At one time, if anyone had tried to tell Iris she would end up with the stable life she had now, she’d have told them they were crazy. For so many years, she’d kept her head down, putting everything on hold for her children and pushing away that hurt, that ache, that pain that had shredded her heart, having to climb out of the dark pit that wanted to drag her down.
Now, as she pulled in a breath, she had to remind herself that she no longer felt that guttural ache that had stolen her peace of mind and distracted her from all those small things that should’ve put a smile on her face in her children’s early years. She’d forgotten exactly when it had happened, when that wretched, visceral ache, which she’d screamed into a pillow to ease, had just left.
Her six children, whom she couldn’t imagine a life without, were all grown now, and she still centered everything around them. Her life was theirs. At the same time, there were days she wondered whether she had permanently scarred them, whether she could’ve done better.
She took in the concrete buildings, the bustling streets, the restaurants and bars and stores, and the scent of the autumn day on the breeze. These people made Livingston her home. It was a part of who she was, though there were times she had to tell herself she wasn’t a fraud.
The light of day seemed so different from the shadows of night. The darkness still called to her when she was alone, looking out into the yard. She wondered what was hiding there, what was waiting to tear down the façade she’d built and take away everything that put a smile on her face, all the reasons she could now hold her head high. It was just a feeling she couldn’t shake, one that had suddenly reemerged the moment her children learned of the night she wished she could forget.
She lifted her hand in a wave at a couple she knew, then another neighbor, people she knew well had gossiped behind her back at one time after she went from being a married woman to a single mother, struggling alone with six kids. It had cut her to the quick. Yes, Raymond O’Connell had been there one day and gone the next, and the rumors about why had left her feeling more alone than anything.
Of course it still smarted, if she really thought about it now. How did one go about shaking off all those hurtful rumors? People had trashed her character, saying she wasn’t good enough, that she must’ve done something to deserve such a fate, that she was screwing up big-time when it came to her kids, all because the O’Connells no longer fit the all-American mold of how a family was supposed to be.
She clutched her bargain-bin purse, wearing a plain white T-shirt and loose red cardigan over slimming blue jeans. She didn’t have to look in a mirror to know that while she was just Mom around her grown children, any man out there would’ve given her a second look. It was just who she was. Even though time hadn’t been her friend, her lack of money while the kids were young had kept her from eating her way into a pity party. She was grateful for that, at least, considering being slim and attractive had been the furthest thing from her mind for too many years.
She took in the nightclub in front of her, where staff were serving the lunch crowd, then turned to the glass industrial door with the words “Karen O’Connell & Jack Curtis, Lawyers” etched in black. An office over a nightclub. She couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips.
She was so proud of her daughter Karen, a lawyer, and Karen’s husband, Jack, who had a charm and charisma about him that reminded her so much of her own husband. Maybe that was why she watched him from a distance, wondering when he’d turn into someone else. There was something about him that told her he was holding on to the kind of secrets he would never share with another person. How did she know? It was just one of those feelings she got about people she spent time with.
She knew there was so much more to his life and his secrets than she would ever know, but she also knew he’d do anything for her daughter.
Iris forced herself to touch the steel handle and pull open the door, feeling it scrape against the metal lip on the ground. She started up the steps, her shoes squeaking to announce her arrival. Her palms sweated, and her heart kicked up with each step. She made herself pull in a breath.
She could hear talking, a man’s voice—Jack, she thought—as she stepped up on the landing, her hand on the rail, taking in the narrow hall and the open office door. The walls were dingy, nicked, and needed a fresh coat of paint.
She stepped into the reception area, seeing the door to Karen’s office closed. Jack was sitting at the receptionist’s desk, a position they still hadn’t filled. He lifted his hand in a wave to her, the phone to his ear, his blue eyes mysterious and his dark hair neatly groomed. He already had a five o’clock shadow, and it was barely noon. He hung up the phone and stood.
“Iris, I didn’t know you were coming by,” he said, gesturing toward her and walking around the desk. “Karen is actually in court right now.”
She shook her head, taking in his blue striped dress shirt and dark pants. He was attractive, and she wondered, looking at him now, what it was about him that gave her that sense of familiarity, reminding her of a man she’d once thought of dozens of times a day—a man who, thankfully, had now become just a passing thought.
“That’s fine,” Iris said. “I actually stopped by to see you. Do you have a minute?”
She wasn’t sure what he was thinking. He hesitated, and a soft smile touched his lips as he leaned against the desk and crossed his arms, giving her everything with just a look. She glanced over her shoulder to the open door and then back to him.
“You know what?” he said. “Let’s go talk in the office. Seems my wife and I can’t decide on a new place. She likes this dump, and we end up having to share an office, or one of us works out in reception…” He opened the office door and walked in, then stepped aside so he could close it behind her.
He had evidently picked up on her unease and her need for privacy, even though she didn’t have a clue what she was going to say. He gestured to the chairs in front of the desk, and she squeezed her purse over her shoulder.
“Please, Iris, have a seat,” he said. “So you wanted to talk to me?”
She walked over to the chair and sat down, and she expected him to sit behind the desk across from her, but instead he sat beside her. Something in his blue eyes was so intense. He didn’t look away, didn’t pull away. He seemed amused, curious, but she wondered how curious he’d be when he learned the truth of what she’d done and who she really was.
There it was, silence, because she’d missed her cue to speak.
She slid her purse strap off her shoulder and took her time setting it on the floor. When she looked up, he was still waiting patiently.
“Is everything all right, Iris?” he said, then glanced to the door and back to her. He leaned forward, his forearms resting on his knees, and she took in the scar along the side of his face, tiny, just barely there. He started to laugh and rubbed the back of his head. “Are you upset with me or something?”
She gestured toward him. “No, no, nothing like that. I just need a second to find the words or rip the bandage off, so to speak. You know, Karen doesn’t know I’ve come here, and neither do my other children…” She hesitated.
Jack glanced to the door again and sat up straighter, an odd smile touching his lips. “Okay. You do know that whatever you say to me, I won’t share it. It stays between us.”
She reached for her purse and unzipped it, then opened up her wallet, seeing the bills inside. She pulled out a dollar bill and rested it on the desk, one hand pressed over it as she clutched her wallet in the other.
He inhaled and stared at her hand. Evidently, he had figured out this was something more than a friendly visit.
“I want to hire you as my lawyer, Jack,” she said, then pushed the bill closer to him.
His expression had suddenly turned serious as he dragged his gaze over to her. His blue eyes were so different from the O’Connell blue. He hesitated, and all she did was lower her gaze to the money on the desk beside him, forcing a swallow past the lump in her throat and fighting the instinctual tremble in her hand.
“Is it true that as my lawyer, you can’t share anything?” she said, though she knew it was, considering she’d listened to everything Karen had shared with her during her studies to become a lawyer—every law, all the rights, everything that could be used against someone.
Jack pulled in a breath, hesitating only a second before he settled his hand over the bill and held it up. “Okay, so this is a retainer?” He didn’t laugh. He could obviously see that she had no intention of saying a word until he said what she needed to hear.
“Yes, consider me your lawyer,” he said, then shoved the dollar bill in his pocket. He stood up and walked around the desk, changing from her daughter’s husband to a businessman. Maybe he needed to have something between them to ensure a level of professionality.
She did, too, but more for courage, because she couldn’t remember feeling the kind of fear she was feeling right now. She wondered whether he could hear her relief as she breathed out.
“So you’re looking for a will or something done up?” he said. The way he asked, it sounded as if he couldn’t imagine anything else. He actually reached for a legal pad in one of Karen’s drawers and rummaged for a pen as Iris silently wished it were that simple.
“I married a man and had six of his children only to learn he wasn’t the man I thought he was,” she said. “The night he left, I did something.”
Jack leaned on the desk, ready to write, and froze, pen in hand. He slowly dragged his gaze up and over to her, and she had to force herself to continue before the fear that was threatening to choke her took over and shut down her voice. Her throat was thick, and she cleared it.
“I’m afraid that one day very soon, there will be a knock on my door, a reckoning for what I did and what I know. In fact, I can already feel it, something coming, whispering that my time is up.”
She’d expected shock, maybe outrage, not the stillness that was staring back at her. He opened his mouth to say something, but instead he simply stood up, walked over to the door, and locked it.
When he turned, she could see he needed a minute to get his head around the bomb she’d just dropped. He started back to the desk, digging into each step, but instead of sitting, he rested his hands on the back of the chair right beside her and leaned down. His gaze was imploring, intense, and she knew she had all his attention.
“Okay, I think you’d better start at the beginning,” he said, “and don’t leave anything out.”