I wiped my hands off on the front of my jeans and then placed the wrench back into Violet’s backpack full of random tools. Before I zipped it closed, I rummaged through the assortment. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. But the whole time I had been fixing the furnace, I had tried to ignore the fact that her tools were in a backpack. What did it really matter? Tool cases were easy enough to carry around. She just wasn’t handy. Clearly. Her furnace looked like it had been patched by someone who knew nothing about them. It was on the fritz. She’d be lucky if it lasted through the winter.
But what if they were in a backpack for a different reason? It would be easier to tramp through the woods with the weight distributed between two shoulders instead of one. Before tonight, I had wanted her to be guilty. I wanted to solve the case and keep my job or get a promotion if I was lucky. After spending a whole night with her though? I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. I thought Violet had been bluffing when she said she didn’t live alone. I hadn’t been expecting a kid. One with the same hair color and eye color as his beautiful mother. I knew she was sick, but I still expected the whole night to be flirtatious. I hadn’t expected…this. And I certainly hadn’t expected to love it so much.
I zipped the backpack closed and then wiped my hands off on the front of my jeans. There wasn’t anything suspicious in it at all. Just wrenches and screwdrivers of various sizes. As far as I could tell, there wasn't anything suspicious in the entire house. I had taken every opportunity I had to look around. And on top of that, Violet really didn’t seem crazy to me. All night long she had only done one odd thing and I might have missed it if her son hadn’t pointed it out.
The only thing out of place here was her. I still had no idea why she would live out in the middle of nowhere in a dump. A cold dump. The house was crumbling around her. It didn’t really feel that way though. Her and her son’s laughter could make any room feel warm. He was an adorable kid.
I heard a creaking noise upstairs and glanced at the basement ceiling. Violet was walking somewhere. It felt like this was my chance to catch her doing something, anything suspicious. I pulled the backpack over my shoulder and ascended the basement steps as quietly as possible.
There was no need to look around to find where she had gone. I could hear her and Zeke’s voices drifting down from upstairs.
“I know it’s a special weekend, but that doesn’t mean a special bedtime. It’s late, little dude.”
“But Mom. We never have anyone else to play with. Five more minutes?”
He drew out the word mom in the cutest way. But I was more focused on his words than how he said them. They didn’t have anyone else. I figured it was just the two of them, but I hadn’t asked. She didn’t wear a wedding ring and Damien had confirmed that she wasn’t married. But it was hard to believe that someone would have left the two of them behind. They’d be missing out on too damn much.
“You're not going to convince me tonight. You already got dessert for dinner. It’s bedtime.”
I stared up the stairs. I felt drawn to them, like I wanted to be up there tucking him in too. Like maybe they needed me.
“I like your friend,” Zeke said.
“Yeah. He’s very nice.”
I cringed. Nice? That wasn’t how I wanted her to think of me. How do I want her to think of me?
“Will he be back?”
There was a long pause. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Her voice had at least sounded hopeful there. That hope spread to me. I wanted to come back. I just wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the case anymore.
I heard the floorboards creek upstairs and moved away from the steps. Eavesdropping wasn’t exactly a good way to get invited back. I retreated into the kitchen.
Violet walked in a minute later, looking anywhere but at me.
“The furnace is all fixed. You’ll be able to take off all your layers in no time.” Screw me. I had inadvertently just implied that she could get naked soon. For a second, I thought maybe she missed it, but then her cheeks flushed.
“Thanks. Are you hungry? I can warm up the food you brought.”
I wasn’t really hungry. But there was an awkward tension hanging in the air between us. She still wasn’t looking at me and all I wanted was for her to make eye contact. Now that Zeke was asleep, neither one of us knew exactly what our dynamic should be. The hot lava game had been distracting. It had been easy to focus on Zeke, but now that all my focus was on her? I couldn’t look away from her. The flush of her cheeks. The curves of her hips.
“Or…” her voice trailed off. “It’s pretty late. Maybe…”
“I’m hungry.” I didn’t want tonight to end yet. I hadn’t asked her any questions at all.
She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Okay, just give me one minute.”
“Do you want to watch a movie or something?”
“I don’t have a TV. But we can eat in the family room if you want. It’s more comfortable. I just need to pick up the cushions…”
“I got it. You heat the food, I’ll clean up the other room.”
She smiled like it was the nicest thing she’d ever heard.
I left her alone and started picking up all the pillows and cushions in the other room. By the time I was done, she was walking in with two hot plates of food.
She sat down on the couch all the way on the end, like she wanted to be as far away from me as possible. She balanced her plate on her lap and took a bite.
I sat down only one cushion away from her and took a bite too. The chicken parm hadn’t survived well in the microwave. The coating was soggy and the meat was a little rubbery. I was about to make a joke about it when she broke the awkward silence.
“I don’t know how to thank you for this. And the furnace. We probably would have frozen tonight if you hadn’t stopped by.” She laughed like what she'd just said wasn’t a big deal.
“I’m sure a repairman would have come out if I hadn’t. It was no problem.”
She sneezed. “No one could come for two days.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. You should have called a different company.”
“I called five. And I’m sure they do come out quickly for most people. Just…not for me.” She took a bite of chicken and sighed like it was the most delicious meal she’d had in ages.
If only she knew what it tasted like when it had been fresh. “Why not for you?”
She took another bite, and for a minute I thought she was going to ignore my question. But then she set down her fork and knife and looked up at me. “Because no one wants to come all the way out here.” She scrunched her mouth to the side. “That’s a lie.” She laughed. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind that. It’s me. I told you earlier…I’m the crazy lady on the hill. Everyone avoids me like the plague.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“You don’t know me very well.” She tapped her fork against her plate a few times before looking back up at me.
“I have a feeling I’ve gotten to know you better than most of the people you’re referring to.”
“You’re really not from around here, are you?”
“No. I was transferred to this department about a year ago.” I didn’t want to talk about me. I wanted to know more about her. “Zeke mentioned earlier at dinner that you were doing that thing. What was he referring to?” She had been opening and closing one of the takeout containers continuously. Like she was stuck in some sort of trance.
She put her fork back down. “I have a little bit of a nervous OCD thing. Well, not just when I’m nervous…it’s also when I’m upset, agitated, anxious, and nervous.”
“You said nervous three times.”
“Yeah. It’s especially bad when I’m nervous. But really whenever I feel at all uncomfortable.” She tapped the side of her plate.
I watched this time. She tapped it three times and then stopped. Then she proceeded to do the same thing with the next finger. “Are you uncomfortable right now?”
“No.” She pressed her lips together. “I think you make me nervous, Detective Reed.”
“Right. Tucker.” She continued to tap the side of her plate. “Why are you here?” She didn’t give me a chance to respond. “I can pay you for the furnace.”
“I’m not here for your money. I just wanted a chance to really talk to you.”
“You mean to question me? I’ve already answered all your questions.”
I set my plate down on the ground and moved closer to her on the couch. And I swore I heard her gulp. “Your son is adorable.”
She smiled. “He is. He’s funny and brilliant and so sweet. I couldn’t have imagined a better son into existence.”
“And his earned day off?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “One day isn’t a big deal.”
“It's almost the weekend.”
“Kids need a break every now and then. Just like adults.”
She was right, she did always answer my questions. But not the way I wanted her to. She was hiding the truth from me. I thought about the conversation I had overheard. Zeke had said they never have anyone else to play with. “Does he enjoy school?”
“He loves learning.”
“And his friends?”
She put her plate down on the ground beside mine. When she leaned back against the couch, she closed her eyes.
I should have been studying her face. Trying to figure out what she was hiding. Instead, I found my gaze wandering lower. She was so close that I could smell the sweetness of her skin. I wasn’t sure if it was soap or perfume, but she smelled like a field of spring flowers.
She pulled her legs up on the couch, not caring when her knees graced my thigh. Her breathing started to slow. For a moment I thought she was asleep, but then she broke the silence.
“The other kids pick on him. It’s not fair that I make him go to school when I hide out here. And that’s the whole problem. It’s my fault that he gets teased.” She wiped beneath her eyes and then tucked her head more against the pillow. “I’m a bad mother. I’m the reason he doesn’t fit in. It’s all my fault.” She wiped beneath her eyes again.
Her words broke my heart. I wanted to reach out to her and give her a hug. But I was worried that once we touched, I wouldn’t be able to control myself. I was already distracted enough by her knees against my thigh. Look away from her. Tell her you need to go. Leave.
“Are you married?” I asked, instead of listening to any rational thoughts. I knew she wasn’t. There was no ring on her finger. And Damien had already told me she wasn’t. But I still wanted to hear it from her.
“No.” Another tear fell, like she had loved and lost. Or maybe she was still upset about what she had told me about Zeke. “I’m not married. That was never in the cards for me.”
“What about Zeke’s father?”
“He didn’t want anything to do with him.”
How? How was that possible? “His loss.”
She smiled and a small moan escaped her lips. “Yeah. His loss.” Her breathing became more shallow. And then she snored. A cute, adorable little snore. It was probably because she was sick.
“Violet?” I whispered.
She didn’t respond.
All night long she had been running around playing with her son. If she thought she was a bad mother then she was insane. And if she missed Zeke’s father at all, she was even more insane. I immediately regretted the thoughts. Insane wasn’t the right word. Violet wasn’t crazy, despite the rumors. She was kind. And sweet. And beautiful.
She snored again and I smiled.
For just one night, she deserved to be cared for. I leaned forward and lifted her into my arms. She was lighter than I expected, the layers of clothes she was wearing adding a little more bulk to her lean frame. I carried her down the hall and up the stairs. The second floor was more fixed up than the first. I walked into what I assumed was her bedroom. When we first met she had said she was fixing the place up. Maybe she was handier than I had given her credit for. As soon as I thought it, one of the floorboards at the base of her bed squeaked beneath my foot.
I kept walking and laid her down on her bed. My body begged me to climb in bed beside her. Instead, I pulled the covers over her. I wanted her to invite me into her bed the first time. I didn’t even care that my mind was already jumping to that conclusion. Violet wasn’t crazy. And she wasn’t an arsonist. I doubted she could kill a fly. Everything about her nature screamed that she was innocent. Did she have secrets? Sure. But she was just reserved, that was all. And I was coming back tomorrow. And the next day. And the next, until I broke down her walls. I wanted to know everything about her.
I walked back in the direction I had come from. The floorboard squeaked again. I stopped and looked down. It almost looked like it hadn't been laid properly. I bent down and tried to shift it back into place, but the whole piece of wood lifted into my hands.
Shit. I was about to place it back where I had found it when I realized there was a box hidden beneath the floorboards. I glanced at Violet sleeping and then crouched down. This was snooping. I didn’t have a warrant. And beyond that, I wanted her to trust me. She hated the rest of the people in this town. I didn’t want to be one of them.
And yet…I picked up the box. I couldn’t help it. My curiosity had gotten the better of me. I lifted the lid and opened up one of the letters inside. A love letter.
Meet me at the lake after practice. I have a surprise for you.
Forever and always,
I picked up another note and scanned it.
Study session tonight? I need to look at your Calc notes, mine suck.
Forever and always,
They were all high school nonsense and signed the same way. Promises of forever. I tossed the notes back in the box. It was none of my business, but I wanted to know if Joel was Zeke’s father. And how "forever and always" became "never and goodbye." He seemed to love her. So why would he leave when she needed him the most?
Violet snored, pulling me out of my thoughts. I closed the lid of the box. I wanted to put Joel’s name into the system and see what I could find. I wanted to know what kind of man would abandon his beautiful family. But I wasn’t going to do that. Violet was slowly opening up to me. Maybe she’d tell me about Joel soon. And Zeke’s father, if they weren’t the same person.
I turned to put the box back where I had found it when my eyes landed on something I never expected. A pistol. Right there under the floorboards. I looked back at Violet sleeping and a chill ran down my spine. All night long I had been captivated by her, completely ignoring my suspicions from a few days ago. But Violet wasn’t as sweet and innocent as she seemed. She wasn’t a damsel in distress in dire need of someone to take care of her. She could clearly fend for herself. After all, people that couldn’t even kill flies didn’t own guns.
END OF CHAPTER 8
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