Relationship Material

Relationship Material

Author: Jenya Keefe

It's not always possible to meet in the middle.

Registered nurse Evan Doyle doesn’t consider himself fit for more than occasional hookups. He has a good life, but the emotional aftermath of a horrific crime makes him feel too damaged to date. So when his sister’s hot bestie, Malcolm Umbertini, comes on to him, he turns him down flat. Mal is Relationship Material: the kind who thinks in the long term. What would Evan do with a man like that?

As a prosecuting attorney, Mal’s learned how to read people, and he knows there’s more to Evan than meets the eye. Mal has faced his own hardships since his family kicked him out as a teen, and he respects Evan’s courage and emotional resilience. More than that, he wants Evan—in his bed and in his life. But can he weather another rejection?

Both wary, they agree to a no-strings fling. Mal knows that Evan wants things to stay casual, but he’s falling in love a little more with each encounter. With health, happiness, and bruised hearts on the line, Mal and Evan must risk everything for love.

Price: $3.99

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Child Abuse (past)
Drug Use (references to past interaction with drug users/drug dealers)
Emotional Abuse Explicit Violence (past)
Eating Disorder (past)
Non-Consent (Discussion of past incident)
Self-Harm (references)
Sexual Assault (Discussion of past assault) 

Chapter One

Evan Doyle practiced mindfulness.

He sat at an outdoor table in front of his favorite coffee shop, focusing on the sensations of the moment: the chill and dampness of the autumn air on his face and hands. The gold and red maple leaves that whirled through the air. The presence of his dog, curled at his feet under the table. The smell of his coffee in its warm ceramic mug, the inky smell of the folded newspaper it was holding down, open to the crossword puzzle. Mother’s sister, in Monterrey. He clicked the top of his ballpoint pen and wrote TIA.

“Alex!” shouted a woman’s voice.

He startled and felt Dulcie jump. That shout—that name—shattered Evan’s calmness into a million shards. He looked up to see Caroline Farkas, standing there on the sidewalk across the street, staring at him.

He hadn’t seen his sister in fifteen years.

Fear crawled all over his skin, raising his hair, tightening his guts, sucking the air out of his lungs. Caroline, one palm on her heart, opened her lips as if to shout Alex again. Evan made an instinctive, convulsive shushing gesture, and she put her hand over her mouth.

He stood up, almost knocking over his chair; said, “Come on,” to Dulcie; and walked away, leaving his newspaper and coffee behind.

Evan turned right and hurried down a side street, his dog trotting at his heels. In the alley behind the coffee shop he waited. Even after all these years, he knew Caroline would follow: now that she’d seen him, she would never give up, so he might as well just wait. Dulcie stood alertly at his feet, waiting with him.

“Alex?”

His sister, very grown-up in a gray suit and white blouse, picked her way down the grubby alley toward him. She looked beautiful. Clean and professional, her sensible low heels tapping on the dirty asphalt. She didn’t belong in an alley, with the coffee shop’s dumpster, with the smell of damp and sour milk, with him.

No air seemed to be entering his lungs. He gulped for breath. His skin flushed, both hot and cold.

“Alex,” she said, coming closer. She didn’t know that each Alex was like a dart in his skin. Still unable to breathe, he braced himself on his knees, head hanging.

He was dying.

He knew what was happening, knew his fear was irrational: panic attacks weren’t fatal and there was no danger from Caroline, of all people in the world. But his breath whistled in his throat, his heart hammered with terror. Dying.

Caroline was touching him. “Hey. It’s okay. Alex, it’s okay.” Then Dulcie was there, pushing her away with a kind of wagging stubbornness. The dog shoved her cold nose against his hot face, ran back to Caroline, then back to him. Back to Caroline to shoulder her farther away, then back to Evan. He caught her in his arms and hugged her. She smelled of clean dog.

I’m dying. I’m dying. His skin and hands were prickling with paresthesia caused by hyperventilation. Dulcie had driven Caroline to the other side of the alley. Created a safe zone around Evan. He tried counting his breaths. Deep calming breaths from the diaphragm. It wasn’t working. Dulcie leaned into Evan and he buried his face in her fur. Breathe. Breathe.

“Okay,” Caroline was saying. “It’s all right, Alex.”

Eventually the diaphragm breathing and the press of Dulcie’s body calmed him, as it always did. The irrational conviction of imminent death subsided. He managed to get his eyes open, uncurl from his crouch, wipe the sweat and tears off his face.

Caroline was leaning against the brick wall of the alley, arms held tightly across her chest, face white and taut.

“I’m okay,” he whispered.

She nodded.

“I’m okay,” he said again. Just an anxiety attack. A little panic for no reason.I’m fine. He was fine.

After a moment, he managed to say, “You’ll mess up your clothes.”

“I don’t care about my clothes.”

Once she’d agonized over her clothes. She used to comb the Goodwill aisles, alter her thrift-store finds with needle and thread so they’d fit better, so she could walk tall in their high school hallways. A proud teenage girl, driven to express herself and to fit in.

That had been fifteen years ago, of course. She wasn’t that kid anymore. No doubt she was just as proud, just as resolute; but now she could probably afford to get that good suit cleaned.

“We can’t talk here,” he said.

“Okay,” she agreed. “Where?”

“My place. Tomorrow.” He looked up, met her eyes as fearlessly as he could. “Come alone, Caroline. Don’t tell anyone you saw me. Don’t let anyone follow you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m serious.”

“I know.” She pushed off the wall, took a step closer. Her hands opened and closed, and then she folded them tightly, as though she wanted to touch him and was holding herself back. “Tell me where.”

He held out a hand, and she approached and took it. Her hand was cool and much smaller than his own. He gently turned it over, pushed up the sleeve of her blazer, fished his pen out of the pocket of his flannel shirt, and wrote his address on her arm, on the pale skin where the sleeve would cover it. “After lunch sometime. We’ll talk. About everything.”

She touched the messy blue ink on her skin with her free hand. “I’ll be there,” she said. “Will you?”

Would he? This was his chance. He had almost twenty-four hours to disappear. She must know he was thinking about it.

He met her eyes. “I’ll be there.”

“Alex?” she whispered. “Where have you been?”

“I’ll tell you,” he promised his twin. “Tomorrow.”

***

“Goddamn it.”

Evan stood at his kitchen window, looking out across his front yard, where a car was pulling off the main road and into his long gravel driveway. Two people were in the car, visible even from this distance.

Dulcie, out on the front porch, pointed her nose at the sky and gave her alarm bark—a high woo-woo-woo, immediately followed by hasty retreat through her dog door to his side in the kitchen, where she sat anxiously at his heels.

Dulcie was not much of a guard dog.

Evan was nervous too. He glanced around his place, wondering what Caroline would think of it. His house was an old A-frame cottage, out past the town of Corbett in the hills above the Columbia River Gorge. It used to be somebody’s old fishing cabin, dilapidated, isolated, but with four acres of wooded land and its own icy rushing stream. Perfect for a paranoid recluse like himself. He’d bought it for a song, replaced the roof, stripped it to the studs, and was slowly renovating it, room by room. The kitchen and downstairs bathroom were done—new tiles, new countertops and fixtures, fresh paint. The rest of the house was plywood and dust, and the yard was a carpet of unraked fallen leaves.

The car made its slow way up the gravel driveway to the house and stopped behind Evan’s pickup. Caroline got out from the driver’s seat and stood for a moment, looking at the mountains, the stream, Evan’s little house. She hadn’t known how to drive when he’d seen her last. Neither of them had.

Slim and upright as a girl, his twin had grown up into a small woman, but she had a settled air about her now: confidence, instead of bravado. Her jaw was firm, and her gaze level. She wore jeans and a windbreaker, and her straight dark hair shone in the autumn sun.

A guy unfolded himself from the passenger side, and Evan clenched his hands on the countertop. He was tall, good-looking, and for God’s sake he was wearing a charcoal suit and a red tie, in the Cascade Mountains, on a Saturday. He put his hands in his pockets, peering around, his expression one of refined distaste.

What a douche.

Dulcie, sensitive to his anxiety, made a crooning sound. “It’s all right,” he told her, hoping it was true.

Caroline and the douche were now coming up the walk toward the house. She seemed nervous, tucking her hair behind her ears. Their footsteps echoed hollowly on the boards of the porch. Dulcie woofed, and he said, “Go to bed.” She went into the stripped living room and jumped up on the armchair there as Caroline knocked on the front door.

He let them in. Took Caroline’s hand. It was cold.

“Hey,” she said, a little hesitantly. “It’s me.”

“Hey, Kiki.” He glanced at the tall guy in the suit and then back to Caroline. “You brought a friend.”

“This is Malcolm Umbertini. Mal, Alex.”

He didn’t say anything. He just looked at her—and like always, she understood him as if he’d spoken aloud. He could tell, because she got right in his face, jabbed him in the chest with one finger, and said, “Shut up.”

He glared.

Her eyes, clear blue and more familiar than his own, shone with furious tears. “You disappeared. Mom died. Derrick got killed right in front of my eyes. Where the hell were you? Gone. Gone. You have been gone for fifteen years and I needed you, Boxy. I needed you, and you weren’t there, so you don’t get to tell me that I can’t go to someone else for help. Mal is my friend and he was there for me when you weren’t. He's the person who is there for me when I need it, because you weren’t around. And I needed help, so he’s here, and that’s it. Okay?”

“Okay,” he managed to whisper. Her face went blurry; he was tearing up too. He pulled her into his arms.

She punched him in the shoulder, fairly hard, her lashes black with tears. “Okay?”

“Okay. I’m sorry. It’s okay.” He held her tight and pressed his face into her hair while she cried on his chest. “Shh, don’t. I’m sorry.”

Evan glowered over her shoulder at her friend. The one she had turned to since he hadn’t been around.

The guy, Malcolm Umbertini, was seriously handsome, with olive skin and a long Italian nose, heavy-lidded brown eyes, full lips over a square jaw. His dark hair was neatly barbered and combed. He looked like Dean Martin’s sexier brother.

He also looked like an asshole. He was standing with his hands on his hips, glancing around like he was afraid to get dust on his good clothes. His upper lip had a curl to it that resembled disdain.

“God,” said Caroline, sniffling, stepping back from Evan and dashing tears out of her eyes. “I’m happy to see you, Boxy, but I’m so angry with you.”

He nodded.

“Can I use your ba?”

He smiled, despite the tension. Ba was one of their many childhood words for everyday things, ones no one else used. “Through there.”

“Okay.” She retreated into the finished bathroom, leaving him with her tears on his shirt, alone with good old Mal.

He wiped his own eyes, turned away. “Have a seat,” he said gruffly, gesturing to the card table with folding chairs where he ate his meals. “Want a cup of coffee? I mean, it’s decaf.”

“Sure.”

“Cream or sugar or anything?”

“Black. She likes cream.”

Of course fucking Malcolm Umbertini knew how Caroline took her coffee and Evan didn’t. Neither of them had drunk coffee fifteen years ago.

He pulled a little carton of cream out of the refrigerator and set it on the table, then reached up into the cabinet for cups. He poured the coffee and then turned, just in time to catch Mal checking out his ass.

He blinked at him; Mal lifted his eyes to meet Evan’s without shame or hesitation. Instant, unmistakable recognition.

Evan held Mal’s gaze as he set a brimming coffee cup down in front of him. “So,” he drawled, “how long have you been dating my sister?”

Mal smiled, a slightly one-sided curl of his lips that revealed a vertical dimple and a slice of sharp white teeth. A snarl of a smile. Maybe even a sneer of a smile.

“Fair question,” he said. “We’re friends. She knows I’m gay.” Mal had a big voice, a kind of rich flexible baritone, every word clearly enunciated like he was performing on a stage. He sipped the coffee in a leisurely fashion, his eyebrows going up a little in challenge. “Does she know you’re gay?”

“Unless she thinks I’ve changed,” retorted Evan. This guy was unbelievable. “Hey, Kiki,” he called, as Caroline emerged from the bathroom. “Did you know I’m gay?”

Caroline looked flushed and damp, but composed. “Why, have you changed?” she asked. “You told me you wanted to marry Brian Littrell when you were eleven.”

“Backstreet Boy,” said Mal surprisingly. “Solid choice.”

Caroline took off her jacket and sat down at the card table. “Wonder what Brian Littrell’s been doing for the last fifteen years?”

“Being straight, I’m pretty sure,” Evan said, putting Mal out of his mind. “Want some do? No caffeine.”

“Sure.”

He filled cups, set them on the table, fetched some spoons for the cream. “If I recall, you preferred Justin Timberlake.” He sat beside her.

“Yes, well. My taste in boys has always been kind of a problem,” she admitted.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Were you dating Manuel Hernandez in high school?”

He smiled at the memory. He hadn’t thought of Manny Hernandez in years. “Oh, yeah, but ‘dating’ might not be the right word.”

Caroline’s eyes flicked down to the carton—heavy whipping cream, full fat—and there was cool assessment in her gaze. She didn’t take any.

There was so much to say. So many explanations, excuses, apologies. He didn’t even know how to start. The pressure of all the things he needed to say, but didn’t know how, sat like lead in his chest.

His very first therapist, the one his foster parents had taken him to when he’d been deep in the awful throes of recovery, had talked to him about balance. She’d said it was natural to avoid the things that frightened you, but you couldn’t avoid the people who love you. “Don’t reject people because you’re afraid they’ll reject you,” she’d said. “You have to try to find a balance.”

Just start.

“First off, you need to know this.” He pulled his wallet from his pocket and gave her his driver’s license. “Accounts of the death of Alex Farkas are completely true. This is my legal identity now.”

“Evan Doyle,” said Caroline, fingering the plastic rectangle. “Irish name.”

“We could be Irish,” he said.

She smiled. “We could. Hey, you’re older than me now.”

She’d been born six hours before him. “Sorry about that.”

“WITSEC?” asked Mal.

Evan glanced Mal’s direction. He had been successfully ignoring him. “The state version. CalWRAP. California Witness Relocation and Assistance Program.” He sipped his decaf. “You can’t call me Alex anymore. It’s dangerous, not just for me. You nearly gave me a heart attack yesterday, Caroline.”

“I noticed. Witness protection?”

Her voice and expression were neutral. Was she skeptical? No. He’d talked to a lot of lawyers in his day, and they all did this. It was an open-ended question, clearly designed to elicit an explanation. “It’s a long story,” he said. “The danger seemed real at the time. It still does.”

“What are you doing in Portland?”

“I got a job here two years ago. I thought you were in Baltimore.”

“I was. Four years ago I moved here.” She extended the license between her fingers. “So you didn’t come here to find me.”

“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have dared come if I did.” He took the ID, put his wallet back into his pocket. “I’m sorry I stayed away. I’d have come sooner, if I thought it was safe.”

She bit the inside of her cheek. “Can I still call you Boxy?”

“I think so. Yeah, Kiki.”

He wanted to hold her hands, to hug her again, but she was sitting rigidly, gripping her cup in front of her. In spite of her calm appearance, the cup trembled.

Unexpectedly, she smiled. “So you finally got a gie.”

Relieved, he smiled back at her. “Yeah.” How they’d longed for a gie of their own, when they were kids. “Her name is Dulcie.”

Hearing her name, Dulcie hopped down from her chair and came into the room, toenails tapping on the floor. Caroline unbent and patted her thigh, and Dulcie approached her, tail wagging, to have her head stroked.

“Is she a therapy animal?”

“Yes, and she cost an arm and a leg.” Then he answered the question behind her question. One of them. “I have chronic anxiety. She’s great.”

“I saw how she was with you.” She ruffled the soft fur behind Dulcie’s ears. “Do you have someone now? Boyfriend?”

“Not so much,” he admitted. “You? Do you have a family?”

“My job,” she said, lifting one thin shoulder slightly.

“I never thought you’d be a lawyer,” he said. “I thought you wanted to be a math teacher.”

“Well, that day changed everything,” she said, and they both knew what day she meant: the day their mother had died, the day he’d left home. “I wanted to help victims of crimes.”

He noticed that he was fiddling with a spoon, and put it down. “So, just the job?”

“Some good friends. I do have a boyfriend, but he’s probably not long-term.”

That was sad. She deserved to be loved by someone steady. How hard had the years been for her, alone? Her wrists were thin, and there were blue smudges under her eyes. She hadn’t taken any cream in her coffee, even though her friend Mal had said she liked it. “Are you still playing the Food Game, Caroline?”

Caroline’s soft blue eyes saw right into the middle of his heart, just like always. “Two thousand calories a day, whether I want ’em or not. Are you?”

He smiled at her and poured about a hundred calories into his coffee, then set the carton down firmly in front of her. She pressed her lips together and added some cream to her cup too.

Chapter Two

If Mal wasn’t mistaken, Alex Farkas had just goaded Caro into adding cream to her coffee.

Mal wished he could vanish into the woodwork as Caro and her brother stared each other down over decaf, their profiles near mirror-images of each other. He knew that Caro struggled with an eating disorder; he was mildly impressed that her brother seemed to know that as well, given that he hadn’t seen her in— How long had she said? Fifteen years? Mal had assumed the eating disorder had started after her mother died, but if Evan knew, it was older than that.

“I didn’t even expect you to be here this afternoon,” Caro was saying. “I thought we’d get here and find out you’d given me a fake address. Given me the slip. Are you going to disappear again?”

“I—” started Alex. Evan, Mal reminded himself. “I maybe should. I—I really like my job, though. And I own this place. Me and the bank, I mean. I don’t want to keep running. I like it here.”

Mal certainly hoped Evan wasn’t planning to split. Caro would be shattered, and he would be the one to pick up the pieces. Caro Farkas was one of the few people who had never let Mal down, not once. She was the sister he’d never had, the family he’d chosen. He’d do anything for her. Even sit at this table where he was not wanted, drinking decaf that he did not like, and listening to a conversation that was none of his business.

And Caro needed the support. Her mother had been murdered and her brother had vanished when she was sixteen. It was a calamity from which she’d never entirely recovered. The loss of Alex, especially, had left a gaping wound that no one could ever fill. She had a tiny tattoo of an x over her heart—the missing variable, the lost piece of her life.

Now here he was, Caro’s brother, gone so long he was almost a myth.

Mal shifted in his chair, hoping his discomfort wasn’t obvious. That morning, he had tried to refuse to come along on this visit, but Caro had begged him.

“Listen, odds are good that he won’t even be there. And if he is there, he might not want to talk to me. He might feed me some bullshit story.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I don’t know who he is anymore, but I do know he’s a survivor of trauma. You should have seen him. Even if he wants to tell me everything—which is a big if—it’ll be tough for him to face.” Mal’s reluctance must have shown in his expression, because she’d added, “Mal, you’re good at this. I need you to help keep the conversation moving forward. Ask the hard questions.”

“You’re just as good.”

“You think so?” She’d pursed her lips. “Maybe normally. But I survived some of the same stuff. Come on, Mal. Ask the questions that are too hard for me. Help me cut through the bullshit—including mine.”

Now she asked Evan, “Where did you go? That Thanksgiving when we were sixteen?”

“You know where I was that day,” said Evan.

“I don’t,” she said. “I was at the kitchen table doing my calculus homework. Mom and Derrick were in the En. You’d started vanishing that summer. I never knew where you went.”

“I was in the En.”

Caro’s eyebrows drew together.

“Keep the conversation moving.” Mal asked, “What’s the En?”

When Caro didn’t answer, Evan glanced at Mal and explained, “Our house had a detached garage with a little studio apartment upstairs. Mom said that we were going to rent it out for more income.”

“We called it the Eagle’s Nest for a joke,” said Caro. “Later we shortened it to E.N., and then just En.”

“We never did rent it out, because then she met her boyfriend, Derrick,” said Evan. “By the time we were in high school, she was spending most of her time up there partying with him and his friends.”

It wasn’t quite the bullshit Mal had been warned about, but boyfriend, partying, and friends were euphemisms. Derrick Lee Sanders had been Kimberly Farkas’s dealer and pimp. Caro knew that, but Evan didn’t know that Mal knew it too.

“And that summer,” Evan said slowly, “I started partying with them.”

She nearly dropped her cup. “You did what?”

“I know I didn’t tell you,” said Evan, reaching across the table for her hands, “but I always thought you knew.”

You were a child,” Caro cried. Her face went red, her eyes filling with tears again. Instead of taking his hands, she crossed her arms tightly, tucking her fists into her armpits.

Mal was similarly horrified. He felt a stab of compassion for the boy Evan had been. A minor, dragged into a world of hard drugs and prostitution? It would have been a desperately bad situation.

“Hey, don’t cry.” Evan kept his hands outstretched on the table.

“Did she know?” demanded Caro, her voice hoarse. “Did she know?”

“Yeah. She knew. She was there.”

“How could she let you? How could she?”

“Kiki, please,” he begged softly.

Sniffling, she unfolded herself, rested her hands in her brother’s. He clasped them, and his eyes were wet now too. “Please, you gotta keep it together. This isn’t even the bad stuff.”

“It gets worse?”

“Yeah,” said Evan again, laughing a little. “This is the happy part of the story.”

“Oh, Alex, why?”

“Evan," he corrected her. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

There was the bullshit. Mal and Caro both stared at her brother incredulously. He looked just as upset, his eyes red-rimmed, but he only squeezed her hands.

Mal judged, from the stubborn set of Evan’s jaw, that it wouldn’t be productive to press this point. Why was often a dead-end line of questioning anyway; better to nail down the sequence of events before delving into the reasons behind them.

There was a box of tissue on the kitchen counter, and Mal got up and brought it back to the table. Both siblings wiped their eyes.

Evan’s dog sat up at his feet with a drama-queen sigh, and pointedly pawed at his thigh.

Mal said, “Is she distracting you on purpose?”

“Yep.” Evan petted the dog. “She can tell I’m getting keyed up in here.”

Caro followed Mal’s lead, changing the subject for a lighter one. “Manny Hernandez got Arista Jones pregnant senior year. I went to their wedding.”

“Really? Well, junior year he liked dick. Maybe it was just a phase.”

Caro laughed weakly through her tears. Mal sipped his coffee patiently, as she blew her nose and visibly gathered her strength. She was, despite her pretty looks, one of the toughest people he knew. When he thought she was ready, he prompted, “Thanksgiving Day.”

Caro looked at Mal gratefully, and turned back to Evan. “Yes. Let’s do this. Thanksgiving Day. I was doing my calculus homework at the kitchen table. You were—”

“In the En,” said Evan. “With Mom and Derrick. And the guy Derrick had brought over that day. His name was John Nesbit Everett. His buddies called him Nez.” He took a deep, steadying breath. “He’d just gotten out of prison after a two-year term for stalking and assault.”

Oh shit.

“And . . . and things got kind of out of hand.”

Mal raised his eyebrows but said nothing. If he were interviewing Evan, he’d allow this evasion and circle back to it later.

But Caro couldn’t do that, not today. “Is that who killed them?” she demanded. “John Nesbit Everett killed Mom and Derrick?”

Evan said nothing, his face white, his eyes down.

“You must have witnessed it,” she pressed. “I saw Derrick come flying out the window. I saw him hit the pavement. The police said that the third man in the En must have killed them both. They never found him. Or you.”

“I . . . Yes. I saw it all.”

Caro gulped for breath. “Sorry,” she said. “Just a second.” With dignity, she stood up and walked out of the kitchen. The bathroom door shut behind her with a bang, and then the sound of her throwing up clearly reached them in the kitchen.

“I guess I need to soundproof that bathroom better,” sighed Evan.

***

While Caro took her break, Evan sent Dulcie back to her chair and got up, unasked, and filled Mal’s coffee cup.

So this was awkward. Here Mal was in Evan’s kitchen, drinking his decaf, having just engaged in a deep-dive into his most awful memories. Evan’s stony expression suggested he didn’t enjoy this particular intimacy. The fact that Caro wanted him here must be the only reason Evan was tolerating his presence.

Mal had the fidgety urge to put him at ease, somehow; to assure him of his friendly intentions. I’m not here to judge you, he wanted to say.

“This house is beautiful,” he tried instead. “Or will be, I think, when it’s done.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you have a contractor? Or are you doing the work yourself?”

“Myself, bit by bit.” Evan wasn’t looking at him. “How did you meet Caroline?”

“First day of law school,” said Mal. “One-L orientation, University of Virginia. We had a lot in common—we both paid for school by cobbling together loans and scholarships and things. Then we had classes together, because we both wanted to be criminal prosecutors.” Mal could leave out details too: he and Caro had both been haunted by their pasts, and with no family to turn to they’d become family to each other. “After graduation we stayed in touch,” he continued. “I got a job out here working for the Multnomah County DA. She went to work for Baltimore County, which is a much tougher gig than Multnomah. I missed her, and I knew she was getting burned out, so when a position opened up here, I suggested she apply for it.”

While he spoke, he surreptitiously studied Evan. He and Caro had the same jaw and nose. They both had pale skin and high cheekbones and wide curving mouths too. Caro’s eyes were a clear blue, though, while Evan’s were darker: blue-gray, storm clouds to her sunny sky. His hair was fairer and shaggier than Caro’s sleek brown locks. And of course to Mal—because he was wired that way—Evan was much more attractive. His body looked lean and hard in his scruffy jeans and rumpled T-shirt. Mal kept picturing him doing manual labor on the house. With, perhaps, wrenches and hammers and power tools and things.

Hot.

Way, way off-limits.

“She didn’t want to be a lawyer back then, but she was always good at talking,” said Evan, abruptly. “She learned to talk before I did. When we were kids, she was always the one who spoke for us.” He fiddled with his coffee cup. “Is she a good lawyer?”

“Oh yes,” said Mal, without hesitation. “She’s one of the best. Meticulous, organized, thorough. Driven to seek justice. Which is what we’re supposed to be, but not all of us are.”

“That sounds like her.”

Mal sipped his coffee. “So what do you do?”

“I’m a nurse.”

That was unexpected. Mal blinked, and one corner of Evan’s mouth twisted a little. “An RN? Or an LPN?”

“An RN.”

“With chronic anxiety?” Most of Mal’s encounters with nurses were ER staff, giving evidence of crimes: they seemed unflappable.

“Yeah.”

“It isn’t too stressful?”

Evan glared at him. “No,” he said coolly. “You’re kind of a prick, you know that?”

Mal sighed. So much for building rapport.

“Caro and I could give the exact same close,” he said. “The jury will be persuaded by her, while they’ll think I’m an arrogant motherfucker and acquit to spite me.” Evan squinted at him, and Mal smiled. “I’ve got a jerk face. Can’t help it. What I said about nursing wasn’t a dig, you know. Just a question.”

“Huh,” said Evan skeptically. “So your jerk face is, what, a liability?”

“Oh, occasionally it comes in handy.”

Evan’s lips tightened. Nope, no rapport here—Evan plainly did not like him. Now he was avoiding Mal’s eyes, looking toward the bathroom, where splashing water could be heard.

Mal liked Evan, though. It wasn’t just that he was damn good-looking. Or that Mal was currently between boyfriends and bored with the dating scene. Evan had a lucent emotional transparency, even in his reluctance to discuss his past, that drew Mal’s interest. He seemed to communicate his feelings instantly, with eyes and mouth and shoulders. Evan Doyle could not play poker.

Evan’s man would always know exactly where he stood.

Caro finally reemerged, damp and puffy-eyed but composed. “I’m sorry I keep running off. This is kind of hard.”

“I know,” said Evan. “For me too. Are you okay?”

“Dandy.” She smiled weakly and sat back down. “All right. Have we gotten to the bad part of the story yet?”

The dog, Dulcie, answered that question by immediately hopping down from her chair and rejoining the group. Evan scratched the dog’s nape, and Mal found himself staring at Evan’s big hands, gentle on the dog’s velvet ears.

Stop that.

Caro said briskly, “All right. Mom died of a blow to the side of the head that fractured her skull and drove bone fragments into her brain. Medical examiners said she would have died almost instantly. Was that true?” Evan, white-faced, said nothing, and Caro persisted, “Alex? Tell me what happened.”

Evan.” His voice was husky; he looked like he was going to throw up next. “Call me Evan. Yes. It was fast. And she— Can we—can we . . . not? Right now?”

Caro’s mouth hardened. Mal thought she would persist, so he rapped his knuckles lightly on the table. “Why don’t we move on, and come back to that later?”

Evan glanced at Mal with what might almost be gratitude, and Caro blew out a breath. “Okay,” she said. “We can leave that for now. Can you tell us what happened next? Where did you go, after?”

Evan said softly, “Well. So then, after what happened in the En. Um. I ended up . . . in a house in El Centro. I stayed there for a while. And the people there were sort of mid-level in an organization that imported meth from Mexico, and this house in El Centro, where I—where I stayed, was like a distribution point for meth.”

No explanation of why he’d gone there, why he hadn’t come back, or what had happened in between the En and El Centro. Caro’s eyes met Mal’s for an infinitesimal moment. This time they both let it slide.

“The people who lived there would cut the meth and repackage it and send it on to dealers in different cities,” Evan went on. “They were also using, so I guess they weren’t very careful. The place was raided by the cops thirteen days after I got there, and we were all—um, me included—arrested.”

Caro asked curiously, “What was the charge against you?”

“Possession with intent to sell.”

“A felony,” said Mal. “Were you guilty?”

Evan glared at him. “No.”

“What happened next?” asked Caro.

“I talked,” said Evan. “What I shoulda done months earlier. I talked and talked and talked. Lawyers and cops and more lawyers. I gave them the names of all the people who’d been in and out of that house, and their relationships to each other, and everyone they’d ever mentioned. I have a good memory,” he added, in an aside to Mal. “And I understood Spanish pretty well. People said things in front of me all the time. I knew where the drugs came from and where they were going, and how the dealers laundered the money, and who they paid and when and how. I knew all kinds of stuff that the cops could use, and the lawyers. And I told them everything.”

“That was really brave, Boxy,” said Caro softly.

“I don’t know about that,” said Evan. “Brave. No. I was just . . . stripped down to nothing at that point. Nothing mattered. But . . . so, CalWRAP kept me safe in a hotel for a few months, and then there were a lot of arrests, including Pablo Icaza, who was a fairly powerful organized-crime guy.”

“It go to trial?” asked Mal.

“No, none of them. They all, what, settled? Pled guilty to one thing or another.”

“That’s good,” said Caro. “Because most of what you heard wouldn’t have been admissible at trial.”

“I guess what I told the cops led them to more evidence,” said Evan. “I don’t know. I know that people went to prison. And I got a new name.” He paused. “I wanted to call you, Caroline. So bad. They said you’d be in danger. They told me the cartel would come after you to flush me out.”

“I got your postcard.”

“Did you? Wasn’t supposed to send that. Wasn’t sure if I should, but I couldn’t bear for you to think— Well.” He smiled a little. “So that’s how I ended up. What about you? Was it bad?”

“It was pretty bad.” Caro’s voice was crisp. “I lived with Jerry and June Willows until I graduated from high school.”

“Ugh,” said Evan.

Caro smiled a hard smile. “Yes, we went to church a lot, and they enjoyed having me around to pity. Then I got a full ride to UCLA.”

“Awesome, you.”

“Merit plus need. And then I went to Virginia for law school, which was as far away from Barstow as I could get. And now here I am. What about you?”

“I got my GED, and community college, and lots of therapy.”

“Oh, me too,” said Caro. “Lots of therapy.”

They toasted each other with their coffee cups, smiling identical wry smiles.

General Details

Word Count: ~62,000

Page Count: ~215

Cover By: L.C. Chase

Ebook Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-879-2

Release Date: 08/05/2019

Price: $3.99

Print Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-902-7

Release Date: 08/05/2019

Price: $14.39