tucking that stray wisp behind her ear.

Payton shook a rigorous no and over her shoulder, Eva watched as Ethan approached. His face quietly composed and serious as always. Even though she’d come to know him, like and respect him, because he was law enforcement, her stomach always twisted and did a little anxious dance when he was around.

“How’s my best striker?” he asked, left side of his mouth lifting a smidge—Ethan’s equivalent of a full wattage grin. Payton’s brown eyes rolled up to him, full of dewy admiration and Eva brushed a hand over her lips, smothering her smile.

In an effort to break through Payton’s silence, Eva had prodded her into joining the Darling Dallington girls’ soccer team. Only to discover that Payton had a natural gift on the field with quick feet, sharp reflexes and agility.

Raising her hand, Payton high-fived Ethan before joining her teammates out on the pitch.

Ethan watched her for a moment before he offered a hand, helping her to her feet.

“Jenelle’s up in the bleachers,” he said, nodding beyond them. “Saved you a seat.”

“Right. Thanks.” Glancing over, Eva noted Hailey sitting cross-legged on the grass, headphones wedged into her ears. Lucy was next to her, chattering away, arms winging in exuberant, spastic motion, utterly oblivious that she was being ignored by her big sister.

Joining them, Eva held out her hand for Lucy. “Come on, baby, we’ve got seats up in the stands. Hail, wanna join us?” Eva said the last part a little louder, waving a hand before Hailey’s eyes, capturing her attention.

She rolled them up to Eva with a curt head shake ‘no’.

Fine, Eva thought. And left her to her own devices. Climbing the steps, Lucy bounded up as quick as her little legs could manage, scaling up to the top row and far left.

“Hey Gummy Bear!” Jenelle sang, catching Lucy in a fierce hug and gathered her onto her lap. “Ooooh so squishy. Can I take a bite? Yes? How about…here?”

While Lucy giggled and squealed, Jenelle made loud munching noises, nuzzling her face into Lucy’s belly. As Eva sat down, even though the sun was softened behind a layer of clouds, she unfolded her sunglasses and slid them on to her face. Because you never knew when a soccer mom would snap a picture, or where that picture would end up…

“Momma,” Lucy said, breathless from laughter, “can I have snack?”

Instinctively Eva reached for her bag, halted mid-motion. Dammit. “I didn’t pack anything, baby. Miss Davies has all the snacks with her.”

“I bought a hot dog,” Jenelle offered, holding up her foil wrapped dog smothered in ketchup and mustard from a tray at her side. Lucy turned up her nose.

“No. I want apple juice and Bitz crackers.”

“Ritz, baby.”

“That’s what I said,” Lucy grumbled. Not pleased at being corrected.

“We’ll we’re just going to have to wait a bit. Miss Davies should be here soon and—”

“Speaking of, there she is,” Jenelle cut in, pointing off to the side of the soccer pitch. Eva followed that long, graceful arm to see Lottie shuffling backwards, dragging a cooler on wheels over the grassy field to the line of fencing where a row of proud soccer moms stood together.

Some talking, some cheering as both teams took to the field. All dressed in the school colours of gold and blue; united in support of their daughters. Off to the side, not quite part of the group, was Claire. Seeing Eva, she raised a tentative hand in a wave.

Pretending to be oblivious, Eva looked away. And hated herself for it.

“Go on and see Miss Davies,” she said, patting Lucy’s bum. She scampered down the row and down the steps, black pigtails bobbing like flags in the wind.

As she met up with Lottie, Eva watched as Marshall unloaded the car, hauling over fold out chairs for the appreciative and dedicated moms. Behind the secrecy of her sunglasses, Eva was free to watch him without worry or fear of being caught.

Those long legs ate up a lot of ground, and he moved with a confident sort of swagger that should have been arrogant and off-putting. Waves of hair, teased by the wind, reflected streaks of burnished gold any woman would have paid a fortune for in a salon.

Head after head after head, married or otherwise, turned in his wake, unapologetic in their obvious appraisal of a fine male form.

“Ah, cue Becky.” Cracking open a can of Coke, Jenelle leaned in to Eva, voice hushed with disapproval.

Becky, or so Eva could only assume, entangled herself around Marshall. Long, thin legs stemmed out of tiny summer shorts. Eva had seen her out and about the community but never took much thought or interest in the young blonde.

She wasn’t particularly attractive, but Eva had to admit there was something that pulled your gaze. Coupled with an obvious sort of sexuality, how could a guy refuse?

Bawdy laughter shot across the field and Eva watched as Becky flung those arms around Marshall’s neck. And he took his sweet time disentangling from them.

“She’s wanted my brother for years,” Jenelle continued, peeling back the foil from her hot dog. “But he was pretty serious with Gillian through most of high school and left the island shortly after graduation, so she never got a chance to sink her nails into him.”

“Looks like she’s making up for lost time,” Eva commented, shaking her head as Becky swiped a hand at Marshall’s butt when he carried on his way.

Good, Eva thought, stealing a sip of Jenelle’s offered Coke. If Becky had her sights aimed on him, maybe she could keep Marshall busy. And out of her hair.

All she had to do was get through the next three months and Eva intended to make herself scarce until the dust from his article blew over. She’d focus on her photography, on the girls, on saving up enough to buy her little cottage by the cove. Soon enough Marshall Davies would be gone. Out of her life. Out of her hair.

And good riddance.

“So, when are you going to grace the gallery with your presence again?” Jenelle asked, taking a healthy bite of her hotdog.

“Soon as the hullabaloo dies down,” she said, pulling her eyes away from Marshall and over towards the field as the game kicked into gear. She tracked Payton’s movements as she took charge of the ball and steered through the opposing team’s offense like they weren’t even there.

“I want you to tell me what you know about Declan MacKenzie. What’s his connection to this place? To Haven?”

“Declan? Why are you asking me?”

“Because the Mackenzie’s and Davies are close family friends, aren’t they?”

“Once upon a time, perhaps…”

“I don’t need his life’s story; I just want to know who I’m dealing with. We’ve only ever corresponded through phone or email or his assistant, Fatima.”

“Not surprised,” Jenelle scoffed. “Okay. Um, well he grew up in that house, and he’d moved off island about the same time as Marshall, his mom moved shortly thereafter once his father died. Don’t think he cares much about it, though.”

“Why do you say that?” Eva asked. And bit down on her lip as Payton set up the goal, took aim—but was thwarted by a goalie out to make her daughter work for it.

Good. The last three games Payton had cleaned the scoreboard; it was time someone gave her a bit of a challenge.

“Declan inherited when his grandmother passed, he came back for the funeral and barely stayed long enough to read the will. Two weeks later it was rented out to a long string of tenants since then. You’ve lived the longest under its roof.”

Eva had suspected as much, given the state of the place when they’d first moved in. But through the air of neglect, she’d felt those threads of possibility. Promise. And she wasn’t about to give up. Not yet.

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” Jenelle asked, bringing her back around.

“I want to buy Lavender Cottage.”

Jenelle snapped silver eyes popped in surprise and she lowered her hot dog to her lap. “But…didn’t you have some credit issues? Wasn’t that why we had to take the lease for the gallery in my name and not yours?”

“Yes, I know, but I’ve been saving up for a while and some funds cleared recently. I was hoping to put down a sizeable payment so I could pay him directly and avoid the banks altogether.”

“I guess I should tell you we had a bidding war over Proceed with Caution the other day that resulted in a sale price just shy of two thousand dollars.” Lips drawn into a smirk, Jenelle bumped shoulder to shoulder as Eva sat agog. “You’re welcome.”

Eva shook her head. “What, is that a Davis catchphrase or something? Your brother said the same thing to me last week.”

“Hey, I’m just saying if I hadn’t gone ahead with our social media presence, we might not be seeing the numbers we are now.” Tossing copper locks over her shoulder with a bat of her lashes, Jenelle set a hand to her chest. “By the way, I expect a sizable bonus for my efforts. I hear Milan in September is stunning.”

“And what do you plan to do in Italy?”

“Besides shop?” Jenelle laughed. “Find some gorgeous Venetian hunk, preferably heir to a stunning little vineyard, and have a reckless, passionate affair.”

“I think Dwight might have something to say about that,” Eva said, referring to the Samoan hunk from Vancouver’s mainland.

“I had to cut him loose,” Jenelle said around a dainty bite.

Eva shifted her gaze from the game, assessed her friend. She didn’t look upset, but she knew that Jenelle was good a keeping emotions close to the chest. It was one of the reasons they both got along so well.

“What happened?”

“He was getting too serious for my taste,” she sighed, brushing a hand across her thigh. “I liked him. But not enough for long-term potential. I’m holding out.”

“For what?”

Jenelle’s teeth sank into her bottom lip and she rolled it carefully. “Fireworks. Fierce. Consuming. I want that punch the second I see him. Someone to make me feel all…” she shivered dramatically, eyes widening to match her glorious smile. “Tingly.”

Taking the last bite of the hot dog, Eva paused mid-chew to lick ketchup off her finger. “That’s the feeling of common sense fleeing your body, otherwise known as lust. Not love.”

Shrugging with a grin, Jenelle balled up the foil and tossed it in a plastic bag of garbage at her feet. “All the same. You know what I mean.”

But she did know. She knew exactly, because right at this moment, a similar surge of electricity was skipping over her skin, firing across some pretty sensitive nerve endings leaving her hot and cool and breathless all at once.

Annoyed at the thought of having her hormones stirred up by the likes of Marshall, Eva decided to steer her attention back to the field and away from sexually charged territory.

“You know, Eva, in all seriousness, we’re doing good but not that good. If you want to buy Lavender Cottage…you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. You should really consider working with Marshall. His articles would give us serious traction and create the kind of leverage you need.”

“Don’t worry about me, Jen. I’ll find a way,” Eva said, swiping a hand through the air. Drawing a line on the subject.

“This seat taken?”

She barely had a moment to register the question when a heavy male body plunked down on the bleachers next to her. The stretch of seating rattled beneath his weight. Using his height and long legs to his advantage, Marshall had climbed up the side of the bleachers rather than wasting time with the stairs.

“Which one’s yours?” he asked, half a hotdog crammed into his mouth and eyes glued to the field.

“Number eight,” Jenelle said, speaking around her.

Eva saw the tracking movement of his eyes as they searched the pitch and settled on Payton as she drove the ball into the opposing net. She was a streak of blue and gold, dancing and steering around her opponents. Payton slid around and, lobbing the ball up with a flick of her ankles, spiked it with her forehead, tying the numbers.

“She’s good,” he said as Eva and Jenelle’s screaming cheers died down, adding an impressed nod. “Quick on her feet.”

“I’m trying to watch the game.”

He was too damn close, his thigh pressing heavily against hers. Eva tried to shift, to lessen that point of contact, but Jenelle was tight on her other side leaving not so much as an inch to pull away. Heat poured into her from that simple connection. And sent warm tingles coursing through her body.

Gaze locked to the action, Marshall observed Eva from the peripheral line of sight. She sat rigid as stone, eyes locked to the game, in part because she wanted an excuse to ignore him. Fine, he thought. He was used to her freezing him out.

But whether she was aware of it or not, she let her mask slip once or twice as number eight danced and wove around midfielders and forwards. The kid was sharp. Fluid. And a hell of a team player, stepping back to pass the ball to her teammates, creating the perfect setup and letting another take the glory.

A real mark of character and a testament to the woman who’d raised her. As the breeze shifted around them, he caught the subtle hint of honey and cream and something entirely Eva. Whatever it was, he liked it. Wanted more of it.

So she painted her toes and enjoyed sweetly scented lotions. The woman was a contradictory puzzle. And, Marshall thought with a smirk, he was good a solving puzzles.

When the whistle blew for halftime, Eva shot up, muttered something about going for a walk to stretch her legs, and sliced around Jenelle for the steps.

“Well,” Jenelle asked and gave him a knowing look, tossed a nod in Eva’s wake. “What are you waiting for?”

Why the heck not? Thanking his father’s side for the gift of long legs, Marshall caught up before she’d reached the last step.

“Hold up, I’ll walk with you.” He swept a friendly arm around her shoulder but Eva dodged and Marshall laughed, not the least bit offended.

“I thought we agreed to be friends?”

Rounding the field, veering towards the cars and away from prying eyes, or ears, Eva glowered up at him. “Why won’t you stop pestering me? A story can’t be worth this much aggravation?”

“Maybe I like you.”

“Then you’re a sadist.”

“Every day but Sunday.” She turned her face away, but Marshall caught the quirk of her lips. Swinging around, he kept pace with a backward stride. “Was that a smile? Did I actually get Ms. Eva Turner to smile?”

Groaning, Eva stopped, set her hands to her face and dragged them down slow. The mask was gone and she couldn’t hide the smile any longer, or the laugh. And Marshall had to admit it did wonders to her face. Softening and rounding all those hard lines. Lighting her eyes so they glowed like amber caught in the sun.

They really were incredible.

For reasons he couldn’t quite grasp, he wanted to draw her closer, until that firm little body was snug against him. And that mouth, beautifully sculpted and smiling, was his for the taking.

Where, he thought with a sobering shake of his head, did that come from?

Adjusting the bill of her hat, Eva looked up at him. He’d left his hair out today. And the wind teased and pulled and made her want to draw closer, to reach up and thread her fingers through those gilded layers. With the sun at his back, haloed by light, he appeared almost ethereal.

And for a moment she wished she’d brought her camera, one of the older models, so she could capture him in film, just like this. All bronzed and scruffy and masculine. He couldn’t look more perfect if he’d tried.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked, head listing to the side.

“Why?”

“I was thinking I could join you in the field. Watch you work.”

“Why?” Eva echoed again.

“You won’t let me interview you, but you did say it was okay to focus on the art. You in the zone would make for an interesting feature.”

Eva crossed her arms, eyes shifting down and back up to him. Probably working through all the angles. Trying to find a way around him. Or to shake him loose.

“You could bring me along with you,” he said, brows winging high. “Or I could follow you around like a second shadow. Your call.”

Eva ran her tongue along the edge of her teeth, a glint of challenge in her gaze. “I never shoot in the same place twice. Can’t follow me if you don’t know where to find me.”

His smile flashed and Eva’s belly knotted with the thought of what that mouth could do if it were pressed against hers. “Wanna bet?”

“Only a sucker would go up against a hustler.” Christ the man was relentless. And dammit, she liked him. Eva chewed the inside of her lip to keep from smiling a second time. Tossed in a ‘Hailey-esque’ eye roll, though an idiot could see it only went skin deep.

“What do I have to do to get rid of you?”

He drew closer and though a very female flutter winged in her belly, she held her ground.

“The sooner you give me what I want, the sooner I’ll be out of your hair.” Swiping her cap off her head, he mussed a hand through her hair. As she sputtered and cursed, he tossed the hat up. She caught it deftly, and with a snarl.

“Christ, you’re like a damn kid.”

“All I want are a couple of measly articles, Eva,” he said, reaching up to tug on a lock of dark hair that she hadn’t tucked away. “There’s got to be a way we can work together. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

Eva opened her mouth to cut him off cold when Jenelle’s words echoed back to her.

Bidding war over Proceed with Caution. Sold for two thousand dollars…

Closing her mouth, she pressed her lips into a thin, determined line. As the saying went, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

“I’ll let you have your articles, on three conditions.”

“Shoot.”

“First, we adhere to the same strict understanding as before. My name. My face. My girls. All references to me as a photographer will be done using my alias, Eddie Blake. Period and non-negotiable.”

Marshall pursed his lips, weighed his options. “Done. Next?”

“I review the articles before they go to press. If I don’t give the okay, they don’t print. Also non-negotiable.”

“And third?”

“With each article we tag on a limited edition piece that will be auctioned to the highest bidder.”

His blue eyes flashed with understanding. “You’re looking to drum up a bidding war. Why?”

“Not your concern.”

“Eva. Come on,” he said, settling a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not asking as a reporter. I’m asking as a friend.” She shrugged off his hand.

“We’re not that friendly.”

“Yet,” Marshall countered with a smile though the statement stung, and he couldn’t quite figure out why. “I’ll agree to all of that, but you’ve got to meet me halfway. I’ve got editors with lofty expectations. They want you. I can sell them on this weekly art spotlight so long as I’ve got something to dangle at the end.”

Eva gnawed at her lip. Sighed. “I’ll agree to another brief interview. I want a short list of questions up front and will only answer the ones I’m comfortable with.”

“How brief?”

“Five questions.”

“Ten.”

Five.”

“Eight,” Marshall countered. “And I promise to cap it there. Scouts honour.”

“Eight,” Eva agreed. “We work together on this or we don’t work at all.”

“You’re the boss,” he said, miming a salute. “Now, do we seal this in a blood oath or spit-shake?”

Another smile spread fast and bright. “I start early. Seven sharp. Meet me at my place. Be on time,” she tossed over her shoulder, walking away. “Or don’t bother coming.”


Chapter Seven

The cold kiss of steel. A burning bite scoring across his skin. So hot and cold all at once. Screams. Blood curdling screams. Thrashing bodies dragged through torrents of rain and mud, leaving a murky trail of red. The terrible, hollow ache in his guts as he watched helpless and terrified.

“He’s just a kid.” The words wrenched from his throat with desperate fervour. “Take me. Take me!”

Waking from the nightmare wasn’t the shocking sort of jolt one would have expected. Rather it happened in increments. Slowly. Torturously. Until the haunting echoes of the past became a viscous blend with the present. The smell of smoke and blood so thick in his lungs he could hardly breathe.

And then the ache reared to slap him straight. Whimpering, standing over him, LeBron stroked a wet tongue over his face. Large, dark eyes shining with concern. The air stank of sweat and old ghosts.

Rolling to his side, Marshall’s belly clenched and emptied in a nauseating wave of bile and last night’s lasagna. Nuzzling a nose under his arm, LeBron curled his body against Marshall and held there. A blanket of warmth to soak up all the madness storming inside of him.

“Jesus,” he croaked. He’d fallen asleep on his bad arm again, and as a result the pain had short-circuited his dreams, ripping him back to that rain soaked night.

Right shoulder throbbing in time with his galloping heart, he thumbed through the nightstand drawer for the half-finished bottle of Aleve. Chasing the painkillers with a couple Paxil, he swallowed the pharmaceutical cocktail with a swig from the bottle of water he kept by the bed, and sighed.

It was the ass end of five in the morning. And knowing himself well enough to gather he wasn’t going to get back to sleep, he crawled out of bed in search of a shower.

Rinsing off the stink of a cold sweat, Marshall dressed for casual comfort in beach shorts and a sleeveless tank. Feeling better, revitalized from the shower and soothed by the meds, he cleaned up his mess of sick and set his sights on filling the hole in his belly. LeBron kept close, following his every step like a second shadow.

“Don’t worry about me, I’m okay,” he said, taking a knee and gathering LeBron in his arms for a rough, bracing hug. “How about bacon for breakfast?”

Taking the tongue lolling grin for a yes, he turned his thoughts on food, and lost himself in the simple task of cooking, humming along to Kings of Leon as salty porky goodness splattered in fat and oil.

When the food was done, setting aside half the rasher to cool for LeBron, he tucked himself at the table with a large steaming mug of Kenyan black and booted up his laptop.

As the screen cleared, on a whim, he opened up the document marked ‘Insanity’. His eyes raced over the words on the last page and before he knew it, found his fingers flying. For the next hour he poured himself into the string of words. Not thinking, just typing. Purging.

Only when LeBron barked at the sound of his ringing phone did Marshall realize he’d emptied himself into another eighteen pages. Clicking save, he moved from the table and caught the phone a ring away from bouncing into voicemail.

“Well, look who’s still alive,” Danni said. “Did you forget about our call?”

“Sorry,” Marshall apologized, swiping a hand through his hair. “Got in the zone and lost track of time.”

“Tell me you got something for me,” she sighed, the clack of her fingers on keys, pausing. “You’re behind schedule and interest is beginning to flag.”

“Actually, I do have something for you. A collaboration.” Danni listened intently as he highlighted the core details and his thoughts on the overall tone he wanted to take.

The line hummed and he could almost hear the gears in Danni’s head cranking. “This is only going to work if we’ve got something big to push at the end.”

“With the interview—”

“Not enough punch, and you know it. We’ll do a live to air segment. Show CTV that you have the chops to handle the camera as well as you do the pen. Give it a behind the scenes feel, kind of Barbara Walters meets Larry King.”

“She’ll never agree to that.”

“Make her. Find leverage if you have to. Get the story.”

“Dee,” Marshall sighed. “Leverage and threats…that’s not how I work.”

“No. Don’t start with me,” she snapped. “Are you forgetting what’s at stake here? What you stand to lose? ‘Cause if you are, let me paint a picture—one that has your name going up in smoke and Catherine Clear taking up the mantle of CTV evening news anchor.”

“You don’t have to be so dramatic, Dee.”

“I’m not being dramatic. How do you think this looks if you can’t push a measly human-interest piece? Do you think anyone will touch you if this spirals south? You get one shot in this biz. One. I got the big wigs to run with it ‘cause you assured me you could deliver. That’s why you’re there, isn’t it? To deliver?”

Taking a deep, calming breath, Marshall nodded. “Yes.”

“Good. ‘Cause my train’s hitched to yours the moment I backed you and I am not letting you drag me down, got it? Now pick up your balls, slap them on and get her to do the live-to-air segment. Or seriously consider a new career path.”

The line clicked dead and Marshall set down his phone.

“That went well,” he muttered, his eyes meeting LeBron who was staring up at him. And could have sworn he saw a measure of disappointment in that dark brown gaze.

In his hand his phone began to vibrate. Not a call, he realized, but his alarm, interrupted by Danni’s call, it was now five minutes to seven. “Shit.” Taking LeBron by the collar, he led the dog out to the back, filled up the water dish on the shaded deck and hit the path running.

***

Checking her watch, Eva looked up as Marshall jogged her way, a smile on his face and whistling a cheerful little tune. He’d dressed casually in shorts and a white sleeveless shirt, his long arms, bronzed from the sun and corded in muscle. Dark sunglasses wrapped over his eyes and hair loose and framing a clean-shaven face.

At his approach, she gave her wrist a wiggle.

“You’re cutting it close. Less than ten seconds to spare.”

“Punctual is punctual,” he countered, a sheen of sweat on his brow and slapped his hands together. “What’s the game plan?”

“If you’re going to tag along, make yourself useful, then.” She jerked her head at the camera gear she had packed up and ready to go. Stuffed her car keys in his hand. “Pack those in the trunk. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Waving a salute, Marshall did as he was commanded. Hefting the heavy gear with ease. While he worked, Eva returned inside to her home office. Opening her small fridge tucked beneath her desk, she tossed a couple extra bottles of water in her bag—since she was having an assistant—found the spare memory card she’d cleaned off last night, and, on a whim, a roll of film for the vintage Japanese model.

Doing a last sweep with her eyes, content she hadn’t forgotten anything, Eva slipped out into the hall, stopped when she caught her hazy reflection in the window. Her hair had grown over the last couple of weeks, and presently stuck up at weird angles from the strong morning breeze.

Eva ran her fingers through it, smoothing and combing the disorderly waves into some semblance of order.

Christ, she thought, dropping her hand. This was how it started. First she’d be futzing with her hair, and next she’d be slapping on mascara. Messing it back up, stalking out of the house, she found him waiting for her in the car, radio on and gear packed.

“Where we headed today?” Elbow cocked out the open window, Marshall waited for her to snap on her belt and turn on the car before asking the question.

Tipping down her head, Eva’s sunglasses fell to the tip of her small nose as she swivelled around to look out the back window as she reversed.

“To the ferry harbour, first. I like to stroll along the boardwalk and there’s a rush of tourists coming in this morning.”

They shared the short ride in silence and Marshall took the rare opportunity to study her profile. For all her faults she really had a striking quality about her. A sort of face that drew a man’s eye and held it there. And with the short cap of hair, he had nothing to get in the way of his study, from the curve of her sculpted cheeks to the plump bottom lip she was worrying between her teeth.

In thought, not nerves. And a part of him wondered what she would taste like? Would she melt into him? Or would she give as good as she got? As Eva rolled down her window, the breeze roped into the car and sent the uneven layers of her hair to scatter, giving him the impression of a mad little pixie in flight.

The image made him chuckle loud enough for her to snap her attention to him with an inquisitive smile.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said, dangling his arm outside the window, rolling his hand in the breeze. “Just looking forward to seeing you in action.”

“Let’s get through day one, shall we? Keep out of my hair, don’t ruin my shots and we’ll get along fine.”

“I’ll be a fly on the wall,” Marshall vowed, laying a hand over his heart. “You won’t even know I’m there.”

True to his word he kept his distance, letting Eva do her thing. Watching with fascination as she approached person after person.

Some brushed her off, others declined with a smile, but every now and then she snagged a fish on the line and was engaged for either a few minutes, or, in one case, the better part of an hour.

Each encounter Marshall saw a change in her. A gradual lift in her spirit that brightened her features until she shone, radiant and compelling as the sun. And it wasn’t a transformation visible only to him, but to others, as well.

Five days in, Marshall had come to conclusion that Eva Turner didn’t have a single lazy bone in her body. She crammed every second of every minute. When the weather turned or the crowds thinned, she was in the black room, processing prints from her rolls of film.

When he’d asked her why she didn’t outsource the job her answer of seeing the birth of the images as they appeared in the solution had charmed and impressed him.

They worked through the days, from morning to afternoon. Breaking only to scarf in some food, they pushed through to the early evening. Marshall took notes and, because he had a fair hand with a pencil, some sketches, too. Not entirely against the rules, he thought. A sketch wasn’t a photograph or a video, and not like he planned to show anyone. These were for him and him alone. Something to do. And look at.

He’d caught her from different angles and vantages. She really did have a striking face, with those large, incredible eyes that said everything and nothing all at the same time. And the way the humidity and breeze teased at her mess of hair, creating waves and thick, coiling spirals that made the odd shape and cut almost…flattering.

After a long, and by his opinion, successful day, he’d managed to talk Eva into stopping by the seaside bar and grill for a bite since they’d pushed through the afternoon with little pause or rest.

The establishment was crammed with bodies, some local but mostly red-faced tourists of the young college variety, starved after a day of roasting on the beach.

Why anyone insisted that baking in the sun like a rotisserie chicken was an enjoyable way to pass a gorgeous afternoon boggled him.

“Get any good stuff?” Marshall asked, tucking in to their shared platter of fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.

Mouth full of burger, Eva turned around the screen on her digital and scrolled through the first dozen. She’d gone for candids, today. Most were of entire faces, but he imagined she’d hone in on features, or background elements, to convey her artistic message.

Further in the batch she’d switched over from faces to concentrate on hands and body language. And when the mood struck, brought in the surrounding environment to enhance the atmosphere.

Finding what she was searching for, Eva handed over the camera. The impact was immediate, and the image hadn’t even gone through any tweaking or editing.

“This is great. Look at the texture.” He pushed at buttons until the picture zoomed in on the ripples in still water where smooth grey stones sat. Above was a cast shadow of a hand, broken and twisted and…brutal.

Leaning closer, his eyes skipped over the details, the nuances, the subtle veins of light and…something. He could almost see the water move. The air. And that hand, gnarled and twisted and distorted in reflection, was reaching out to drag him in.

Pull him under. Or begging him for help.

“I think this is going to be a favourite,” Eva brushed her finger along the screen to show the flow of movement and play of light. “He was a real bruiser, this guy. But underneath the hardness was such…regret. The distortion of the water really reflects his inner torment.”

Marshall nodded, setting the camera aside to defer to his notes that he’d jotted down while she had sat and spoke with the subject. And read out a segment of dialogue that he’d jotted down.

In prison, they called me ‘Pops.’ I had privileges. People respected me. I felt valued. When I got out, I had to start over. Met a nice woman who changed my world. But every day I’m afraid the old life will snatch me back. Pull me down. And I’ll fold like a tweaker needing a hit. Dragging my loved ones with me.

Between the blurb Marshall’s mind wove in descriptive flourishes, touching on the way the Pop’s shoulders had hunched, his hands worrying the knuckles, popping and cracking like an addict itching for another hit of something to chase away the demons.

The way the cloud cover had softened the light and sent slats of shadow to fall over him, like bars, the quiet lapping of water against the wall of stone. How Eva had sat at his side, quiet and patient and understanding as the guy poured out his innermost fears. And, most importantly, when they’d parted, how he had seemed…lighter. Easier.

“Didn’t realize you were paying such close attention,” she said, eying him over her coke.

Marshall closed the notebook, shrugged. “Gave me something to do. Besides, if I’m going to spotlight the art, helps if I can give context to the piece.”

“Guess having your around isn’t such a waste of time,” she said and dove back in to her burger with lusty gusto, juices and condiments slopping over parchment, a few drops splattering on her shirt.

Most women he knew would have lamented the mess. And whined over the offending possibility of stains. Hell, most women he knew wouldn’t have inhaled a double bacon cheeseburger like a frat boy living on ramen for a month.

“Where the heck do you put it,” he asked as she stuffed her mouth again. Impressed by her voracious appetite.

“Hollow legs,” she managed. Smirking around a hunk of juicy beef, Eva wiggled an elbow, gesturing to her thigh. “It’s where I keep my second stomach.”

Marshall laughed at that, the sound rich and deep and made a little flutter roll through her belly.

“You must have grown up in a household of brothers,” he said as her gaze trailed to the end of the bar where a trio of very drunk girls, clad in bikini tops and shorts, were squealing over shots.

Young girls. Probably just old enough to drink.

Chewing slowly, she shook her head no. “Only child.”

“Huh. No shit.” Swiping up a bit of sauce from her collarbone, just above the swell of her breast. He brought that thumb to his mouth, and sampled. “Damn,” he said with a nod of approval. “That’s good.”

Eva swallowed deeply around a mouthful of burger and lust. Why was that sexy?

“So, back to that guy you photographed,” Marshall scooped up a generous spoonful of lobster Mac n’ cheese, “if you didn’t like him, why shoot him?”

Wiping her mouth, Eva balled up the napkin, tossed it in the bowl of chicken bones from the wings they’d demolished. “Because art isn’t about me. It’s subjective. It’s beautiful and it’s devastating. I can’t be true to my craft if I’m filtering or censoring based on my ideals and morals. The moment I pick up my camera, I check my judgments at the door.”

Grinning, Marshall rolled his shoulder, shook out his right hand. Tingling set in to his fingers, the dull pins and needles pulsing up to the elbow. He’d been pulling long hours with Eva the last few days, lugging and hauling most of her equipment for her and now the strain of that all effort was beginning to take a toll.

“You alright?” Eva asked, watching curiously as he flexed and massaged his forearm.

“Battle scar acting up,” he said giving the neckline of his shirt a tug to reveal the starburst scar beneath the hard line of his clavicle.

Eva edged forward, stunned, and pressed her fingers against the thick scar tissue. The ugly aftermath of a bullet ripping through a body. An angry wound, she thought, the purple fading into silver against the warmth of his tanned skin. It fell just beneath the bone of the joint and could only imagine what the exit wound looked like on his back.

She’d read that an injury had pulled him out of the field, but seeing this—in the flesh—somehow made the reports pale in comparison. It had all sounded so tame on the page. So inconsequential. But this was more, and imagined the first few months of recovery would have been agonizing hell.

“Looks painful,” she said, fingers stroking over the scar as if she wanted to take it all away. The hurt and the painful reminder that scar must evoke.

“Can be,” he admitted, adjusting his shirt back in place. “Caught me clean through the muscle, bruised a few nerves. I’ll be good as new in a year.”

Eva understood deflection better than most. And denial. And the need to keep things close to the chest.

Raising her hand, she flagged the waitress for the bill and pulled out a wad of cash from her back pocket.

No purse, Marshall noted. All women carried something. Even the ones who’d crawled belly down in the mud. But not Eva, it seemed. Only a small billfold with cash, and…maybe a debit card, as far as he could tell from the quick flash he’d seen. And not much else.

“You gonna let me cover at least half of that?”

“Nope,” she answered, draining her coke. “We’re on the clock. This is business, not a date, and since you’re not getting paid, the least I can do is pay for the odd meal.”

Marshall smiled at that as his attention flickered two of the drunken trio took off with a larger group, parting in a trail of giggles and noisy kisses, leaving the third behind with a boy who’d joined them not five minutes earlier…if you could call him that. Kid was probably in his mid-twenties.

And nowhere near as drunk.

But that didn’t stop him from buying another round of tequila. Plying the girl with more booze then she could handle. There were a handful of ways this was going to play out, none of which boded well for the girl.

A quick sweep of the room told him that more than a few of the patrons were aware of the situation, and aside from a shake of the head or a muttered remark to their dinner companions, no one appeared particularly interested in doing anything beyond turning a blind eye.

Paying out the bar tab, the guy nestled in close, arms heavy with his inebriated cargo, steering her for the doors. Sad, he thought, that so many people could easily sit by and watch as these things happened, without even lifting so much as a finger to stop it. Lucky for her, Marshall had never been much of the sit-back-and-do-nothing type.

“I’ll be right back,” he said only to discover Eva had long since popped out of her chair. He’d been watching the interplay so carefully he’d failed to realize that so had she.

“Hey,” she said, setting herself between the duo and the doors. “Can’t let you leave with her.”

“Fuck off, yeah?” The guy leaned forward, his handsome face twisting in a sneer. “Mind your own damn business.”

At his side the girl swayed into him, makeup smearing beneath glassy eyes. “Yeah,” she giggled, pushing back a matted lock of hair. “This is my boyfriend.” And snuggled in tighter.

“You heard her,” he said, words thick with an Aussie accent. “Now piss off and leave us be.”

“That’s a pile of horse shit.” Eva held her ground, even though the youth towered over her by a head and at least twenty pounds of testosterone-laden muscle. “You’re just a loser trolling a bar and saw an easy mark for a quick lay. She’s too drunk to give informed consent and you know it. So you’re going to let her go, and walk away, or I’ll have to make a scene.”

“You got no right telling me what to do. She wants to come with me, than she’s coming.” As the guy moved forward, Marshall slid in at Eva’s side and the youth shot heated eyes up to him, flaming with challenge, and more booze than sense. “What, you gonna start something, mate?”

“Me? No. This lady’s got you by the balls. I’m just enjoying the show,” he said, sliding hands into his pockets. “But you should know I’ve made a call to my brother. He carries a badge. And a gun. Once he gets here we can verify what’s what. You have until then to decide if you’re going to go back to your hotel, alone, and jerk off in a sock, or spend the night in a cell? Your call.”

The punk sized him up, and then slid his gaze around to the dozens of eyes turned their way in rapt fascination. Like any typical coward when faced with opposition, he shoved his catch into Marshall’s arms.

“She’s all yours, fucking wankers,” he grunted, shouldering his way between them and out the doors.

“That’s enough out of you,” Eva said, while the girl stammered and staggered, voicing her displeasure. Pouring her into a seat by the bar, Eva snapped fingers in front of wheeling eyes. “What’s your name?”

Trusting that she could manage well enough on her own for a minute, Marshall dialled a quick call to Ethan who, by some small miracle, happened to be finishing a call and only five minutes away. After strong-arming the barkeep, he returned with a glass of water and food to help the girl absorb the booze.

Between him and Eva, they’d managed to get her to drain the glass and a few meagre bits of a grilled cheese by the time Ethan arrived on scene to take over. Checking her ID had confirmed the girl, Gigi Koppal, was a local islander. A call to a very unhappy father ensured that someone would be by the station to make sure she got home safe.

After a night in the Drunk Tank to sober up, which would hopefully teach her a valuable lesson about responsibility and alcohol.

Rolling her head on her shoulders, Eva breathed in a lungful of fresh air and sighed. Emotionally and physically exhausted, if that was a hint of what she had to look forward to when her own girls were of age, Eva wanted to curl up into the foetal position with a bottle of wine.

Christ, she’d made some poor and stupid choices as a kid; that was part of growing up. But to think about how close that girl had come to getting into a whole whack of trouble. At the very least she would have had a sloppy one night stand, woke up the next morning with a wicked headache and a serious case of what the hell did I do last night? Or at the worst…well, Eva hadn’t been prepared to sit back and play the odds.

Gigi was someone’s baby. She deserved to be looked out for.

“Come on, champ,” Marshall said, setting his hands on her shoulders, kneading the tight muscles. And as those strong fingers Eva bit back on the whimpering moan.

“Let’s take a walk on the beach.”

Eva looked at the stretch of sea and sand, the beach clear of tanning bodies and chairs and towels, leaving it cozy and intimate.

“Can’t,” she said, pulling away from those talented hands. “It’s getting late and I’ve got a bit of a long drive ahead of me if I’m going to drop you off at Ethan’s.”

“Why would you do that?” he asked.

“With your brother tied up at the station, how else are you going to get home?”

“I’ve been staying at the little cabin by the cove as of last week. The little blue one?”

Oh she knew the one. Eva’s stomach dropped with a whoosh, rattling somewhere around her knees. There? So close?

“Come on, Eva. The sun is setting, the air is soft, the water warm.” He held out a hand. Smiled. “Take a walk with me.”

She looked down at that hand, weathered and calloused. Strong, she thought. Resilient and hardworking. You could tell a lot about a person by their hands. Their entire story mapped out between fingers and palm. And because she wanted to take that hand, to slide hers against it, palm to palm, Eva tucked hers away in her back pockets.

“Fine,” she said, toeing off her shoes. “Ten minutes.”


Chapter Eight

They fell into step together, barefoot in the teasing wake of surf and foam, the tide rolling out for the evening. And God, he was right, she mused, enjoying the warm lap of water around her ankles, the soft sand cool underfoot and squishing between her toes.

It was a beautiful summer evening with the light going deep at the edges and stars peaking through a fading canvas of purple and blue. Her eyes lifted to where those colours bled into a fiery heart dipping below the watery horizon.

“You did good back there. I’m impressed.” Marshall looked down at her, all warmth and admiration. “You stood up for that girl. No one else was going to, but you did.”

Eva shrugged. “You would have. And not just to back me up. But because it was right.” And she smiled at the dance of long-legged birds racing along the shoreline, skirting around rolling waves or strips of driftwood, in search of their supper.

“My biggest fear is that some douche will take advantage of my daughters’ like that poor, foolish girl in there. It’s a scary world. And they won’t be kids forever. All I can do is give them the tools to make smart choices and hope to god they don’t fuck it all up.”

Like I did. The confession sat at the back of her throat and Eva washed it away with a long, sobering breath of briny breeze. Losing herself in that beautiful scent. She loved the smell of the ocean. Loved the sound of rolling waves and the cry of wheeling gulls. Even though she had been born and raised in the large, multicultural city of Toronto, no place that had felt more right then Haven.

Here, in the dimming light, she was lovely, Marshall thought. He watched the tease of wind through her hair and somewhere deep inside he wanted to touch her. To slid his hand into hers. But she’d held her shoes, one in each as if to say, ‘don’t even think about’ whereas he’d tied the laces and slung them over his shoulder. Leaving his free and open for possibilities.

“You’re just lucky I was there,” Marshall said, injecting a bit of humour to lighten the mood, puffing his chest and flexing muscles.

“Please.” Slanting her gaze up at him, Eva wagged a shoe. “I could take him just as easily as I could take you.”

“Oh really?” Eyes lighting with challenge, Marshall kicked at the surf, splashing her with water. Laughed when Eva squealed like a girl.

“Jerk.” Lobbing her shoes to the dry beach, she rounded on him, rolling up her sleeves. “I’ll show you.”

“Now, now,” Marshall warned as she stooped, dipping her hands in the surf. “Don’t start something you can’t finish.” And was struck full in the face with a slap of water. Snickering impishly behind her hands, Eva backed up a pace.

And bolted.

No match for his long legs, Marshall caught her and hauled her tiny, wriggling body over his shoulder. Tossing his shoes to join Eva’s, he waded out deeper into the shallows, Eva sputtered threats of grave bodily harm as he spun and spun until they were dizzy.

Disoriented with laughter, between the rush of water and the slip of sand, Marshall lost his footing and they both fell, with him taking the worst of it, landing squarely on his back in the wet sand of the shore. Eva caught in his arms, stretched over top of him. A tangle of limbs and body-wracking giggles.

“Jesus,” sides aching, Eva planted her hands on either side of his head so she could look down at him. “The hell is the matter with you?”

And though laughter shone in his eyes, a heat simmered there. Bright and fast, as sudden and dazzling as a bolt of lightning to the spine, the mood between them changed. Shocking the senses, awakening every nerve in her dormant body.

Blood scorched beneath her skin, flooding her neck and face, racing down her arms and legs. Pulsing in her core.

This was dangerous. She knew it. Understood it, but couldn’t think. Couldn’t move as she took that slow, lazy spin into the primal. Eyes locked, bodies fused, Eva swayed closer. Drawn to him. Sucked into a vortex of want and need and intense longing.

The descent was slow—an eternity trapped within seconds. Sexy. And scary as hell.

She simply stopped breathing.

A breeze skipped over them and she shivered, their clothes wet through to the skin, and that provocative little tremor gave Marshall all sorts of wicked and wonderful ideas. Above them the empty sky stretched, the colours deepening so a thousand upon a thousand stars shone, sprinkling the water and scattered behind Eva like diamonds.

“Eva,” he said her name soft. A whisper. His gaze descended to her lips. Saw the way they parted, silent with wanting. And muttered, “Hell,” before dragging her down, crushing that mouth to his.

She jolted, a shock of need and something else, but she didn’t pull away. Her damp clothes clung to that tight, little body and gave him a tantalizing hint of the sort of package Ms. Turner had going on underneath the baggy attire. All lean lines and supple curves to round them out.

Snaking his hands up her back, one hand fisted in her shirt, the other around the back of her neck, anchoring her while he plundered and took, until she opened enough for him to savour the first lush taste of her on his tongue.

A ripe sweetness that punched straight through him. Stoking a desire he’d never felt before with an intensity that lit up the world; birthing a storm inside of him, poised to break and consume them both.

Just when he would have pushed for more, rolling her between him and sand, letting that storm whip wild and free, Eva pulled away, rocking back on her knees.

“Wow,” she whispered, exhaling heavily. “That got a little out of control.”

Marshall’s heart thundered, his belly seized and all the leeching from his head left him hazy and desperate.

“Have dinner with me,” he said, the words pouring out of him before he’d realized he’d said them aloud, or knew where they came from.

She managed a smile, thought it was soft and tremulous. “We did. Twenty minutes ago.”

Marshall levered up on his elbows, his eyes hot and serious. “You know what I mean.”

“I thought you preferred blondes. Leggy and all that,” she quipped with a laugh, but the sound was weak. Breathy with longing. And it pleased him to see she was still a bit unsteady, every bit as affected as he was.

Sitting up, he skimmed a finger along the curve of her cheek, and while his eyes held hers, down the line of her throat to settle against the tempting curve of her clavicle where her heartbeat kicked.

“I’m beginning to discover a preference for pint-sized brunettes.” Marshall rolled his bottom lip between his teeth. Grinned. “Have dinner with me, Eva.”

“No.”

“It’s just a dinner,” he said, equally amused and annoyed. And dropped his hand.

“Nothing’s ever just dinner,” Eva sighed. “Truth be told I’d rather you just ask me to sleep with you and call it a day.”

“That’s a stretch, isn’t it? From dinner to sheet-tussling?”

“Not really, no. You’re attractive and I’ve gauged your character enough to know you’re not a sociopath, you’re not a scumbag, and most importantly, you’re not a local. You have a life and a job in Toronto that you’ll be returning to before summer’s end. That makes you safe and temporary.”

“That’s an interesting caveat.” Wanting to draw out the moment of conversation just a little bit longer, he dropped back against the pillow of damp sand, crossed his ankles. “Don’t drink from the local watering hole, eh?”

“I live on an island.” Eva shrugged, entirely without apology, dusting sand off her hands. “I won’t risk the ugly business of dating where I live.”

Marshall recognized a hard line being drawn when he heard one, and this was the stance of a woman whose sole view on relationships was that they were all transient and temporary, rather than the possibility of growing into something to last and endure.

An interesting perspective, he thought, if not a touch cynical and pessimistic.

“You can’t be more than, what? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight?”

Eva ran her tongue along the edge of her teeth. “Thirty. What’s your point?”

“Don’t you want to settle down?”

“I am. With my home. My business and my girls. I don’t need a man in my life for that.”

“What about Jenelle?” he asked, pushing to his feet as she rose, rigid with annoyance. “The fact that I’m her brother doesn’t bother you?”

Tipping back her head, her gaze challenged him. “Are you married?”

“No.”

“Engaged, or in a serious relationship?”

Marshall smirked, brushing wet sand off the back of his legs. And quickly decided it was a losing battle. He was covered. They both were. “Not that I know of.”

“Then why should Jenelle care who you sleep with? We’re adults. Sex is sex and doesn’t have to be complicated just because we’re connected through mutual association.”

“Aren’t you a puzzle? And here I thought you’d give me the ‘last man on earth’ spiel.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because while I am very open to the idea of getting you naked, I have a bigger agenda,” he said, sliding his hands up her arms. “My editor wants you to go on air for a live segment. I was hoping to butter you up with some great food, expensive wine and invigorating conversation.”

Beneath his hands worked along her shoulders, but she didn’t pull away from him. Not physically at least. But the heart of her was leagues away, tucked safe behind a wall where he couldn’t follow or reach.

And the thought that he wanted to surprised him.

“Never going to happen.”

“You said the same thing about me growing on you.” He stepped back, gestured around them. “And here we are.” He’d expected a number of reactions, annoyance being first and foremost, but it was the flicker of fear in Eva’s eyes that stilled him.

“I can’t go on air. I won’t,” she said, banding her arms across her chest. Regret curving her shoulders. “I guess that means dinner’s off the table?”

“Only if you want it to be,” he said. Drawing closer, he set a knuckle beneath her chin. His eyes searching hers, for what, Marshall wasn’t entirely sure. “But I hope you don’t.”

Eva drew in a breath. Held it a beat, and released slowly.

Sex was safe. Dinner presented a potential landmine of problems and was the main reason why she’d only accepted a handful of offers in the last three years. Too much time to fill up with talking and questions, where simple sex didn’t require any talking at all…

Say no. Walk away. The words sat there on her tongue but they sat like lead. Heavy and unmoving.

“I’m free Tuesday. Anytime after eight. You pick the place and I’ll meet you there.”

“Tuesday it is.” A pressure that had built within Marshall’s chest lessened in relief. For a minute he actually thought she might have said no, and the thought of her turning him down had made him about as anxious as his thirteen year old self plucking up the nerve to kiss Teresa Sarraino after the school dance.

“If I make a reservation for eight, then I’ll pick you up at your place and—?”

“No,” Eva interrupted, gentle but firm. “No, I leave alone and I come home alone. No exceptions.”

Another line, he thought. And decided now was not the time or place to press or dig. Taking her hand, he brought it to his lips and brushed them across her knuckles. Had the pleasure of seeing her pupils widen and the rich, exotic brown deepen in the fading sunset.

“It’s a date.”

***

A date. She’d accepted Marshall’s invitation to dinner, ignoring all the logical warning bells cautioning her not to be so stupid. Reckless. So why hadn’t she listened?

For the next two nights Eva was tormented with dreams worthy of a clichéd romantic comedy gone awry. An anxious, neurotic mess, Eva did what she did best when pushed to the limits of her emotional tether.

Digging in the dirt, weeding and tending to her vegetables and flowers, always levelled her mood. And her head. Gave her time to think and mull and, if needs be, forget all together. And in the rare cases when that wasn’t enough, she baked.

Today’s mood called for both.

With muffins already in the oven, elbow deep in her vegetable patch, Eva sang under her breath. Enjoying the process of tending and weeding. Of nurturing, and helping things grow. The tomatoes were coming along nicely. The Brussels sprouts were just about ready for harvesting and the rainbow carrots in another week or so.

As she laboured, Skittles and Wiggles loped around her while Hailey’s pup, Selena, dozed under the dappled shade of an evergreen. By mid-morning the mess in her head was beginning to clear to soft, distant white noise. In fact, Eva was almost certain she’d entirely overreacted.

Garden watered, the teasing smell of sweet chocolate chips and banana drew her back in to the kitchen. Sliding a tray of muffins out of the oven, she tested the batch with a knife and decided they could use perhaps a minute longer.

Returning the tray to the center rack, she turned off the temperature; leaving them to finish up in the residual heat.

She checked in on Payton and Lucy, enjoying cartoons in the living room and could hear Hailey cloistered in her room, anxious about landing a lead role, running through lines for My Fair Lady.

She’d shown such dedication. And over the last couple of weeks Eva had seen a change in her eldest daughter. At first she’d agreed to allow Hailey to join with the hopes that it would give her an emotional outlet. A way to express and vent her pre-teen emotional angst. She’d never expected that Hailey would develop such a passion for dramatic art.

Carting her mug in one hand, a bowl of cereal in the other, laptop fired and ready, she dove into the latest cache of images captured with Marshall on the mainland. Contrary to what she’d expected, having him around was entertaining.

And insightful.

More than once he’d helped draw her notice to an engaging moment or a pleasing angle. For all his faults, he had an intriguing eye. A keen observer. Further illustrated in his recent article.

She’d read it three times and each time it touched her differently. Deeper. The man had a gift. A way with words. Layering emotion with text the way she did with light and subject.

Beautiful. Poignant.

He could probably write a damn computer manual and still turn a reader into a blubbery, emotional mess. And true to his word, he’d cast the light everywhere else but on her. Bringing front and center the limited edition piece she’d crafted specifically for this feature.

He’d helped her settle on a black and white image of an older gentleman; shocking white hair and trimmed beard against the swarthy complexion of his south Asian heritage, the darker spotting of age over the curve of his cheeks. But his eyes, red-veined against milky white orbs, were harrowing.

So much life. And so much pain.

They’d sat with him for two whole hours. Riveted by the life this man had lived, the stories he’d shared, travelling all over the world in honour of the wife whom had been the light of his life before her untimely sickness and death.

Apparently he lived on the mainland in Vancouver, and had come to Haven for a leisurely weekend with his daughter and her family.

Eva moved on to edit a collection of couple of young girls, late teens. A lovely bi-racial girl named Ray with plaited hair and her Asian hipster girlfriend, Lou.

The pair of them, together for almost two years, met their senior year of high school. Where Ray’s parents knew and were entirely supportive of her lifestyle choices, Lou’s apparently were in utter denial. And were determined to see them separated by shipping Lou to Harvard in New York where she’d stay with a maternal Aunt.

But the pair had a plan to leave and take off for Spain at the end of summer. Lou would paint and Ray would get a job at a local bar until the time came when she could open her own little bistro.

Eva stopped at a photograph of their hands linked, fingers twined. The grip strong. Sure. And so confident.

These weren’t a couple of impetuous, rebellious teens caught up in a bit of Romeo & Juliet type fanfare. But something strong, rich, and Eva truly believed, everlasting.

This was it, Lou had said. I knew the moment our lips first touched that Ray was all I would ever want. The only one who would ever hold my heart.

And how Eva had envied them that simple, honest truth. To know with such certainty. To have found their other half and to recognize one another for what that meant.

She’d never known or experienced that kind of devotion. Not with Randy, and certainly not with Nate. The two men in her life, if she could call them that, and both had been colossal disappointments.

And now there was Marshall.

Leaning back in her chair, Eva sighed. What the heck was she getting herself into? This was Lottie’s son, and that made it complicated. For all her bravado about responsible grownups having responsible, no-strings sex, Eva didn’t blindly sleep around. And yes, she’d only agreed to dinner, but dinner led to another dinner, and another, which at some point invariably led to sex, didn’t it?

Wasn’t that how things usually worked between two single, consenting adults who were clearly attracted to one another? The stick, complicated mess of whether or not to sleep with him, when the time came, aside, what the heck was she supposed to do? Say? Wear?

Did she even have anything besides Yoga pants and ripped jeans?

Realizing she was so far beyond her depth of comfort, Eva did the only thing a girl in her position could think to do, and called her best friend for backup. And because she’d agreed to give Jenelle the week off leading up to the long weekend, she knew the one place Jenelle would be on a Monday morning.

The line rang in long, pulsing notes, but Eva stayed on, persistent, and trusted that eventually she’d give in. And smiled in triumph as Jenelle groaned and grumbled.

“Morning sunshine.”

“Why are you calling me at the ass crack of dawn on my week off?”

Eva cocked a wrist, noted the time. “It’s after eleven.”

“And I never get up before noon when I don’t have to work.”

Knowing this, and because misery loved company, Eva smiled. “Get up and get your ass over here. I need you.”

“Something better be seriously wrong with the twins,” she warned, referring to Shawn and Heather, the seasonal part-time help Eva brought in for holiday spikes or vacation coverage.

“The gallery is fine. This is personal.”

Jenelle groaned and the rustling of bedding told Eva that she’d only cocooned deeper beneath the covers, stubborn as a kid refusing to get up for school. “Later. Call me later. Sleeping.”

“Come on Jen,” she said. “I need you. Can you be here in an hour?”

God…What for?”

Rolling her eyes heavenward, Eva sighed. “I want to go shopping. For clothes.”

She’d barely finished the magic words when she heard a tumbling thump followed by Jenelle’s giddy, “I’m on my way,” before hastily hanging up.

Brows drawn, Eva looked down at the phone in her hand.

And thought, I’m probably going to regret this…

***

Almost a staggering six hours later, arms overburdened, Eva and Jenelle returned home with three very happy and exhausted girls. Though the primary focus of the trip into Vancouver’s mainland had been about rebuilding Eva’s incredibly sparse and barren wardrobe, they’d made a day out of it with lunch at a stunning restaurant followed by ice cream and a stop at kiddie boutique.

If she was going to indulge in purchasing new clothes, Eva felt it only fair that the girls be included, especially since most of what they all owned was purchased second hand.

Mainly out of practicality. When things went south in Toronto, they’d been plucked up in such a hurry Eva hadn’t had an opportunity to pack much of anything. And during their time sequestered, while paperwork and new identities were being crafted, the stipend she’d been given had been abysmal.

A joke.

Though Eva considered herself a master of stretching a penny, she had to tap into a whole new level of frugality just to make ends meet and keep the fridge stocked. Things like ‘new’ clothes fell about as low on the list of priorities as possible. And the habit had sort of stuck.

Well, now was the time to shake it, she thought. Tucking the girls into bed, Jenelle and Eva disappeared into her bedroom, carting in all her recent purchases and a mandatory bottle of wine.

“Christ’s Aunt Nancy.” Eva flopped belly down onto her unmade bed. “How do you consider that fun?

“How do you not?” Jenelle retorted, giddily digging through bags. “Not a bad haul. You’ve got a good start, but there are still some crucial essentials we need to get. Purses. Shoes. And I still think you should go back for that gorgeous little summer dress we found.”

Eva levered up on to her elbows. “I just spent two thousand dollars. Most of that on myself. And you say I need to get more?”

“Hey, you asked for my help. And I’m giving it. Besides, there are a few things I can pass along to supplement.” Rocking back on her knees, Jenelle looked around with a hint of a frown, the closest she dared get in order to avoid unsightly wrinkles.

“When are you going to do something about this place?” Rising, hands on her hips, she kicked a booted toe against the boxed frame of the mattress still wrapped in plastic. “You haven’t even removed the damn cellophane.”

Sitting up, Eva swung her legs over the side, feet unable to reach the floor, and shrugged. “Don’t know. It’s been this way for so long guess I got used to it.” Her eyes danced over the stacked array of boxes shoved up against the walls, most of them opened and the contest disturbed, but otherwise she hadn’t bothered to unpack…anything.

Hell, Eva hadn’t even gotten around to painting the walls or even hanging curtains, the painting supplies stacked in the corner and hazed under a layer of dust.

She’d tried once, Eva recalled. Shortly after she’d finished with the girls’ rooms. But the second she’d brought those cans in with her, the panic started. And her thoughts spun in a muddled mess of worry, doubt and fear.

What would be the point if they were only going to be ripped away again? Why go through all that work, all of that effort when they’d never stayed longer than three weeks in a spot for the last two years?

So long as she stayed packed, then she hadn’t really allowed herself to get too invested. And if she unpacked only to have to move all over again? Eva wasn’t sure she had the strength inside of her to weather that sort of disappointment.

Then a month went by, and another, and each time she told herself in a week she’d get to it. If they made it another week. But with every one that passed, the fear rooted deeper and deeper. For at least that whole first year on Haven, Eva hadn’t been able to sleep anywhere but on the sofa bed. Always worried—terrified—that someone might bust in while they slept. And that she wouldn’t hear a damn thing upstairs, or wouldn’t be able to react in time to save them.

Only the alarm hidden in the closet, a specialized unit for victims of domestic violence, gave her any peace of mind. One push of a button—and all of Haven’s police would be at her door.

Jenelle sat next to her, companionably bumped shoulder to shoulder. “Hey, Gilbert. What’s eating you?”

A smile latched at the corner of Eva’s mouth, tugged her lips into a reluctant smirk. “You haven’t called me that in a while.”

“You haven’t looked so down in a while. Come on, talk to me. What’s going on? Is it my brother?”

Eva looked at her best friend, her dearest friend, and wondered how much longer she would have the strength to look deep into those caring, concerned grey eyes, and lie?

“No.” Eva willed her face to soften, for the stiffness to work of her hands and shoulders. “Just a long day, that’s all. Shopping wore me out.”

“You did good, for a rookie,” Jenelle approved, patting Eva’s leg. “But our lessons are far from over. Start putting these away. I am going to grab some supplies from my car. And then we can plan your ensemble and spend the night focusing on the things that really matter.”

Groaning, Eva flopped back on the bed. “Like?”

Jenelle paused at the threshold, a devious expression of dark glee flashing across her striking face.

“Killer shoes and sex.”



Chapter Nine

“That one, definitely that one,” Jenelle said, sprawled across the mattress, half-finished bottle of wine in hand. She’d made it back to Eva’s in a record thirty minutes, arms loaded with a variety of other goodies and champagne. Because, according to Jenelle, this was a day worthy of celebration.

Turning back to the mirror, Eva ran her hands over the filmy sapphire blouse, sheer enough for a hint of skin. The colour was stunning against her olive complexion, and brought out the natural amber undertones of her eyes, turning them to molten gold. The plunging neckline was sexy but tastefully done, and with the liquid black shorts she wore, Eva’s legs looked endless.

“You don’t think it’s too…much for dinner?”

“Not at all,” Jenelle dismissed with a swig of frothy bubbles. “Look what it does to your legs.”

Eva angled herself to the left and then to the right, checking the front and the back. Clearly all those early mornings of Yoga paid off, and then some.

“These shoes will complete the look,” Jenelle rifled through to find a sexy pair of nude pumps, the soles a shade of sensual red. “These are too small for me. I didn’t know when I snatched them off a clearance rack that Loubies run smaller than standard sizing. Otherwise I’d never part with them. I’d even contemplated losing a toe or hacking off a bit of heel,” she joked. “Alas, they were at least pretty to look at.”

“Didn’t you stop to try them on before buying them?” Eva chided, slipping them on to find they fit snug, though dangerously high for someone who rarely wore heels.

“See, told you. The nude makes them disappear so you see nothing but leg. Gorgeous. You’re wearing them,” she said with a wave of bottle like a fairy godmother’s magic wand.

“I can’t believe you had all of this in your trunk.”

Jenelle blinked dully. “Have you seen my closet? I ran out of room. Besides, intuition said you’d need my help.”

Turning back to the mirror, Eva had to agree the overall effect was stunning. The last time she’d worn something like this…and frowned. Actually, she’d never worn something like this.

She hadn’t cared enough to try and dress up for Nate, and the brief time she’d been with Randy, Eva hadn’t been brave enough to try.

“What’s in these?” Because her arches were beginning to ache, Eva toed off the pumps and stooped to dig through one of a dozen bags Jenelle had brought back with her. And found wispy bits of silk and lace.

“They’re all new. Still with the tags on,” Jenelle assured, setting the bottle down on the nightstand next to the stemware she hadn’t bothered to use.

“But there’s…” Eva dug through the bag, counting, “at least a dozen, or more.”

“What can I say? I’m a lingerie hoarder. And most of those are Parisian. Treat them with respect.”

Eva strung a little black thong between her fingers. The material sheer enough she could read a book through the crotch. “When do you find the time to wear all of this?”

Smiling like a cat with many secrets, Jenelle shrugged. “With the right man it doesn’t have to stay on for long. Just enough to knock him dead so you can bring him back to life.”

Eva folded the negligee back into the bag, tied it shut. “And who am I supposed to do all that with?”

“My brother, of course. Come on, Eva. Tell me you’re not thinking about jumping Marshall?”

Clearing her throat, Eva turned around. “I’m not, or wasn’t…until recently. But tomorrow is just dinner, and who’s to say we’re going to take it anywhere after that? We could get to the restaurant and realize we have nothing in common, or misread the chemistry and that the kiss was an aberration—”

“Whoa,” Jenelle swiped a hand through the air, “you guys kissed? And I’m only hearing about it now? Not cool, Eva. Details.”

“You seriously want to hear all this?”

“Every word,” she said, sitting straight and crossing her legs. “Dish, and make it good.”

Eva thought she’d dance around the events, highlighting from arm’s length, but even now, three days later, the memory was every bit as sharp and vivid as the initial experience. From the cool wet sand and the all-consuming heat of his mouth, the firm hard lines of his body and, of course, those hands!

Eva closed her eyes on a shiver, and opened them to find Jenelle smiling.

Aww, you really like him.”

Warmth bloomed in her cheeks, flushed down her neck to her arms. “You don’t mind?”

“Are you kidding? Why would I mind? How long has it been since you last…you know?” She wiggled a suggestive eyebrow.

Sitting down next to her, Eva hung her head. “No one since that British marketing guy from last summer. The one we met at the sports bar.”

“Trey? That guy?”

Eva nodded.

“You haven’t had sex in eleven months?”

“Thirteen,” Eva sighed, remembering that weekend fondly. Trey was a forty year old swarthy Italian with blue eyes. He’d been passing through with a colleague for a bit of local flair after closing a successful account in BC. They’d enjoyed a couple of beers, an easy conversation about soccer and one steamy, no-strings night in his hotel room.

He’d been nice, she thought. And, more important, he’d been temporary. Both he and his colleague checking out for an early Monday morning flight back to the UK. Never to be seen or heard from again.

“Good grief.” Jenelle shuddered in abject horror. “In that case I encourage you wholeheartedly to jump my brother. If that’s what it takes to get you out of this dateless, sexless slump, have at him.”

“Gee, thanks. So kind and generous of you.”

“That I am. Shall I babysit so you can have a sleepover?”

“I’ve already called in for a nanny,” Eva said. “With the understanding that things may run a little…late.”

Jenelle snorted a giggle. “Bravo. Fortune favours the bold. Now, on to the best part…” And reached between them for a makeup bag full of unused product. She unzipped the top, wiggled excited fingers.

“This would look killer with that ensemble,” she said, lifting up a couple of shades of shadow. “You have the kind of eyes made for drama. A blacked-out smoky effect would be pure sex in the back of a Cadillac on you. Unfortunately that’s not really my forte, but maybe we could play around a bit…”

While Jenelle rooted around, muttering and talking to herself, Eva looked down at the contents, and a familiar pull tugged in her belly. Maybe it was the wine, or all the dressing up, but a bit of her old self peaked through and sighed wistfully.

Estée Lauder, Clinique, Lancôme and Bobbi Brown. All my old friends.

“Let’s take this to the bathroom,” Eva suggested, and led Jenelle to the en-suite where she coaxed her to sit on the edge of the tub.

“What are you doing?”

“Trust me.” Eva smiled, and went to work. Amazing how it all snapped right back. The brushes, the shades and tones, the powders and lotions. Weeding through, Eva found three different shades of blush, some bronzer, a collection of brushes, two types of ‘endless’ mascara and sixteen tubes of lipstick ranging from demurest nude to come-hither red.

“Do you think you’re going to sleep with Marshall tomorrow?” Jenelle asked as Eva got herself sorted.

“Not sure. Depends, I guess, on how things go at dinner. It’s complicated.” Dangerous. Angling Jenelle’s face into the light, the subtle rose and cream of her skin begged for the bold and lush warmth of sage greens and golden browns.

“You know he’s leaving in August,” she said, circling her fingers around Eva’s wrist in measured concern.

Eva’s smile softened. “I’ll be fine. Promise. Now sit still.”

She worked quickly, competently, following Jenelle’s natural contouring and colours to enhance an already a remarkable specimen. And she stayed dutifully still, her face registering only the barest hint of a smile.

Studying the final result, Eva nodded. Damn, I still got it. “Want to see?” And stepped back so she could take in her reflection.

Stunned, Jenelle framed her face with her hands, taking in the spectacular results. “Where did you learn to do this?”

“I was a makeup artist.” Eva cleaned up the scattered brushes, wiping off the excess on a towel before storing them back in the cute little professional case.

“You?” Jenelle’s laughter rang out, sharp and bright and full of amazed disbelief. “When? Where?”

In another life. When I was someone else…Eva stroked a hand over a palate of eye shadow of smoky plum and satin taupe. “Doesn’t matter. It was only job.” A job that had taught her to appreciate the intricacies of a face, the subtleties of expressions.

“But you hate makeup.”

“I don’t hate it,” Eva corrected, packing everything away into the sleek carrying case. “I just prefer not to wear it. All that time standing in front of a mirror, slapping on this, that and the other. Before you know it you’re afraid to leave your house without mascara or be seen sans lipstick.” And cast Jenelle as she continued to primping and posing in the mirror, a pointed smirk.

“God, it’s a shame we can’t go out tonight and show off my new face. No. Keep it,” Jenelle said when Eva moved to return the make up to her. “I’m a total klepto as is and these were all free samples and sale binges. I’ve got drawers and drawers at home.”

“Hells bells, woman. I’m never going to use all of this stuff.”

Blowing kisses at her reflection, tossing her hair, Jenelle beamed. “Never say never.”

Marshall sipped from his glass of wine, and tried not to anxiously check his watch. The reservation had been set for eight, he’d arrived maybe five minutes prior to that, and Eva had always struck him as the punctual sort. She’d be here. Even if only to tell him she’d changed her mind, Eva Turner wasn’t the sort to leave a man high and dry without a perfunctory phone call to bail.

So why was he nervous? No, that wasn’t the right word. Excited. And Marshall couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt so eager on a first date. Or, as he tried to recall, the last time he’d showed up at a restaurant ahead of the woman?

Perhaps he was old-fashioned to think it was a man’s place to pick-up and drop-off his date, a mark of his mother’s insistence that her boys grow up to be thoughtful and chivalrous gentlemen. But Eva was a far cry from the sort of woman he usually encountered.

She had a prickly, difficult and, some would say, abrasive quality, but he found her…refreshing.

And there was more there to be uncovered.

He’d seen glimpses and flashes of the woman underneath the hard shell that made him want to discover the rest. To strip her bare until he found the soft and supple promise of more than just her naked curves.

Eva wasn’t about mincing words and admittedly he admired her candor. She’d made her reasons why both direct and plain; her intentions and motivations clear and without misinterpretation.

She wanted the simple, the casual and the easy, which was all he was able to provide. This was likely to be one of the most exciting summer affairs he’d experienced in a very long time.

Marshall felt her seconds before his eyes actually found her in the crowded restaurant, sort of an electric hum along the back of his neck that had the little fine hairs standing on end. And as he took in the pleasing little package, Marshall had to admit, with a pop of surprise, Ms. Turner cleaned up rather well.

Gone were the stressed jeans and shapeless t-shirts in favour of a deep blue shirt, gauzy and sheer as a belly dancers veil, and showcased she had a lot going on beneath her usually shabby attire.

Particularly a pair of interesting legs, made endless thanks to sexy little heels. She’d freshened up her face with makeup, though she didn’t wear much and certainly didn’t need it.

The combined effect almost made up for the hatchet job haircut which she’d managed to style and soften in pleasing waves to frame her lovely face.

Rising, Marshall pulled out her chair. “Ms. Turner.”

Eva slid into the proffered seat, crossed a leg and thanked God she’d made it from the door to the table without breaking her neck. Why had she let Jenelle talk her into these heels was a question she’d wrestled with all the way to the restaurant.

Marshall had seemed anxious when she saw him sitting there, all alone with only a bottle and couple of glasses for company. His hair tied back, the golden tail skimming the crisp collar of a navy shirt tucked into grey slacks cuffed at the ankle.

All easy masculinity wrapped up in casual elegance.

The second he’d locked eyes on her, the way his face had lit up with surprise and heat and stunned male pleasure; his gaze sliding all the way down to rest on those pumps…was enough to weaken the knees. Eva had to give Jenelle her dues for hitting the mark.

This time.

“I’d ordered this while waiting. I hope you’re partial to merlot.”

He poured out a glass from the bottle breathing on the table. The deep, full-bodied red glowed in the low lighting.

“Wine is wine.” Eva raised her glass, took a sip and allowed the lush, spicy notes to dance along her tongue. “But this is delicious.” She sipped again, humming with appreciation.

The ambience steeped in old world charm and modern sophistication. Because it was a fine, soft evening the windows were thrown open, allowing the evening breeze to float around them, carrying with it a hint of salt and the steady rush of waves.

The combined effect was intoxicating. As was the glimmer in his eyes when she shifted hers back and realized he was watching her intently.

“You look incredible.”

“You sound surprised.”

“I am,” Marshall admitted, rolling the stem of his glass between his fingers. “I haven’t seen you in anything but your usual grunge gear since we first met.”

She jerked a shoulder, without insult or apology. “I like being comfortable. And I don’t have anyone to impress on the island. Or anyone I care to.”

“So, your standard choice of attire is a shield?”

Eva could have lied, it would have been easy to deny the observation, but for the sake of playing the game, she decided it would be in her best interest to pick and choose her battles. Marshall was sharp, and would call her bullshit if she wasn’t careful. There was nothing wrong in admitting that she downplayed her appearance.

“Yes. They’re a shield. You could also argue my girls are one, as well. Most men won’t approach a woman with such extensive baggage.”

Easing back, Marshall’s head listed to the side. “You really weren’t kidding when you said you weren’t looking for a man to complete the picture, eh?”

“I never kid about things like that,” Eve answered accepting the menu from the waiter, pausing in their conversation long enough to order appetizers and entrees.

“If I wanted a relationship then I would have one. But I don’t. Being a parent is time-consuming enough. Add in the business and I’m swamped. I don’t have room for a commitment. Not full-time. And the girls don’t need a surrogate father who will never truly love them as his own.”

There was hurt there, Marshall realized. And a lingering resentment that he doubted even she knew she still carried. “Speaking from personal experience?”

First landmine of the evening, Eva thought. But still safe enough to answer. She’d agonized over this in the shower, knowing she had to give him something to chew on. Otherwise this was going to be a very long and painfully awkward evening.

“No. I didn’t have a father in my life. My sperm donor, as I’ve taken to calling him, took off when I was an infant. Growing up my mom dated, most of who didn’t stick around long enough for me to remember their names, let alone their faces.”

“Being a single parent is tough,” Marshall said, with a nod to Eva. “You mom never remarried and had more kids?”

“No,” Eva said, smiling at some distant memory, “she had her hands full with me and Alyssa so—” And caught the slip too late.

“Alyssa?”

“Cat,” she supplied lamely. “Gorgeous little calico. Died when I was twelve.”

Marshall nodded but the tension in his brows said he wasn’t entirely sold.

Thankfully the arrival of the server with their appetizers provided the diversion she needed. Once they were alone again, Eva broke the silence first, turning the conversation towards safer ground.

“So,” she spooned up a bite of gnocchi, savoured the lush little ricotta pillow enrobed in creamy sauce, “why did you leave Haven?”

Marshall topped up his wine, pouring with his left, and set the bottle between them. “For love, is probably the romantic answer, but the truth is closer to I just needed a reason to break away. To see something beyond the simple small town life. And the mainland might have been safer, easier, but I didn’t want safe. Neither did Gillian. She’d got a scholarship to University of Toronto for Biochemistry. We’d dated throughout most of high school and she’d asked me to come with her. So I did.”

“And what happened to Gillian?” Eva scooted her plate closer to Marshall so he could sample a bit of her meal.

“We broke up exactly three weeks after we unpacked.”

Eva pulled a face. “That blows.”

“Yes, but it lead to lots of heartbreak sex with young college co-eds and a few mid-twenty career types. I wasn’t lonely for long, not with my good looks and small-town boyish charm,” he said, eyes glittering and offered her a sliver of steak from his fork. “But the breakup had created a bit of a problem, financially, you see? We’d planned to live together and split expenses, now I was on my own and trying to foot all the bills with no job and no savings.”

“Why didn’t you just come back to Haven?”

“Cause I’m too stubborn for my own good, as my mom would say. Besides, I’d come this far and was determined to make it work. Call me a sucker for punishment.”

Eva nibbled on a toasted point of flat bread, narrowed those compelling brown eyes; a translucent shade of amber framed in smoky black. “So what did you do?”

“What I did best. I gambled.”

Oooh. A card shark, are you?”

“One of the best,” he said without hesitation or humility. Seeing her glass was running low, Marshall reached for the opened bottle of sparkling water, and poured for them both.

“My uncle taught me during the long summer months when he’d come down to visit and help my father with his contracting business. We’d play cards during our lunches, perched up on roofs or under the low hanging limbs of trees. But more important than the rules, my uncle taught me how to read people. It’s the players more than the cards that tell a man what he needs to know in order to win the game.”

God how he missed those days. Sitting around in the summer heat, sipping on beers after a long day of sweat and labour. The way his uncle would let fly a raunchy laugh and give Marshall a nudge every time a cute girl walked past.

But soon enough Uncle Benjamin’s pack a day and love of aged bourbon saw him in the ground at an early fifty-seven. Marshall’s first kick in the teeth lesson that life was too fucking short.

“I was good as a kid, but as a man, I was untouchable. Thanks to a couple of tourneys, I made enough to put myself through school, pay my rent. Every table I joined, I’d walk away flush.”

“If you were that good, why’d you stop?”

Scraping his teeth across his bottom lip, Marshall chewed on that for a moment. “Because it took over my life. Brought me to some dark places and around darker people.” Breaking a roll in half, plumes of steam emanated from the soft flesh. “Just because I was good at it didn’t make it any less of an addiction. Or dangerous.”

Complete, unobstructed honesty. Eva sat for a moment, surprised and impressed. Most of what he’d relayed she’d already known from her careful research before their first meeting, but she hadn’t expected such…candour.

Not on a first date.

The evening flowed with wine and conversation. And to Marshall’s surprise, he was enjoying himself immensely, even though Eva kept most of the talk centered on him. His work. His travels. His accomplishments. Whenever he’d tried to swivel things back around, despite his every ploy and tactic, she’d expertly outmanoeuvred him time and again. And when the time came to pay the tab, he hadn’t learned much of anything that he hadn’t already known from the start.

A skill he found wildly arousing.

“You were rather impressive in there.” He held open the restaurant door, allowed her to step out ahead of him into the humming street.

Pashmina wrapped around her shoulders, Eva smiled coyly up at him from beneath lowered lashes. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you.” Marshall shook his head with a smile. “Shall I hail us a cab?”

“No need. I drove here.”

“Then I’ll walk you to your car.”

She hadn’t parked far. Just around the corner in an open lot tucked between two condos. Marshall timed the moment perfectly, so that when she turned to say good night, he made his move.

He was smooth, his arms sliding around her waist, unhurried, with the leisurely stroke of hands around her hips. Giving her time to react, to pull away—if that was what she wanted.

Eva stood her ground and his mouth followed next, a whispered rub against her jaw, a skim of teeth against her lips. And when they parted, a welcomed invitation, he dove in.

Slow and deep and thorough.

A throaty hum purred in the back of her throat and trickled out with a sigh. She certainly wasn’t without her own skill but this man was fire.

And electricity. And lightening.

All wrapped up in one delicious package of muscle and man. Her hands rose to skim over wide shoulders, drawing him closer so that two well-toned bodies brushed and teased.

Firm hard lines against soft, willing angles.

Oh God, she’d forgotten how good this could feel.

Those lips slid down her throat, slow as honey down a spoon. A lazy exploration with teeth and tongue until Eva’s eyes crossed. His hands shot up her sides, thumbs circling under the fullness of her breasts. And when his teeth sank into the delicate lobe of her ear, she whimpered through a moan.

If this kept up she would be ready and willing to have him take her on the hood of her car. Pedestrians and bystanders be damned. Groaning, Eva laced her fingers in his hair and hungrily yanked that incredible mouth of his up to hers for another bone-melting kiss.

Pressing against every hollow and line of his impressive body. Needing heat, friction and contact. Eva wanted that muscular build in a hundred different ways, all of them hot and sweaty and gloriously naked. And she wanted it now.

“We should go.” She sank her teeth into his meaty, bottom lip. Tugged. “We should get out of here.” Or the back seat would do. For round one, at least.

Marshall moaned against that suggestive little bite. It didn’t take a genius to understand—to know what she meant. Only an idiot would say no…He’d only planned to sample—to taste, to assuage the growing snarl of need that he hadn’t been able to shake since that first, breathless kiss on the beach.

God, he wanted her. The ache of his erection had him almost cross-eyed and a second longer he was sure to beg. But somewhere in the distance, in the deepest recesses of his coherent thoughts, instinct cautioned him against moving too fast.

“Yeah, we should.” And though it killed him, Marshall let her go. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll take a cab. Good night, Eva.”

Her face was all disbelief, amusement, intrigue and the heat of sexual frustration, a stunned expression worth capturing on film, he thought. And smiled. So he wasn’t going to be the only one caught up in tangled sheets tonight.

“Are you sure?” To pretend she wasn’t surprised required a set of skills Eva didn’t yet posses. He was saying no? Walking away? There was a twist she hadn’t seen coming. Not after a kiss like that.

She’d tasted his hunger, felt the rush of need surging just beneath the skin and the way his hands hand tightened on her body, those long, nimble fingers flexing around her waist, she’d been sure he was a breath away from ripping the clothes off her body.

His eyes searched her full of lust and something obscured by the night.

“I want you, Eva. More than I expected.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Problem is I want more than a night. Or a few. I want possibilities. I want tomorrows. I want to see what one day brings as it leads to a next, knowing that there could be room for more.”

Eva’s heart sank. “I can’t give you that.”

“I hope you change your mind,” he said, and tortured them both with a final press of lips that made her insides ache. The feeling bittersweet. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Have it your way,” she sighed, stuffing her car key into the door.

Only when Eva’s car turned out into the street did Marshall finally—finally—breathe. Goddamn, he thought, the need for her still thick in his blood. The taste of her still rolling on his tongue. A ripe, potent flavour that had his belly growling for more.

Marshall had prepared himself for just about anything, but not such easy abandon. She’d been so open, so…pliant. Any other time, place or woman he wouldn’t have hesitated to take her home.

But Eva was different. Exciting. And he wasn’t about to see the game end in one, heated night of really…really awesome sex.

He was going with the slow burn. Drawing out the tension and wear her down. Tonight’s little interlude had been the first step. She thought she had him so neatly figured out. So easily cornered. He’d thrown her off balance, and looked forward to doing it again. Soon.

Although Marshall knew he was going to suffer the worst case of blue balls since college, the look on her face was well worth the pain.

The cure for which, he thought with an uncomfortable shift to the left, was expensive Scotch and a cold, cold shower.


Chapter Ten

Eva loved summer storms, and today, the heavy weight of dense grey clouds rumbled with the promise of rain. Last night had been hell. A study in torture. Plagued with haunting dreams of Marshall—from his impressive body to his talented tongue—Eva woke in a tangled, knotted mess of unspent lust.

And, like those storm clouds, on the brink of erupting.

A strange and unfamiliar sensation she wasn’t accustomed to. To say she’d never enjoyed or cared overly much about sex wasn’t far of a stretch. Nate hadn’t been especially gifted, or interested in doing much more than climbing on and getting off. Randy…well, he’d certainly seemed to enjoy her more than she had him.

Then there was the odd one night she’d taken for herself, here and there, and though they’d satisfied the itch, Eva couldn’t say any of those experiences had been much to report. So why was she all worked up over a kiss?

Because that kiss had done more to her body than any previous lover had ever come close to accomplishing. Because that kiss had awakened stirrings she didn’t even know she had. And because she felt, based on an easy sort of primitive knowing, that this one was going to be different. Knowledge born from instinct and intuition.

The house was quiet. Too damn quiet. She’d sent the girls over to Lottie’s for the day so she could have a few hours to work without distraction or disruption. With the weather a roiling mass of pent-up frustration, much like herself, Eva had decided that today was a day for focusing on her prints and edits, rather than beating the boardwalk for pictures.

Though the gloom and sepia tones would have lent to some impressive images, Eva wasn’t sure she could trust herself being close to Marshall just yet.

Not while she had some much going on inside of her. He’d said he’d wanted more. Not necessarily a committed relationship, but possibility. And that was the one thing she couldn’t give.

With Eva there could be no hope for that. All it would take would be one slip of the tongue, one tiny misstep and they’d be whisked away again. Ripping the girls from Nate was a hard reality she’d had to atone and accept responsibility for. Whatever her personal feelings towards him, he was a father who had lost his children.

There could be no greater agony.

She would not—could not—do that to someone again.

Shuffling through a sea of faces, Eva stalled on one she’d snapped of twin girls in matching sundresses. One in pink polka dots, the other in blue. Their hair pulled up high in curly little ponytails on top of their heads, standing with their parents puzzling over an island pamphlet.

They way their faces turned to each other, full of impish humour. A moment shared between them as they communicated without words, in a way only twins could. The same way she and Alyssa had so many times before.

Even as grown women, they’d shared a connection no one would rival or come close to matching. An unbreakable bond.

Seeing those beautiful dark skinned faces with large, expressive brown eyes, brought back the hollow ache and brutal pain of loss experienced every Christmas, every Thanksgiving and birthday; a slap in the face reminder of the gaping hole in her heart.

A heart she’d locked away for fearing of losing anyone else. And now folded in on itself like an origami square, compressing into tight, packed little folds, so small it practically disappeared.

And even now Eva trusted that somewhere in the world, Alyssa could feel her pain. Her grief and love and terrible aching loneliness, etched deep inside where no one else could see, or touch or know…

I miss my sister.

Pushing away from her desk, Eva shuffled down stairs to the kitchen, in search of something sweet and sugary and comforting. She’d lost the only person who’d mattered to her, and her girls would never be free of the shadow of Randy’s threats looming over them like a deathly shroud.

While Randy had lost nothing. If the case didn’t hold up in the courts, if the charges were dropped, he could walk away tomorrow a free man. His life picking up and moving on exactly as he’d left it.

How was that fair? Seething, she ripped open open a bag of marshmallows she saved for making the girls Rice Krispy Squares and popped two large sugary pillows into her mouth.

Why should he win? Why should he succeed in taking any more from them, from her, then she’d already sacrificed? Marshall wanted possibilities, well she fucking deserved them!

Eva licked sticky sugar off her fingers. And dammit, she was stress eating. Securing the clasp back on the bag, she returned it to the cupboard and slapped it shut on a muttered curse. If Alyssa were here, she’d tell Eva to go for it. Seize her happiness, in whatever form that may be. To live life without hesitation, or worry or fear.

Lightning flashed, filling the room, followed by aloud crack and rumble. Rain poured, falling in heavy, driving sheets.

The storm had finally broken. And, snatching her keys from the counter, Eva had made up her mind.

Drenched in sweat, Marshall bent at the waist, letting his arms hang and his back relax, stretching out all the tight and tense muscles straight through to his hamstrings. An exhausted, sandy mess, LeBron slumped at his side, tongue lolling with heavy pants.

The three mile run had been a needed burn of energy, sexual frustration and the dregs of last night’s whiskey. After a gruelling, toss and turn sort of night, Marshall woke in a funk, kicking himself for his stupidity at turning down a sure thing.

Why? Because he wanted possibilities. What. The. Hell.

Uncapping a bottle of water, he sucked it back in a strong, demanding chug. Overhead the clouds thickened and swelled, black as chimney ash before exploding with a booming crack of thunder. Rain fell in fat, heaving drops that soaked and saturated within seconds. Too beat to enjoy a romp in the rain, LeBron yawned and rolled onto his back, the sound of the storm lulling him to sleep.

Phone shrilling in his pocket, grateful for the distraction, Marshall answered on the second ring.

“Mouse, how’s the search going?”

“Came up dry, man. Like Sahara shit,” Mouse said, the line buzzing with static. Probably interference from the storm, he thought, casting his eyes to the heavy curtain of rain. “Eva Turner’s trail stops dead after two and a half years. Can’t find no credit trail, no former place of residence. No job history. School. Zilch.”

Crossing the threshold, Marshall closed the door, leaned back against it. “Okay. She’s had a name change. A recent one.” Not entirely strange. Lots of people did and for a variety of reasons.

Fresh start, mostly. Establishing a new identity. But the question then became why? And the only way to find the answer meant he was going to have to dig deeper.

“Yo, you there?”

“Yeah, sorry. Just thinking. Any way to track down her previous identity?”

“Not that simple. I’m holed away in exile until the dust over my last stunt settles. And…there’s some tape on this I can’t cut through without drawing heat, seen?”

“I thought name changes were public record?”

“They are. But hers is sealed. Usually only minors get the tape.”

“She does have three daughters.” And that would mean if Eva’s records were tied up, then it was because she’d not only changed her name, but theirs as well. Now that made things more interesting. “Come on, Mouse. Can’t you just, I don’t know—sneak through some hacker backdoor?”

Mouse snorted. “You watch too many movies, son.” And paused on a thought. “Give me another week, maybe two. My boy knows a guy who knows a chick that might be able to pull something up. Gonna cost you the rest of my usual,” he said. “And a finder’s fee if this contact pulls through. Ten percent.”

“Consider it done.”

“Got anything on her to narrow the scope of the field?”

Finished the water, he lobbed the empty bottle at the wastebasket. Plastic clattered against wire, and tumbled inside for an almost smooth three-pointer. “Like?”

“Why you asking me, man? You’re the field reporter guy. DOB, middle name…something, son.”

Marshall sighed. Wracking his brain for the smallest crumbs he’d uncovered. “She grew up with a single mom. No father figure. Alyssa, Eva mentioned the name. Could be something. Could be nothing, but see if it helps.”

“Cool.”

“Thanks, Mouse.” Ending the call, he’d barely tucked the phone in his back pocket, turning his thoughts towards a long shower to wash off the sweat and tension, when the door rattled with a strong knock. He opened it to find Eva, streaming wet, on the porch.

“Hey,” she lifted a hand in a stiff wave. “Can I come in?”

Stunned, unsure what to say, Marshall held open the door and she walked inside, leaving a trail of pooling water in her wake.

“Shit, sorry. I’m a mess.”

“I can get you a towel.”

“In a minute. I just…” Agitated, Eva paced. The space was small but tidy, which surprised her. She would have thought a single guy, someone unused to maintaining a home, would be like a whirlwind, leaving chaos to spread into every corner. But the tables were clean, the furniture mostly dusted and the kitchen, from what she could see, near pristine. Lottie would be so proud.

And Jesus, she was stalling.

Turning around, she faced him, resolute. “I want you to know I like you. I really like you.”

“Good,” he said, crossing muscular arms, bared in a sleeveless tank, and expression more than a little confused. “I like you too.”

“This,” she gestured between them, scattering droplets, “is complicated for me, okay? For so many reasons. Mainly because I’m not used to being with someone. Or wanting to be with someone.”

Marshall crooked a brow. “Don’t tell me those girls were Immaculate Conception, or something. Cause I call bullshit.”

“No,” Eva laughed. “I mean relationships. I’m out of my depth here. I was married for almost ten years and single pretty much ever since that collapsed. I don’t know how to be with someone.”

Sliding his tongue along his teeth, Marshall assessed her for a moment, quietly. Calmly. Then lowered to the armrest of the couch.

“It might surprise you to hear that I’m more or less in the same boat. I’ve had my share of ups and downs with women. The last of which…ended rather badly.” Scraping a hand over his hair, damp and loose, Marshall sighed. “I’m not saying we’ve got to get all serious, Eva. I don’t even know what the heck my game plan is a month from now. Two months from now. My life is all up in the air.” He mimed juggling balls for effect. “But here’s what I do know.” Rising, he set his hands on her shoulders, slid them up and down her arms.

“I admire you. The more I get to know, the more fascinated I am. You’re more than a job or an article to me, Eva.”

Something moved through her, he saw it in her eyes a second before she found her voice.

“I have things in my past that need to stay there, alright? Please stop pushing; stop fighting me at every goddamn turn. It’s painful and I need you to accept I don’t want to talk about it. Who I was before has no bearing on who I am today.”

And why did that simple declaration strike him right in the heart? Make him ache and wish to know what was so traumatic that this bright, strong, capable woman before him could be reduced to fearful silence? That she would rather face it—carry it alone—then turn to someone to help shoulder the burden?

“Alright, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t push you, Eva.” Drawing her closer, a low, simmering kind of heat built between the narrowed space of their bodies. A kind of chemical reaction at having her so close.

As he ran tips of his fingers over the curve of her shoulder to the buttoned v of her shirt where a hint of cleavage peeked, Marshall could see she felt it, too.

“If we do this than it’s you and me for however long as we decide to keep it that way. I may be one of seven,” his eyes dipped to where his fingers hooked above that top button, and sliced back up hers, “but I don’t like to share.” Not the things that matter.

Eva drew in a sharp breath. Nodded. “Okay.” And vaulted.

Marshall stumbled back, arms full of woman. Those slender, shapely legs caught him at the waist, wrapped around. A hot, avid mouth, lush and pillow-soft, latched on to his and devoured with frenzied, bone sizzling proficiency.

Propped with the wall at his back, Marshall struggled to regain his head as her fingers shot into his hair, tugging and anchoring him in place as she sank deeper. That wicked, wicked tongue of hers giving him all sorts of devious and wonderful ideas.

Jesus the woman had a killer mouth. Her taste was potent, sweet and intoxicating. He wanted to steep himself in it for hours, taking—giving, hell sinking into arduous oblivion. And when she rolled against him, the core of her pressing where he wanted her most, Marshall would swear the world tilted from under his feet.

His hands streaked over her, struggling to find those lean, firm curves and angles hidden beneath all those frustrating layers of soaked, horrible clothes.

“God dammit,” the oath was punctuated between lips. He spun them around, changing the dynamic so that she was the one now pinned, freeing his arms so he could properly dispose of clothing.

“Wait,” he said, catching himself. Drawing back. “Dammit, Eva I’m a sweaty mess.”

Unwinding her legs from his waist, she sank to the floor, amber eyes turned to deep, dark pools of female heat. Eva stripped off her shirt, dropped it on the floor, leaving her naked to the waist. Revealing a spectacular pair of breasts he hadn’t expected.

High and firm. A lush and sexy handful with taught, caramel hued nipples.

Juicy was the word that came to mind. Definitely juicy. Begging for a man’s lips. Tongue…Dragging a hand over his mouth, he sank his teeth into the flesh above a knuckle. God the things he wanted to do to her body. And there was a whole other half to uncover.

“That’s alright,” she said, looping a finger in his belt tugging him forward. “I could use a shower. After.”

There was a snap, audible as thunder, and Marshall lunged, catching her around the waist and tossing her tiny, slim body over his left shoulder.

Thank God the place was small, otherwise after a come-and-get-me line like that six feet to the bedroom required about all the patience he had left. Booting the door shut behind him, he tossed Eva to the bed before fighting with his pants.

“Don’t,” he added, when Eva brought her hands to unfasten her own, his eyes flashing with dangerous provocation. “I’ve got this.”

Eva watched as he peeled and shed layers, unashamed with both interest and bold appreciation.

He was perfection. All hard, chiselled muscle—from the caps of his shoulders to the hard, locking plates of his abs where she imagined running her tongue along the hollowed grooves. As he stepped out of his sweats and approached the bed, corded thighs bulging, the look on his face made Eva’s mouth water.

All heat and focused intent.

Her gaze dipped lower to the hardened length straining between his legs and the core of her clenched with anticipation.

Suddenly nothing else mattered then slipping that perfectly honed steel deep inside where she was so empty and needy and had gone untouched for so long.

Climbing on to the bed, Marshall’s hands slid over her waist, tugging and pulling, freeing skin to the heat of his mouth until finally she was naked, gloriously naked. All soft skin and firm curves. Scraping his teeth over the delicate shape of her hip, he savoured the delicious tremor his exploration evoked.

Tasting and teasing the flat plane of her belly, the sweet inner flesh of her thighs as his fingers found the warm, wet heat in between. Stroking, probing until she was blind with impatience. Panting his name. He wanted her crazed. He wanted her desperate. At the limits of his own sanity, Marshall wanted her ruined.

And while his fingers pushed her closer to that thrilling, wild precipice, he sucked the firm, lush mound of her breast and drew the hardened bead of her nipple into his mouth. Rolled it along his tongue, caught it between his teeth. Hips bucking against his hand, Eva’s fingers shot into his hair, dragging his mouth harder against her body as she whimpered and moaned. A wonderful chorus of pleasure as she came with a violence that had triumph surging inside him, stoking his own desires past bearing.

Dazzled, blind, Eva roped his mouth up to hers.

“Wait—let me—” Punctuated between blood-racing kisses, Marshall reached across and fumbled through the nightstand drawer in search of the stash he was never without.

A particularly painful learning curve involving a stunning Vietnamese beauty had taught Marshall the hard—hah!—way: opportunity knocks loudest when least expected, and you either came prepared or risked missing something truly extraordinary.

That was a blow-to-the-nuts the kind of mistake a man only made once.

“Hurry.” Raking impatient nails down his back, she caught his lip between her teeth and arched hotly against him. “Hurry, hurry, hurry.”

Aching, oh Christ, every inch of Eva was aching. Burning. A few curses between adjustments and finally—finally—the cumbersome inconvenience of slipping on the condom was over.

With the stunning length of his body splayed above her, legs hooked around his waist, she felt him bob against her, the heat of him running along her seam. Searching. And, with jaw grim and eyes focused, he found her softest, wettest spot and plunged.

Tossing back her head, Eva cried out at the sudden snap of pain from the invasion, but it was quickly swallowed up in the rush of a thousand tingling nerves that clenched and squeezed and begged for more.

The first initial thrust almost killed him. God, he’d known she was tight the moment his fingers had slipped inside her but this was almost too much. Her cry had startled him enough to still. And Marshall looked down at her, his eyes searching for any indication he’d hurt her.

Slow it down, a voice within him cautioned. Easy. Don’t rush. Hard to manage when every breath and fiber of his being screamed now.

He held there a minute, his entire body vibrating with the strained effort of rapidly fraying patience as he gave her precious seconds for her body to stretch and soften and give, adjusting to the solid fit of him inside her. And when Eva wiggled beneath him, Marshall’s laugh tore out with a groan.

“Keep it up and this won’t last long.”

“Take me.” She lifted her mouth, tongue skimming over his lips in a teasing stroke.

That was all the prompting he needed.

He slid into her with a moan, filling and taking with solid, firm strokes. Arms around him, Eva fused her mouth to his, drinking in every groan and sigh, their tongues tangling as their bodies rose and fell together, locked in a sensuous dance that sped beyond the boundaries of control.

Spurred on by the slap of wet flesh and strangled moans, Marshall set his teeth at her throat, where her pulse hammered and leapt.

There, oh God, there! The pressure swam in her belly, coiled between her legs. Drawing tighter, tighter.

“Yes,” she panted, fingers digging into the capped muscles of his thighs flexing with each savage thrust. A sound tore from his throat, primal and fierce and sexy as hell, that wonderful body of his drove faster. Deeper. Harder. And she welcomed it. Welcomed that wild, animalistic passion. Matched that primal fury with her own.

That pressure exploded, a violent maelstrom of sensory chaos that shocked them both. The liquid current of those shockwaves blazed straight to the bone, and sucked him in. Destroying him completely.

Boneless, Marshall sagged to his side, rolled on to his back. And grinned like an idiot. Heart beating so fast, so heavy, it damn near shook the whole bed. Curling up next to him, Eva settled in the crook of his arm, leg draped over his waist. Stroking a hand down her length, he set his lips to her temple, her cheek.

“Are you okay?” he asked, breath fanning across her throat. Eva sighed against him. Nodded.

Christ…years. Years since she had felt this. Experienced this. To be stretched full, to have the weight and heat of a man on her, over her—in her. Even then, everything before this moment, before him, was shattered into nothing.

And they barely even got started yet.

Feeling a bit wicked, refreshed from a kick of reserve energy, Eva sank her teeth into his shoulder—his good shoulder, laved the spot with her tongue. Savouring the salty taste of him. And smiled at his throaty groan. Against her thigh, his semi-hard length bucked to renewed purpose.

“Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he warned. Eyes glinting.

Rising to the challenge, Eva mounted him, lips curved in a catlike grin, guiding his hands to her hips. “Have you ever known me not to?” She scraped her teeth over his jaw. “I hope your showers big enough for two.”

It wasn’t, but they’d managed just fine. And what had started in the shower had finished in the bed. Twice. Now Marshall was spent. Ruined. And happy to meet his maker a satisfied man.

God he’d had crazy, brilliant lovers in his time. The trade perks of being a well-travelled man, but nothing that matched Eva’s spirit and focused hunger. The woman was wildfire and boundless energy. And though he’d gauged a degree of inexperience, she was quick study and eager to give as much as take.

A breath away from dead to the world, Marshall felt Eva’s warm, naked length slither over him, around him.

“I admire your enthusiasm,” he grumbled into his pillow. “But another round tonight might kill me.”

At her answering snicker, he lifted his head and took a moment to enjoy the view of a toned bum slipping into a pair of loose jeans. But a gradual return of understanding tempered his own amusement. “Is this where you tell me that you can’t deviate from character by spending the night?”

“No, smart ass.” Leaning across the bed, Eva brushed her lips across his, followed with a nip of teeth. “I’m a single mother with three young, impressionable girls, a nanny to send home, and special breakfast duty in five hours.”

The mention of food intrigued him for more than just her body. “Special breakfast duty?”

“It’s a kind of thing we have every Sunday, and I go through rotations, letting the girls have their pick of whatever they want. Tomorrow’s Lucy’s choice: blueberry waffles, lots of bacon and fresh OJ.”

“Kid after my own heart,” he said, smiling through a stretch. “What time should I be there?” He’d meant it more as a joke, but even in the dim darkness, there was no mistaking the clouding of her eyes. So, they’d crossed a boundary, but the line only stretched so far.

“I don’t bring men home. Don’t take this the wrong way. Where’s my shirt?”

“Hall,” he said and watched as she went off in search. Soon after the running of water from the bathroom, the door partially ajar as she washed her hands.

Swinging his feet to the floor, and something brushed against his heel. Reaching down he plucked up the mystery object, and discovered it was a dark leather wallet. Eva’s wallet.

A shock of curiosity rippled through him. A journalist’s curse and an impulse he’d never acquired the strength to ignore. Opening it, he searched inside. Found eighty bucks, a local Haven debit card, a couple receipts—from coffee shops and lunch spots over the course of the week, and not much else.

He knew she’d caught him long before his eyes lifted to find her standing in the bathroom door way.

“You dropped this,” he said, handing it over to her. “Didn’t see a driver’s license.” Or identification of any kind…“Could be under the bed.”

“I don’t carry it with me unless I’m driving,” Eva slipped it into her back pocket. “Easier to travel light. Otherwise I’d probably forget it somewhere. I’m pretty forgetful.”

He smiled through a nod, though his instincts didn’t buy the weak excuse. Eva was many things, forgetful? Certainly not one of them.

“I’ll see you out,” Marshall said, tugging on sweat pants. At the door, Eva rose to her toes, lacing arms around his shoulders and sank into a kiss. As she headed out, a shape in the dark, he watched her go, and held there long after she was gone from sight, wondering what more a guy had to do to break through Eva’s Kevlar.

***

The morning dawned and Eva rose to face the day on only four hours of solid sleep and feeling incredible, despite it. Her body ached in the most delicious ways, her muscles loose and wonderfully lax in ways yoga had never managed to achieve.

Excited to see her, the puppies scampered in frantic circles, desperate to be let out for their morning frolic. She set them loose in the yard, propping the back door open just enough so they could come inside when ready.

The training had begun to bear fruit, she thought, with no surprise puddles to clean up in the mornings. Always the early bird, Lucy bounded into the kitchen, blue eyes bright with glee. Of her girls, she loved to cook the most. Already dressed, apron on, she shoved her wooden stool over by the counter so she could join in the task of preparing the pancakes.

“Stir this carefully,” Eva instructed, pouring in the two cups of milk. At the sound of the doorbell, she brushed a kiss over Lucy’s head, her little tongue peeking out as she stirred with careful concentration. “Be right back.”

Wondering who would be at her door so early on a Sunday, she opened the front entry and her smile fell into a stunned scowl.

Eva narrowed the door, easing a foot over the threshold. “What are you doing here?”

“I come bearing gifts.” Marshall gave the bags he carried a wave. Likely drawn by the bell, the puppies scampered down the hall. Skittles shoved a wet nose around her knee but was soon distracted by his more rambunctious siblings.

“I thought I made myself clear last night?” Eva kept her voice hushed, praying that she somehow managed to boot him off her front steps before attention was drawn her way.

But the fates above seemed to conspire against her when the sound of tiny feet echoed behind her.

“Momma, who’s there?”

A small hand pried the door open and a tiny figure slid next to her mother, draped in an oversized apron, dark hair in a sloppy knot atop her round face. She sized him up, little fingers twirling a batter-covered spatula.

“Lucy, this is momma’s friend, Marshall,” Eva said, handling the introductions. “He’s Miss Davies son.”

“That’s right,” Marshall added. “You must be Lucy.”

“Yes. That’s me.” Massive blue eyes dominated, coupled with an impish smile that stole Marshall’s heart in half a second flat. She looked every inch the adorable little Gummy Bear his sister had nicknamed her for, batting long, dark lashes. “D’you like pancakes?”

“Do I?” Marshall lowered to brush a knuckle across the curve of a fat cheek where a smear of pancake goop was drying. “Absolutely.”

“Good.” Lucy gave the spatula another twirl. “I’m too little to cook, but momma lets me stir.”

“Baby,” Eva struggled to keep the snarl from her voice but was sure to let the heat of it flash in her eyes, bright as high beams, which she blasted his way, “it’s sweet of you to offer, but we really can’t—”

Blue eyes launched up to her mother’s with a look that rivalled the one Eva had levelled at Marshall. “Momma, it’s my special breakfast. You said I could have whatever I wanna.”

“I—”

Lucy set her jaw, thrusting a pink bottom lip forward. Caught in a trap of her own making, Eva widened the door.

“Come!” Snagging his hand, Lucy tugged Marshall to his feet, scampering towards the back kitchen with a giggle.


Chapter Eleven

Eva found them bent over the bags he’d carted in, discussing the contents in avid fascination and setting forth a game plan. At his side, Lucy handed him the spoon so she could push up falling sleeves and wiggle giddy fingers. And though she was still thoroughly pissed, a small corner of her heart warmed at the sight. Lucy was always her brightest, most happy-go-lucky child, but this morning, at the discovery of a breakfast guest she was in her absolute glory.

While Marshall was busy giving a little lecture on the wonders of artisanal bacon, Eva moved to the stove and decided the least she could do was start cooking.

She’d only just turned on the burner when Lucy’s head snapped up with a squeal of protest.

“No, momma. I wanna do it!”

“But I can—”

“No, no momma. I wanna do it. You go.”

“But…”

Marshall rounded on her, too, arms outstretched to corral her away from the stove. “Chef says out, then out. We have this under control, don’t we, Chef?” he asked, tipping his gaze down to her daughter.

“What does ‘Chef’ mean?”

“Means you’re the kitchen boss.”

Lucy’s face lit with triumphant glory marbled with love struck fascination. “I like that.”

Good God, Eva realized. My little baby has a crush. Tossing up her hands she left them to it, but kept an ear tuned to the kitchen.

Marshall was patient with her. Letting her ask a million questions—in typical Lucy fashion, and never once rushing her along or losing his patience when she made him repeat himself. Over and over.

Perched in front of the stove, Eva watched as he taught her the science behind pancake flipping, and wondered how many times in her own childhood had she wished for a moment like this? A lazy Sunday morning spent with family, creating memories and meaningful experiences?

To have a father? Someone to make her mom smile. Someone to tuck them into bed at night, or carry around on his shoulders. Maybe then her mom wouldn’t have had to work so hard, spending most of her weekends in bed regaining her strength for the coming work-week. Or swallowing pain pills by the handful just to make it from one day to the next.

When the last pancake slid atop a golden stack, Eva stepped forward and plucked Lucy down from her stool.

“Alright, Chef, please go get your sisters. Marshall and I will finish up here and set the table.”

“Can we eat on the desk?”

“Deck, baby.”

A little nose scrunched. “That’s what I said. Desk.”

Chuckling, Eva slipped off Lucy’s very messy apron. “Yes, baby. It’s your breakfast. Sisters, please get them.”

“M’kay!” Excited feet bounded down the hall and thundered up the front stairs. Marshall cozied up next to her, an endearing smile on his face.

“What a cutie.”

When she was sure Lucy was far enough out of earshot, Eva rounded and punched him square in the chest, hard enough to make a point. “Asshole,” she snapped the word between her teeth like a dry bone. “I thought I made myself clear last night?”

“Hey.” Amused that he’d managed to ruffle her feathers, Marshall rubbed a hand over the abused area. “Call me crazy, but most women get a kick when the guy they’re dating comes around for more than sex.”

“I told you this isn’t a relationship. We’re not serious. We can’t be.”

A clatter of movement resounded overhead coupled with a tangle of voices—one of which was Hailey, clearly displeased for being awoken before she was ready. Damn it all to hell, there was no getting rid of him, not unless she wanted to face the wrath of Lucy in addition to Hurricane Hail. And she just didn’t have the strength in her for both.

“If you’re going to stay there are rules: No kissing. No touching. In fact, keep as far away from me as possible. Understood?” She shoved a finger in his smirking face, wagged it. “You’re a friend. A family friend and that’s it. If you’ve got a problem with that, then leave and leave now.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” God she was sexy when she was pissed. Scooping his hands around her waist, Marshall dragged her in despite sputtered protests, and kissed her soundly. Thoroughly. Until that rigid tension in her softened and the steam bursting from her ears mellowed to sizzle beneath her skin.

“Had to get that out of my system before we have company.” Pleased with the flush in her cheeks, even if the look in her eyes still burned hot, Marshall gave Eva’s toned and perfectly shaped bum a little pat. “Set the table. I’ll take care of the juice.”

They made short work of it. Marshall easily found his way around the kitchen easily, despite the new layout.

The place had changed from what he remembered as a boy, Marshall thought. Taking in the upgraded cabinetry and dark quartz counters. But the floors were the same, battered and weathered wood, rolling and dipping with the settling of the structure.

By the time three young bodies made it down the stairs, the patio table was set with stacked pancakes, crisp bacon, pitcher of OJ, which he’d modified to include mint and fresh raspberries and a bit of Perrier for fizz—cause what kid didn’t like fizz?

Flowers, gathered from the garden, crowned the center of the table for final flourish.

“Wow.” Lucy’s eyes popped, sliding into the seat at the head of the table—the place of honour. “It’s so pretty!”

“Who’s this?”

Marshall turned around to see a young face that was all Eva, from her dark hair to darker scrutinizing gaze. The eldest, he thought, and very unhappy to see him.

“Marshall Davies. Pleased to meet you.” He stuck out a hand. And just as Eva had the first time they’d met, she stared him down cold.

“This is Hailey and Payton,” Eva said, all nerves beneath a blinding smile.

Next to her sister, blonde hair in a bed-messed ponytail, Payton eyed him, equally suspicious but bearing none of Hailey’s animosity.

“Girls, Lucy asked Aunt Jen’s brother to join us for her special breakfast this morning. Wasn’t that nice?”

Payton nodded. Hailey’s eyes glinted for war.

“Why don’t we sit?” Eva asked, pulling out a seat to Lucy’s right.

Blocking his path, Hailey set a possessive hand on the back of the chair next to her mother. “I’m sitting here.”

“Hailey.” Eva’s voice was low but the reprimand was unmistakable. Hailey didn’t as much as flinch. Or blink. The kid would be an Ace at poker.

“No worries.” Marshall smiled but behind the gesture, his thoughts were reeling. This was more than simple territorial behaviour. This was protective and defensive, sort of like a mother wolf setting herself in the path of a rambling bear to defend her cubs.

Except Hailey was the cub.

Eva doled out pancakes and Lucy, god love her, wrestled with pouring out the juice. Leaning in to help her, Marshall did what he did best. Observed.

This wasn’t a kid who’d been abused. No, a child who’d endured violent or physical trauma at the hand of a grown-up wouldn’t have been so quick to throw herself in his way. To challenge him like that. There was more to this picture, he thought, and the jagged little nugget was something he chewed on and couldn’t quite figure out.

With the family occupied at the table, a moment too opportune to pass up, Marshall excused himself to the bathroom. As with all older homes on Haven, there was no powder room on the main level, giving him the perfect excuse to venture upstairs.

The first doors down the corridor led to the girls’ rooms. Fit for princesses, he thought with a smile, admiring the painted walls, floral bedding and glistening trinkets. Hailey’s space was appropriately straddled that line of the maturing youth exploring her evolving identity. Not everything was pristine, or new. As one of seven, Marshall new hot to spot hand-me-downs at ten paces, but the beds were neatly made and everything cared for.

That left the last room at the end of the hall. Opening the door, Marshall expected to find an equally loved and tended space, only to walk into a chaotic mess. Had he not known any better, Marshall might’ve thought he’d made a wrong turn, but there were no other bedrooms. This was Eva’s, and it was…unfinished. A naked mattress atop a box spring, the bed frame unassembled in packaging…the floor cluttered with boxes. Clothing. Books. Sundries. All packed and stacked.

What did that say about a woman who’d showed such devotion and care to her daughters, but neglected to do so for herself?

Opening drawers, he poked between layers of folded clothing, a lazily search, and found her driver’s licence beneath a novel on the nightstand. When he lifted the book, a slender gold chain slid off, sending a locket to ping off the tabletop.

Picking it up, Marshall examined the piece carefully.

Simple. Delicate. Something belonging to a child. But it looked old. And treasured. A family heirloom, perhaps? The initials A.S. and a date—03-17-85—carved elegantly in the back. The date matched Eva’s birth date on her license. But the initials intrigued him. A.S.

A for Alyssa, he wondered?

His thumb brushed over the clasp and it refused to budge. He tried again, a little more firmly, but the clasp resisted. Either it couldn’t open, or there was a trick to it. Rather than risk breaking it he abandoned his efforts, setting it down in a puddle of gold chain.

Turning his attention back to the license, he snapped a picture with his cell phone, along with the locket for good measure, and checked both images to make sure the information came through clear before firing them off in an attached email to Mouse.

Stroking a thumb across the unsmiling picture, a sliver of doubt wormed through the cracks of his conscience. An uncomfortable and unfamiliar sensation. He’d done some unscrupulous things in his day and knew no boundaries in the quest for truth and answers. But there were limits. Lines that once crossed could never be uncrossed.

Never mind that Danni was checking in almost daily, breathing fire and brimstone.

Whatever it is, whatever she’s hiding…I can help. And he couldn’t protect her if he was fumbling around in the dark.

Clinging to that poor excuse, Marshall returned her ID to the nightstand, quietly left her room and rejoined the family downstairs.

***

Marshall glared at the offensive blank wall of white that mocked him with giddy laughter.

Nothing. Not a damn thing in four head-beating-the-desk days. Late afternoon sun poured through the windows and behind him LeBron paced, nails skittering on wood in time to the pulse of the cursor.

It blinked once a second. He’d never noticed before. Then again, he’d never been struck with a case of writer’s block, either.

It was all there. Right there. The words lodge at the back of his throat like a chunk of something he couldn’t swallow. And every time he tried moving his fingers, letting them take over, the blockage erupted in projectile verbiage vomit of complete, utter bullshit.

Disgusted, Marshall sat back and closed the offending blank screen. The hell was happening to him?

It was just an article. The last he was supposed to write, finally diving into the enigma of Eva Turner. And since it was a few weeks out before the thing was due, there was plenty of time to finesse and fine tune before sending it off to Danni’s hands, so why couldn’t he write the damn thing?

Because, a voice mocked, your hearts not in it anymore, dumbass.

His eyes flashed back to the home screen where in the center, the small white square of a word document sat, bright against a wall of black, labelled Insanity.

Marshall ran his cursor over it. Hovered. Then clicked it open. There it was. His heart’s blood on the page. His fears. His secrets.

I could handle the pain. The ceaseless, gnawing hunger. But staring down into those flat, dead eyes, his blood running into the murky, rain-soaked mud—cleaved me in two.

Senseless. A waste. And my fault.

Combing through the pages, his thoughts had leapt from various points, rough and jarring as a truck tumbling over a rocky escarpment. Before he knew it, Marshall was fleshing out those gaps. Smoothing them over. Filling in the holes so that the words connected into a seamless, concise series of images.

Bringing his nightmares to life…

The pop-pop tingling chime of Skype broke his concentration long enough to realize that Danni was online and calling him. Accepting the video call, the screen shifted to reveal her serious face far too close to the web cam, and headphones shoved in her ears. Always the multi-tasker, the bouncing image told him she was on the move.

“Buddy,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Going,” Marshall sighed, reclining back in his seat. “Just working on some pages.”

“Progress. That’s what I like to hear. What’s the ETA like on getting the reluctant celebrity on-air?”

Marshall chewed the inside of his cheek. “She’s not budging.”

“Make her. Find a sore spot and press, Marshall. Hard.”

“I’m not comfortable with that, Dee.”

“Then get comfortable. Quick. This is the game. The biz. Playing underhanded is a skill you’re going to have to get real friendly with if you want to survive, make it to the top and stay there.”

“So you keep saying.” And he was starting to get really tired of having it bashed over his head like a club.

“Then get it into your thick skull so I can stop repeating my fucking self.” Her eyes dropped to the screen, the bouncing image stopped as she slunk down into the back seat of a car. The door slammed shut a moment later, entombing her in silence. “You slept with her, didn’t you?”

“Dee.”

Danni huffed out a slew of rather impressive expletives that would have made even the bawdiest trucker blush. “What is it with men getting their dicks wet on assignment?”

“It’s not like that,” Marshall snapped, temper spiking in defense. “I care about her.” And he did. A hell of a lot more than he’d realized or appreciated a moment ago.

“I don’t give a rat’s left nut. You’re there to do a job, Marsh. A job. I don’t care if the chick is the queen of blow jobs, or if she has the holy grail of vaginas, CTV wants her and we said that you could deliver.”

Marshall set his teeth, fingers tightening on the armrest of his chair. “What’s this all about, Dee? What’s going on?”

Danni sucked in a calming breath. “Gervais and Clear are up to something. I need to know we’re still on the same page.”

“We are.”

“Good. Great. Cause I need you back here for a few days.”

“Why?”

Emitting a loud groan, Danni’s hand reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I’ve pitched an idea to the producers to have you on deck for a pilot run, and I think they’re going to bite. I want you here in case they do.”

“Can’t I just leap on a conference call or something? Seems like a lot of rigmarole for a maybe.”

“No. Clear being ever present means you’re going to have to do the same or risk being outshined by mere fucking accessibility and a pair of tits. In addition to that small caveat, I’m hoping the smell of fresh competition—or blood—in the air might inspire you to close the damn deal with the photographer. What’s her deal, anyway? She cute?”

Reaching for his notebook full of their exploits, experiences and his lengthy observations, Marshall flipped through for his sketches. Finding them, he angled the page to the camera. Danni’s face whooshed forward until she was reduced to a pair of eyes and a large nose.

“Shitty haircut, but I got to respect a no-fuss gal. Not your usual brand, though.”

Lowering the sketch, Marshall stroked his thumb across the edge of the page. Smiling in memory of yesterday’s afternoon romp with Eva on his living room couch that led to him discovering she was ticklish behind the knees.

“People change.”

“No they don’t. Not at the core,” Danni countered. “How soon can you get out here? I had Paul pull some flights and there’s one leaving at five-thirty, another at—”

“Not tonight, Dee. I’ll swing out in the morning”

“Marsh.”

“Tomorrow morning,” he pressed. “I’ve got kind of a…thing.” Tonight was Haven’s bicentennial celebration that fell in tandem with the Canada Day long weekend. He’d promised Lucy a seat on his shoulders to watch the parade and not even for CTV was he going to let that kid down.

At Danni’s arched brow he sighed. “Building trust takes time and if you want me to reel her in then you’ve got to let me do what I do. If I push the wrong buttons she’ll clam up and nothing short of a nuke will get her to budge.”

Danni’s narrowed eyes reduced to fine slits. “I expect a copy of the itinerary sent to me soon as the flights are booked. And leave the mutt,” she tossed out at the sound of LeBron’s impatient whine.

“I need you here and I need you focused, not worrying about the last time you took him for a shit, or put kibble in his bowl.”

The parade had rolled through the heart of Salt Springs, the streets decked in festive regalia as the island community gathered to celebrate two hundred illustrious years.

Most of the mom and pop type shops had shut their doors early for the day, with the odd exception, of course, who wanted to take advantage of the rush of tourist and local activity.

And now the crowd converged along the stretch of the beach for the fireworks, the air thick with conversation and excitement. The cold trickle against his cheek said that Lucy’s ice cream was melting again, so he let go of Payton’s hand to swoop Lucy down off his shoulders, setting little feet to the ground.

Her hands a mess of melting chocolate also smeared around her grinning mouth.

“How’s the ice cream?”

Deeelicious!”

“I see Aunt Jen and Mrs. Davies,” he said, gesturing to where his mom always camped out, snatching up the best spot on the sand with chairs and cooler. “I hear chocolate ice creams her favourite.”

“M’kay.” Eyes bright, she gave him a sloppy chocolate kiss on the cheek that melted his heart into an equally goopy mess.

“Hailey, do you mind taking your sisters while I check on your mom?”

Arms crossed, Hailey glowered up him. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she quipped, but stuck out a hand for each of her sisters, busy with the cones he’d bought them at the shop while Eva took to high ground to set up for the show.

As the kids scampered off to join his family, Marshall rolled his shoulder; the ache from the afternoon was now a grating throb that spiked down to his fingers. Having Lucy perched up there, bouncing like a yoyo for the last two hours had been a dumb, dumb decision. But seeing her face light up, knowing that he’d been the one to make her so completely happy—what the hell was a guy supposed to do?

Gritting his teeth, Marshall cut through the tight wedge of bodies to find Eva, deep in the zone.

Positioning the Tripod, Eva peered through the lens and adjusted the frame. From this vantage, overlooking the water, the fireworks erupting in a dazzling explosion of light and colour…it would be magic, she thought. And an excellent feature for the front page of Haven’s local newsletter.

She sensed Marshall at her side and looking up Eva noted that the lines of his face were strained. Weary with stress. He hadn’t been himself all afternoon, though he’d made a valiant effort to hide it, especially in front of Lucy, who had chanted his name like a squealing fan at a ballpark when he’d arrived at the door.

And the way she’d stopped to kiss his cheek before leaving to join his parents on the beach had both stopped and touched her heart.

“Something wrong?”

His eyes snapped to her, a little startled, a little vacant—as if his thoughts had pulled him hundreds of miles away, but he recovered quickly with a smile. “Just some work stuff.”

“Like?”

Marshall lifted a shoulder in a shrug, then immediately winced from the movement, clapping a hand over the area. War wound, Eva thought, and realized what it must have cost him to carry Lucy around all afternoon.

“Here,” she said, wiggling a hand. “Sometimes I get a bit of carpal tunnel and I find this helps.” Taking the weight of his arm in her hands, she rotated the joint, massaged the muscle of his bicep and though his lips tightened, he didn’t protest or complain.

“Got a call from my editor this morning,” he said, a little grim. “Apparently I’m flying out tomorrow afternoon.” She stayed quiet at that, and his eyes searched her. Looking for…what, he couldn’t say, not when he wasn’t entirely sure himself. But for something. A hint. Anything. And found he couldn’t see beyond the mist clouding her gaze.

“We’re going to pitch a proposal to do a pilot segment with CTV. I’m up for bid as evening news anchor.”

“Sounds big.”

“It is.” So why wasn’t he excited? What did he feel like his guts were being yanked out through his navel?

“How long will you be away?”

“A couple of days. Maybe less.” God, he hoped it was less. “Do you mind keeping LeBron while I’m away?”

Finished with her ministrations, she let him go. “Sure. I guess.”

“What’s that,” he asked. Nodding down to the slender black remote in her hands.

“For the camera,” she said. “I press this to close the shutter.”

“Hm.” Reaching for her, eyes gleaming with intent, he tugged Eva behind him, gauging the angle. “So, right about here we should be in frame.”

“Should be,” she agreed. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing.” Smiling, he snagged the remote, danced around when she tried to take it back. “C’mon, Eva. Kiss me. Right here.”

“You’re acting crazy. Give it back.”

“Kiss me first.” His arm swooped around her waist, hauling her up, shoulder be damned, and she wriggled against him, laughing, as he hoped she would. A rich, wonderful, soul drugging sound he wanted to hear more of, and often.

“I’ve wanted you all day,” he whispered against her throat, scraped his teeth there. He watched as the laughter in her eyes mellowed into a low heat, her gaze dipping to his mouth, then back to his.

“Fine,” she sighed through a smile. And pressed her lips against his. A firm, easy kiss that hinted at hunger and longing and something richer. Deeper.

Marshall pressed the button.

“There,” he said, setting her back down on her feet and turning over the remote. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Eva’s teasing response was swallowed up in the first, scattered burst of light; a loud cracking explosion that shattered the moment. His smile waned and within his chest pressure built, an inflating balloon taking up too much space.

And with the pressure came pain. A wave of sick turning the world to grey.

Another bang, another burst of colour and he jolted, a man shocked with terror.

The ground tilted…or maybe it was him—a jarring slant to the right like a ship’s deck swaying in a violent storm. Leaving him unsteady and unsure. The smiling faces around him suddenly looked fierce.

And dark. And bloody. And dense. Pressing in on him from all sides.

Every hailing rain of fire over his head brought the punch of bullets to ring in his ears. Around him. All around him. Screaming. Chaos.

“There’s blood,” he mumbled, staring blankly down at his trembling hands. “So much blood.” Bent at the waist, his entire body shook and went weak as a baby. With every pop and burst and crack of bursting lights above him, he flinched and tightened. Every muscle wound so tight, so brittle, he was fragile as glass. “I can’t…I need—Jesus fucking Christ.”

Colour bled from him. The golden hue of his skin went ashen, his eyes bright with fear. Eva didn’t need to ask what was happening. She’d endured enough panic attacks to know that Marshall was thick in one. He’d have to ride it out, one breath at a time.

The fireworks. The cheering crowd. The tightly packed bodies. Sensory overload. She needed to get him out of here, and fast. Scooping a hand around his waist, she shouldered as much of his weight as she could handle.

“Come with me,” she said.

“Can’t.” He slumped against her. Knees weak and unsteady. “Crowd. Too much. Can’t.”

“Look down. At your feet, that’s it. Focus on that empty little patch of grass. Forget the crowd. Let them bleed away. Follow me. There, one step at a time. Okay, easy.”

Eva led him as quickly as she could away from the dense throng of bodies to the car. He poured inside like his bones were sticks of softened butter, eyes blank and hands shaking. A slumped, ball of panic in the passenger seat.

Dialling a quick call to Jenelle, Eva explained the situation as best she was able, and made plans for the girls to stay the night with Lottie and Harold.

“Breathe,” she reminded him, drawing in exaggerated breaths of her own in demonstration. “In through the nose, out through the mouth. Good. And keep your eyes open. Don’t slip away on me. Tell me what you’re wearing? What am I wearing?” She listened as he stuttered through the descriptions, gripping her hard enough that her own fingers were near numb by the time they reached his cabin.

When she helped ease him out of the car he was still so tense that Eva worried taking him into that tight and congested space would only exacerbate his anxiety. He needed air. Open air. And as her eyes settled on the length of dock, decided it would be the best place for him. Beyond them the distant pop of fireworks softened. He was stumbling and unsteady but otherwise didn’t fight or question her direction.

“Sit here,” she said, bringing him to the docks edge where a motorboat was tethered. Helping him off his loafers, she lowered his feet into the water and a visible shudder rolled through him.

“Put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly,” she instructed and waited for his trembling hands to comply. Sitting behind him, Eva pulled his back against her, raked her fingers through his hair so that she could knead and massage his scalp.

“There,” she said, her voice light and easy, though the heavy and irregular hammering of his heart shocking through his ribs alarmed her. “I am going to count, and I want you to breathe, pushing that hand out with your stomach as you inhale on one and exhale on four. Okay.” And she counted. Keeping her pace even and unhurried as she continued her massage.

“Eyes open,” she reminded when his clamped shut. “Nice and easy. Breathe. Deep, like that. Push all the way out through your belly, and back in. Slow. Take it slow.” And when he’d calmed enough to speak she guided him through the exercises she’d learned to employ during her own lapses of sanity.

The first year in the program had been hell on her nerves. At one point, Eva had thought the stress alone might have killed her. If not for her girls, and the guidance of Mama B—the program’s resident therapist—it very well might have.

Helping him concentrate and focus on the present moment and their surroundings by describing the coolness of water on his feet, the warmth of the summer breeze, and the weathered wood of the dock. From there she worked him over to saying the alphabet backwards. When he was calm, settled, Eva brought him inside. LeBron’s barking ceased the moment Marshall crossed the threshold.
“He’s alright,” Eva assured as he bolted towards them, tail wagging and wet tongue licking across Marshall’s hand. Steering him to the bedroom, she let LeBron take over while she hunted up a bit of whiskey, painkillers—for his shoulder—and, after rummaging in his side table, some Paxil to soothe the rest of his frayed nerves.

“Easy,” she said, holding the glass. “Two sips, don’t want to mix too much booze and meds.” She handed over a bottle of water and let him wash the pills down as she settled behind him.

Those broad, strong shoulders gave way to tremors. Aftershocks. She stroked him, rocked him. Held him fast and close until the worst bled away. Until those tremors eased, but his heart, his heart slammed against his ribs like a fist against a door.

Jolting her. Shocking her.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Jesus, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Eva shushed against his temple, pressed a kiss there. Whatever he was hiding, whatever deep, dark and terrible thing he was holding onto, it was going to kill him if he didn’t let it go.

“Talk to me. Please, just talk to me.”

“You’ll think less of me.” His hand groped for hers, squeezed. “I can’t…I can’t have you think less of me.”

“Never. Not going to happen,” she promised. Taking his hand in both of hers, she stroked the stiffness out of his fingers. Rubbed warmth into the palm.

“You told me that there were things in your past. Things too painful to speak about.” Marshall swept a hand behind his neck, dragging away his length of hair to reveal a long silver scar slicing across the back, stark against his deeply tanned skin. “This is mine. My shame.”

Eva ran a finger across the ridge. Whatever it was—whatever had caused it—the injury would have been deep. Deliberate.

“Machete,” he said, drawing his hair back into place. “From the leader before they let me go. A reminder, he’d said.” A laugh seeped out of him like air out of a punctured lung. “As if the bullet in my arm wasn’t enough.”

Because he needed to purge, Eva refrained from asking questions. What he needed most was a sounding board, an empty ear to pour all of his pain and fear and secrets into. LeBron lay stretched on the bed at his side, head propped on his thigh and Marshall lazily stroked behind his ear as he spoke.

“Eighteen months ago I was sent to Nigeria on assignment. We were already on the ground in the Borno state following the Islamist insurgency after they’d bombed a school and kidnapped hundreds of young women. We were covering the mess in Chibok long before anyone else gave a damn, and pushed onward to follow in the bloody wake of the rebel group when we were cornered outside of Chad. That’s when I’d got this,” he said, tapping his bad shoulder.

“Abubakar Sekahu was the rebel leader. He’d got a taste of worldwide infamy and wanted more. His men snatched up anyone with a press pass. Even a couple of tourists. There were fifteen of us in that camp. After the first week there was…a lot less. I thought I was going to die. I believed I was going to die.”

They’d moved from camp to camp. Starved and treated like animals. Forced to watch as his fellow captives were beheaded, one by one, their executions videotaped for the world to see.

Marshall spoke of torture and brutality. The violence of it, the wrenching misery turned her stomach, but Eva remained strong and took it all in. Every word. Every brutal, terrifying word.

“Heng was this scrawny little nobody from Cambodia. He’d latched on to my hip back in Cairo and followed me around ever since. I let him tag along because I saw something in him. Potential. A bit of myself. Fuck.” Hands to his face, Marshall pressed the heels over his eyes, blockading tears. “He was just a damn kid, Eva. Just a fucking kid who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

Eva rubbed her hands over the broad planes of his back, slow and soothing. “You can’t blame yourself.”

“I do,” he said, voice grating with hate. “I watched as they dragged him out in the mud. It was raining. I screamed for them to take me. I screamed so long and loud I couldn’t speak for almost a week after. They made me watch as they hacked at him. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a beheading, god willing you never will, but they’re messy, Eva. And slow. Six, seven, eight blows to cleave his head from his shoulders. And he felt it. God, Eva I could see that he felt it. Sekahu just laughed in my face as Heng’s blood bubbled up from the stump of his throat. Laughed. Blade still hot with Heng’s blood, he gave me my scar. And sent me on my way. I was weak, you see, and the bullet wound was badly infected. There’s no fun in killing a dying man. So they let me go. They fucking let me go.”

His words gave way to tears and Eva held him as from somewhere inside of her a song poured out, a song she hadn’t sung in many years. A soft, mournful ballad passed down from mother to daughter. And as she sang his sobbing eased.

Sighing, his muscles relaxed—probably a result of the meds, and his weight settled against her. Solid. Comforting.

“That song,” he asked, words slurred with fatigue and pills, “What was it?”

“Something I learned when I was little,” Eva answered, combing her fingers through his hair. “My grandmother was a gypsy who fell in love with a highlander. She made it all sound so terribly romantic. He died before they could marry, but she carried his child. The song is hers, and about a deep, unyielding love that meets a tragic end.”

“Beautiful,” he murmured, turning into her arms like a child seeking comfort. “Stay. Please stay.”

“Sleep,” she whispered, kissing his brow.

Eva sang while he slept, until her own voice was hoarse. And stayed with him throughout the night.


Chapter Twelve

“Hailey, hurry up. We’re going to be late.” Opening the back door, Eva booted three hyper puppies, chased by a full-sized Labrador, out into the yard. Why the hell had she agreed to watch LeBron while Marshall was out of town? As if she did have her hands full enough as is, she had to go and add an overgrown spastic ball of energy to the list?

At least the pups liked him, she thought, shutting the door. The morning walk had been…interesting, with LeBron heading the pack, both Skittles and Wiggles couldn’t get enough, leaping and bounding all over him. LeBron behaved every bit as foolishly, running around in whipping circles that forced Eva to uncouple his lead or risk a horrible case of whiplash just trying to keep up.

Short attention span aside, he really was a good dog. Highly intuitive and quick to respond when Lucy had tripped the other day, scraping her knee. What would have usually been a fit of ear-piercing shrieks and fat, rolling tears quickly melded into side-splitting giggles as he comforted her.

The act alone had been enough to make Eva overlook waking up to the slobbery, shredded mess that had once been a pair of particularly comfortable tennis sneakers. Thankfully Marshall was due back in a few days.

“Mom, I can’t find it.” Hailey bounded down the stairs, pushing dark hair behind her ears.

“What, Hail? What can’t you find?” Eva asked blowing a fringe of bangs out of her eyes. Dammit, she’d been so caught up the last little while she’d neglected to cut it off and now it tickled the back of her neck and ears. At this rate, it would be down to her shoulders before summer’s end. Every time Eva looked in the mirror, she was confronted with the ghost of Annelise, and didn’t particularly care for it.

Annelise was gone. Finished. And good riddance. She was stronger as Eva. More capable and confident. She liked Eva. There was no going back…

“My permission form. I can’t—” Words dying on her tongue, Hailey’s eye widened. “Nevermind.”

“Permission form?”

“Nothing.”

“Hail.” Draping the dogs’ leads over the newel post, Eva arched a brow. “Spill, young lady. What’s going on?”

Almost eye level with her mother, huffing a despondent breath, Hailey bounced a sneakered toe on the step. “Just some stupid form for the play. To say we’re allowed to perform. As the principle cast.”

“Hailey,” Eva’s smile spread, “are you telling me you got the lead?” Now a smile tugged at Hailey’s mouth, and a gleam reached her eyes. A gleam that was all pride and accomplishment wrapped up in childlike excitement.

“Well…yeah.”

Letting out a whoop, Eva scooped her from the stairs in a dizzying spin. And, for a second, as Hailey’s head fell back with a laugh, the two of them were transported far away, to happier times. Simpler times. Where none of the harshness of reality could touch them.

“Oh baby,” Eva snuggled in close, arms tight around her firstborn, her special little girl. “I am so proud of you. So happy for you.” Setting her down, she smoothed a hand over Hailey’s shirt, brushing away the creases. I will not cry, Eva vowed. I will not be that mom. I will not embarrass her.

“I didn’t want to say anything,” she said, fingers worrying a sleeve. “Not right away, at least. In case you said…I couldn’t.”

“Baby.” Sighing, she took Hailey’s hands, kissed them both, and squeezed. “I know it hasn’t been easy. And I know I’ve asked a lot from you, from all of you, but you most of all.”

“Mom…”

“Let me finish. I meant what I said to you all those years ago. Do you remember?”

Hailey nodded. “You said you would do anything for us. No matter what.”

“No matter what,” Eva echoed. “I told you when we got the okay and moved here that this was home. I would make this home. I’m doing that for us, Hail. It doesn’t mean we can get sloppy, or careless. It’ll never be like it was before. I’m sorry but it won’t. That’s the truth.”

Hailey’s mouth thinned. “I know.”

“Come on.” Eva rose, wiggled their joined hands. “Acting class starts in ten minutes and the leading lady is going to be late if we don’t hustle.”

Corralling Payton and Lucy, Eva blazed to the Academy of Dramatic arts with seconds to spare. Thankfully the summer camp program was held within the same building so she unloaded the girls and rushed through the main doors.

“Tell Mrs. Singh you lost your form and bring home a new one tonight,” Eva said, as Hailey scampered off.

Payton and Lucy in hand, Eva rushed to the other wing of the building. Having only missed the morning songs, she handed the girls over and, at long last, took a second to breathe. What a morning. The day had erupted in utter anarchy—as for the first time that Eva could ever recall, she’d overslept. Then between puppies and her girls, everything had been a panicked blur.

Aside from that little moment with Hailey on the steps.

What had started as an extracurricular program had somehow blossomed into a passion. Every night, Eva watched with growing admiration how devoted and dedicated Hailey became, studying her lines, pouring herself into the pages of the play, even asking Eva for advice with understanding the characters and their emotional responses.

The drama school had become more than an emotional outlet, but a bridge joining mother and daughter together again. Eva would be forever grateful.

Outside the building, as she made her way towards the parking lot, she caught sight of pale gold hair caught in the breeze, a slender frame wrapped in a light summer sweater, because the day was overcast and chilly for early July.

Claire looked up, their eyes meeting and, smiling, Eva lifted a hand. Eyes, dull as the morning clouds lowered and she walked on, without so much as second backwards glance, through the cluster of moms gossiping in the lot. That was new, not that Eva could blame her. Not after months of Eva snubbing and shrugging her off like a bad mood, where Claire had only ever tried to be kind and friendly.

You’ve been a real bitch, Eva thought. Guilt gnawing at her insides, she loped into a jog, called out her name.

Claire stopped, turned around as Eva caught her arm. “What do you want?”

Eva was about to answer when the large figure of Patricia Borden wrapped in tailored pastels intersected her path.

“Eva.” Patricia’s eyes beamed large a little too bright for eight in the morning. “Ladies,” she swung out a hand and a flock of them clustered around her like hens to feed, forcing Claire to the periphery. “We were just talking about you, weren’t we ladies?” Collective murmurs of agreement echoed around her like noise pinging off stone walls.

“We’d like to ask you to join us this evening, Stacey’s having a little gathering for the moms at her place this evening, aren’t you Stacey?”

A plain-faced brunette wearing far too much makeup to compensate nodded vigorously.

“It’s a thing we do every week, taking turns to host and we discuss important matters about the community and—”

“That’s nice.” Eva forced a smile. “But I was actually about to talk to Claire. We have plans this afternoon, don’t we? With the kids?” Her eyes found Claire’s, willed her to follow along. “I just wanted to confirm, was it your place again? Or mine this time?”

“Oh…” Blinking through her stunned disbelief, Claire managed to regain composure enough to pick up Eva’s unexpected left curve. “Mine, I think. I took out some chicken last night for the barbeque…”

“Great. I can swing over to the market to grab us some wine. Let me know what else you’d like me to bring.” While Claire blinked like a stunned owl, albeit a happy one, Patricia settled in closer, as did the rest of them, converging on her with a grave expression echoing among them.

“Eva, I understand you’re…new to our community, and therefore it’s understandable if you’re not fully appraised of certain…details. Now, don’t get me wrong, Ms. Willows is lovely, truly,” Patricia laid a hand, every finger bejewelled, over her puffed chest, “but you don’t want to get mixed up with the likes of her. Trust me.”

No one seemed to give a damn that Claire was still within earshot, though too timid to speak up and defend herself. Slinking away, her expression, though it said she wasn’t surprised, still held enough pain to break Eva’s heart. Running a tongue along the edge of her teeth, she slid her gaze to the surrounding faces and sliced back to Patricia.

“That so?”

“Oh, yes.” Patricia nodded gravely. “I’m not one to gossip, but that one’s mired in trouble. From a tree of bad apples, if you catch my drift. Oh, she’s lovely, I know. Takes after her mother, a beauty she was, too, for a half-breed. What she ever saw in the likes of that drunk, George Fitzgerald, I’ll never know. No good ever came from mixing, so I say. Oil and water can only blend for so long before they invariably part ways.”

“Mrs. Borden.” Disgusted, Eva couldn’t stomach hearing another word. “I really must—”

“Oh, please call me Patricia—or Trish, all my friends call me Trish, don’t they, ladies?” Another collection of voices rose in agreement from the mindless drones. “We are friends, aren’t we Eva? I know we haven’t had much opportunity to speak on occasions, but that can change, can’t it? After all, you’re Haven’s hot commodity these days, with Marshall Davies drawing so much light on our illustrious little community. Putting us all on the map, as it were,” she said, proudly tossing back her shoulders.

“And as the most affluent members of Haven’s society, it is our imperative duty to come together and ensure the best possible foot is presented. There’s so much we can do for each other.”

In the back of Eva’s mind, a memory echoed of a campaign poster pitched across residential lawns: Tyler Matthew Borden running for Mayor. Vote Borden to be the face and heart of Haven. And there, she realized, was the heart of Patricia Borden, laid bare. A grasping, scheming, conniving opportunist who only wanted to sink her claws into Eva’s coattails and tag along for the ride.

Though the idea of punching the pompous woman in the nose itched in her fingers, tossing up her chin, Eva decided with a woman like this, words would draw a lot more blood.

“I’d rather chew on glass than sit around and spend another minute with the likes of you,” she said. From her periphery, she saw Claire’s slender frame pop straight and whip around. “That woman,” Eva pointed at Claire, “is the kindest, most gentle soul and has more integrity in her little finger then the whole of you lot combined.”

“Eva,” Patricia’s voice strained, “I think you’ve mistaken me entirely.”

“No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve shown yourself for the bigoted coward you truly are and I have no interest of desire to waste another second of my time in your company.” Side-stepping the stunned throng, Eva looped an arm around Claire’s shoulder and smiled brightly in the face of Patricia’s shock, her nostril’s flaring like a donkey with a tugged tail.

“You’re…you’re making a huge mistake.”

“Fuck off, Trish. And if I hear either you or your lackeys speaking badly about Claire again, it won’t be my words flying your way, if you catch my drift.”

As the flock of women folded around Patricia, clucking and muttering, Claire looked up at Eva, eyes soft as her smile.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes,” Eva leaned into her with a hug, “I did.”

“Are you really going to come over…with the kids?” In truth, there were a million things that Eva had planned to get done, things that had required attention, but something in the way Claire asked made Eva think of a kid afraid to hear that Santa Claus wasn’t real. And Eva didn’t have the heart to break hers.

“If you’ll have us.” Tears glistened in Claire’s eyes. And as easy as that, Eva knew that she’d been forgiven.

“I’d like that.”

It felt good. It felt right. And until this moment, Eva had forgotten the simple beauty to be found in a newly cemented friendship.

A couple of days blew into the better part of a week and a half. If LeBron’s angst filled pacing was any indication to go by, this was the longest owner and dog had ever been separated.

“He’ll be home soon,” Eva assured. Stretched across her barely made bed, LeBron yawned, set his head on her belly and rolled miserable dark eyes to her. Poor guy misses him, she mused. And if she were honest LeBron wasn’t alone in his misery.

Eva looked over to the fresh white petals of a dozen roses, at the center of which a bright red one was crowned. She’d woken earlier that morning to find a large white box wrapped in fine gilded ribbon on her doorstep.

A search for a card came up dry but Eva was sure she had a good idea who’d sent them. Expensive packaging and expensive blooms, not what she would have expected from Marshall. Oddly touched by the romantic gesture, she brought them inside, cleaned up the stems and set them in a vase on her bedside table.

Sitting up, Eva sighed and looked around her at the cramped mess of her room. Seeing it in this state had never been much of a bother before, but it grated her nerves, now. All these stacked, battered boxes, weathering move after move as they’d bounced from location to location in those early days.

Jerry had kept them hopping, literally, for the better part of two years. A couple weeks here, a month there, but never for much longer than that. Unpacking had not only seemed pointless, but a huge waste of time. Why settle, why get emotionally attached when they’d only be ripped up and rerouted elsewhere before the dust had a chance to settle?

Jerry never explained why the constant need for shifting and bouncing. Only that a new spot had been secured, and off they went.

Eva recalled the day she’d received word from Jerry that this was it. The final stop. That same weekend she’d taken the girls out shopping for paint and furniture and decor—transforming their rooms had been a fun little family project that had resulted in red-faced giggles and wearing about almost as much paint as had wound up on the walls.

Then the time had come for her room and Eva froze. Later, she’d told herself. I’ll get to it next weekend. Next month. And here she was—two years later. The cans of paint, new bedding and other supplies were still stacked in the far corner, draped beneath a painter’s sheet. Forgotten. Ignored.

The puppies scampered in, nosing open her door, Skittles, as always, terrorizing her siblings. Where they’d once been all paws and wild energy, they’d sprouted—with longer legs and more pointed snouts, shedding the soft layers of baby-fat for more lean muscle. She watched, smiling, as LeBron’s entire mood transformed in their company, joining in their rambunctious play with a couple of soft, woofing barks.

Chin propped on her knees, Eva enjoying their interplay. Not too long ago she’d sworn never to do this: pets meant permanence, in her mind. More so than any man. Now she had three of them.

And a lover…

So what was stopping her from taking back the rest of her life?

As the tangle of puppies and LeBron scampered down the hall, the sounds of their playful tussling echoing down the corridor, Eva rose, deciding now was the time.

And set to work.  

           

            Sliding back into the driving seat of the borrowed sedan, he shut the door and made a note in the ledger left open on the seat at his side.

            Subject A woke at 8:15 (roughly) AM. Subjects B, C and D woken precisely fifteen minutes later.

            Subject A took subjects B, C and D to their usual morning programs. And he went on to list them accordingly by name, class or program instructor and room location, along with everything else he’d observed for the last two hours. Right up to, as viewed with a set of military grade binoculars, Subject A rolling out a paint sheet in the master bedroom.

Details were key, essential, in his line of work. Details meant the difference between properly executed and just plain sloppy. Details, if overlooked, could get him caught or killed.

And that would just be bad business.

Shifting to his left, he pulled the borrowed wallet out of the back pocket of his pressed jeans and thumbed through the contents. Vaishali Patel’s round, bulbous face smiled up at him from a Washington drivers licence. As Subject A had retrieved the flowers this morning, he would have to secure not only a new vehicle, but a new wallet, as well.

With the island thick with tourists, managing the latter wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. As for the vehicle, though it belonged to someone else, all together, he didn’t believe in holding on to a set of wheels for more than a few days at a time.

Turning a wrist—the ache telling him he was due for arthritis meds—he gauged at least twenty minutes before the ferry rolled in. He’d need at least half that if he was going to make it there without speeding.

A quick trip to the mainland to discard the vehicle—casting the wallet overboard on the ride over, budgeting at least an hour to locate and hotwire a new one…he could be back on island by early evening. Plenty of time to continue his preliminary observations before rolling out to Stage Two of proceedings, scheduled to commence in twenty-seven hours and forty-three minutes.  

Pleased with a successful start to the week, he turned on the ignition and steered the car into a leisurely drive. 


Chapter Thirteen

Four walls done—double coated, a bed assembled and made, exactly twelve boxes unpacked, and Eva was finally finished her master bedroom. Rushing to pick up the girls from their programs, too exhausted to even contemplate dinner, she decided tonight was a night to order in.

And to the ecstatic cheers of the girls, she’d settled on Hawaiian Pizza with a cheesy stuffed crust, a couple of garden salads, because Eva was a firm believer that dinner should always be accompanied by some form of vegetable, and a large bottle of ginger ale.

Scarfing down her second slice, the girls seated around the table, Eva answered the door to find Jenelle on her porch holding a bag, coat pulled overhead as rain swept through the evening sky.

“Hey,” she beamed. “Don’t you ever answer your phone? I’ve been calling like crazy.”

Eva wiggled her half finished crust. “Been busy all afternoon and only now just eating dinner. What’s up?” Holding the door open, Jenelle shrugged off her wet coat before skipping over to the table to give each of the girls a lip-smacking hug and kiss that left the three of them in giggles.

“Let’s take this upstairs.” Jenelle suggested, taking hold of the bag she’d discarded by the front door.

“Finish your dinner, girls. When you’re done feed the pups, let them outside and you can have an hour of TV before bedtime,” Eva said, following her up the stairs.

By the time she had reached the landing, Jenelle was already down the hall and opening Eva’s bedroom door. Whistling long and low, she spun, admiring the newly put together space. “Wow, no kidding you’ve been busy.” Flopping back on the bed, she laid there, wine cradled at her side like a baby.

“Jeez-Louise woman, you should come redo my room, while you’re at it. It’s gorgeous.”

“Not even if you paid me.” Stretching screaming back muscles, Eva flipped a suggestive finger. At the sound of Jenelle’s snickering, she couldn’t help but smile. “You’re awfully chipper.”

“I am.” Shooting up to her knees, she flung her arms wide. “Because as of today we are trending on Twitter. Twitter, Eva! The whole world is talking about us.” As Eva shut the bedroom door, Jenelle pulling out her phone and combed through tweets.

“Faces of Haven is changing the social media landscape. Uniting people across the globe in various pursuits of life, love and overall well-being.” The article went on to highlight a photo Eva had captured of a young boy, not much younger than Hailey, sitting on a park bench, out with his older cousin. She’d kept his face out of the frame, and focused on the tightly clenched fingers wrapped around his knees.

He was crying. Worried about how to tell his parents that he believed, with all his young heart, that he was meant to be a she.

I’m terrified they’ll hate me. My dad wants us to bond over boxing and girls and I don’t know how to tell him. He’s so happy to have a son. I don’t know if he’s ready or wants to have a daughter…

Recognizing the youth as Jamal Ahmad, the boy’s father stepped forward,” Jenelle continued to read, “and made a statement about his love for his son, about his acceptance of the boy’s thoughts, fears and feelings. I loved my boy from the moment I held him in my arms. And I’ll love him always, dress and all. His parents are now taking him to speak with a gender transition counsellor to begin discussions about understanding transgendered youth and entering into the next steps for young Jamal’s life.”

She gave Eva a giddy shove. “The kid is scheduled to appear on Ellen next week, Eva. As in Ellen DeGeneres.” 

And it went on, as Eva listened, thoughts in a dizzy, from a homeless man she’d shot on the mainland; the image in bold, harsh colour of a faceless corporate type, glued to his phone and stepping over the guy like he was a crack in the pavement.

Moved by the depiction and the man’s compelling story, a college guy started a donation page to help earn enough to get him off the street. Donations quickly poured in from as far as Beijing, earning a staggering seventy thousand in only three days.

CTV did a teary interview where he vowed to only use what he needed and give the rest to the local shelter that provides clean beds and warm showers to the struggling homeless population.

Another woman who lost both kids in a horrible accident was creating a documentary on her laptop about the disease that killed them only to have her laptop and hard drive stolen from her car. Losing everything. Every photo and video. Every treasured moment. Gone. Fans of FOH banded together and spread the word. Thief’s girlfriend, realizing her boyfriend was the culprit, and turned him in and returned the belongings to the grateful mother.

“Despite occasional ‘trolls’, the Faces are taking over the web, spreading messages of hope and inspiration, sharing their own stories and struggles, shattering barriers and shedding light on some of society’s darkest secrets. Making this world a better place…a bright place…for everyone.”

Sighing, Jenelle put down her phone, eyes shining with tears. “This is more than just art, Eva. With Marshall’s help…you’re changing lives. You’re like…Batman and Robin.”

“I think you’re embellishing a smidge.”

“And you can’t imagine what this is doing to our sales! People are fighting—fighting—to snatch up every last piece. I even have bids on sold items in case the purchaser backs out. Can you imagine what would happen if you opened the next lot for bidding?”

“No. No, I priced the art for a reason.” Why should some douche with access to daddy’s trust fund be able to outbid the middleclass plumber who actually connected with the piece? “We’re only auctioning the limited editions.”

“I swear, when Marshall gets home, I’m going to kiss the bastard for making us look so good. When is he coming home?”

“Day after tomorrow,” Eva said, and hated that she sounded like a woman who’d been silently counting down the hours. Because dammit she had.

Eva had all but leapt on the opportunity to be the one to pick him up from the ferry. A favour to his mom. Or so she’d told everyone. Truth was she couldn’t wait to see him, and that scared her. He’d only just entered her life and within a few short weeks made such an impact that his sudden absence had been so deeply felt.

Every night, when the girls were tucked into bed, she’d replay the taped segments on her PVR and watch him sitting up at the news desk of CTV with the evening anchors, alongside Catherine Clear, who was obviously jockeying for the position as well.

They’d cleaned him up in crisp suits, the most favourite of which for Eva was of deepest blue, forgoing ties, instead leaving the top buttons of a white shirt undone showcasing a strong, tanned throat and maintaining the barest hint of scruff that was so classically him.

When he spoke it wasn’t with the stilted, robotic tones of a reporter, unlike Ms. Clear—so polished and professional and culturally British—he had a relaxed and natural cadence of a born storyteller.

Drawing you in with allure and mystery.

Marshall was born to be in front of a camera. The lens loved him. And if the recent polls on CTV’s website were any indication, so did the audience.

“I spoke to him the other day. He didn’t sound like himself. Distracted. Tense. I don’t know, Eva. I want to be happy for him, but it’s hard to be excited over a job that sounds like it’s bleeding the joy out of his soul.”

“He’s a big boy and knows what he’s doing.”

A look in Jenelle’s eye that said she heartily disagreed, but she held back the remark, assessing Eva instead.

“What? Do I have paint on my face?”

“No. I mean, yes you do—but it’s not that. It’s just…” Those silver eyes narrowed. “You look different. Really different. I like this new you.”

“I haven’t changed, Jen. I’m the same person I always was.”

“No. No you’re not.” Smiling, Jenelle lifted the bottle, gave it a wiggle. “Enough chit-chat. Let’s pop this baby and celebrate.”

Marshall’s mouth hung open with a face-splitting yawn. It was only the back-end of eleven at night, but Jesus after a gruelling ten days spent in Toronto, Marshall was sure he could sleep for a month and still wake exhausted.

Bone weary from the rush of an insane schedule, he hadn’t had a decent nights rest the entire time he was gone.

In the face of LaFlamme’s worsening prognosis, Catherine and Gervais had hoped to slip in ahead of him. But Danni had survived this long in the game because she was sharp, canny and could smell subterfuge a mile away. CTV decided to roll with the pilot pitch testing the waters, and viewer response, to their top replacement contenders.

Blowing what was supposed to have been only three days into a whirlwind media blitz of photo shoots and interviews and co-anchoring. His face blown up on billboards and slapped in Dundas Square! The hot lights. The makeup. The producers and directors barking in his ear. The pressures of live on-air demand.

All of it, such a far cry from anything that was known or familiar.

Where Danni thrived in the high-energy pulse, he’d felt sucked dry to his very marrow.

And she hadn’t been happy when, as the pilot stretch came to a close, Marshall announced that he was flying back to Haven. She’d tried to talk him out it, convinced the Execs were teetering and sure to make their move, any day now.

But he didn’t give a damn.

Eva was a need that had sunk beneath the skin and lingered, a constant current of electricity, driving him almost insane with missing her voice and touch. They’d spoken while he was gone, a couple phone calls and one very interesting Skype session, but his schedule hadn’t allowed for much. And now he couldn’t wait any longer. He wanted to see her. Hold her, even if only for a moment. 

And LeBron. He’d missed the crazed goofball, too. Danni had been right, though. The hectic days would have made it impossible to care for him. Not much room for a dog on a news set. In fact, if he took the job, odds were he wouldn’t have much room for a dog—period. A grim thought that pestered him during the return flight.

Riding in the back of the cab, he was pleased to see that Eva’s lights were on, as he’d hoped they’d be. Always working, he thought with a smile, doling out a twenty for the fare.

Hauling out his bags from the back, he climbed the steps and knocked—because ringing the bell would likely wake the kids. He heard the excited yip of dogs followed by Eva’s hushed voice wrangling them away so she could open the door. Light poured out, haloing her. A vision in worn jeans and weather t-shirt, she was the sexiest, most beautiful woman he’d ever clapped eyes on.

“Hey,” she smiled, the single word a little breathless. It was as far as she got before Marshall dropped his bags and took hold of her—lips and body—in one, fell swoop. She tasted warm and lush and real, with hints of something sweet around the edges.

“That’s a hell of a greeting,” she said, smiling against him before drawing back. And for the second time, he took a good, thorough look, soaking up her face.

“What’s this?” He stroked a finger around the curve of her ear. Her hair had been cut, and recently, but this wasn’t her usual hack and slash job. This was polished, professional and, dare he say, flattering.

“What? I prefer it short,” she said, swiping a hand over her hair. Everything from her tone to her stance said I-don’t-give-a rat’s-ass-what-you-think, but it was the subtle colour rushing into her cheeks that gave her away. And it pleased him to think that on some level his opinion mattered.

Hauling her off her feet, wrapping those glorious legs around him, Marshall smiled into another kiss.

“As it happens, so do I.” I missed you, the words sat at the back of his throat, filling him with surprise at how intensely true they rang. She’d been a constant presence in his thoughts, a lingering warmth under his skin. The taste of her, the smell, the supple softness of her firm, agile body. He woke in the mornings thinking of her; fell into an exhausted heap at night wishing she was near.

And now that he held her in his arms, Marshall doubted he had the strength to let her go. “Missed you. So much.”

Her arms and legs tightened around him. A silent affirmation, or so he hoped, that she’d missed him just as much.

“Want to come upstairs?” Her lips slid across the skin of his neck and, jet-lagged or not, he was hard in a flash.

“Jesus, woman, like you need to ask.”

Laughing, she pressed her mouth against his. Her hands raced over his shoulders, fingers diving into his hair. And when she moved to slither down, his grip locked around her, holding her in place.

“No. Let me. I just want you in my arms a little longer.” And he adjusted his hold so that she was cradled against him like something treasured and precious.

From the flutter of her lashes and the utterly abashed sort of way she looked at him made Marshall wonder if she’d ever been carried like this before? With this sort of care or sweeping romance? His gut said no, and his heart said he’d have to make a point of doing it more often. At the top of the stairs, his lips found hers again for a slow, searing kiss that was all passion and patience and need, breaking only long enough to open the bedroom door.

Inside he’d been prepared to skirt around the stacks of boxes scattered about like an obstacle course, only to find the room immaculate and not at all like he remembered.

“You’ve been busy in here,” he commented, booting the door shut.

“Yes, I—” Eva frowned, “Wait. How would you know?”

Busted. Caught with his hand in the jar, Marshall looked down at her with a sheepish grin. “If I confess that using the bathroom was cover for snooping, would you be mad?”

“Why am I not surprised?” Sighing, Eva rolled her eyes, but to his immense relief, she smiled. Then a devious little gleam lit her eyes. “Put me down,” she commanded with a wiggle. “I need a minute. Just…one. Promise. It’ll be worth it.”

“One,” Marshall agreed. “Can’t say I’ll be able hold out for two.” Setting her down on her feet, she scampered off to the en-suite. While Eva did—whatever she was doing—hands tucked in his pockets, Marshall took a slow spin of the room.

Gone was the boring and beige in favour of rich, deep navy walls accented with bright pops of silver and cream. The bed elegantly dressed in softest grey, crisp white sheets and pillows. The sort that made a body want to dive in and sink into blissful dreams.

“So what made you decide to do the overhaul?” he asked, impressed by what she’d accomplished.

“Needed a change, I guess,” she answered. “And, well, I had…the time.”

Marshall decided to interpret that as further proof that his absence had gone deeply felt.

Next to the bed was a blue vase holding a heavy bouquet of long-stem roses. All white save for one, a bold, rich red. Marshall stroked a finger across the blooms. Expensive, he thought, and not the sort of choice he would have expected from Eva.

And said as much, loud enough for her to hear through the door while bearing in mind that the girls slept down the hall.

“Well, I wasn’t going to throw them away,” she answered. “Flowers like that probably cost you a fortune.”

Me? “Like to take the credit, but I didn’t send them.” Though he’d toyed with the idea and, through a process of over-thinking, decided she’d likely find the gesture foolish.

“That’s…bizarre. They didn’t come with a card so I’d assumed they were from you.”

“Looks like you’ve got a not-so-secret admirer.” Neighbourly Kevin wasn’t going down without a fight, Marshall mused. Poor guy. Someone had to put him out of his misery.

“I guess if you didn’t buy me flowers, than I don’t need to go through the effort of thanking you, do I?”

Hearing Eva’s soft footfalls exiting the bathroom, Marshall turned—inhaled air like a man about to take his last breath.

Brown eyes molten and fused to his, she wore something delicate and black and lacy, designed to kill in a thousand wonderful, wicked ways. His gaze slid over semi-sheer wisps fabric, strategically placed, leaving everything and nothing to the imagination. Her legs encased in stockings that met sexy red heels.

All provocation, invitation and damnation.

Marshall’s brain screamed to a sizzling halt sending sparks shooting out of his ears. A second longer and he was liable to humiliate himself and drool.

“I…thought—well?” In the stretching silence, she bounced an uncertain fist against her thigh. That hint of colour he’d seen in her cheeks downstairs deepened to a full blush, suffusing her skin with a nervous glow that was oddly sexy in contrast to the bold ensemble.

“God, you’re beautiful.” And watched as the blush deepened further still. Though the animal in him leapt and prowled, eager to shred lace so he could taste woman and skin, Marshall reigned in every drop of control he had left, somehow managing to tap into reserves he didn’t even know existed, and reached for her. Carefully, Slowly.

Lifting her hands, he kissed the delicate skin of her palm, her wrist, all while his eyes stayed pinned to hers, watching every flicker and flash.

“I’ve never seduced a man,” she confessed, sliding a hand up from his waist.

“Yes you have. Every time you look at me, Eva. Every single time.”

Until this moment, Eva hadn’t realized, or appreciated how profoundly deep such a simple declaration could be. No one had ever said such things to her before now. To Nate she’d only been a weight around his neck, a burden to be dragged around for acting on the rush of teenage hormones and baser needs.

And for Randy, well…arguably the man was obsessed with her—but when entering the program she’d learned that she was one of many, showing a clear pattern of escalating behaviour. She was a representation of an ideal he’d wanted. A cardboard cut-out to slot into his perverse little picture.

“Hey,” Marshall stroked a finger between her eyes were a furrowed had formed. “None of that.”

“Sorry,” Eva murmured, eyes crossing as his hands skimmed across her body, cupping and molding. His mouth dipped to savour that point between shoulder and throat. Melting into his arms, he stretched her out on the bed, his body sliding over hers, a whisper that made her want—need—crave more.

More friction. More heat. Just more of him. And now.

When her hands raced to find him, to touch him, he gathered them over her head with one of his, and destroyed her with slow sips and slower caresses. Eva burned under his touch, under the maddeningly precise ministrations of hands, body and mouth. From shoulder to breast. From breast to belly.

Lower.

Lower…

“I’ve always been in such a rush with you,” he whispered against the skin of her thigh, breath hot and thrilling. “Such a shame. Not this time.”

A whispered stroke of his tongue over the heart of her. Eva quivered.

“This time I’m going to watch you, Eva. Discover you. Until I know every sigh and sound you make.” His fingers peeled away that wispy barrier between them, leaving her more intimately exposed than she’d ever been in her life. “No secrets. Not here. Not with me. Not tonight.”

He found her with his mouth—endless and devastating in its ruthless, commanding onslaught. Moaning, Eva arched into him. Blind. Lost. His arm banded across her belly, anchoring her where he needed her.

Tonight she’d thought to seduce him, but it was he who was seducing her. Claiming her with endless patience. This iron control—a thorough intensity that was likely to kill her. And soon there was only the need, the desperate, wild need for breathless release. Dragging a pillow across her face, she sobbed his name, coming apart in a hot, violent wave that stripped her bare.

And birthed a whole new need inside of her. A need for him. Dragging his mouth up to hers, Eva plundered. Her lithe little body found leverage and used it to reverse their positions so he was now the one pinned.

He was still mostly dressed so in frustration she ripped and tore, finding any bit of exposed flesh and skin with her mouth, biting until she heard his panting hiss, his muttered oaths. Mouths fused, the taste of her passion on his tongue was intoxicating. Thrilling.

Their hands clashed and warred between them, struggling and fighting to dispense with the rest. She cupped the hard length of him, driven by a fierce, ravenous impulse, all greed and impatience.

Now, her body screamed. And Eva sank over him. A savage moan tore from Marshall’s throat. Rearing up, he clutched at her hips, and panted her name. Pushing him flat, hands on his chest, their eyes locked—held as she rose over him. And fell, again and again.

This was perfection. This man, this body, this connection, all of it hers, and Eva celebrated that triumph. That wonder. And worked that gorgeous part of him inside her.

Growling his pleasure, Marshall’s hips thrust to match her pace—fast and reckless and deep. A battle of wills, of give and take. A wild, breakneck pace that pushed them to the boundary of breathless ecstasy.

Folding over him, she found his mouth and poured her cries into him, drank in his own, the two of them reaching that pinnacle together.

As one.

Afterwards, Eva lay there, her heart beating fast and unsteady.

“That was a hell of a homecoming,” he whispered, lips nuzzling the side of her face, and his arms—so strong, so patience, held her close. Eva sighed into a stretch, turning into him so she could see his face. So close, together like this, she could see the flecks of grey and silver in the deep, crisp blue, ringed in charcoal.

Intense. Captivating. She could look into them every day for the rest of her life.

Her heart kicked at the thought.

“I really do like the hair,” he said, rubbing the short strands between his fingertips.

“Claire cut it,” Eva said. “Claire Willows.” And at his inquiring, searching expression, realized he didn’t have a clue whom that was. So she told him about the shy, little widow who’d tried valiantly to break through Eva’s barriers, and the events that precipitated their newly formed friendship.

“Look at you, playing nice and making friends,” he teased when she was done, his smile had grown full and bright. “I’m so proud.”

“Shut up.” Balling a fist, Eva playfully punched his belly. And as her gaze shifted over his shoulder to her alarm clock, she gawked at the blinking numbers. Time had crawled when he had been gone, and now it was racing towards midnight.

It was getting late. Soon he’d have to leave.

Sensing her thoughts, Marshall stroked a finger down her nose, capturing her attention. “Ask me to stay.”

She wanted him to. Today. Tomorrow. Always. A gamble, a risk, but god she was tired of caring. Of being so careful all the damn time. She’d just made love to a man…a man she cared a great deal about, a man she’d come to want and need and cherish. A man who, for the first time, Eva believed she could grow to love. To trust.

So why couldn’t she have him for one night?

“Okay. But you’ll have to be gone before the girls wake up.”

“I can do that.”

“It’s Payton’s special breakfast in the morning.” Sitting up, Eva pressed her lips to his, smiled. “How do you feel about omelettes?”

“Love ‘em,” he said, nibbling around her mouth.

“And fresh berries with yogurt?”

“Great.” Tugging her down, Marshall rolled her beneath him, the rest of his body awakening with renewed appetite.

“I could use a shower,” Eva said, looping her arms around his neck, “And I happen to know mine’s big enough for two.”

Always a light sleeper, Marshall woke to the yawning creak of a door, and at his side, Eva jerked up as the bedroom lights clicked on.

Mooooomma,” Lucy’s sleepy little voice mewled. “I’m scared. There’s monsters in my room again.”

“Baby,” Eva rushed from the bed and gathered her daughter into her arms, trying to steer her around but it was too late. Blue eyes lifted from her mother and fell on him. Wide and full of tears.

“Marshall?” she sniffled.

Shit. Eva’s eyes shot to him, full of guilt and worry and self-blame. Thankfully they’d had the presence of mind to slip into clothes before passing out somewhere in the neighbourhood of two AM.

“Hey, Gummy Bear.” Joining Eva, he lowered to his haunches, swept a finger over the curve of a pudgy cheek, clearing the path of tears. “What’s the problem? Monsters, you say?”

Lucy nodded, dark hair flapping around her face. “Uh-huh. Payton heard ‘em, too. She’s in the hall.” Sure enough, Marshall saw the shifting of a shadow and a hint of toes visible from the gap of the partially open door.

“Come, baby. I’ll get you back into bed.” As Eva rose, holding her hand, Lucy dug in her feet, eyes fixed to him.

“No, Momma. I want Marshall to do it.”

Speechless, Eva looked from Lucy to him and back again. “I—baby, I don’t think…”

“Marshall’s bigger.” Lucy set her lip then looked to him, intent. “Will you come?”

“Only if Payton doesn’t mind,” he said. A few seconds later, a little blonde head peeked in, eyes flitting to his face, and nodded.

At a loss, Eva set her hands on her hips. “Okay. I’m here if you need me.”

Plucking Lucy into his arms Marshall held out a hand for Payton and led them down the hall to their bedroom. As they approached he heard the clattering rattle of an old house and older plumbing.

He knew how scary those sounds could be, the yawning and groaning of wood, the rattle of pipes behind walls combined with the boundless imagination of youth was perfect breeding ground for conjuring all sort of bump in the night critters.

As the girls sat down on the edges of their twin beds, Marshall made a show of poking around in their closets, rooting around under their beds, showing them there was nothing to be afraid of but dust bunnies and stray clothing.

“Nope. Just as I thought, no monsters here.”

Lucy sat upright in bed, dark brows flat over blue eyes. “That’s cause they’re smart monsters. They’ll come back soon as you’re gone.”

Not as smart as you, he thought, unable to contain his smile, or admiration. “Then there’s only one solution,” he said. “I’ll stay here. Right here. And make sure they stay away for good.”

Lucy and Payton exchanged uncertain glances.

All night?”

Marshall set a hand over his heart. “All night,” he vowed. “And should they dare return, I shall vanquish the beasties back to the shadows from whence they came,” he said, flourishing a pink princess wand from a bin of toys. “Using this magic sceptre.”

Enjoying the game, Lucy leapt out of bed. “You’ll need this special cloak, too.” And wrapped a gilded bit of cloth around his shoulders. “To keep you safe.”

“Why thank you, princess.” On bended knee, he bowed his head. At a tap on his shoulders, he looked around to find Payton staring at him intently. Brown eyes focused. Searching. Then she pressed a kiss to his cheek.

“I like you,” she whispered. Flushed. Then scrambled back into bed, pulling covers over her shoulders.

I’ll be damned, he thought. And grinning like a fool, Marshall plopped down on the floor, stretched out, and crossed his hands behind his head.

True to his word, he stayed put—ignoring any ache, crimp or pain in his back. Long after he heard dreamy snorts and sighs, the door whispered open and Eva stood over him, a questioning tilt of her head.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m protecting the princesses from monsters.”

Eva left with a giggle. Five minutes later, she returned with blankets and pillows. Nudging him aside, she tucked one under his head, a smaller one under his right shoulder, and then snuggled in next to him.

“We’ll protect the princesses together,” she said, kissing his cheek.

As they drifted off to sleep, surrounded in shadows and the sounds of sleepy snores, Marshall thought he liked the sound of that.


Chapter Fourteen

Marshall woke to the bright streak of sun, oddly refreshed despite the aches and groans of a body acquired after a handful of hours on the floor. Blankets tucked around him, Eva nowhere in sight, while the girls still slept, Marshall tiptoed out of the room.

The door to Eva’s en-suite was ajar, the shower running as she sang along to the music streaming from her alarm radio. The sound made him smile.

Quietly, he picked through the clothes in his bags, dressed in jeans and sleeveless shirt before heading downstairs to start breakfast. As he reached the bottom, he was greeted with the desperate scrabbling of paws on wood of three very excited pups and one spastic LeBron who leapt and bounded and demanded first dibs of his attention.

“Hey, boy,” Marshall roped LeBron to his back and scratched a wiggling, panting belly. “You been minding the place for me?”

LeBron whined and yipped, licking and biting at his hands and face. Pushing the mass of fur aside with a laugh, he loped across the room in a jog, dogs bounding after him out into the backyard. He set them loose to play and take care of early morning needs.

Stomach growling, Marshall rubbed a hand across his belly. Omelets and yogurt and berries, Eva had said. Payton’s request for her special breakfast. Peeking in the fridge, he found the ingredients and set them on the counter, deciding that he could make that fizzy OJ the kids had raved about, and this time toss in some mulled berries for colour and fun.

Phone chirping in his back pocket, Marshall pulled it out and—seeing a series of messages from Danni, opened the most recent.

Don’t appreciate radio silence, M. CTV decision imminent. Gervais and Clear already onsite. Where are you?

Frowning at the screen, Marshall wasn’t surprised when another of Danni’s rapid-fire messages came through seconds later.

Move it, or lose it, buddy. Remember what’s on the line.

Setting the phone aside, he went about his prep, chopping up a medley of peppers, shredding cheese and slicing mushrooms so they were wafer thin. All the while puzzling the matter. So the top heads had made a decision, why wasn’t he excited about it? Why wasn’t his heart racing with the same sort of anticipation it had last night at seeing Eva in that scandalous bit of black lace?

Why was the thought of leaping back on a plane and flying out to Toronto making his belly knot and tangle with all the wrong sort of feelings? Because his heart wasn’t in it anymore. If he was honest, it hadn’t been since the day Heng’s blood had stained the rebel camps mud. And the brief taste of the televised news world couldn’t hold a candle to this—waking up next to the woman he loved. Yes, loved.

Completely. And those girls. He wanted them too. He wanted the whole messy, wonderful business of chasing away monsters and whipping up omelettes. Beating eggs in a bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper—Marshall finally knew what he had to do.

First was firing off an email to Mouse, calling off the digging expedition, full payment notwithstanding, and the second…well, the second was going to require at least the courtesy of a phone call.

While butter melted in a skillet, he dialled Danni’s number.

“Marshall,” she snapped in greeting. “What the fuck?”

“Danni.” Pouring in the beaten egg mixture, he sprinkled a generous handful of the chopped veggies, ham and shredded cheese over top. “I’m going to keep this quick, but wanted you to hear it straight from me. I’m out, Dee. All the way out, and all that that implies.”

In the following silence he could almost hear the screaming roar of her temper, loud as a foghorn despite her softly uttered response, “You’re making a huge mistake.”

Overhead, the floorboards creaked and he imagined the sight of Eva’s little body dancing along to the Ed Sheeran. His heart rippled with joy.

“My minds made up, Dee.”

“You’re going to walk away from everything we’ve worked for? And do what, exactly?”

Lifting the skillet, he rolled the pan over the heat, cooking the eggs and filling evenly. A quick jerk of his wrist and the omelette flipped, folding neatly in half. “Might try my hand at writing a book.” It has been a dream once, when he was a boy sitting out in the grass and imagination spinning. A dream he’d forgotten.

“You burn this bridge; there will be no one in publishing who will touch you. I’ll make sure of it. So help me.”

Though his heart pinched, Marshall wasn’t the least bit surprised. Their years of friendship had always been conditional upon a sense of obligation to her for taking him on when he was as a green nobody. And she’d been happy to reciprocate that friendship for as long as his accomplishments and ambitions aligned with her own.

Now that he was taking that all away, there was nothing tethering them together anymore. Nothing but respect he’d apparently made the mistake to believe had been mutual.

Learning now that it wasn’t was oddly…freeing.

“You’ve got a long arm, Dee, but not even your reach is that long.”

“Marshall—”

“So long, Dee,” he said. Hanging up, he began the second omelette with a light heart.

Eva found him like that, in the kitchen, flipping omelettes in a skillet like he’d grown up behind the stove. And likely had, she thought. Lottie Davies would have had a firm hand with her boys in the kitchen, just as much as with her daughters. Teaching them how to cook, clean and manage a household regardless of gender.

Roping her arms around his waist, Eva pressed a kiss between the hollow of his shoulder blades.

“Morning, gorgeous.”

“Hello handsome. Smells good.” Peering around, she saw omelettes folded on plates, their insides stuffed with sliced vegetables, cubed ham and oozing cheese.

“No mushrooms in Lucy’s,” Eva cautioned. “And extra cheese.”

“Coming up,” he said, adjusting the ingredients. When the contents were in the skillet, Marshall turned around and sank into a slow, melting kiss. The kind that made Eva’s belly flutter and body soften and toes curl.

She loved kissing this man.

She loved this man. Period. A wonderful and terrifying truth to discover when up until now she hadn’t really loved a man before. Not like this.

“Mom. Payton and Lucy are taking forever in the bathroom and…Ew. What’s he doing here?” At the sound of Hailey’s indignant voice. Eva and Marshall sprang apart, and she looked from him back to her daughter. Christ, when she’d poked in to the rooms, her girls had been fast asleep—Hailey especially—and she had hoped to break it to her alone upstairs.

“Morning, Hailey,” Marshall said, giving the skillet a wiggle so the eggs wouldn’t burn or stick. “Hungry?”

Ew,” she said again, cutting her eyes at him. “Seriously mom, what is he doing here?”

Eva jerked straight, clamped down on her temper. Getting angry and heated wasn’t going to solve anything. “Hailey, I get that you’re upset right now, but I don’t appreciate your tone.”

“But—”

“I’m the parent. You’re the child.”

“Don’t you see? You’re ruining it. You’re ruining everything.”

As Hailey stormed off, Eva folded like a bad hand, set her forearms to the counter and her brow to quartz. “Oh God, did you see her face?”

“She just needs to calm down.”

“She so angry with me. All the time.” Straightening, Eva looked up at him, her features filled with helplessness. “Hailey’s never seen me with anyone but her father. As the oldest she obviously has more…memories of her dad. Our separation was tough. And the last few years…tougher. I told you I don’t have men around them and this is why. I don’t know what to do, how to get through to her anymore. We’re always fighting.”

“And you’re going to fight a million more times before she reaches eighteen. Part of being a parent.” Drawing her against him, he stroked a hand up her back, followed with slow, easy circles. She was so brittle, he thought. One more push, however small, and she’d shatter right before his eyes.

“Go check on Payton and Lucy. I’ll finish up here and take off, okay? We’ll take it slow and do this right, Eva. Together.”

“Alright,” she said. He kissed her soundly before letting her go, listening to her shuffling footsteps going up the stairs. Turning off the stove, he carried the plates to the table when he heard the opening of a window. The ivy clinging to the side of the house trembled.

Kid was making a run for it, he realized, setting the plates down. Marshall made it halfway back to the kitchen before he paused, weighing his options.

“Hell,” he muttered, and swung outside. The bottom half of Hailey wiggled out the window of her room as she struggled to navigate the trellis. The kid was slick, he thought, with a sliver of respect to twine with the mild irritation.

Leaning against the railing, Marshall watched her slow and amateurish progression, pausing constantly to search for foot and hand holds.

“Took you long enough,” he said the instant she touched the patio decking. And had the sincere pleasure of seeing her jump near three feet in the air at the sound of his voice

Flaming eyes, rimmed with tears, pierced him dead through. “What’re you doing here?”

“Just making sure you didn’t break your neck.” Marshall tucked his hands in his back pockets as he moved towards her, careful to maintain a non-threatening distance. “My best friend grew up in this house. He and I shimmied out that window more times than I can count.”

So? Want a medal or something?” Skirting around him, Hailey stomped down the steps. “Get lost.”

It wasn’t hard for him to keep pace, perks of being a grown-up, so no matter how fast she swung her legs, she couldn’t shake him. Huffing with exertion and temper, Hailey turned on her heel, fingers curled into tight little fists.

“I said go away.”

“No.”

“Stop being such an asshole!”

“Stop being such a brat.” And that had her eyes pop wide in her sweet little face. Good, he thought. Kid needed a bit of shock therapy, and he wasn’t the sort to pander to spoiled tempers. Lowering to the ground, he crossed his legs and patted a patch of grass next to him. “Now, why don’t you take a breath and tell me what’s going on?”

Flopping next to him, her eyes dropped to her toes, cheeks flush with unspent temper and tears. “Can’t.”

“Try.” He nudged her shoulder with his elbow. “You don’t have to tell me anything that might get you in trouble. I get that there’s something going on I’m not allowed to know, at least not yet. But you can still talk to me about the rest. I won’t bite. And I won’t treat you like an idiot.”

Hailey looked up at him, swiped a hand across her chin.

“Is it about your dad?” he asked softly. “Do you miss him?”

“Not really,” Hailey mumbled and hastily tried to remove the evidence of tears. “It’s just…I like it here. Lucy likes it here. Payton, too.”

“Good, but I don’t understand—why do you think I’ll be a problem?”

“Boys are always the problem. And she promised.” For a long while they sat in silence, Hailey furiously plucking at grass. Finally, Marshall asked the question he’d been too afraid to ask, but always worried about.

“Hailey. Did someone hurt you and your mom?” He saw the struggle in the tensing of her fingers, the warring of the expressions on her face and knew he was circling the drain and getting closer.

“Sorta. But I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

“Fair enough.” No way in hell was he going to con a kid into crossing that kind of line. “Do you think I’d hurt you and your mom?”

She glanced up at him, her eyes—an unusual shade of amber so like her mother’s—narrowed in silent scrutiny. Finally, she softened and a hesitant smile, the first he’d seen directed towards him, crossed her lips. “No.”

Progress, he thought, and brushed a hand across her shoulder, squeezed. “Well, that’s a start. I care about your mom, but I care about you, too, you know. How about I make you a promise?” He waited until she shifted brown eyes to his. “If I do something bad—really bad—you get to punch me in the nose?”

Hailey giggled. “Serious?”

“As a judge.” Marshall held out a hand. “And I never make a promise I don’t intend to keep.” Hailey eyed that hand. Slid her own into it. And they shook with her quietly gauging him.

“Sorry I called you an asshole.”

“Sorry I called you a brat.”

Her lips quirked into with amusement. “Well, I was, I guess. Being a bit bratty.”

His impish grin mirrored hers. “Yes, you were. But I forgive you.” At the sound pouring from inside the house, Payton and Lucy and yipping puppies, Hailey glanced back, to the sight of her sisters clamouring around the table, dogs underfoot and Eva managing the chaos.

“Guess I should get back. Say I’m sorry.”

“You should,” Marshall agreed. “Not today, certainly not tomorrow, but soon, you should apologize to her. When you’re ready. When you actually mean it. No point in saying it if you don’t.”

“You’re not like most grown-ups.”

“Guilty as charged.” Leaping to his feet, Marshall reached out for her hand and helped Hailey up. “C’mon. I’ll race you back.”

And she continued to hold his hand as they ran.

He stopped outside of the gallery, hands tucked into his pockets. The familiar weight of his knife sheathed in the back of his trousers. Subject A was not in today. He’d left her at home, working in her home office. Subjects B, C and D already fettered off for their summer programs.

Acting for B, expressive dance and gymnastics for C. D had soccer. Now that he was rolling into phase two of his observations, this was where he liked to tighten the net, until the roped walls began to close in and the fish, realizing she was snared, began to thrash and kick. Knowing there was nowhere to go, nowhere to escape.

The image thrilled him. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the black wallet, the exterior scarred and aged. Inside was a thick wad of cash, a whole array of cards, tri-fold of family pictures and a stack of personal business cards.

He slipped one out and stroked a thumb over the expensive, raised print.

Commercial Property Development. Ori Goldman. So today he was a Jew. Lovely. A successful one, at least. Tucking the wallet and cards away, he assessed himself in the reflective pane of window glass. Adjusting the knot of his tie. Fingers cramping, he decided it warranted veering off schedule to take his arthritic medication a full half-hour early.

Palming the tablets, he knocked them back and swallowed dry.

Entering the gallery, bells chimed, turning heads in his direction. Lots of people about, more than he’d expected. All of them gawking and speaking in hushed whispers as if they were in the fucking Louvre standing before a Da Vinci or Monet.

Heathens, his lip curled derisively, wouldn’t know true art, a true masterpiece if it slit their throat.

“Can I help you?” A hand brushed his shoulder and he jerked, surprised that he’d been so caught in his thoughts he’d failed to notice the offensive waft of overpriced perfume. His eyes must have registered his disgust as her expression wavered.

“Hello. Yes. So sorry, love. I was lost in my head,” he said, smiling as he tapped a finger to his temple. “Old noggin of mine goes wandering. Yes, I was hoping to see this fabulous artist the island is buzzing over. Eddie Blake, is it?”

Her polite and professional smile was back in place, but he was a predator, and predators always knew when they’d been spotted by their prey. At the very least, she sensed something was up. This one, though, was no simpleton.

“Well, just this morning we unveiled four new pieces.” She roped a hand around his arm, and saw the flicker of surprise at the discovery of hard, packed muscle beneath the beguiling sleeve of his shirt. Though he was older in years, and rangy in build, he’d kept himself in impeccable shape.

“Yes, I’d like to see them,” he said, throwing his weight harder on the left so that he walked with what he hoped would be a sympathetic limp. “Old age,” he muttered and she smiled again, all fake polish.

He half-listened as she showed him about, all the while his eyes constantly moved, taking in angles and vantages. No inside camera, no troublesome alarms. Busy street with minimal traffic flowing through the back. Lots of bodies on the floor, though. If he ever were to move on Subject A in here, it would have to be late. Very late. And even then he couldn’t account for extenuating variables.

Home would be cleanest, he surmised. He rolled his gaze to the gallery manager. Canny. Perceptive. This one would remember him, he thought. And made a mental note that a bit of…clean up may be required when the job was done.

“It’s an interesting gambit you have going here,” he said, smooth as warmed honey. “Secrets are incredibly seductive. I wonder if Ms. Blake would be interested in a bit of commissioned work? I’m a man of…many secrets.”

“What makes you think the photographer is a woman?”

“The images,” he said with a sweep of his hand, “the eye is distinctly female.”

“You’re very perceptive,” she replied. Grey eyes flat. “Unfortunately we don’t do commissioned work. Sorry.”

“If she should change her mind.” He handed over Ori Goldnan’s business card. “Your name, love?”

“Jenelle Davies, gallery manager.”

Thin lips stretched over yellowed teeth. “May we meet again,” he said, tipping his head. And strolled out of the gallery. Limp forgotten.

***

Frowning at the screen, Eva rotated the image. Hating it more, she grumbled in complaint, and flipped it back.

“You’re doing it again,” Marshall commented, laptop perched on his knees, their legs tangled together on the couch.

“What?”

“Scowling.”

“It’s not working,” Eva sighed. Tipping her head back to close her eyes. “All the pieces are sold, Jenelle’s chewing my ear for a new batch and my mind is mush. Everything looks the same. Boring. Uninspired. I can’t work under these conditions.”

Closing his laptop, Marshall rose, wove behind the couch and gathered Eva’s shoulders in his hands, fingers kneading the muscle. “Yes you can. You’re brilliant. You’re talented. You’re the best photographer this side of the world, Eva.”

Smiling, Eva looked up at him. “Just this side?”

His lips lowered to hers. “You want more, you’re going to have to sway me with more lingerie. Something red this time.”

“Girls will be home soon,” Eva said. “And I’ve got dinner to start before they do. Claire and Sam are joining us, remember? No getting naked or wearing red anything until at least nine tonight.”

“Pity,” he faked a pout, but couldn’t mask the grin. “Dogs are getting antsy. I think I’ll take them out for a run, burn off some steam. Maybe twenty minutes in a quiet house will help you think better.”

“You’re the best.” A knock on the door had Eva rising while Marshall hunted down the leads, whistling for the puppies, and at the sound of his voice they came clamouring down the corridor in blur of fur. Only Skittles, sunning on the deck, didn’t appear the least bit interested.

“You can thank me with red lingerie.”

“I don’t think I have red lingerie.”

“You do.” Winking, Marshall kissed the tip of her nose. “I went snooping. It’s already laid out on the bed.”

She leaned into him with a kiss, unlocked the front door and all the heat and warmth and joy within her dropped to her toes, bled out into nothing.

“Jerry.” The last time they’d clapped eyes on each other had been about six months into settling on Haven. After that their interactions had lessened to a brief quarterly phone call. Eva had taken great comfort in knowing that Jerry Harrows’ face had gradually receded from the forefront of her mind.

And now here he was. Thick and bulky and real. Wearing old jeans and a tattered leather jacket. Tattoos fading on the reddened skin of his neck.

“Eva,” he said in that dry, barking voice of his. “Long-time no see, kiddo.”

“Marshall, this…” Eva’s foggy brain stalled. The go-to script out of practice, “Uncle. My uncle Jerry.”

“Harrows.” Jerry stuck out a paw, shook Marshall’s hand vigorously. “You’re that reporter, aintcha? Seen you on the news recently.”

“That’s right.” Marshall hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “Are you passing through for a visit?” And shifted a quizzical gaze to Eva. Not much familial resemblance there, he thought, from Jerry’s busy red brows and thick maritime accent.

“Nova Scotian?” he asked.

“Good guess,” Jerry said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

And though he was excited to meet someone in her life, his senses were acutely attuned to the tension surrounding the moment, like players at a high-stakes game. Something was off. Something major.

“Mind if I have a word, private-like, with my niece, boy-o?”

“Sure I was just taking the dogs out for a run.” Sticking his fingers in his mouth, Marshall gave a sharp whistle and that bounding blob changed directions and bolted out the door, following as he clapped his hands and jogged down the drive.

“Pups, eh?” Jerry shoved his hands in his pockets. “See you’ve roped yourself a good looking fella, too, if you like ‘em pretty types.”

Eva nodded towards the patio. “We’ll have more privacy outside.”

Before he stepped inside, Jerry crossed to the rocking chairs and lifted up a long white box. “Found these on the step. Guess your beau was looking to surprise you, eh?”

“Not again,” Eva sighed, recognizing gold ribbon wrapped bundle. At Jerry’s inquiring glance, she told him all about her mysterious admirer, leading him to the patio.

“Red and white roses, you say?”

Out on the deck, Eva opened the box and sure enough a dozen long stemmed flowers were tucked inside surrounding a single red one.

“Someone must got it bad for ya, kiddo.” Jerry rocked back on his heels, worn shoes squeaking. A dark, fathomless look in his unreadable gaze. “This happen before?”
“Only once. Last week. Thought my Romeo took the hint and backed off.” Sealing the flowers back in the box, Eva hauled them over to the large garden bin full of garden trimmings, weeds and other compost. “It’s got to be my neighbour across the street, Kevin. He’s annoyingly persistent.”

“Fella new to the neighbourhood?” Jerry asked, hiking up the legs of his jeans as he sat.
“No, he’s a local divorced dad trying to get back in the saddle and picked me to be his prize pony.” The table had already been set for dinner, pitcher full of juice with mulled berries and Perrier water. Marshall’s recipe that the girls had grown to love. Eva turned over a class, poured him some. “And I’ve spent six months breaking his heart turning him down.”

“Harder to say no to a more desirable specimen though, eh?” Though his eyes twinkled with humour, the warning was there. “Think it wise to get cozy with Mr. Live-at-Five?”

“Define cozy?”

“Can’t get too caught up, kiddo. You know the rules.”

“You were the one who told me to let it all go.” Annoyed, Eva shot out of her seat, tossed up her arms. “Well, that’s what I’m doing. Letting it go. Moving on.”

“Hate to be the Bad Guy, really do, but—”

“I know, okay? I know. We’ve had this discussion before. But I’m a person, Jerry. I can’t stay celibate forever.”

Setting down his glass, Jerry propped his elbows on his knees. “If I thought this was only you scratching an itch, we wouldn’t be having words, But a guy playing house with ya and the kids ain’t exactly what you call casual.”

Arms crossed, Eva lifted her chin. “Why are you here?”

“Some details you need to be aware of,” he said, rubbing a hand over the bald palette of his head. Sitting back down, Eva listened as Jerry lit a cigarette and gave her the news.

Randy Kincaid’s case had stalled, yet again, after he’d fired another lawyer and a new judge was sworn in. The last one had been close to losing his patience and put forth a judgement to force Randy to trial, but this new judge hasn’t had his patience stretched within an inch of its life. So, in light of Randy electing to self-represent, the judged moved to allow him time to study the evidence. Pushing the new court date to February of next year.

“What does this mean?”

“Two things.” Jerry stubbed out his cigarette, waved a hand to dispel the smoke. “First, by representing himself Kincaid can’t claim mistrial. And he’s no lawyer, don’t care how many time’s he’s been incarcerated in the past. There’s ways to tweak the system, the case, and he won’t know how to argue them effectively. Him not having a council is better for us. Second, I think he’s trying to get to ya. I see this a lot in domestic cases. He thinks this’ll intimidate ya, and allows direct contact with the object of his obsession.”

Eva bit down on the urge to shudder against the icy wisps of shock skating along the delicate nerves of her spine.

“We’re collaborating with folk out in New York, talking ‘bout bringin’ up a couple others he’s harassed to show pattern of behaviour. Escalation and the like. There’s three willing to testify. We’re hoping for a few more.”

Christ. All those women. And she was the only one in this mess. “Alyssa always said I really could pick ‘em.”

Jerry eased back into the chair, hooking another cigarette between yellowed knuckles. “Speaking of, any communication there?”

Eva’s eyes flashed to his. “You know I haven’t.”

Hm. Well.” Jerry nodded slowly. “What about Nathan?”

That icy feeling was beginning to spread from her back down her arms, tingling in her hands. “Where’s this going? Why are you really here?”

Jerry puffed out a lazy stream of smoke before reaching for the laptop in his satchel. Setting it down on the table, he opened a browser window, and spun it around for Eva’s perusal.

It took her a moment to make sense of what she was seeing, but twice that to actually believe it. Eva’s heart seized, then dropped into the icy bowels of her belly.

Facebook, she thought dully. Nathan had decided to create an open page in active search of his daughters, calling out to the public to help him find his missing ‘family’.

The numbers were small, only a dozen or so who supported the page—a few of her so-called friends, but those numbers could easily grow and spread. How long before someone on Haven saw this? Started asking questions, or worse, brought this page to the attention of her girls? Could she trust them not to reach out to their own father? Lucy was the only one with no clear memories of him.

Payton would never. But Hailey…?

Hand over her mouth, Eva scrolled down through the string of statuses.

To my babies: Hannah, Patience and May…I’ll find you.

And interspersed between them were photographs, most of which had belonged to her, Eva thought resentfully. Bastard had pillaged through her pictures she’d personally captured, slapping them up on the wall and soaking up sympathy. But worse, so much worse, he was keeping their faces out there—public.

Accessible.

What was to stop Randy from finding it? He’d used social media to stalk her several times, already. He could do it again, even from behind bars. Prisoners gained access all the time to the internet, and who was to say for certain he didn’t have an accomplice on the outside?

“Bastard couldn’t even use his own photos.” Clicking on the main image, Eva scrolled through. The third one stopped her cold. “He put us up here? All of us?”

Jerry nodded severely. “Did ya know anything about this?”

“How could I? You told me to stay off these sites. To keep the girls away from them.”

“Yeah, speakin’ of the girls.” Jerry reached for the untouched glass she’d poured for him, raised it to his lips. “How things going on that front? Hailey in particular.”

Eva swallowed deeply, unable to meet that shrewd, sharp gaze. “She’s…fine. Angry with me, but what else is new. She worked through the highlights, giving Jerry the key information to paint the whole picture.

He stayed silent throughout, humming or hawing in agreement. “Kids got a lot of her mom in her. Strong mind. Strong will.”

Eva shifted in her seat, unsure what to do in the face of his praise.

“The page hasn’t been active for more than a couple of weeks, so I don’t think there’s been much damage done. But could’ve been worse had we not intercepted it. ‘Specially with all the attention you’ve been gettin’ of late.”

“How did you find it?”

Jerry lifted hard eyes that gave nothing away. “Doesn’t matter. Got a team working to get it pulled down by end of afternoon. I’m here to make sure you keep things quiet on your end.”

Thrusting a hand through her short dark hair, Eva bit down on the urge to scream. “I’m doing the best I can. The girls don’t have access to Wi-Fi at home. And for good fucking reason, it seems.”

“Kids are industrious little devils when needs must.” Jerry held out a hand and Skittles cantered over, sniffing at his thick fingers with a wet nose. Jerry smiled, stroking behind her ears. “I know she’ll be upset about givin’ up the play. Have a chat with Hailey, bring her to heel. Make sure she knows what’s on the line, as it were.”

“Believe me, she’s well aware.” Hands shaking, Eva closed the laptop.

Draining his glass, Jerry set it down, twirled it between thick fingers. Gotta run, kiddo. ‘Fore I take off, mind if I have a quick looksie?”

Throat too tight to manage a single word, Eva nodded.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a fresh pack of smokes, tapped the box a few times against his hard palm. “Just make sure you know what you’re getting into with this newsy type. He’s fire, if you wanna risk getting burned—and lose all this…” He swept out a hand, cigarette poised between two thick fingers, shrugged.

“That’s on you, kiddo. And you alone.”


Chapter Fifteen

Eva sat out on the deck, thinking long and hard over what Jerry had to say. When the girls rushed into the house, closely followed behind by Marshall and the dogs, Eva watched that cozy, happy little scene and her heart pinched with fear.

Fear that if she wasn’t careful, all of this could collapse around her, fragile and delicate as a house of cards scattered in the hailing winds of a hurricane. Rising she joined them inside, listened with a plastic smile as the girls shouted over one another to tell her all the fun and glorious things they had done over the day.

Including Payton—her quiet and sweet little Payton was finding her voice again.

“I think tonight is a pizza night,” Eva announced and was met with gleeful squeals. Asking Marshall to oversee the order, she took Hailey by the hand and brought her upstairs where it was private. Where they could talk and Eva could break the news she knew was going to break Hailey’s heart.

Tucking them inside Hailey’s room, from her daughter’s quiet, defensive posture, Eva was sure that she’d guessed something bad was coming.

“We had a visit from Jerry this morning,” Eva said as Hailey sat on the edge of her bed.

“Why was he here?” Fingers worrying the colourful layered bracelets on her wrist.

“Things are complicated, baby.”

“Quit calling me that. I’m almost thirteen. I’m not a baby anymore.” She shook back her hair, eyes hot with challenge.

Oh, but you are, Eva thought. And yet, she wasn’t. Of her three, Hailey was the only one old enough to remember what life had been like prior to the program. And of her girls, Hailey had had to sacrifice the most. Knowing that was going to make the reason for this conversation so much harder than anything else Eva had done before.

“Hailey, we need to discuss the play.” Exhaling slowly, she lowered to the bed next to her daughter and tried not to feel hurt when she scooted away. “We’re going to have to tell Mrs. Singh you’re stepping down.”

Hailey’s face fell. All anger washing away to stunned disbelief.

“But…No! That’s not fair.”

“I know, Hailey—”
Hailey leapt to her feet, whirled on Eva. “I won’t! You said—you said I could!”

“I know what I said, Hail. I know. And I’m sorry.” Reaching for her, Eva gathered Hailey’s arms in her hands.

“So you’re the only one who gets to be the big shot with your gallery and Marshall and everything else? You’re such a hypocrite mom! This is my dream! I want to be an actress. I’m good. Really good. And now I have to give it all up because you screwed up?”

“I’m so terribly sorry, but I need you to understand why…All this attention we’re getting is dangerous. And if we’re not careful—”

Hailey jerked her chin. “They’ll kick us out. Whatever.”

“No, no baby. Not us.” Pulling her back to the bed, Eva smoothed a hand over her wild dark hair. When had her little girl grown so fast? From that tiny, happy little baby she’d first held in her arms to this hostile pre-teen who shirked any and every attempt Eva made to get close.

“They’ll take you away. All of you. Send you to foster homes within the program, the three of you separated. I could be arrested for breach of contract, charged. This is serious, baby. Very serious. Randy wasn’t coming after me—he wanted you. You are the ones who need protection. I am here as your mother. If they deem me unfit to keep you safe, I will be pushed out, but as minors you can’t leave.”

Hailey’s large eyes grew wider, and wider. Fingers curled with fear, the knuckles flashing white, and frustration set her lips into a thin, grim line. A line that trembled.

“Oh, baby.”

“This isn’t fair.”

“I know.”

“I hate you.”

Eva swallowed the hurt. Accepted the pain. “I know.”

Couple days after breaking the bad news to Hailey, things around the home remained thick with tension. Hailey was hostile as ever, treating Eva with the silent treatment and cold shoulder, not that she could blame her. And though Marshall had swooped in, smoothing over the roughest edges, Eva knew she had a long way to go before Hailey would speak to her again.

As much as it killed her to do this, Eva had to believe that pulling Hailey from the play was for the greater good. With all the hype still thrumming on the island with the gallery, local new stations were flocking to the community in droves, and the little theatre production was now set to be broadcasted on the cable networks news programs. Small scale, sure, but it was a risk Eva couldn’t afford.

All it would take was one person to see Hailey’s face, someone who knew them from Toronto, or Nathan, to put it all together. Even now Eva wasn’t sure they were still completely out of hot water, though Marshall had assured her his interests in pursuing the article were over, they still had to ride out the ripple effect of all the excitement, and that could take months to dissipate.

Longer, even.

Maybe next year, she mused, once things quieted down again and if Nathan lost his latest appeal or decided to bow out—after all, pressing custody through the courts was bound to be costing him more money than he could afford.

He might have inherited a couple of restaurants, but he was a long way from rolling in cash.

Opening her front door, she almost tripped over the long white box wrapped in gold ribbon. This time Eva didn’t need to look inside to know that there would be no card.

This was starting to get tiresome, and, as if by some divine cue, Kevin jogged up the street, returning from an early morning run. Pushed to the limits of her patience, Eva decided enough was enough.

Cutting across the street, he would have continued on right past her and up to his front door had she not shouted his name.

Winging around, he blinked at her, startled. “What’s your problem?”

“You’re my problem,” she snapped when close enough to see the sweat beading down the side of his blank face. “You can cut the creepy flower delivery, alright? No, Kevin. My answer’s no. Always going to be no. Got it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The flowers.”

“What flowers? I’m not—Jeez, Eva, I’m not a psycho, okay?” He took a moment, calmed down, shrugged. “At first, sure, I was mad when I saw you and that Davies guy hanging around each other. And though I think it poor taste for a man to stay the night while your girls are under roof—I’m over it, okay?”

“So you haven’t been sending me flowers?” she demanded.

“I liked you Eva, but I’d have to be a real idiot to play that card when I can’t even get you to go out to dinner.” Plucking at the collar of his shirt, he wiggled the fabric, cooling off. “You made your choice. I’ve moved on. Met a lovely lady, we’ve gone on a few dates and it could be something. Can I go now?”

Tongue tied, Eva could only nod.

And worried over the facts as she drove in to the gallery thanks to cryptic text from Jenelle asking her to be there for nine, sharp.

As she was a half-hour early, inside her office Eva combed through the island directory and called all the local flower shops until she found the one. Unfortunately the owner couldn’t tell her much of anything.

“All the orders were placed online,” he’d said, speaking a little too close to the receiver, like he had it wedged between cheek and shoulder to keep his hands free for bloom arranging.

“But the other day we got a call from a bank. Turns out the first order was placed with stolen cards. And since the order is…well, pretty specific, I recalled the subsequent orders. Searched our database, found all were purchased with different credentials. Made a few calls, and, well…those were stolen, too.”

Murmuring her apologies, Eva ended the call. It was possible with all the hype and gravitas of her gallery being in the news that someone had taken to stalking her. Happened all the time, didn’t it? Calling Jerry, she left a hurried message, touching on the care facts and concerns, asking him to call her back as soon as he got the message.

No sooner had she hung up did the phone ring. Thinking it might be Jerry, she snatched it up.

“Jerry, I—”

“Good morning Eva, so happy I was able to reach you at this hour.” Eva’s blood chilled at the cool, crisp female voice. “Catherine Clear calling. From CTV news. I was wondering if I could prevail upon you for a moment of your time?”

“How did you get my number?”

“Darling,” Catherine laughed. “A couple calls to the boys in tech, it wasn’t so difficult to pull phone records from when Marshall was in town. He called often enough that the search didn’t require much effort. It’s sweet, in a sad little way, isn’t it?”

Grip tight, Eva’s fingers ached. “Fine. You’ve got my attention. What do you want?

“You, darling. You’re a hot commodity these days. Come on air, do a live interview with yours truly this Friday. I’ll even go as far to cover your flight and hotel for the inconvenience. A nanny to care for the kiddies?”

“No.”

“That’s what I’d thought you’d say.” The glint of challenge in her tone was unmistakable, and by no means did it escape Eva’s notice that Catherine Clear was thoroughly enjoying herself. “Let me paint a picture, Eva. You’re good with pictures, so I’m sure you’ll appreciate this. We blitz everything about Randy Kincaid and all the filth. We call your ex-husband, Nathan Leeds into the studio. All rumpled and bloodshot. A mess, Eva. Emotionally and otherwise.

Eva Turner, Internet sensation is really Annelise Sloane who took off into the wind—stealing his daughters because she lacked the common sense to keep her legs closed.”

Catherine laughed, the sound bright, crisp and cold.

“He’s pushing you for custody, so I hear. Can you imagine the sort of sway this could have on his case? I know three named partners in major practices who would take him on pro-bono just to soak up the publicity this would draw to their firm.”

Bones brittle as fractured glass, soon to break; Eva lowered, carefully, into her seat. As much as she wanted to argue the semantics and facts, she couldn’t fault Catherine’s threat a single iota.

A father losing his children—the media and press would eat her alive. Rip her to shreds. Painting her as unsuitable, unfit—dangerous, a hazard to her own babies. She’d lose them for sure.

“Now while that’s soaking in, ask yourself how I know all of this to begin with? I’ll give you three guesses, but I think you’ll only need one.”

Ice shot into her bowels in a single, punching blast. Marshall would never…”He wouldn’t.”

“Oh believe me,” that laughing voice flattened with contempt, “he would. For the record, if it’s any consolation it was always going to come to this. You wouldn’t be the first woman he’s dropped for his job. Won’t be the last. Don’t let the opportunist use you as a stepping-stone, Eva. Be smarter than that.”

“By letting you use me?”

“Solidarity, Eva. Solidarity. Ladies have to stick together. You’ve got two days to decide. And that’s me being generous. Either you come in of your own accord, or I throw the chips up in the air and let them fall where they may. Ta.”

The heavy click of a receiver hanging up clattered through Eva’s brain like a sledgehammer to her ear drum. Her hand dropped to her lap, fingers barely clutching her phone. And only had the smallest presence of mind to tuck that phone into her pocket.

Every fear, every small terror had come to fruition. Dazed as a woman who’d crawled out of a car wreck, Eva stumbled from her office. She had a precious few days before her life and everything in it came crashing down around her ears. That left little time to do much of anything except pick up and run.

Home. She had to get home. And call Jerry—yes, Jerry. Bleeding Christ…Hand to her stomach, she wondered why there were no tears? No pain?

Every inch of her was hollow. Empty. Numb.

Shell-shocked. But it would come. Experience had taught her as much. An hour or two, the nerves would awaken in a deluge of anguish and panic and rage.

Home. She had to get home.

Jenelle stood in the heart of the gallery with a woman. Tidy, prim and professional in a rich teal suit made eye-glaring in the harsh light bouncing from fluorescents and sun streaming through the windows.

Why was it so fucking bright at nine in the morning?

“Eva.” Jenelle rushed to her side. The sound of her heels clacking on hardwood was like an ice-pick to the skull.

“Later,” she waved, tugging Eva along until she was face to face with Ms. Power-suit. “This is the surprise I told you about.”

Mrs. Power-suit thrust out a hand, nails gleaming like lacquered claws waiting to sink into her flesh. “Letitia Reid of Letitia Reid Literary Agency,” she said, her grip bone-cracking around Eva’s limp fingers.

“Just hear her out.” Jenelle took both of Eva’s shoulders, squeezed them with equal measures of excitement and pleading.

“Your fabulous partner reached out to my agency last week with an incredible concept that I’m eager to take on-board. You’ve managed to establish an impressive body of work which we’d like to distil into a more focused, tangible collection.”

“Collection.”

“Yes, for a printed book of your more popular artwork. We’re excited you thought of our agency for the honour. Tell me Eva, where do you see Out of Focus five years from now?”

“I—”

“Book tours and signings,” Letitia interrupted, sailing her hands through the air like a director setting the scene. “An entire wall display in Barnes & Noble. A selection of your stunning pieces travelling all across North America—to start—in showings, with a celebrity or two for added excitement. Are you aware that you’ve developed a strong following in Paris and Rome?

“I—”

“What am I saying? Of course you do,” Letitia giggled, railroading right over Eva like a lamb caught in the tracks. “We’ll include Marshall in on the project so he can do a written segment about each featured image. An extension of your collaboration over the summer. We’d ideally like to go to print with this before the year-end, which would leave plenty of time to arrange for a signing/cocktail event right here to celebrate the upcoming release, complete with media and high-rolling art enthusiasts to drive up the hype.”

Dazzled by spinning dollar signs and shooting stars, Jenelle bumped shoulders with Eva. “I think sometime in the early fall for the signing could be good, no?”

Letitia pursed lips, eyes glimmering. “Perfect, in fact. Plenty of opportunity to drive sales into the holidays and leaving just enough time for Ms. Turner to put together a new collection for spring. We could…”

They spoke over her, around her. Eva faded away, the world muted in her grief. But she heard snatches break through their conversation. Each word slamming into her like a fist.

Expansion plans. Local caterers to handle event. Signing tables. Tower of books.

Makeover.

Somewhere beyond the buzz of voices, a swelling sort of pressure grew in Eva’s belly. Rising. Rising above the haze and fog of her dulled senses, like she was waking—slowly—from a winter-long sleep.

“No.” Her voice had been soft, almost non-existent, but the finality of it, the primal edge had both Letitia and Jenelle stopping cold. They turned, almost in unison with mirror-like expressions that would have otherwise been comical to behold. But not now. Not when beneath her skin temper boiled like waking lava.

Eva’s artistic eye captured the moment, branding it in her brain. She’d have called it Abject Horror.

Letitia drew in a breath, the air around them suddenly frosty. “I beg your pardon?”

“No.”

“To what, exactly?”

“All of it.

“We’re not having a social, or gathering or whatever else you want to call it.” Jenelle moved forward but Eva stayed her with a lift of her hand. “We’re not putting together a printed book and we’re most certainly not ferreting me off for a makeover. No.”

Letitia set her teeth, shifted on heels that ground into the floors with frustrated venom, and lanced Jenelle with a hot glare. “You told me she’d be cooperative.”

Jenelle’s normally dewy skin was now paper white. “I…well, I didn’t think. Mrs. Reid.” But she was speaking to the woman’s retreating back and after muttering a vehement curse, she rounded on Eva. “Do you mind telling me what that was all about?”

“If you know what’s best for you, leave me alone, Jen.”

“No, no we’re going to talk about this.” Jenelle snagged Eva’s arm, stopping her retreat. Furious, Eva shrugged off her grip and rounded like a snarling pitbull.

“What is it with you fucking Davies and your inability to take ‘No’ for an answer? Is this a skill you’re taught, or a trait acquired at birth?”

Stung, Jenelle rocked back. “The hell is your problem?”

“My problem is you’re not hearing me. My problem is being ambushed—but that woman,” she practically screamed, “coming in here, attacking me. Threatening me.”

“What…what are you talking about? No one threatened anything, unless you call a ‘makeover’ a threat, then sure. Fine.”

Oh, but she had been threatened. Catherine Clear. Eva had almost let the name slip and now bit back on it.

“Eva, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I was just trying to do my job. You hired me to manage this gallery, to make it a success. To grow the business; I can’t do that with you kyboshing every move I make.”

Snarling, Eva rounded and struck the only thing safe to hit—the wall of exposed brick. “I hired you to manage the place. The gallery. The sales. The clients. Not my business model. And certainly not my life.”

That jolted Jenelle straight and though her face registered hurt, her silver eyes stayed clear as window glass.

“I see. Well, if that’s how you feel then consider this my notice, Eva. I’ve reached the limits of my endurance to put up with your snarling, childish mood swings. Since you’re so keen on being left alone, I quit.”

Setting her keys on the counter, Jenelle walked past her and out the front doors.

Leaving Eva alone. So alone.

“Thank you, yes I’ll send you the pages.” Hanging up the phone, Marshall whooped, socking an excited fist in the air. Shortly after making the decision to bow out of the CTV race, he’d decided that his pages of ‘Insanity’ showed the promising bones of a gritty, personal memoir.

So he’d fleshed them out further, breathed life and blood into the words, and drafted a proposal, outlining his thoughts and the books overall arc. He’d call it Healing Scars, because in essence that’s what this was all about.

And recalling the slew of calls he’d dodged when the media craze surrounding his return to Canadian soil, Marshall flipped the book proposal in an email to an editor who’d hounded him for near a month.

Her response pinged back with a bold, all capped ‘YES’, which lead to an hour long phone call and an offer of representation. Apparently, despite Danni’s posturing and threats, the publishing world was more than happy to receive him.

“Come on, LeBron,” he whistled for his dog. “Let’s go share the news with the ladies, eh boy?”

Ruffling his hands in shaggy, golden fur. But first he decided to take a walk in to town, picked up a nice bottle of wine—something crisp and white, and at the cash out plucked a DVD off the rack, smiled.

A lighthearted Jim Carrey bit he hadn’t seen in years. Paying for both, LeBron at his side, he reached Eva’s door just as the last of the day’s sun disappeared below the swath of quiet horizon, the stars peaking through the canvas of deepening blue.

A gorgeous night. A perfect night.

Eva opened the door after his playful knock, eyes glassy and narrowed—probably from spending too long pent up behind her computer.

“What?” she asked in that adorably abrupt manner of hers. Marshall smiled.

“You look like you could use a break,” he said, holding up his offerings.

“Now’s not a good time, Marshall. I’m tired and—”

He silenced her with a kiss and though he felt that usual spark flicker between them, she stayed rigid in his arms.

“C’mon, Eva. Let’s get drunk and make out on the couch like a couple of teenagers during the boring bits.”

“No. I can’t I need—space, Marshall. I need time to think.”

“Think,” he repeated as she walked away from him, not liking where this was heading. Calmly, carefully, he shut the door, and followed her inside.

“Yes, think. Okay? Christ, you’ve been smothering me with always being around since you got back. I haven’t had a moment to breathe, to…” Sighing she braced the wall. And did just that. She breathed. “I want you to take the job, Marshall.”
“What?”

“CTV. I want you to pick up the phone, beg forgiveness, jump on a plane, and leave. Pursue your dreams. Giving it up for me is a mistake. A huge mistake.”

“Mistake.” The room darkened as night rolled in, thick and black as his waking temper. And just as swift. A dark wall pressing against the glass, swallowing up the light. “I know you to be many things, but I didn’t take you for a coward.”

“Excuse me?”

“Didn’t stutter. But I’ll say it again, pushing me away like this makes you a coward. I don’t know what your deal is and I won’t waste my breath asking. You’ll only lie, so what’s the point?” Setting down the wine on the counter, Marshall shoved his hands in his pockets because even through the rage, a part of him wanted to take hold of Eva—shake her until her teeth rattled—and then kiss her until she gained some freaking sense.

“When are you going to decide to pull that beautiful, stubborn head out of your ass, and tell me what’s going on? What’s the big secret and mystery, Eva? I’m tired of guessing and speculating.”

He was tired? He was tired?

Christ that was funny. Laughable. Freaking hilarious.

A giggle trickled out of her. And another. Those giggles blossomed into a laugh, and in the face of his stunned confusion, she laughed harder. Clutching at her sides, sliding down the wall, Eva laughed until her ribs ached. Until tears streamed from her eyes. Until her voice hoarsened and the sounds pouring out of her bled into guttural, wounded sobs.

Arms closed around her, lifted. Marshall’s voice shushing through her grief.

“Baby,” he whispered. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

“I can’t tell you.” She pulled out of his arms and he let her go, watched as she paced, hands worrying her short hair until it stuck up at odd angles.

“Why?”

“Because I can’t.” She tossed up her hands. “I can’t.”

“That’s not fair, Eva. I’ve been open with you. Honest with you. I’ve told you things I’ve never shared with anyone. Why can’t you trust me?”

Exhausted. Defeated, she hung her head. Christ, what did it matter anymore? It was all over, anyhow.

Because saying what needed to be said required something more abrasive than wine, Eva ducked into her kitchen, rummaged around in the cabinet until she came up with a nearly full bottle of Johnny Walker, black label. Marshall stayed silent, watched as she slowly, and steadily, poured out a couple of glasses, handed one to him.

“Ice?”

“Neat, is fine.” Taking hold of his, Marshall brushed the glass against hers, patted the cushion of the couch next to him.

“Not here,” she said, and nodded towards the patio. He joined her outside, waited as she slid the door shut, toting beverage and bottle with her. Boneless, Eva plunked down in a lawn chair, melted into the cushioned length, and sighed.

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Beginning is best,” Marshall offered, claiming the lower half and draped her legs across his lap.

Eva sipped the smallest amount of whiskey, winced disapprovingly, but sipped again.

“I met Nathan, the girls’ father, when I was in high school. I was going through a rebellious phase, my mom and I butted heads like a couple of mountain goats locking horns.” She brought her hands together, clinking knuckles against bevelled glass.

“So Nathan was just a natural progression of that rebellion. It certainly helped that my mom hated him. Only added to the appeal and allure. Wasn’t long before I got pregnant. Didn’t tell anyone. Not even my twin sister.”

Marshall hissed against the whiskey he’d nearly choked on, and though his mind reeled with questions at the mention of a sister—a twin, he knew to keep his mouth shut and not to interrupt. He listened as she worked through those early years about the mess of an unplanned pregnancy and the ensuing struggles that followed.

He tried to imagine Eva back then. A kid faced with the terrifying prospect of parenthood and all that it entailed, backed into a corner by her own mother who gave her two choices: abort or move out. Choosing the baby, Eva dropped out of school, got married—because it seemed the responsible thing to do.

Fast forward seven miserable years…

“Nate’s ambitions were money and girls,” Eva sighed. “Family confused him. Not that it was really his fault. He never knew what it was to be part of a family, thanks to the poor example of his own parents…our marriage was doomed to fail right from the start. I didn’t stay out of weakness. Or fear. I just didn’t see the point in leaving. After I had Payton I decided to set a better example for my girls.”

“So you left him,” Marshall supplemented when Eva again lapsed into silence.

“That was the hardest transition of my life, but my sister and her boyfriend took us in. Had us sleeping in her living room for almost six months. Damn near drove her crazy, but Alyssa wanted to help me. She always helped me with my lawyers for the divorce to secure full custody, which he didn’t really contest. The thought of parental responsibility made him anxious, and I agreed not to chase him for child support. I didn’t need his money.” Eva’s eyes flashed, whiskey set aflame. “I had my girls.”

“Sounds like a real winner.” Marshall kicked back his glass, swallowing the contents in one gulp. Like his glass, he was finally getting to the bottom.

“Are you hiding from Nathan?”


Chapter Sixteen

“No. No, Nate was a bully but he was harmless. He punched holes in walls and talked a good game but never had the balls to hit me. He was also unfaithful, but I didn’t care. If he slept around it meant he wasn’t home and wasn’t after me for sex.”

Marshall hung his head. To know she’d settled for that. Seven years. God dammit.

“A year after my divorce was finalized I went out with a girlfriend for a few drinks and met Randy Kincaid. He was handsome and exotic and didn’t blink when I mentioned having kids. Being a divorcée with a tonne of baggage usually sent most to the hills.

“But not Randy. He hounded me relentlessly to meet the girls. I wasn’t too keen on an early introduction, but he had this way about him…wore me down. Or maybe I was just tired and wanted that cozy, little family life everyone talked about. He only met them twice. Then things got…bad.” Eva rolled the contents of her glass, knocked it back with a bracing swallow and shuddered.

“I didn’t know it, but he was into drugs. Taking. Selling. And when I found out—tried to break things off, he got angry and attacked me. I left, told him I was leaving to stay with family in England when really I was at my sisters. He started messaging me. Tried to locate me in the UK and harassed my relatives who didn’t have a clue what was going on. It just got so extreme, spiralled so far out of control. My sister convinced me to call the police, to get a restraining order.”

“Smart sister.”

Eva smiled though her guts were slashed to ribbons with grief. “Yes, she is. So, we called, filed a case. Then the detectives approached me about an open investigation. Pretty serious and heavy stuff. Wanted me to testify as a character witness. Don’t know why I just didn’t keep my nose out of it. But I thought if I do this—he’ll be gone. He’ll be out of my life. For good. So I testified.”

Marshall shook his head. Protective temper spiking in his belly. “Take it things didn’t pan out so smoothly?”

“I was nervous and couldn’t get my thoughts together. The lawyer punched a hole through my testimony and then ripped me to shreds. The case fell apart, and he walked. By this point I’d crumbled, emotionally. Went back to Nathan in a moment of weakness. Got pregnant again. That’s when the threats started.”

“He threatened you?”

“I wish it had been just me.” Eva slid her eyes to him, glistening with guilt and grief. “He threatened the girls. Said he was going to track me down, kill them right in front of my eyes. Make me watch as they died. Payment, he said, for the lies I told in court. For betraying him. There are worse things than death, he’d said, and he wanted me to live knowing they were gone because of me.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“I called the detectives immediately, but they weren’t concerned at first. Months later, they told me to pick up the girls and head straight to the station. And to tell no one.” She’d never forget that day.

The way the sun had seemed too bright. The air too still. The way her body went flush with heat and cold at the same time.

“I don’t remember driving, only getting there. That’s when I first met Jerry Harrows. Uncle Jerry. He’s my Witness Protection liaison. Used to be a homicide detective, working deep undercover, before switching departments. They told me that Randy was coming for them. Not me. The girls,” she said, words tight with so much frustration and helplessness. “And I had a choice: go into protection, or lose them to the program.”

“They’d take your kids from you?”

Eva nodded. “If I wasn’t willing to cooperate, absolutely. I had an hour to decide. Not that I needed it. They’re my babies. Mine. They took us that afternoon, wouldn’t even let us go back to the apartment or pack our stuff. I couldn’t call anyone to say goodbye. Just like that,” she snapped her fingers, “everything we were, and everything we knew — snuffed out. Gone.”

Hot tears splashed against the back of her hand, angrily she pushed them away.

“We had to lose everyone. Everyone. Friends and family—even my fucking clothes. I had nothing. And for a long time I was no one. That was hard enough for me, but for those girls—do you have any idea what they’ve been through?”

And he didn’t, Marshall realized. Not really. Jesus…his mind was a mess, struggling to process what sounded impossible and extraordinary. How could anyone who hadn’t lived it, breathed it the way they had, truly understand? To know what that degree of sacrifice would demand? The strength and perseverance?

Was it any wonder he was in love with her?

“A couple years later we moved to Haven and finally, finally we were in a place where we could be. Just be. To live and breathe without fear and worry and questions. It wasn’t easy, but I was making it work until you showed up. Now we’ll have to leave.”

“Eva. I don’t see why—?” He reached for her when she rose but she pushed him away. All fire and raging sorrow.

“No, you don’t see, fucking selfish bastard. Of course you don’t see! Why would you? I’ve broken the law telling you all of this. And I won’t—won’t—lose my daughters because of you. I won’t let CAS come in here and take them away. I am a damn good mother. I’ve fought too hard and too fucking long, and I won’t.”

Because she was shaking, Marshall gathered her in despite Eva’s avid and furious attempts to strike him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He stroked her back, kissed her neck. Repeating it, over and over. A mantra, a prayer, a plea. And she broke. Sobbing, she clung to him. Finally, just finally letting the shield drop and all of that guilt, that horrible, awful and soul-consuming guilt pour out to saturate him until he shook with the potency of her pain.

“I had no right to push,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Eva pressed her hands to her face, a ruin of tears. Christ, she was tired. So damn tired, ravaged by emotional fatigue. “We’ll have to leave Haven. Hailey will hate me even more then she already does. They’ll be devastated. Even Lucy…”

“We can figure this out.”Marshall skimmed his hands up her arms, gripped her shoulders. “I love you, do you hear me? I love you. No, don’t argue.” Frustrated, this time he did shake her.

“Let me use words you’ll understand: I fucking love you, dammit, and I won’t let you just pick up and leave. Yes, you’re in protection, but that doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to live. To be happy. Haven is your home and I won’t see you chased out of it.”

“There’s little choice in the matter. Once Catherine Clear takes her bit to the evening news…it’ll be over.”

“Catherine?”

Eva sighed, shrugging him off. “Yes, your ambitious ex-girlfriend door-stepped me this morning with a threatening phone call. Says I have you to thank for that.” Stunned, Marshall could only blink. “Me? I…I called it off, I stopped digging, I…” Closing his eyes, his heart dropped. Mouse. Catherine would know his sources, his contacts. And when your job was providing information, you didn’t care who it went to as long as money was exchanged.

Eva told him all about the conversation, and the ticking clock looming over her head, along with the ensuing blow up with Jenelle.

Jesus. This was a shitstorrm of epic proportions. And his fault. Entirely his fault. Eva had told him, fought him at every turn—tried, in her taciturn sort of way—to tell him he was pushing a dangerous line, and he hadn’t listened.

The job. The promotion. Getting the story. Everything that had once been so important was now so completely worthless, and it was going to cost him the woman he loved.

Not if he had anything to say about it, Marshall thought as a fierce surge of protectiveness rose within him. He’d tear CTV news to the ground with his bare hands, if he had to.

“I’ll take care of it,” he vowed. “Just promise me—promise me—you won’t quit? You won’t run away.”
“I promise.” The lie came easy. Effortless. Without the hints of hesitation or a hitch in the voice that would mark a novice veering into the uncharted and unknown territory of deception.

After four long, exhausting years of nothing but, Eva Turner was a master of lies. And a mistress of secrets. Because she loved him, walking away was the only way to shield Marshall from the mess of her broken life. He was too good, too deserving—and this was the only way to save them both.

Visibly he relaxed, softening against her, brow to brow. Stirred by the brush of cool evening wind, the warmth of his body, Eva pulled him closer. Slid into a kiss, all need and desire. And comfort.

“Touch me,” she whispered. “Here. Under the stars. Touch me.” He did. Hands slipping beneath her shirt to find soft, smooth skin. Peeling away his shirt, she savoured the hard lines of his athletic body stretched over her, fitting in all the right places like he was meant for her, for this.

She would miss him, Christ the ache was unbearable, but Eva set aside the gnawing sorrow and reached for him with love and naked abandon. They undressed each other slowly, all breathless groping and lingering kisses. Love was a flame burning within them both and it was dazzling to behold. She’d never known such a thing was real, could ever be real for her.

Filling her, Marshall moaned her name. Steeped in each other, they moved in a sinuous dance of slow thrusts and soulful passion.

“Stay,” he whispered the words against her lips, between the glide of tongues and bodies. “Stay with me.”

Eva knew what he was asking, and maybe it was selfish, but she wanted to take it. Even if only for tonight. She could give herself this one, small moment. To take. And give. Finally give. Everything she had, everything inside of her.

Tonight, the past didn’t have to matter. Didn’t have to touch them. She could do this. So that when tomorrow dawned, walking away wouldn’t hurt quite so much because she’d have this to cherish and treasure and remember.

Always.

A glimmer to lighten the darkest days, to keep her going. Pleasure built, a sweet, powerful rise. Filling. Soaring. A blinding shock. And while the heart of her soared, Eva’s soul wept for the loss of tomorrow.

Morning came too soon. Eva woke to an empty bed, the pillow dented but cool and Marshall’s lingering scent folded all around her. He’d left early, kissing her breathless in the middle of the night, the pair of them making love, over and over, desperate almost—needing that constant reassurance.

I will fix this, he vowed, and left for an early flight that would take him back to Toronto. I’ll see it buried. No one will ever know, Eva. I’ll make it right.

While she desperately wanted to believe that—to believe in miracles, Eva knew she couldn’t take the chance. If it were only her life on the line, she wouldn’t have thought twice. But her girls…there was nothing more important, more paramount than their safety.

Getting out of bed was hard but she did it. Eva dressed. Brushed her teeth, fixed the bedding and finally, having stalled as long as she dared, picked up the phone. “Kiddo,” Jerry barked, raspy with sleep. “Somethin’ wrong?”

Eva drew in a breath, prayed for strength. “You were right. I fucked up Jerry. I’ve burned us.”

A slew of curses erupted from him in a hot, seething flash, along with grumbles about cost, paperwork and a few more choice substitutes for I told you so before he found a measure of calm.

“I’ll call the boys, get the team out on the evening ferry. We’ll need to move quick-like, get ya’s out in a day—two at most.”

“No,” she said, closing her eyes. The thought of all those people tearing apart everything she’d built here was about as devastating—as painful—as watching this home burn down in a fire. “No, I’ll manage it on my own.”

“It’s a lot of work and s’not a lot of time, Eva.”

“I’ll get it done. I promise. The girls can stay with a friend…I don’t want them around while… I’ll get it done. And we’ll leave whatever is left behind.”

“Okay, kiddo. I’m not gonna kick ya when you’re down, but we’re gonna have words about this. Get started. I’ve got a shitload of calls to make and an Attorney General who’s gonna chew my balls off.” She heard the rustling of bedding, the creaking of floors. “Don’t need to tell ya to keep quiet ‘bout this? Ya know the drill by now. Don’t make me regret this.”

Eva gave him her word. Hanging up, she curled up on her bed, hugged a pillow tight to her chest.

And wept.

Softly at first, and then more urgent. Until her body was wracked with spasms so strong and fierce they threatened to snap her brittle bones.

Her door whispered open and still Eva could not stop, could not reign in the deluge—a torrid flood too vast, too wild. Too strong.

The bed shifted and settled with the weight of a small body. Little hands gathered her close, tucking Eva’s head onto a slender lap, gently stroking her hair.

And above the guttural groans of Eva’s ceaseless sobs, was a single, pure voice—Payton’s voice—rising and falling in the heart wrenching notes of a gypsy’s song.

Caught in a layover at Edmonton, Marshall paced away the endless stretch of minutes, restless for his connecting flight that had been delayed for the better part of an hour. Making the most of that wasted time, he decided to pick up the phone and start hammering heads, kicking off with Danni.

According to her, the information had been sent to Catherine anonymously, and Gervais, that sanctimonious bastard, made the executive decision to run with it to CTV.

News is news, Marsh. I warned you this would happen.

And where Danni had been at least marginally sympathetic, Catherine was glacier cold.

“I’m not going to apologize for doing my job,” she said. All cool indifference. “Eva is a goldmine. You dropped the ball and walked away. That makes her fair game, Marshall. Fair game. And now the promotion is as good as mine.”

“Who’s your source? Don’t give me that anonymous bullshit.”

“Now, now, darling. I never kiss and tell.”

“This isn’t funny, Catherine. You’re fucking with a woman’s life. Kids’ lives!” he snapped, voice pinging off the walls of a quiet airport gate. “And for what? To get back at me because I didn’t love you?”

“This is business. Don’t flatter yourself,” she quipped, but the snarling tone said he’d struck a bruised nerve.

“Catherine, I’m begging you. Stop this. You know you can.”

“Sorry, darling. But the die is cast. Ta.” She hung up on him and Marshall wanted to throw the stupid phone at the wall—almost did. God help him, when he landed in Toronto he was going to wring the bitch’s neck in his bare god damn hands. He was going to—

Phone shrilling, he answered on a snarl. “Mouse. Just the weasel I’ve been trying to reach.”

“Listen, son, it wasn’t me,” he said. “We go back, I’d never double deal on you. Never. So when I got your message, I dug around and you’re gonna wanna hear what I found. The leak was an inside job, son.”

As Mouse prattled off the sordid layers of filth he uncovered, Marshall stopped pacing.

“Someone handling Eva’s case is behind this mess?”

“Most of the deets were black-lined, hard to make sense of. Only a badge was listed, but I sniffed through the database and got a hit. Jerry Harrows.”

Marshall swore, shoved a hand through his hair. “He’s an undercover operative working in Witness Protection.”

Mouse whistled, long and low. “Damn, son.”

“If he’s the leak, then the fucking bastard is using her for bait.” Because his legs weren’t steady, Marshall slumped back against the wall, pressed a hand to his mouth.

“Bait for what?”

“I don’t know.” Cocking a wrist, he gauged the time. There should be a return flight heading back to Vancouver within the hour. Two more hours in the air, another stretch on the ferry, and with the time difference—if he was lucky he could make it back to Eva before nightfall.

Flagging down an airport shuttle, he dove in the back and barked at the irritated driver to take him to the ticketing counter.

“I’ll call you when I land. Keep digging, Mouse. Find what we’re missing.”

***

“Okay girls. Be good for Mrs. Davies. Do as you’re told. Make me proud.” Eva stooped to give each of them hugs and kisses, except for Hailey who only rolled her eyes and turned a cold shoulder. Still a long way off from talking to her, and that was only going to get a hell of a lot worse in a few days time.

“Go on out back. Poppa’s got the water slide set up.” Lottie said. The day had started thick and muggy, the air dense with humidity typical of early August.

“Hailey’s supposed to head over to Claire’s place after lunch to run lines,” Eva said as the girls took off, bounding for the back while Hailey slumped along in silent protest.

“Thanks for this.”
“Oh, please.” Lottie waved. “You know we’re always happy to have them. Does my heart good.”

And because she needed it—because after today there would never be another chance—Eva hugged her. Fast and fierce.

“I love you,” Eva whispered.

Lottie chuckled. “I love you, too. My dear girl. What’s all this? Are you alright?”

“Fine,” Eva mumbled, breaking from the embrace. “Is Jen around? I’d really like to speak with her before I leave.” Those all seeing eyes narrowed. “Something flashed across Lottie’s face, seeing more behind the words than Eva had intended. That this was more than a simple visit.

“I believe she’s in the kitchen. Why don’t you come in and—?”

“No, I shouldn’t.” If she walked into that home, into that familiar warmth and love, she might never find the strength to leave.

“I see.” Lottie’s smile dimmed with concern. “Alright. I’ll get her.”

It took all of a minute, but that minute was its own little circle of hell. When Jenelle reached the door, she stepped out on to the porch, and closed it behind her.

“I want to say I’m sorry Jen,” Eva said before Jenelle could open her mouth and very likely tear a strip off her. “For all of it. For everything. I overreacted, and not just yesterday, but so many times. I just—I mean I shouldn’t have…but I did, and you—”

“Eva,” Jenelle interrupted with a lift of her hands. “Stop pacing, you’re making me dizzy. Friends fight. Family fight. They get over it. I’m over it. You were in a mood and took it out on me. I overstepped, and should have consulted you first. I’m sorry, you’re sorry. You know I love you. That’s the end of it.”

Reaching for Eva, she took her hands, smiled. “Sisters fight, Eva. They say stupid things they don’t mean, get angry and forgive each other no matter what. You…those girls, we’re family. You know that, don’t you?”

Tears pricked Eva’s eyes, hot little needles, and she blinked them away. Nodded.

“Good. So enough with that, okay? In future, I won’t make a move without consulting you, and you’ll stop being a prickly pain in the ass. Deal?”

Laughing, Eva nodded again.

Jenelle’s answering smile flashed, and then wavered as a thought struck. “I got so caught up the other day, I forgot to tell you—we had a guy stop by the gallery looking to speak with you. Older, silver-fox type, with really dark eyes that…” Jenelle shook off a chill. Her eyes narrowed and Eva could see she warred with conflicting urges. “I know there’s something going on, something we can’t talk about.”

Eva bit down on her lip, wanting so desperately to open up to Jenelle. But couldn’t find the words. Telling Marshall had been dangerous enough. Doing so with Jenelle

“Jen…”

“No, you don’t have to tell me. It’s just he gave me the creeps. Please be careful. Okay?”

By the time Marshall’s flight landed in BC he was a frazzled wreck. Mouse had found the dirt and the whole sordid mess, shocked him numb.

Eva was a fly caught in an intricate web of a federal investigation—involving surveillance and undercover operatives, she sat at the epicenter of it all.

Mouse wasn’t able to get his hands on too much, the layers went deep and the tape was thick, but he found enough to know for sure that whatever the plan—it was going down, and soon.

Knowing that time was an imperative, the two hour ride on the ferry too slow, he’d secured a speedboat at the dock—some kid who was looking to hit the waves for a bit of evening fun. It had cost Marshall everything he had in his wallet, plus a four thousand dollar diving watch given to him from Danni after snagging his first major journalistic award.

As the kid punched the motor, launching out into open waters, he latched on to the side bar and went to war with his shitty phone and even shittier connection.

What was it with islands and fucking cell phones? Screaming at his, Marshall wanted to chuck it into the fucking Pacific after a fourth failed attempt to call the police station.

Eva had been first number he’d tried, only to discover she’d already disconnected the landline and turned off her cell. It didn’t take much for him to realize that meant she was going to run. His anger paled only to the paralyzing thought that she could be in danger, or worse—dead.

The speed boat had made exceptional time, racing around to the farthest point of Haven in little under thirty minutes, bringing him in to the cove by the cabin he was renting.

The water kicked, strong and fierce, rocking the shore with strong waves.

“Here,” Marshall tossed his wallet in the kids lap. “Get to a landline and call my brother, the head of the police department, Ethan Davies. Tell him to come to Lavender Cottage. There’s a potential suspect on site, armed and dangerous. Bring every badge he has on call and then some.”

The kid gaped at him, nodded a springy head in understanding. Kicking on the motor he sped away from the dock like the devil himself was tearing through the water after him.

Trusting that the boy would get the job done, Marshall ran for the trail, his feet slipping on stones as he raced up the winding path, weaving through trees.

Praying with every panting breath that he wasn’t too late.

***

Eva rolled a line of tape across the top of a box, sealing it shut. One more done. In five hours she’d packed up most of the bedrooms and half of the living room, focusing only on the small and necessary.

The boxes stacked around her like small pillars, swallowing up her life and all that she had hoped to have, but with every one she sealed in long strips of packing tape, a bit of her heart was equally packaged. Leaving her numb, her movements the practiced motions of muscle memory. She knew this song and dance down to the harmonies and could rehearse it in her sleep.

The furniture would have to stay, most of the girls’ toys and sundries, clothes would have be whittled down to manageable scale…This was why she had always kept things light and easy. Why she didn’t believe in getting attached.

Being burned meant they were likely going to face another period of sequestering, and she shuddered at them memory of that tiny, one bedroom hovel with its lumpy couch and lack of basic amenities like cable, internet or a phone, stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

Six months of staring at walls had almost driven them crazy with boredom. This time…well, this time—if they had to go through it all again, Eva would make sure they got through it. And when the time came to move on, maybe she and her girls would venture across the border, or further to Europe?

Her thoughts stilled as she lifted the body of her DSLR. Fingers stroking over the keys. Pictures from the bicentennial winked onscreen. The parade and people. Her girls. And the last had tears welling. Marshall held her in his arms. They were on the tail-end of a laugh, sliding into a kiss. The moment was powerful. Beautiful. There was love there. Real love. And her heart broke over the loss of it. This would be the only piece of him she could take with her was this. And the memories. She’d hold on to those, especially in her worst moments of regret.

Sensing something was amiss, Skittles whined at her feet.

“Easy girl.” Setting aside the camera, Eva stooped to gather her in a hug—because at this point she was too big to pick up, and nuzzled against that wet little nose. “You’re family. Where we go, you go. Promise,” she said and received a couple of soft licks to her cheek.

Jerry wasn’t going to like it, but Eva didn’t give a damn. Come hell or high water, she’d fight for these dogs. She’d failed her girls enough; there was no way she was going to see them wrenched away from the one good thing that had happened to them in four miserable years.

“Come on,” Eva said, scratching Skittles behind the ear. “You guys can sleep upstairs tonight while I finish down here.” Whistling for the dogs she led them up to Payton and Lucy’s room, tucked them inside and shut the door. The pups went without a fuss. LeBron, however, had other thoughts on the matter. Grumbling and whining and woofing his displeasure. Legs locked and rigid she had to drag him into the room, sealing the door shut before he winged back out into the hall.

Day after tomorrow she’d take him over to Lottie’s with some excuse after picking up the girls. Then they’d pile into the car and drive to the ferry, hours before Marshall’s return. Yawning, Eva stretched her arms, rolled them in circles as she shuffled down the stairs, deep in thoughts of organization and dissemination.

Picking up the tape gun, she went back to sealing up boxes. If she could get the rest of the living room done by tonight, tomorrow she could focus on the bathroom and kitchen. Then it would be a cleaning frenzy until—

The pounding at the back door startled Eva enough to drop the tape gun. Marshall stood on the back deck, his face grim and fist raised to beat the glass. Her thoughts whirled, her blood raced, and above the chaos was the thrilling rush of joy to coincide with grief.

He wasn’t supposed to be here. On a plane touching down in Toronto, but not here. Not on Haven. He’d come back.

Eva unlocked the sliding glass door.

“Marshall, I can’t—”

Marshall pushed inside, stalking to her front door and back, looking around as he went. Confused by his strange behaviour, Eva followed him and braced herself for a confrontation, instead when he faced her again, his expression was…relieved?

“Are the girls here?” he asked, so soft she had barely heard him.

“No, they’re—”

“Don’t tell me. Don’t say a word. We need to leave. Now. Trust me.” Taking her hand, he lead her towards the back but Eva’s legs were leaden, her mind a haze.

“Marsh—”

The rest was swallowed up in a kiss. In an embrace. Arms locked around her, his hands held her close, held her tight. And his heart. Christ, it was pounding through his body, drilling straight into hers.

“You’re shaking,” she whispered against his cheek. “What’s wrong?”

“Someone’s listening,” he said under his breath. “Someone’s here.”


Chapter Seventeen

The blow came from behind—a flash of a blade slashed, gouging into the muscle of his arm. So fast neither of them knew what happened until it was already too late.

Marshall turned to his attacker, but his movements were unsteady. Blood. So much blood. A quick flurry and explosive flashes of fists and legs, Marshall was beaten back, his head cracked against the quartz counter and he dropped like a stone.

Eva ran. Her thoughts trained on the alarm upstairs. If she could get to it—reach it, then help would come.

The assailant caught her by the stairs, yanked her down by her throat. Skull cracking against the floor, Eva’s eyes wheeled. Setting a knee to her chest, his hand slapped across her cheek, sending a flaming jolt to bring her back around.

“There she is,” he said through a smile. And Eva got the first real good look at her attacker. Old. At least sixty. Flaxen hair parted over an unassuming face that was…average. Ordinary. But the eyes were shocking dark orbs of a man with no soul. A killer. Not even the wire framed glasses could mask their coldness.

“I had everything planned. So careful. So precise. I was supposed to have time.” Appearing thoroughly annoyed by some inconvenience, he shifted his weight and pressed down on her sternum, hard enough for her ribs to protest.

“Where are they?” He withdrew a knife from a sheath tucked in the waist of his pants. The blade had a curved, custom edge, thin as a scalpel. And Eva imagined it would perform spectacularly in the hands of someone who knew how to wield it.

“I will find them, wherever they are.” He tapped the point beneath the delicate underside of her eye. “Where are they?”

“Take me,” Eva croaked, hands gripping the joint of his knee, surprised by the strong bunching muscles she felt there. The man may have been old, but he was in lethal condition. “They’re children. Please. Children.”

Shhh.” He stroked the dull edge across her cheek, clearing away the spill of tears. “It’s not personal, love.”

Eva grappled against the brawny weight of his leg, kick, struggling. His fingers gripped her head, smacking the back of her skull against the floor. Dazed, Eva groaned.

“Mom.” The barest, softest squeak but the voice ripped through her, loud as a gun shut. The front door was wide open and Hailey stood in the hall, eyes wide with shock and fear, poised to run if only her little body would remember how to move.

The man lifted off her chest, her lungs expanded and, voice hoarse, Eva screamed—screamed for her to run.

The crack of a boot to her face stunned her to silence, sent the world to spin but the sight of Hailey fleeing, and of the man storming off with knife in hand, was enough for Eva to battle to her feet.

Marshall lay in a pool of widening blood, but his chest moved and she had to hope that he could hold out a little longer on his own. She lurched after them, knees weak and stomach churning. The back, they’d gone out the back. And could only hope she wasn’t too late. The yard was dense and thick with garden and bushes and trees. Plenty of places for Hailey to hide. And Hailey was smart. She had to trust that her baby would get away.

She heard the heavy sound of a body crashing through bracken and Eva pushed her legs into a run. The cliffs. The sound had come from the cliffs. And there she found them, Hailey with an open wall of nothing at her back, and the man’s blade at her throat.

“There you are.” He adjusted wire rims with his free hand, sweat sheened his pallid face. “Now we can begin.”

The raw anguished scream of a furious mother leapt into her throat but Eva held it there. Hailey was terrified, and Eva had to be strong for her daughter. For them both.

Hailey sobbed for her, little hands reaching, and it took everything she had not to run to those arms. To keep her eyes glued to the man wielding the knife. He wanted her pain, her fear and the second Eva gave it to him, she knew it would be over.

“Drop the knife!” The command sliced through the tension and though Eva’s gaze didn’t waver, she recognized Ethan’s voice.

“Where’s Marshall,” he demanded, the heavy steps crushing through brush and bracken, weaving from the left so he was aligned with the killer and Hailey. Gun drawn and waiting for a clear shot.

“Inside,” she said. “Unconscious but—”
“I’m here,” Marshall called out and Eva’s heart kicked with relief. Arm hugged to his body, the sleeve of his shirt ripped off and wrapped around the sliced wound to staunch blood. And when he was close enough, Eva could see every muscle in him was rigid with the ferocity of protective rage. “Hurt her and you better hope my brother shoots you dead before I get my hands on you.”

The man shifted his stance, a mathematician accounting for new variables.

And, not liking the answer, his fingers tensed on the hilt and Hailey hissed as blood trickled from a small knick.

“Back away, cop. You too.” He nodded at Marshall before flitting his gaze to Eva. “Mom and daughter are coming with me.”

In the distance she heard the wail of sirens, the tick in his jaw said he heard them, too. Not long. Minutes away. Seconds, even. She only had to keep him focused on her. Trained on her.

Eva stepped forward, hands up, out of Marshall’s reach and ignoring Ethan’s barks for her to get back. Hailey’s body shook with desperate cries and that blood pooled in the collar of her shirt, staining the happy pink.

She locked to his gaze. Cold eyes. Such cold, merciless eyes. So empty and hateful. Though a chill crept through them that said Eva’s stare was just as empty. Just as hateful.

“They’re coming for you,” she said. “You’re cornered. Let her go. Take me. It’s your only chance.”

“You’d think that but I’ve faced worse, and yet here I stand. I’m the Guarantor. I deliver. And I never quit.” The knife slanted, catching the streaming glare from Ethan’s flashlight. “You think this island cop and his ilk can hold me? I’ll get away. I always do. And I’ll come back for you. All of you. And with this knife I will peel the skin from their helpless limbs. I will carve off your eyelids and make you watch as they die in anguish and fear. Screaming for you to save them. Their cries will echo within your skull, driving you mad.”

The whites of his eyes flashed in his skull as he spoke, a crazed killer enjoying his moment in the spotlight, unaware that he dropped his hand—the barest fraction, but enough for Ethan to see a way in.

The crack of a bullet, the sickening punch of it driving into the meat of the man’s arm. The force rocked through his body, his fingers slackened on the blade—dropping it. At Eva’s command Hailey launched out of his arms—ran to her.

Around them, a whirl of lights, of bodies. The cavalry was here. The man regained his bearings—savage hate in his face. Ethan’s gun fired again, another bullet tearing through his side, but still he came. As he said he would, lunging for the knife.

Coming for her. Coming for her daughter.

I’m the Guarantor. I deliver. And I never quit.

The world became a collection of pulsing moments. All sound sucked away in the heady echoing beat of Eva’s heart. For her girls, she could make this sacrifice. Had to.

"Remember, baby. No matter what. I love you." There was no time for kisses of tears or answers. Shoving Hailey into Marshall’s arms, Eva turned–charged. Body low, the knife glanced off her ribs. She drove hard with her shoulder into the muscled belly. Knocking him back, taking him off balance.

Pitching them both over the edge.

They tumbled, a tangle of limbs, his frantic wail ringing in her ears, Hailey’s screams echoing beyond them. Plunging towards the abyss, Eva had a single moment—a breath—to think ‘Oh Shit‘ before they were swallowed up by the pounding black surf.

And gone.

Choking. Salt and water, screaming lungs.

Heavy. Pounding. Splitting scream in her legs. The wail of broken bones.

Choking.

Flashes in and out. The cold rush of wind. Muted voices clashing. Touching. Pulling.

A sharp pinch. And it’s black.

All black.

Beep. Beep. Beep…

 

Eva opened her eyes. Winced against the glare of fluorescents. And with the waking came the growing rush of feeling. Everywhere hurt. Right down to her fucking eye lashes.

The weight of them when she blinked was brutal. Turning her head was a study in hell, but she managed in slow, halting increments. Marshall was slumped at her side, head resting by her arm, his hand on hers. Lottie lay curled up in a chair by her the hospital bed, knitting needles clicking with furious movements.

Lottie only knitted when her nerves were shot.

Eva opened her mouth, tried to make a sound but it came out as a wheeze. Marshall’s head shot up, those needles stopped clacking.

“She’s awake. Eva!” Crushing her hand in his, Marshall kissed her palm, eyes watering with relief. “Baby, I’m here. Can you talk?” Beyond them, Lottie rose, rushing out of the room with cries of ‘she’s awake‘.

“Yes.” Though the croak was dry as dust. “Hail?”

“Fine. She’s fine.” He stroked a hand over her head, unable to stop touching her. “A few stitches to close the cut, but she’s okay. Mom and Jenelle are taking rotations with the girls. We thought it wasn’t a good idea for them to come to the hospital and…God dammit, Eva, what the hell were you thinking?”

Eva tried to shrug but the pain that greeted her made her rethink moving just about anything. “Had to. My girls. My responsibility.”

Marshall bit down hard on his lip, shook his head. “You scared the life out of me. When I saw you go over…”

He brought a cup of water to her lips and Eva swallowed, desperately trying to moisten her throat. “Dead?” she asked.

He nodded, expression grave. “Took three hours to find the body, pull him out. Paramedics say he was pinned beneath you when you took the fall, hit the rocks and buffered you from the worst of it.”

Marshall swept his eyes over her, his heart lurching back into his throat. She was a mess of black and blue, but aside from a broken leg, bruised ribs and ruptured eye socket, the doctors assured him that it looked far worse than it was.

A childhood spent diving from those cliffs meant he knew how to enter the water safely, but the waves had been strong last night, choppy and dangerous making the rescue a two man job. She had barely been conscious when he and Ethan had dragged her out of the water. The undertow had pulled the killer below, shredding him over the rocks like cheese through a grater.

“You saved me,” Eva said, a look in her eyes that said she was only now gaining clarity of preceding events.

“What I did pales in comparison to your own foolish act of bravery,” he said, smiling through tears. “Don’t ever scare me like that again, or so help me I’ll strangle you.”

“Careful, I’d hate to have to arrest the hero of the hour for making idle threats.” Jerry stood in the doorway, wearing a dark coat, FBI emblazoned on the front in bold, white letters. His teasing smile faded as his gaze fell on Eva. “Can ya give us a sec, boy-o? We’ve got some discussing to do. Private like.”

Marshall stiffened at Eva’s side and she looked up at him to see the muscle in his jaw ticking with temper.

“No.” Marshall’s grip on her hand tightened, and though her fingers protested, Eva would sooner they drop off then ask him to let go. “Only way I’m moving is if she asks me to.”

For a moment Eva thought perhaps Jerry might press the matter, throw his weight and authority around a bit, but after a quick shift of his eyes from Marshall to Eva, he nodded through a muttering grumble. And what she thought might be the hint of an approving smile.

“Wanted to say sorry it had to come to this. Wanted ya to hear it first from me, ‘fore anyone else.” Stopping by the end of her bed, Jerry clasped large hands behind him. “As you can see,” he nodded down to the letters on his jacket, “we’ve been working with the FBI on this case. Feds call the man who attacked ya the ‘Guarantor’ as he always guarantees he gets his man…ehm…woman, in this case. Don’t have a name to go on, man’s always been a ghost. At least a hundred aliases that we know of, and twice that in marks. He’s a ruthless S.O.B. Efficient. And doesn’t have much in the way of a conscience.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked pushing the button on the bed, elevated into an upright position.

“Orders came from above.” Jerry rolled grudging eyes to the door where Eva imagined a team of police were gathered. “Had to keep you out of the loop, kiddo. Only way to get him out in the open. Your little media stunt helped, matter of fact,” he nodded at Marshall. “Splashing those articles about gave us an opportunity.”

“You leaked to Catherine Clear. Set Eva up. Almost got her killed,” Marshall snapped. Jerry’s features fell and he at least had the sense to appear ashamed.

“That we did, kiddo. I’m sorry. The flowers are the Guarantor’s calling card, ya see? I knew he was prowling, but we had to give him a nudge. Cases like this can draw out and the manpower we hauled to the island was burning a hole in the budget faster then we could allow. Tossing Clear at ya, forcing ya to rabbit meant he would have to move on ya quick-like.”

“I should have been warned.”

“I’m sorry, kiddo. Wish there could’ve been another way. But now DA has leverage to force the courts to prosecute. Kincaid will go down for life. A few more months and it’s over.”

“Good. And when it is over I want out, Jerry. Me and my girls. And I never want to see your face again.”

Jerry jerked back, but he nodded. Shoulders hunched. “Fair enough. Can’t say it’ll be overnight, but I’ll pull the strings and get ‘er done. Have my word on it.”

Slinking out the door, Jerry was gone, leaving Marshall and Eva alone in the quiet hospital room.

Over the next few days Marshall never left her side, not even when the hospital staff politely—and then not so politely—asked him to leave. Because she was a hideous mess of black and blue bruising, Eva decided to postpone seeing the girls, though she called in to speak with them every single day, it was tough to be apart from them for so long.

After the better part of a week, when Eva finally felt strong enough to get out of the bed and sit in a chair, her broken leg wrapped in a thick cast and propped on a stool for elevation, did she tell Lottie it was time.

“Momma!” Lucy burst into the room first, arms out stretched. Eva caught her in a hug—bruising be damned, and held on tight. Releasing only long enough so she could take hold of each of daughters.

“Oh, my babies. My girls.”

“Mommy,” Payton whispered, brushing away tears from Eva’s cheeks. “Does it hurt?”

Eva looked down to her leg, smiled. “Not really. The hospital is taking great care of me.”

“Mom. I’m so sorry,” Hailey said, teeth worrying her lower lip, tears welling in her eyes. A bandage wrapped in gauze circled her neck, protecting her stitches. “I’ve been stupid and mean. That’s why I came home when I wasn’t supposed to because I wanted you to know I didn’t mean it, when I said I hated you and—”
Eva quelled her harried words with another hug. Kissed her cheek.

“It’s okay, baby. It’s all going to be okay. I promise you.”

“I made you a picture.” Lucy announced, running back to Lottie who stood, weepy in the doorway, and raced back with a large white page splattered in an abundance of colour and shapes and glitter.

Surrounded by her family, Eva listened as Lucy told wild stories and Payton showed her the trophy her team won during the final game of the season and Hailey revealed that even though she couldn’t act in the play, Mrs. Singh let her volunteer as Assistant Director back stage which, apparently, was way cooler then she thought.

Lottie showed Eva photos of everything she’d missed, including a little video of Hailey in action, working behind the scenes, her face alight with wonder and triumph.

“Marshall,” Lucy tugged on his hand, swung it between them, “are you gonna ask her yet?”

“I don’t know, Gummy Bear,” he replied in a stage whisper, “you think now is a good time?”

Lucy nodded vigorously. Both Payton and Hailey exchanged smirking glances.

Eva looked between them, utterly confused. “Ask me what?”

Lucy scampered back to her, bounced on her feet. “Marshall has a really special, really important question he wants to ask you. I know cuz he asked us first and gave us these.”

Lucy stuck a hand under the collar of her shirt and pulled out a necklace she’d failed to notice.

“We each have one.” She dangled a little heart pendant fashioned of pale gold. He said this means we’re special and he loves us.” Eva’s gaze flickered from that little piece of jewelry over to Marshall who was already on bended knee at her side, a glimmer in his eyes that was all joy and laughter and love.

“Okay, I think I’ll take over from here.” He winked at Lucy, and then reached for Eva’s trembling hand.

“I’ve thought about how to do this a million different ways. How to ask you, when to ask you, and every time I come up short because there isn’t anything big enough, grand enough, to encompass just how much I love you, Eva. How much I love these girls. I know you’re thinking I’m leaping into this, propelled by drastic events, but I’m not.” His fingers tightened on her hand, shifted closer on his knee and swallowed a mass of nerves.

“Marshall,” his name seeped out of her in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t think you know what you’re about to take on. We’re a handful, at best.”

“Well, then it’s a good thing I’m good with my hands,” he countered, and the devious, suggestive sparkle in his eyes made her smile. “I told the girls that no matter what your answer, I will always be there for them, if you’ll let me. That’s what those necklaces represent. My vow, my promise to them. And now I’m making mine to you. I’ve got nothing to give you except this,” he said, sweeping a hand between them.

“Me. All of me. Every breath and bone, every hope and prayer. I’ll stand for you Eva. I’ll love you. Today. Tomorrow. Always. Sometimes we’ll drive each other crazy, and it won’t always be easy. You’re complicated, I’m a mess.”

“But together—we’re perfect in our imperfections. There’s no one else I would rather share all of this than with you. Marry me, Eva.”

Beyond them, Lucy bounded and squealed, chanting, “Yes, Momma! Yes, Momma. Yes!

Eva laughed though tears and Marshall reached for the tissue box his mom offered—half-finished as she clutched a wad to mop up her own tears. Setting it on Eva’s lap, he re-gathered her hands.

She looked to her girls, to their bright, incandescently happy faces, to those gorgeous little tokens dangling around their necks. A vow, he’d called it. A promise made and shared between them. Her gaze fell on Hailey last and had never seen her daughter look so…happy. Marshall brought that to their lives. A piece she’d never known was missing.

And no matter what, she knew that he would take them. He would stand for them. Always.

Eva released a slow, calming breath.

“You and I,” she said. “We shouldn’t work. I never expected to love you. To need you. But I do. I can’t say I’ll make things simple, I have my moods and quirks—I’m still figuring out who I am in all of this chaos. But I want to find myself with you. Grow with you. I love you. My answer is yes.”

Eyes glimmering Marshall laughed, gathered her in his arms, his embrace fierce and warm and strong, but gentle. Tender.

“I don’t have a ring,” he said. “That is…I wanted to wait, so we could find one together.”

“I don’t need a ring,” she said between kisses. “Just this. Just you.”

Finally. At long last, Eva had found her Haven. She was home.

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  1. CaliforniaSoulBlog

    I love Fallon’s writing. So rich with originality and actual story; and the way she wrote Eva and especially Marshall are just so well done I enjoyed every bit of their characters.

    Fallon, I wish I can vote 1000x a day! Best of luck to you!

    Soul xo