3:23 PM; CLIFFBURN COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, BUSES
“Are you listening to me?”
Freddie lifted his head, dragging his gaze away from the window. “Sorry?”
Evie’s brow furrowed as she laid the back of her hand on his cheek. “I asked if you were okay. You’ve barely said three words all day.”
“I’m fine. Just… just a little out of it.” Freddie cleared his throat, leaning back against the window. His eyes drifted over to where his sister stood at the edge of the school’s playground, arms crossed over her chest, watching. God, he hoped she couldn’t see Evie through the window. If she didn’t know about Evie yet, he wanted to keep it that way. “I failed the English quiz.”
“Is that why Garvey held you back after class?”
“Yeah. She wanted to make sure nothing was wrong with my home life.” Freddie closed his eyes. “Never failed a quiz in my damn life.”
“Hey, baby, it’s okay. We all have bad days. Do you get to retake it?”
He nodded against the cold window. “I have until Friday to study for it again.”
“And you’ll be better at it on Friday, I promise,” she said, rubbing a small circle on his upper back. “I’ll even help you study, Fredster. You’ll pass with flying colors.”
“Thanks, Ev,” Freddie murmured, forcing his eyes open as the bus doors closed. He watched his sister as the buses pulled away from the school. He didn’t live all that far away, but when it was cold outside, it was certainly a hell of a lot better to ride the bus than to walk out to the farm. “Is tonight too soon?”
“Yeah, but I’ll ask my parents and come over tomorrow after school.”
“No problem.” Evie wrapped her arms around one of his. “I worry about you, Freddie.”
“You always seem lost in your own little world, like you’ve got way too much shit on your mind.”
If only you knew, Freddie thought. “Things just get a little stressful at home every now and then. Taking care of the farm, taking care of myself, making sure Grandpa does something more than sit and watch TV, making sure Faith is safe and okay and taken care of. Faith that she isn’t going to turn into a bloodthirsty monster like Mother and Fiona. Faith that I’ve raised her better than that. Faith that she’ll forget all about the time Mother made us—
“Have you ever tried to talk your grandpa into hiring help?”
“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think he’d go for it. Pride and whatnot.” Freddie lifted his shoulders. “When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I’d want to hire help, either. It’s our farm, and I… I don’t want anyone else touching it.”
“Freddie couldn’t help but wonder why she hadn’t asked if his older sister had plans to come back and help, but it quickly clicked in his head that had never told Evie about Fiona. Evie hadn’t come to Cliffburn until after Fiona had graduated, and she had no idea his killer sister existed.
Christ, was he thankful he’d kept his mouth shut about Fiona.
At his house, Freddie got off the bus and headed up the gravel lane, hands wrapped around the straps of his backpack. On the deck, he pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the front door. He stepped inside, kicked off his boots, and dropped his bag to the floor. He closed the door and made his way to the living room.
Faith looked up from the television, where a repeat episode played of some children’s cartoon about fairies and what looked like weird trolls, but he wasn’t sure. “Hi, Freddie.”
“Hey, sweetheart.” Freddie sat down beside his little sister, draping his arms over his knees. “What’re we watching?”
“Mm… I dunno.”
Freddie chuckled. “Tragic. Looks great.”
Faith lifted a shoulder. “It’s kinda dumb. They try to find a place to get away from the cold, but…” She threw both hands out toward the screen. “There’s a house right there.”
“Well, that’s just because you’re already too smart for these kinds of shoes,” Freddie said. Faith, four years old and starting preschool the following August, had gotten bored with cartoons that requested the viewer to point out the obvious solution almost a month ago. It had been around that time that Freddie feared his sister would eventually be smarter than he was, that he’d never be able to help her figure out much of anything in the world.
But she still needed him to define certain words for her, and she still asked him to read to her at night, so he felt like he had time to learn to deal with that possibility.
Freddie cleared his throat. “We need to talk about Fiona.”
“If she ever comes to this house while I’m gone, you don’t unlock the door for you. You don’t open the door. You don’t talk to her or let her inside.”
“Because… because Fiona wants to take you away from me,” Freddie said. He didn’t know for certain if Faith was on his older sister’s radar or not, but he wanted to know he was prepared for the worst.
“I won’t let her inside,” Faith promised. “What if she comes in on her own?”
“Then you call the cops.”
“Nine-one-one,” Freddie confirmed.
“Okay,” Faith said simply, turning her attention back to the television. Freddie let out a nearly inaudible breath, closing his eyes. If his older sister was watching him now, how the hell would he tell the cops about her?
5:01 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, KITCHEN
Bo lifted his head as Jensen walked into the kitchen and tossed the keys to his cruiser onto the counter. “So… did you turn up anything useful?” Bo asked, picking up the key to drop it into the little wooden bowl on the counter.
“Depends on your definition of useful,” Jensen mumbled. He rounded the counter and pressed a kiss to Bo’s forehead. “Hey, sweetheart.”
“Hi, Daddy,” Amber greeted, barely looking up from the potato she was peeling over the sink.
“Some of the regulars believe they may have seen the woman, others are absolutely certain they saw her. Some know they didn’t, some think they didn’t, and some were one hundred percent too drunk to remember if they saw her or not.” Jensen pulled open the refrigerator, eyes scanning the shelves before he found a bottle of beer. “Helpful thing, though. One of the guys we questioned said she was definitely black. He saw her when she was up by the bar, so we can confirm that now.”
“Well, that’s something,” Bo said.
Jensen nodded. He leaned back against the counter and twisted off the bottle cap. “Did you read through my notes from Will’s questioning?”
“Yes. She was definitely twenty-one, then?”
“Well, that’s what Will remembered seeing on her ID, anyway. He doesn’t remember the name on it. Doesn’t remember if he even saw it. Just the age and her picture.”
“Something is still better than nothing,” Bo said. Jensen only nodded. “But… nothing else came of the interviews?”
“Nah. Couple people told us that it’s our fault for not having better laws. But that’s about it.”
“You don’t make the laws. It’s your job to enforce them.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Then I kindly reminded her we don’t work at bars to enforce said laws, but she could’ve saved the girl since she was in the bar.”
“Then Jake sent me to sit in the cruiser for being a bad influence on the interview.”
Bo chuckled. “Smooth move, Einstein.”
One corner of Jensen’s mouth lifted. “Thanks, babe.”
“Sure thing, love.” Bo leaned up and kissed Jensen, thankful that the man didn’t exactly taste like beer yet, just mint with the slightest taste of alcohol and whatever chapstick he’d put on before coming into the house. “I’m going to the gym. Kay’s in the family room with the boys, Hati and Acky are asleep in our room, Amber’s your helper for supper, and both recipes for food are open on your tablet. I’ll be back in an hour.”
“All right, Eli. You gonna do a bit of boxing?”
“That’s the primary plan. Boxing, cool down jog, shower, home.”
“Sweet.” Jensen smiled. “Once it’s warm out, we should look into building a shed outside, make it our own little gym. Then we don’t have to go far.”
“I… shall add that to a to-do list so we don’t forget,” Bo assured. “I love you both. I’ll be back soon.”
“Love you, Eli,” Jensen said at the same time Amber said, “Love you, Daddy.” Bo pressed a kiss to the top of Amber’s head and grabbed his keys from the bowl on the counter. Bo hoped the workout would serve as a destressor from the doubt his mind had instilled in itself during the day before he called Mekhi to assign him and his men to dig up information on the cartel.
6:32 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, KITCHEN
Bo stood at the counter, his phone held between his ear and his shoulder. Jensen and the kids were in the family room, eating and picking out a movie. Bo planned to join them soon, but the call to Mekhi needed to be made first. He knew damn well he’d never do it if it didn’t happen before joining his family.
“Hey, Boss,” Mekhi greeted. “What can I do for you?”
Bo smiled faintly, closing his eyes. Having so many people jump to help him was still an incredibly odd concept, though he didn’t entirely mind it. Mind or not, he wasn’t sure how long it would take before he was used to it. “I have a mission for you.”
“Sweet. I’m in great need of something to do,” Mekhi said. “What’s up?”
“I need some information dug up on a cartel. According to Carmine, they ran up through Los Angeles a year ago, and they’ve been there instead of Mexico ever since.” Bo cleared his throat, opening his eyes. “Isaac Sáez. Does the name ring any bells for you?”
“Mister Pitman had us keeping tabs on them. They operate primarily in L.A., but they’ve been made aware that selling drugs inside of L.A. gets ‘em killed,” Mekhi said. “What do you need to know about them?”
“One of their men killed a member of the Lucchese Family. I need to know if the boss, Isaac, ordered the murder of Lorenzo or not.”
“So we’re looking to see if bossman knew about the crime, or if his man just jumped off the deep end?” Mekhi asked.
“More or less.”
“Can do, Boss. When do you need it by?” Mekhi asked.
Bo looked down at his watch. “Sometime before eleven PST, if that’s at all possible for tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, I’ll do you one better, Mister Austen. Nine o’clock PST.”
“I’m entirely okay waiting until eleven.”
Mekhi chuckled. “I like being put on the clock, sir.”
“Okay. Nine PST.”
“I’ll call you in sixteen hours and about thirty minutes. TTYL, Bossman,” Mekhi said.
Bo rolled his eyes, unable to fight the smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “I’ll talk to you later, Mekhi. Stay safe.”
“Always do, sir. Ta for now.”
Bo chuckled. “Ta, Mekhi.” He pulled his phone from his ear and ended the call. He tucked his phone away, grabbed his plate from the counter, and walked into the family room. He sat down on the edge of the lounge, setting his plate beside Jensen before sliding back on the couch, sitting between his husband’s long legs.
“All good?” Jensen asked.
“All good,” Bo echoed.
“Sweet,” Jensen whispered. He pressed a kiss to Bo’s shoulder. “Told you you’d be amazing at this job.”
Bo squeezed the younger man’s thigh. “Thank you, Jens.”
“Mm… always a pleasure, babe.”
11:49 PM; CLIFFBURN, BUBBA’S SPORTS BAR
Fiona couldn’t give two shits about sports, to say the least. Still, she had assumed a sports bar would be the best place to nab an unsuspecting man. Mom had never only had to kill weak or drunk women. Fiona didn’t plan to be stuck to one option, either. When it came to that night, she figured the large percentage of males in the bar only helped her case when it came to choice of victims.
A man slid into the bar stool beside her. “Buy you a drink?” he asked, a charming smile on his face.
“Sure. Just a beer.” He nodded, holding up two fingers to grab the bartender’s attention.
“Be with you in just a sec, Buddy,” the woman said.
“Nickname.” He stuck out a hand. “Brandan.”
Fiona grabbed his hand. “Zoe.”
“Pleasure to meetcha, Zoe.”
Fiona smiled. “Pleasure’s all mine.”
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