Read-a-Chapter: SUBMERGED, by Cheryl Kaye Tardif

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Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the suspense thriller, Submerged, by Cheryl Kaye Tardif. Enjoy!

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Submerged400x616

Submerged

Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Suspense/Thriller

Imajin Books

AMAZON

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SUBMERGED by Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Excerpt

Prologue 

Near Cadomin, AB – Saturday, June 15, 2013 – 12:36 AM

You never grow accustomed to the stench of death. Marcus Taylor knew that smell intimately. He had inhaled burnt flesh, decayed flesh…diseased flesh. It lingered on him long after he was separated from the body.

The image of his wife and son’s gray faces and blue lips assaulted him.

Jane…Ryan.

Mercifully, there were no bodies tonight. The only scent he recognized now was wet prairie and the dank residue left over from a rainstorm and the river.

“So what happened, Marcus?”

The question came from Detective John Zur, a cop Marcus knew from the old days. Back before he traded in his steady income and respected career for something that had poisoned him physically and mentally.

“Come on,” Zur prodded. “Start talking. And tell me the truth.”

Marcus was an expert at hiding things. Always had been. But there was no way in hell he could hide why he was soaked to the skin and standing at the edge of a river in the middle of nowhere.

He squinted at the river, trying to discern where the car had sunk. He only saw faint ripples on the surface. “You can see what happened, John.”

“You left your desk. Not a very rational decision to make, considering your past.”

Marcus shook his head, the taste of river water still in his throat. “Just because I do something unexpected doesn’t mean I’m back to old habits.”

Zur studied him but said nothing.

“I had to do something, John. I had to try to save them.”

“That’s what EMS is for. You’re not a paramedic anymore.”

Marcus let his gaze drift to the river. “I know. But you guys were all over the place and someone had to look for them. They were running out of time.”

Overhead, lightning forked and thunder reverberated.

“Dammit, Marcus, you went rogue!” Zur said. “You know how dangerous that is. We could’ve had four bodies.”

Marcus scowled. “Instead of merely three, you mean?”

“You know how this works. We work in teams for a reason. We all need backup. Even you.”

“All the rescue teams were otherwise engaged. I didn’t have a choice.”

Zur sighed. “We go back a long way. I know you did what you thought was right. But it could’ve cost them all their lives. And it’ll probably cost you your job. Why would you risk that for a complete stranger?”

“She wasn’t a stranger.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Marcus realized how true that statement seemed. He knew more about Rebecca Kingston than he did about any other woman. Besides Jane.

“You know her?” Zur asked, frowning.

“She told me things and I told her things. So, yeah, I know her.”

“I still do not get why you didn’t stay at the center and let us do our job.”

“She called me.” Marcus looked into his friend’s eyes. “Me. Not you.”

“I understand, but that’s your job. To listen and relay information.”

“You don’t understand a thing. Rebecca was terrified. For herself and her children. No one knew where they were for sure, and she was running out of time. If I didn’t at least try, what kind of person would I be, John?” He gritted his teeth. “I couldn’t live with that. Not again.”

Zur exhaled. “Sometimes we’re simply too late. It happens.”

“Well, I didn’t want it to happen this time.” Marcus thought of the vision he’d seen of Jane standing in the middle of the road. “I had a…hunch I was close. Then when Rebecca mentioned Colton had seen flying pigs, I remembered this place. Jane and I used to buy ribs and chops from the owner, before it closed down about seven years ago.”

“And that led you here to the farm.” Zur’s voice softened. “Good thing your hunch paid off. This time. Next time, you might not be so lucky.”

“There won’t be a next time, John.”

A smirk tugged at the corner of Zur’s mouth. “Uh-huh.”

“There won’t.”

Zur shrugged and headed for the ambulance.

Under a chaotic sky, Marcus stood at the edge of the river as tears cascaded from his eyes. The night’s events hit him hard, like a sucker punch to the gut. He was submerged in a wave of memories. The first call, Rebecca’s frantic voice, Colton crying in the background. He knew that kind of fear.  He’d felt it before. But last time, it was a different road, different woman, different child.

He shook his head. He couldn’t think of Jane right now. Or Ryan. He couldn’t reflect on all he’d lost. He needed to focus on what he’d found, what he’d discovered in a faceless voice that had comforted him and expressed that it was okay to let go.

He glanced at his watch. It was after midnight. 12:39, to be exact. He couldn’t believe how his life had changed in not much more than two days.

“Marcus!”

He turned…

Chapter One

 

Edson, AB – Thursday, June 13, 2013 – 10:55 AM

 

Sitting on the threadbare carpet in front of the living room fireplace, Marcus Taylor stroked a military issue Browning 9mm pistol against his leg, the thirteen-round magazine in his other hand. For an instant, he contemplated loading the gun―and then using it.

“But then who’d feed you?” he asked his companion.

Arizona, a five-year-old red Irish setter, gave him an inquisitive look, then curled up and went back to sleep on the couch. She was a rescue hound he’d picked up about a year after Ryan and Jane had died. The house had been too damned quiet. Lifeless.

“Great to know you have an opinion.”

Setting the gun and magazine down on the floor, Marcus propped a photo album against his legs and took a deep breath. The photo album of death. The album only saw daylight three times a year. The other three hundred and sixty-two days it was hidden in a steel foot locker that doubled as his coffee table.

Today was Paul’s forty-sixth birthday. Or it would have been, except Paul was dead.

Taking another measured breath, Marcus felt for the chain that marked a page and opened the album. “Hey, Bro.”

In the photo, Corporal Paul Taylor stood on the shoulder of a deserted street on the outskirts of a nondescript town in Afghanistan, a sniper rifle braced across his chest and the Browning in his hand. He’d been killed that same day, his limbs ripped apart by a roadside bomb. The IED had been buried in six inches of dust and dirt when Paul, distracted by a crying kid, had unwittingly stepped on it.

One stupid mistake could end in death, separating son from parents and brother from brother. Resentment could separate siblings too.

“I wish I could tell you how sorry I am,” Marcus said, blinking back a tear. “We wasted so much time being pissed at each other.”

As a young kid, he’d hidden his older brother’s toy soldiers so he could play with them when Paul was at school. In high school, Marcus had hidden how smart he was, always downplaying his intelligence in favor of being the cool, younger brother of senior hockey legend Paul Taylor. Marcus had learned to hide his jealousy too.

Until his brother was killed.

He stared at the warped dog tag at the end of the chain. It was all that was left of his brother. There was nothing to be jealous of now.

He glanced at the gun. Okay, he had that too. He’d inherited the Browning from Paul. One of his brother’s war buddies had personally delivered it. “Your brother said you can play with his toys now,” the guy had said.

Paul always had a warped sense of humor.

“Happy birthday, Paul.”

He knew his parents, who were currently cruising in the Mediterranean, would be raising a toast in Paul’s honor, so he did the same. “I miss you, bro.”

Then he dropped the tag and flipped to the next set of photos in the album. A brunette with short, choppy hair and luminous green eyes smiled back at him.

Jane.

“Hello, Elf.”

He traced her face, recalling the way her mouth tilted upward on the left and how she’d watch a chick flick tearjerker, while tears steamed unnoticed down her face.

Marcus turned to the next set of photos and sucked in a breath. A handsome boy beamed a brilliant smile and waved back at him.

“Hey, little buddy.”

He recalled the day the photo had been taken. His son, Ryan, a rookie goalie on his junior high hockey team, had blocked out his opponents, giving his team a three-goal lead. Jane had snapped the picture at the exact second when Ryan had found his father in the crowd.

“I love you.” Marcus’s voice cracked. “And I miss you so much.”

He couldn’t hide that. Not ever.

There was one other thing he couldn’t hide.

He had killed Jane. And Ryan.

For the past six years, whenever Marcus slept, his dead wife and son came to visit, taunting him with their spectral images, teasing him with familiar phrases, twisting his mind and gut into a guilt-infested cesspool. The only way to escape their accusing glares and spiteful smiles was to wake up. Or not go to sleep. Sleep was the enemy. He did his best to avoid it.

Marcus glanced at the antique clock on the mantle. 11:06.

Another twenty-four minutes and he’d have to head to the Yellowhead County Emergency Center, where he worked as a 911 dispatcher. He’d been working there for almost six months. He was halfway through five twelve-hour shifts that ran from noon to midnight. He worked them with his best friend, Leo, who would undoubtedly be in a good mood again. Leo liked sleeping in and starting his day at noon, while Marcus preferred the midnight-to-noon shift, the one everyone else hated. It gave him something to do at night, since sleeping didn’t come easily.

He closed the photo album, stood slowly and stretched his cramped muscles. As he placed the album and the gun and magazine back in the foot locker, a small cedar box with a medical insignia embossed on the top caught his eye, though he did his best to ignore it.

Even Arizona knew that box was trouble. She froze at the sight of it, her hackles raised.

“I know,” Marcus said. “I can resist temptation.”

That box had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. It represented a past he’d give anything to erase. But he couldn’t toss it in the trash. It had too firm a grip on him. Even now it called to him.

“Marcus…”

“No!”

He slammed the foot locker lid with his fist. The sound reverberated across the room, clanging like a jail cell door, trapping him in his own private prison.

Behind him, Arizona whimpered.

“Sorry, girl.”

One day he’d get rid of the box with the insignia and be done with it once and for all.

But not yet.

Shaking off a bout of guilt, he took the stairs two at a time to the second floor and entered the master bedroom of the two-bedroom rented duplex. It was devoid of all things feminine, stripped down to the barest essentials. A bed, nightstand and tall dresser. Metal blinds, no flowered curtains like the ones in the house in Edmonton that he’d bought with Jane. The bedspread was a mishmash of brown tones, and it had been hauled up over the single pillow. There were none of the decorative pillows that Jane had loved so much. No silk flowers on the dresser. No citrus Febreeze lingering in the air. No sign of Jane.

He’d hidden her too.

Stepping into the en suite bathroom, Marcus stared into the mirror. He took in the untrimmed moustache and beard that was threatening to engulf his face. Leaning closer, he examined his eyes, which were more gray than blue. He turned his face to catch the light. “I am not tired.”

The dark circles under his eyes betrayed him.

Ignoring Arizona’s watchful gaze, he opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed the tube of Preparation H, a trick he’d learned from his wife Jane. Before he’d killed her. A little dab under the eyes, no smiling or frowning, and within seconds the crevices in his skin softened. Some of Jane’s “White Out”—as she used to call the tube of cosmetic concealer—and the shadows would disappear.

“Camouflage on,” he said to his reflection.

A memory of Jane surfaced.

It was the night of the BioWare awards banquet, nineteen years ago. Jane, dressed in a pink housecoat, sat at the bathroom vanity curling her hair, while Marcus struggled with his tie.

He’d let out a curse. “I can never get this right.”

“Here, let me.” Pushing the chair behind him, Jane climbed up before he could protest. She caught his gaze in the mirror over the sink and reached around his shoulders, her gaze wandering to the twisted lump he’d made of the full Windsor. “You shouldn’t be so impatient.”

You shouldn’t be climbing up on chairs.”

“I’m fine, Marcus.”

“You’re pregnant, that’s what you are.”

“You calling me fat, buster?”

Five months pregnant with Ryan, Jane had never looked so beautiful.

“I’d never do that,” he replied.

She cocked her head and arched one brow. “Never? How about in four months when I can’t walk up the stairs to the bedroom?”

“I’ll carry you.”

“What about when I can’t see my toes and can’t paint my toenails?”

“I’ll paint them for you.”

“What about when―”

He turned his head and kissed her. That shut her up.

With a laugh, she pushed him away, gave the tie a smooth tug and slid the knot expertly into place.

He groaned. “Now why can’t I do that?”

“Because you have me. Now quit distracting me. I still have to put on my dress and makeup.”

Marcus sat on the edge of the bed and waited. Jane always made it worth the wait, and that night she didn’t disappoint him. When she emerged from the bathroom, she was a vision of sultry goddess in a designer dress from a shop in West Edmonton Mall. The baby bump in front was barely noticeable.

“How do I look?” she asked, nervously fingering the fresh gold highlights in her hair.

“Sexy as hell.”

She spun in a slow circle to show off the sleek black dress with its plunging back. Peering over one glitter-powdered shoulder, she said, “So you like my new dress?”

“I’d like it better,” he said in a soft voice, “if it was on the floor.”

Minutes later, they were entwined in the sheets, out of breath and laughing like teenagers. Sex with Jane was always like that. Exciting. Youthful. Fun.

After dressing, Jane retreated to the bathroom to fix her hair and makeup. “Camouflage on,” she said when she returned. “Now let’s get going.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He heard her whispering, “Six plus eight plus two…”

“Are you doing that numerology thing again?” he asked with a grin.

Jane had gone to a psychic fair when she’d found out she was pregnant, and a numerologist had given her a lesson in adding dates. Ever since then, whenever something important came up, she’d work out the numbers to determine if it was going to be a good day or not. She even made Marcus buy lotto tickets on “three days,” which she said meant money coming in. They hadn’t won a lottery yet, but he played along anyway.

“What is it today?”

She smiled. “A seven.”

“Ah, lucky seven.” He arched a brow at her. “So I’m going to get lucky?”

“I think you already did, mister.”

They’d been late for the awards banquet, which didn’t go over too well since Jane was the guest of honor, the recipient of a Best Programmer award for her latest video game creation at BioWare. When Jane had stepped up on the stage to receive her award, Marcus didn’t think he could ever be prouder. Until the night Ryan was born.

Ryan…the son I killed.

Marcus gave his head a jerk, forcing the memories back into the shadows―where they belonged. He picked up the can of shaving cream. His eyes rested, unfocused, on the label.

To shave or not to shave. That was the question.

“Nah, not today,” he muttered.

He hadn’t shaved in weeks. He was also overdue for a haircut. Thankfully, they weren’t too strict about appearances at work, though his supervisor would probably harp on it again.

The alarm on his watch beeped.

He had twenty minutes to get to the center. Then he’d get back to hiding behind the anonymity of being a faceless voice on the phone.

 

Yellowhead County Emergency Services in Edson, Alberta, housed a small but competent 911 call center situated on the second floor of a spacious building on 1st Avenue. Four rooms on the floor were rented out to emergency groups, like First Aid, CPR and EMS, for training facilities. The 911 center had a full-time staff of four emergency operators and two supervisors—one for the day shift, one for the night. They also had a handful of highly trained but underpaid casual staff and three regular volunteers.

When Marcus entered the building, Leonardo Lombardo was waiting for him by the elevator. And Leo didn’t look too thrilled to see him.

“You look like your dog just died,” Marcus said.

“Don’t got a dog.”

“So what’s with the warm and cheerful welcome? Did the mob put a hit out on me?”

Leo, a man of average height in his late forties, carried about thirty extra pounds around his middle, and his swarthy Italian looks gave him an air of mystery and danger. Around town, rumormongers had spread stories that Leo was an American expatriate with mob ties. But Marcus knew exactly who had started those rumors. Leo had a depraved sense of humor.

But his friend wasn’t smiling now.

“You really gotta get some sleep.”

Stepping into the elevator, Marcus shrugged. “Sleep’s overrated.”

“You look like hell.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Leo pushed the second floor button and took a hesitant breath. “Listen, man…”

Whenever Leo started a sentence with those two words, Marcus knew it wouldn’t be good.

“You’re not on your game,” Leo said. “You’re starting to slip up.”

“What do you mean? I do my job.”

“You filed that multiple-car accident report from last night in the wrong place. Shipley’s spent half the morning looking for it. I tried covering for you, but he’s pretty pissed.”

“Shipley’s always pissed.”

Pete Shipley made it a ritual to make Marcus’s life hell whenever possible, which was more often than not. As the day shift supervisor, Shipley ruled the emergency operators with an iron fist and enough arrogance to get on anyone’s nerves.

The elevator door opened and Marcus stepped out first.

“I’ll find the report, Leo.”

“How many hours you get, Marcus?”

Sleep?

“Four.” It was a lie and both of them knew it.

Marcus started toward the cubicle with the screen that divided his desk from Leo’s. Behind them was the station for the other full-timers. He waved to Parminder and Wyatt as they left for home. They worked the night shift, so he only saw them in passing. Their stations were now manned by casual day workers. Backup.

“Get some sleep,” Leo muttered.

“Sleep is a funny thing, Leo. Not funny ha-ha, but funny strange. Once a body’s gone awhile without it or with an occasional light nap, sleep doesn’t seem that important. I’m fine.”

“Bullshit.”

They were interrupted by a door slamming down the hall.

Pete Shipley appeared, overpowering the hallway with angry energy and his massive frame. The guy towered over everyone, including Marcus, who was an easy six feet tall. Shipley, a former army captain, was built like the Titanic, which had become his office nickname. Unbeknown to him.

“Taylor!” Shipley shouted. “In my office now!”

Leo grabbed Marcus’s arm. “Tell him you slept six hours.”

“You’re suggesting I lie to the boss?”

“Just cover your ass. And for God’s sake, don’t egg him on.”

Marcus smiled. “Now why would I do that?”

Leo gaped at him. “Because you thrive on chaos.”

“Even in chaos there is order.”

Letting out a snort, Leo said, “You been reading too many self-help books. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned on one heel and headed for his desk.

Marcus stared after him. Don’t worry, Leo. I can handle Pete Shipley.

Pausing in front of Shipley’s door, he took a breath, knocked once and entered. His supervisor was seated behind a metal desk, his thick-lensed glasses perched on the tip of a bulbous nose as he scrutinized a mound of paperwork. Even though the man had ordered the meeting, Shipley did nothing to indicate he acknowledged Marcus’s existence.

That was fine with Marcus. It gave him time to study the office, with its cramped windowless space and dank recycled air. It wasn’t an office to envy, that’s for sure. No one wanted it, or the position and responsibility that came with it. Not even Shipley. Word had it he was positioning himself for emergency coordinator, in hopes of moving up to one of the corner offices with the floor-to-ceiling windows. Marcus doubted it would ever happen. Shipley wasn’t solid management material.

Marcus stood with his hands resting lightly on the back of the armless faux-leather chair Shipley reserved for the lucky few he deemed important enough to sit in his presence. Marcus wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

Bracing for an ugly reprimand, his thoughts drifted to last night’s shift. A drunk driver had T-boned a car at a busy intersection in Hinton, resulting in a four-car pileup. One vehicle, a mini-van with an older couple and two young boys, had been sandwiched between two vehicles from the impact of the crash. The pileup had spawned numerous frantic calls to the emergency center. Emergency Medical Services (EMS), including fire and ambulance, arrived on scene within six minutes. The Jaws of Life had been used to wrench apart the contorted metal of two of the vehicles. Only three people extracted had made it out alive. One reached the hospital DOA. Then rescue workers discovered a sedan with three teenagers inside—all dead.

They’ll have nightmares for weeks.

Marcus knew how that felt. He’d once been a first responder. In another life.

He straightened. He was ready to take on Shipley’s wrath. At least this time it would be done privately. Plus, if he was honest, he had messed up. Misfiling the report was one of a handful of stupid mistakes he’d made in the last week. Most he’d caught on his own and rectified.

“Before you say anything,” Marcus began, “I know I―”

“What?” Shipley snapped. “You know you’re an idiot?”

“No. That’s news to me.”

Pete Shipley rose slowly―all two hundred and eighty pounds, six feet eleven inches of him. Bracing beefy fists against the desk, he leaned forward. “I spent three hours searching for that accident report, Taylor. Three hours! And guess where I found it?” A nanosecond pause. “Filed with the missing persons call logs. Whatcha think of that?”

“I think it’s ironic that I filed a missing report in the missing persons section.”

“Shut it!” Shipley glared, his thick brows furrowed into a uni-brow. “Lombardo says you’ve been sleeping better, but I don’t believe him. Whatcha got to say about that?”

“Leo’s right. I slept like a baby last night.”

Shipley elevated a brow. “For a baby, you look like shit. You need a haircut. And a shave.” He wrinkled his nose. “Have you even showered this week?”

“I shower every day. Not that it’s any of your business. As for the length of my hair and beard, sounds like you’re crossing discrimination boundaries.”

“I’m not discriminating against you. I simply do not like you. You’re a goddamn drug addict, Taylor.”

Everyone in the center knew about Marcus’s past.

“Thanks for clarifying that, Peter.”

Shipley cringed. “All it’ll take is one more mistake. Everyone’s watching you. You mess up again and you’re out on your ass.” His shoulders relaxed and he folded back into the chair. “If it were up to me, I would’ve fired you months ago.”

“Good thing it isn’t up to you then.”

Marcus knew he was pushing the man’s buttons, but that wasn’t hard to do. Shipley was an idiot. A brown-noser who didn’t know his ass from his dick, according to Leo.

“This is your final warning,” Shipley said between his teeth. “We hold life and death in our hands. We can’t afford errors.”

“It was a misfiled report. The call was dispatched correctly and efficiently.”

“Yeah, at least you didn’t send the ambulance in the wrong direction.” A smug smile crossed Shipley’s face. “That was the stunt that got you knocked off your high horse as a paramedic. Got you fired from EMS.”

Marcus thought of a million ways to answer him. None of them were polite. He moved toward the door. “I think our little meeting is done.”

“I’m not finished,” Shipley bellowed.

“Yes you are, Pete.”

With that, Marcus strode from the office. He left Shipley’s door ajar, something he knew would tick off his supervisor even more than his insubordination.

He tried not to dwell on Shipley’s words, but the man had hit a nerve. Six years ago, Marcus had been publicly humiliated when the truth had come out about his addiction problem, and his future as a paramedic was sliced clean off the minute he drove that ambulance to the wrong side of town because he was too high to comprehend where he was going.

That’s when he’d taken some time off. From work…from Jane…from everyone. He’d headed to Cadomin to clear his mind and do some fishing. At least that’s what he’d told Jane. Meanwhile, he’d secretly packed his drug stash in the wooden box. Six days later, while in a morphine haze filled with strange images of ghostly children, he answered his cell phone. In a subdued voice, Detective John Zur revealed that Jane and Ryan had been in a car accident, not far from where Marcus was holing up.

That had been the beginning of the end for Marcus.

Now he was doing what he could to get by. It wasn’t that he couldn’t handle the career change from superstar paramedic to invisible 911 dispatcher. That wasn’t the problem. Shipley was. The guy had been gunning for him ever since Leo had brought Marcus in to fill a vacant spot left behind by a dispatcher who’d quit after a nervous breakdown.

“What did Titanic have to say?” Leo asked when Marcus veered around the cubicle.

“He doesn’t want to go down with the ship.”

“He thinks you’re the iceberg?”

Marcus gave a single nod.

“I got your back.”

Leo had connections at work. He knew the center coordinator, Nate Downey, very well. He was married to Nate’s daughter, Valerie.

“I know, Leo.”

As he settled into his desk and slipped on the headset, Marcus took a deep breath and released it evenly. The mind tricks between him and Shipley had become too frequent. They wreaked havoc on his brain and drained him.

Because Shipley never lets me forget.

The clock on the computer read: 12:20. It was going to be a very long day.

In the sleepy town of Edson, it was rare to see much excitement. The center catered to outside towns as well. Some days the phones only rang a half-dozen times. Those were the good days.

He flipped through the folders on his desk and found the protocol chart. Never hurt to do a quick refresher before his shift. It kept his mind fresh and focused.

But his thoughts meandered to the misfiled report.

Was he slipping? Was he putting people’s lives in danger? That was something he’d promised himself, and Leo, he’d never do again.

Remember Jane and Ryan.

How could he ever forget them? They’d been his life.

The phone rang and he jumped.

“911. Do you need Fire, Police or Ambulance?”

Marcus spent the next ten minutes explaining to eighty-nine-year-old Mrs. Mortimer, a frequent caller, that no one was available to rescue her cat from the neighbor’s tree.

Then he waited for a real emergency.

 


Chapter Two

 

Edmonton, AB – Thursday, June 13, 2013 – 4:37 PM

 

Rebecca Kingston folded her arms across her down-filled jacket and tried not to shiver. Though May had ended with a heat wave, the temperatures had dropped the first week of June. It had rained for the first five days, and an arctic chill had swept through the city. The weatherman blamed the erratic change in weather on global warming and a cold front sweeping down from Alaska, while locals held one source responsible. Their lifelong rival—Calgary.

“Can we get an ice cream, Mommy?” four-year-old Ella said with a faint lips, the result of her recent contribution to the tooth fairy’s necklace collection.

Rebecca laughed. “It feels like winter again and you want ice cream?”

“Yes, please.”

“I guess we have time.”

They hurried across the street to the corner store.

“Strawberry this time,” Ella said, her blue eyes pleading.

Rebecca sighed. “Eat it slowly. Did you remember Puff?”

Her daughter nodded. “In my pocket.”

“Good girl.” Rebecca glanced at her watch. “It’s almost five. Let’s go.”

Her cell phone rang. It was Carter Billingsley, her lawyer.

“Mr. Billingsley,” she said. “I’m glad you got my message.”

“So you’ve decided to get away,” he said. “That’s a very good idea.”

“I need a break.” She glanced at Ella. “Things are going to get ugly, aren’t they?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Divorce is never pretty. But you’ll get through it.”

“Thanks, Mr. Billingsley.”

“Take care, Rebecca.”

Carter had once been her grandfather’s lawyer and Grandpa Bob had highly recommended him—if Rebecca ever needed someone to handle her divorce. In his late sixties, Carter filled that father-figure void left after her father’s passing.

Her thoughts raced to her twelve-year-old son. Colton’s team was up against one of the toughest junior high hockey teams from Regina. With Colton as the Edmonton team’s goalie, most of the pressure was on him. He was a brave boy.

She bit her bottom lip, wishing she were as brave.

You’re a coward, Becca.

“You’re too codependent,” her mother always said.

Rebecca figured that wasn’t actually her fault. She’d been fortunate to have strong male role models in her life. Men who ran companies with iron fists and made decisions after careful consideration. Or at least worked hard to provide for their families. Men like Grandpa Bob and her father. Men who could be trusted to make the right decisions.

Not like Wesley.

Even her grandfather hadn’t liked him. When Grandpa Bob passed away two years ago, he’d sent a clear message to everyone that Wesley couldn’t be trusted. Grandpa Bob had lived a miser’s lifestyle. No one knew how much money he’d saved for that “rainy day”—until he was gone and Colton and Ella became beneficiaries of over eight hundred thousand dollars from the sale of Grandpa Bob’s house and business.

Grandpa Bob, in his infinite wisdom, had added two major conditions to the inheritance. Money could only be withdrawn from the account if it was spent on Ella or Colton. And Rebecca was the sole person with signing power.

Wesley moped around the house for days when he heard the conditions. Any time she bought the kids new clothes, he’d sneer at her and say, “Hope you used your grandfather’s money for those.”

Once when he’d gambled most of his paycheck, he begged her for a “loan,” and when she’d voiced that she didn’t have the money, he slapped her. “Lying bitch! You’ve got almost a million dollars at your fingertips. All I’m asking for is thirty-five hundred. I’ll pay it back.”

She’d refused and paid the price, physically.

Rebecca wanted him out of her life. Once and for all. But for the sake of the children, she had to find a way to forgive Wesley and deal with the fact that he was her children’s father. He’d always be in their lives.

Every time she looked at Colton, she was reminded of Wesley. Unlike Ella’s blonde hair and blue eyes that closely resembled her own, both father and son had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, a light spray of freckles across their noses and matching chin dimples.

She’d met Wesley at a company Christmas party shortly after she started working as a customer service representative at Alberta Cable. The son of upper-class parents, Wesley had created his independence by not joining the family law firm, as was expected. Instead, he went to work at Alberta as a cable installer. At the party, he’d been assigned to the same table as Rebecca. As soon as Wesley realized she was single, he poured on the charm. He was a master at that.

The next morning she’d found Wesley in her bed.

After nearly four years of dating, he finally popped the question. Via a text message, of all things. She was at work when her cell phone sprang to life, vibrating against her desk. When she glanced down, she saw seven words.

“Rebecca Kingston, will U marry me?”

She’d immediately let out a startled shriek. “Wesley just proposed.”

This sent the entire room into a chaotic buzz of applause and congratulatory wishes. The rest of Rebecca’s shift was a blur.

“Is Daddy gonna be at the game?” Ella said, interrupting her memories.

“No, honey. He’s at work.”

At least that’s where Rebecca hoped he was.

Wesley had left Alberta six months ago, escorted from the building after being fired for screaming at a customer in her own home and shoving the woman into a wall. It hadn’t been the first complaint lodged against him. He’d been employed off and on since then, but no one wanted an employee with anger management issues.

When Rebecca had asked what had happened, he mumbled something about an accident, arguing that it wasn’t his fault. “No matter what that ass of a supervisor says,” he said.

She’d given him a look that said she didn’t believe him. She paid for that look. The black eye he gave her kept her in the house for nearly a week. That’s when she filed for separation.

Since leaving Alberta, Wesley had wandered from one dead-end job to another. For the past two months he’d hardly worked at all. She hoped to God he wasn’t sitting at his apartment, surfing the porn highway.

Last time she saw him, Wesley had blamed his unemployment situation on the recession, which had, in all fairness, wreaked havoc with many people’s lives and crushed some of the toughest companies. But the economy, or lack of a strong one, wasn’t Wesley’s problem. The problem was his lack of motivation and the inability to handle his jealousy and rage.

Perhaps Wesley was experiencing a midlife crisis.

Maybe she was too.

It was getting more and more difficult to keep it together. But she did it for her children. Besides, she’d endured worse than uncertainty when she lived with Wesley. Much worse.

Rebecca glanced down at her daughter. Ella was a petite child who’d been born two months premature. Wesley had seen to that.

She shook her head. No. What happened back then was as much my fault as his. I stayed when I should’ve left.

“Hurry, Mommy!” Ella said, tugging on her hand.

The hockey arena was a five-minute walk from where she’d parked the Chevy Impala, but with the ice cream pit stop, Rebecca was glad they’d left early.

“Ella, do you think Colton’s team will win today?”

Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Of course. Colton is awesome!”

“Awesome,” Rebecca agreed.

Tamarack Hockey Arena came into view, along with the crowds of hockey fans who gathered outside the doors to the indoor rink.

Rebecca took Ella’s hand and drew her in close.

In Edmonton, hockey fans bordered on hockey fanatics. It wouldn’t be the first time that a fight broke out between fathers of opposing teams. Last year, a toddler had been trampled in a north Edmonton arena. Thankfully, he’d survived.

“Stay close, Ella.”

“Do you see Colton?”

“Not yet.”

“Becca!”

Turning in the direction of the voice, she scoured the bleachers. Then she spotted Wesley near the home team’s side. He wasn’t supposed to be there. The terms of their separation were that he could see the kids during scheduled visitations. Once the divorce was final, those visits would be restricted to visits accompanied by a social worker―if Carter Billingsley, her lawyer, came through for her. She hadn’t given Wesley this news yet.

“I saved you some seats,” Wesley hollered. The look he gave her suggested she shouldn’t make a public scene. Or else.

Rebecca released a reluctant sigh. Great. Just great.

“Are we gonna sit with Daddy?” Ella asked.

“Yes, honey. Unless you want to sit somewhere else.” Anywhere else.

Despite Rebecca’s silent plea, Ella headed in Wesley’s direction, pushing past the knees that blocked the aisle. Rebecca sat beside Ella and tried to tamp down the guilt she felt at placing their daughter between them.

“There’s a seat beside me,” Wesley said.

Her gaze flew to the empty seat on his right and she winced. “I’m good here. Thanks for saving the seats.”

Looking as handsome as the day she’d married him, Wesley smiled. “You look lovely. New hairstyle?”

She touched her shoulder-length hair. “I need a trim.”

“Looks good. But then you always do.”

She stared at him. He was laying on the charm a bit thick. That usually meant he wanted something.

Wesley chucked Ella under the chin. “So, Ella-Bella, how’s kindergarten?”

“We went on a field trip to the zoo yesterday.”

“See any monkeys?” he asked, his arm resting over the back of Ella’s chair.

“Yeah. They were so cute.”

“But not as cute as you, right?” He caught Rebecca’s eye and winked. “You’re the cutest girl here. Even though you have no teeth.”

“Do too!” Ella opened her mouth to show him.

After a few minutes of listening to their teasing banter, Rebecca tuned out their laughter. Sadness washed over her, followed by regret. If things had gone differently, they’d still be a family, and the kids would have their father in their lives. But Rebecca couldn’t stay in an abusive relationship. Her mind and body couldn’t endure any more trauma. And she was terrified he’d start lashing out physically at the kids.

So she’d made a decision, and one sunny Friday afternoon, she’d summoned up the courage to confront Wesley at his current job de jour.

“We need to talk,” she’d told him.

“This isn’t a good time.”

“It’s never a good time.” She took a deep breath. “I want you to move out of the house, Wesley.”

He laughed. “Good joke. What’s the punch line?”

“I’m not joking.”

His smile disappeared. “You’re serious?”

“Dead serious. It’s not like you couldn’t see this coming. I want a separation. You know I’ve been…unhappy in our marriage.”

“I’ll try to make more time for you.”

“It’s not more time that I want, Wesley. Neither of us can live like this. Your anger is out of control. You’re out of control.”

“So this is all my fault?” Wesley sneered.

“You nearly put me in the hospital last week.”

“Maybe that’s where you belong.”

She clenched her teeth. “Your threats won’t work this time. I’ve made up my mind. I’m leaving tonight, and I’m taking the kids with me.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Seems to me you’re only thinking about yourself, what you want. Have you even thought about what this’ll do to the kids?”

“Of course I have,” she snapped. “They’re all I think about. Can you say the same?”

“You’re going to turn them against me. Like your mother did to you and your father.” His voice dripped with disgust.

“Don’t bring my parents into this. This has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the fact that you have an anger problem and you refuse to get help.”

“What’ll you tell the kids?”

She shrugged. “Ella won’t understand. She’s too young. Colton’s getting too old for me to keep making excuses for you. He’s almost a teenager.”

Wesley didn’t answer.

“You know what he said to me last night, Wesley? He said you love being angry more than you love being with us. He’s right, isn’t he?”

She stormed out of his office without waiting for a reply. She already knew the answer.

That evening, Wesley packed two suitcases.

“I’ll be staying at The Fairmont McDonald. I still love you, Becca.”

His actions had stunned her. She’d been prepared to take the kids to Kelly’s. She was even ready for Wesley to try to hurt her. What she hadn’t expected was his easy submission. Or that for once he’d take the high road.

“You’re leaving?” she said, shocked.

“That’s what you wanted,” he said with a shrug. “So that’s what you get.”

For a second, she wanted to tell him she’d made a mistake. That she didn’t want a separation. That she’d be a better wife, learn to be more patient, learn to deal with his rages.

Then she remembered the bruises and sprains. “Good-bye, Wesley.”

“For now.”

She’d watched him climb into his car and waited until the taillights winked, then disappeared. Then she let out a long, uneasy breath and headed down the hallway. She wandered through their bedroom and into the en suite bathroom, all the while trying to think of the good times. There weren’t many.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror, one finger tracing the small scar along her chin. Wesley had given her that present on Valentine’s Day two years earlier. He’d accused her of flirting with the UPS delivery guy.

“You deserve better,” she said to her reflection. “So do the kids.”

Now, sitting two seats away from Wesley at the arena, Rebecca realized that her husband was still doing everything in his power to control her.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“You’re wasting your money.”

“What money? You get most of it.”

“That’s for the kids, Wesley, and you know it.”

She dug her fingernails into her palms. Don’t fight with him. Not here. Not in front of Ella.

She caught his eye. “Next time Colton has a game, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bother showing up.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He gave her an icy smile. “That’s my son down there.”

“What part of  ‘scheduled visits’ don’t you―”

Cheers erupted from the stands as both hockey teams skated out onto the ice and joined their goalies. Everyone stood for the national anthem, then a horn blasted.

Rebecca released a heart-heavy sigh.

The game was on…

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