This is a novel in progress and it could have typos, plot holes and other mistakes, which will be corrected before final publication in April.
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The blue Mustang was parked where it had been parked the night she’d let him talk her into stopping by his apartment. Liz shuddered and rubbed her hands across her arms. She should have picked a better parking space while she waited for Ginny, not one across from Gabe’s physical therapy business.
The planning meeting for the library’s fundraiser was being held at Mooney’s today and Ginny had asked her to come so she could introduce her to the board as the new children’s librarian. Liz still couldn’t believe she’d agreed to take the job. She’d never worked with children before and like she’d told Ginny, she didn’t even really like children, which sounded awful coming from a woman who’d just given birth to a baby a few months earlier.
Ellie Tanner could be the children’s librarian. Not only was she a preschool teacher already but she loved children, which made the fact she couldn’t have any of her own that much more heartbreaking. A guilty ache settled in Liz’s chest again when she thought of Ellie. Here she was, a messed up woman who’d made a thousand poor choices in her past with a baby, while Ellie’s arms were empty. It didn’t make sense and wasn’t fair.
She glanced at the Mustang again, knowing it meant Gabe was in his office, pretending to be the attentive physical therapist that everyone knew and loved. She wondered if he knew how many people actually saw through his façade and knew that the real Gabe wasn’t compassionate, but was instead greedy, dishonest, and selfish.
“Liz, come on. I just want to talk to you.” She could still hear his voice, pleading with her. “We left stuff hanging and I really want to apologize for how I acted and it all ended.” Gabe had laughed as she staggered backwards. “Besides, you look like you could use a cup of coffee before you head home.”
The world had become a swirling mix of bright lights and dull sounds around her and Gabe’s voice sounded like it was drifting down a long hallway. She should have never taken that dare to drown the last of the whiskey in Jimmy Larson’s glass.
“Yeah. Sure.” She had laughed and waved a hand, the ground weaving under her, sending her crashing forward against Gabe. “A cup of coffee would be good.”
Did the whole cup of coffee thing really work to sober a person up anyhow? She doubted it but she’d been too intoxicated to think too deeply about it.
In minutes she was back in the apartment she’d left a few months earlier, her chest tightening when she looked at the bedroom doorway and remembered the night he’d grabbed her arm and dragged her through it. He’d asked her if she remembered what he’d told her that morning. That she needed to clean up her mess before he got home. He didn’t like a messy apartment and she knew that when he moved in.
She’d almost run out of the apartment at that moment, but the alcohol had clouded her judgement, so she’d stayed. Oh, how she wished she hadn’t stayed.
A tap on the driver’s side window startled her, bringing her back to the present. She looked up into Ginny’s bright eyes and welcoming smile. “Hey, coming in?” Ginny mouthed.
Liz nodded and grabbed her purse. As she walked with Ginny she once again wondered where all her confidence had gone. Maybe Isabella had sucked it out of her while she’d been growing in the womb and in the future, she’d be full of the confidence Liz no longer possessed. Before becoming pregnant she would have walked into this meeting with her head held high, believing she could tackle the job and be successful. Now she felt like a frightened little mouse in a cage, wondering when the trap was going to close on her neck.
After Ginny introduced her and the board members and library volunteers all welcomed her with smiles, she felt guilty for having been worried. She still couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t the person for the job, but at least no one was looking at her as if they felt the same way.
She watched Ginny in awe as the woman laid out the final plans for the fundraiser and then discussed some of her ideas for the upcoming year. Looking around the table, Liz noticed even the board members seemed enraptured with Ginny’s ideas and presentation. It was clear that like Matt, Ginny was a treasured member of the community. Though she was happy for her friends and the adoration they received, Liz couldn’t help being a little glad she wasn’t in that category. It would have made her personal failings even more glaring in the eyes of the townsfolk, as her grandfather used to refer to them.
The meeting was being held in the banquet room, which was on the other side of the main dining room. A quick glance through the doorway afforded a view of the diners. As Liz sat and listened to one of the board members offer additional suggestions for upcoming fundraisers, she watched Jason and Alex pick a table and sit down. Mooney’s was one of their favorite places to grab lunch or dinner when they were in town. She wondered if Matt would be joining them.
A server closed the door between the rooms, closing off Liz’s view. She turned her attention back to the meeting, trying her best to show she was an attentive employee, even as she worried she might not be up to the job.
It was a job, though, and she needed it. At this point, beggars couldn’t be choosers. She had to take what she could get it to ensure she and Bella had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.
If having a baby as a single mom had taught her anything, it had been that she wasn’t living life for herself anymore. She had another person to think about. The thought excited her because of her love for Bella, but it also terrified her because she knew if she blew this job, or her pursuit for a degree, it was Bella who would suffer the most.
Alex waved at Matt from a table at the back of the restaurant. It was Matt’s dinner break, and he was grateful Jason and Alex had invited him to join them. Otherwise, he would have been sitting back at the office with a bologna sandwich he’d made at home and a bottle of water, overthinking how he’d almost kissed Liz after that art class the other day. She was so close. He should have just gone for it. She’d stepped away, though, and he’d gotten the feeling she wanted to get as far away from him as possible. He wasn’t sure he wanted to think about why.
If he hadn’t been thinking about her then he would have been thinking about the heroin he and Stan had found at the empty building. He thought Stan was going to wet himself when he’d told him about the drugs and paraphernalia and that they needed to wait there for the state police.
“Drugs? Are they going to think we’ve been doing drugs?” Stan’s eyes had been as wide as saucers and Matt almost forgot he was twenty years older and an experienced real estate agent. He’d been surprised Stan hadn’t come across criminal activity before while selling property in the area, especially in recent years with the explosion of heroin trafficking. Drug dealers seemed to think the more rural areas of Spencer Valley were perfect for hiding their operations and, sadly, they were right.
“So glad you could time in your schedule for us, Officer McGee,” Jason said with a grin as Matt sat across from him.
Alex pushed a menu toward him. “We ordered you a soda and your favorite appetizer of fried mushrooms.”
Matt quirked an eyebrow. “Those are your favorite, Alex.”
“Oh.” Alex grinned. “That’s right. So, I ordered you nothing.”
While they waited for their food, Jason and Alex filled Matt in on how things were going with planning for a corn maze at the farm the next fall. Alex changed subjects abruptly after their food arrived.
“Did Liz tell you about Linda?”
Matt nodded. “Yeah, that was crazy. Luckily, Ginny’s already arranged her a job at the library.”
Alex nudged Matt in the side with his elbow and winked. “Were you there to offer a shoulder for her to cry on?”
No, Matt thought. Because she always throws up a wall when I try to reach out to her.
Matt scowled as he took a drink from his soda. “Very fun—”
Laughter from across the restaurant drowned out his response and he glanced over at the source of the laughter.
His jaw tightened at the sight of Gabe laughing loudly next to the bar with a group of other men, a beer in his hand. Gabe’s smile faded when he caught Matt’s gaze. Matt quickly looked away and turned his attention back to Alex and Jason, not wanting to poke the bear.
Jason stretched an arm across the back of the booth bench. “So, we only have you another month, I guess. We’d better make the most of it.”
Alex popped a mushroom in his mouth. “Movie nights won’t be the same without you and your snarky quips.”
Jason laughed. “Especially when we watch chick flicks.”
Matt shook his head, smiling, but before he could speak, he heard a shout from across the room.
“You’ve had enough, Martin! Go home!”
Matt turned his head to see the restaurant’s owner with his hand around Gabe’s upper arm, dragging him away from the bar.
“I’ve had enough when I said I’ve had enough,” Gabe shouted, turning and taking a swing at the owner.
Alex sighed. “Dang. Looks like you’re back on duty, Officer McGee.”
Matt’s shoulders slumped and he winced. “Yeah, I am.”
In a few steps, Matt was in the middle of the two men, one hand on Gabe’s chest as the bar owner stepped back.
Gabe snorted a laugh. “Oh, look who’s here. Officer McGee. The town golden boy. Come to break up all the fun.”
Matt jerked his head toward the door. “Head home, Gabe.”
Gabe’s tone was mocking as he repeated Matt’s suggestion. “Head home, Gabe.” He sneered at Matt. “Shove it, McGee. You may be able to cast spells over the women in this town, but that’s not going to work on me.”
He poked a finger in Matt’s chest and then staggered backward into the edge of the bar.
Matt rested his hands on his duty belt. He knew if his hands were free, he might not be able to control himself. “Let’s step outside, Gabe.”
Gabe took a step toward Matt, sweat beading across his forehead. “I don’t need fresh air, do you, Officer McGee?
Matt took a deep breath and tightened his jaw, resisting the urge to grab Gabe’s arm and drag him through the restaurant and force him to step outside. “You may not need the fresh air but all the people around you do, so let’s go.”
Gabe stepped forward until he was practically nose to nose with Matt, the stench of alcohol thick in the air. “You think you’re such a big man don’t you, McGee? You’re such a big man you’re even taking credit for knocking up my ex- girlfriend.”
Matt swallowed hard, knowing he needed to stay calm, keep himself in police officer mode by pushing his emotions aside. “Come on, Gabe. You’re drunk and you’re going to say something you regret.”
Gabe laughed, spit hitting Matt’s face. “Regretssss. Such a big word for a tiny-minded man. What will I regret?” He tipped his head, his jaw tight. A small smirk pulled at his mouth a second later as Matt held his gaze. “You know what I don’t regret? All the nights I had Liz in my bed. How’s it feel to have my seconds?”
Bile rose in Matt’s throat, but he didn’t move as onlookers watched, some from their tables, some, such as Gabe’s friends, standing by the bar. “Gabe, I don’t want to have to make you leave this bar, but I will if you don’t —”
“You know what was great about Liz? Do you, McGee? She was easy. In every way. If I wanted her to do something I just told her how happy it would make me, and she did it. Like the night I got her pregnant. She didn’t want mommy and daddy to know what a dirty girl she’d been, how she’d been drinking and partying and popping pills so all I had to do was tell her I’d tell them all about it.”
Matt’s hand flew quickly to the top of Gabe’s head, fingers clutching a handful of hair, yanking the head down while the other hand grabbed the back of Gabe’s shirt. Without speaking he dragged Gabe toward the door in three swift moves while Gabe attempted to flail his arms upward.
“You can’t arrest me!” Gabe screamed. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.”
“I’m not in public! I’m in a bar!”
Matt shoved Gabe toward the glass front doors and then used his body to push them open. Gabe hit the pavement face first.
“Now you’re in public,” Matt hissed.
“Matt! Calm down!” Jason’s voice sounded behind him, but Matt could barely hear him over the roaring in his ears as he stood above Gabe, breathing hard.
Gabe rolled over quickly, his cheek scraped open, blood trickling along his jawline. “What do you think you’re doing, McGee? I didn’t figure you for police brutality. What’s wrong? Can’t stand hearing the truth about your woman?”
Jason and Alex stood at the front of the crowd that spilled out onto the front sidewalk, forming a half circle around the men.
Alex stood behind him, leaned close to his ear. “Ignore him, Matt.”
Matt ignored Alex’s urging and grabbed the front of Gabe’s shirt, lifting him to his feet and him toward the police car a few feet away.
“Turn around, Martin, you’re under arrest.”
Gabe spit blood at the ground and shoved Matt back. A brief struggle ended with Gabe sprawled across the hood of the car, Matt’s elbow in Gabe’s back as he pulled his arms backward.
“If you don’t want a charge of resisting arrest, you’ll shut up and let me cuff you.”
Gabe growled but relaxed his arms as the handcuffs clicked closed. “You’re not going to get away with this.”
Jason stepped next to Matt, placed his hand on his shoulder. “Matt, what are you doing? You need to calm down. This isn’t like you.”
Matt opened the back door of the police car, pushed Gabe’s head down and shoved him inside, then slammed the door shut. He walked away from Jason without looking at him and slid in the front seat of the patrol car.
Gabe leaned forward, blood pouring from his nose. “You’re done, McGee. You hear me? My lawyer is going to destroy you. You’ll never work in this town or any town again when we’re finished with you.”
Matt took a deep breath and started the car, knowing Gabe was most likely right. Not only would he probably lose his job, but he was sure to lose his spot at the state police academy for this. Once he calmed down, he’d decide if it had been worth it.