When Heather Grey received the phone call from Merce Archer that her brother was dead, she wasn’t surprised, but when her sister-in-law, Judy Grey, claimed to be pregnant with her brother’s child, Heather knew better than that. There was no way in hell that child was his. Heather decided right then and there that she’d go to the small town and set things straight.
Peter Archer was acting as the Archer family’s attorney. He was looking into the possibility that an employee of theirs, Judy Grey, had embezzled money from one of the business owner’s personal accounts.
When Heather stormed into their lives, bringing her mentally challenged aunt with her, demanding Judy be investigated for her brother’s death, Peter was captivated with her. And when Heather said they came as a package deal, Peter didn’t hesitate because from the moment he kissed her, his life had changed forever.
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Merce was a go-getter. She ran a contracting company with her father, and when she saw something that needed to be done, she did it. Archer’s company had a new product that needed to be produced, and Merce knew her company was in a perfect position to fulfill that order. She just didn’t understand why they weren’t on the list for consideration. She’d see about that.
Del was exhausted. The banging on his front door in the middle of the night was beyond infuriating. He didn’t bother getting dressed to answer it. If whoever was at the door didn’t like it, then so be it. That’s what they get for being so rude.
In all his naked glory, Del threw open the front door. Merce didn’t skip a beat in getting right to the point of her visit. The sparks fly as two stubborn souls clash for the first time….
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Merce didn’t want to make this call, but she’d made a promise, one that she intended to keep. As she pushed in the numbers, she thought of how she was going to tell this woman that her brother was gone, and though he’d already been cremated, his ashes were not going to be picked up by his wife. “Hello.” The voice sounded happy, almost too cheerful, and Merce hated this even more. Asking to speak to Heather Grey, she heard the other woman laugh. “This is her. You can tell me anything you want, but I’m not buying anything. That gets me into trouble.” An odd way to answer the phone, she thought, but Merce began speaking. “I’m sorry, Ms. Grey, but I’m calling to let you know that your brother is dead.
He was killed several days ago.” Not knowing what to expect, Merce jerked the phone from her ear when Heather began wailing and screaming about her brother. The pain in her voice was palpable. She either hadn’t heard Merce telling her she was so sorry, but she had more information, or was ignoring her. It wasn’t until another voice sounded that Merce listened to the newcomer with more interest. “What the fuck, Hey-hey? What’s the matter with you?” In a babbling voice, Heather explained to the other woman that her brother was dead. “Yes, he is. It was my dad.
Why are you—? Is someone on the phone talking to you?” “Yes. She said he was killed.” The other voice said he’d died a while back, and there wasn’t any reason for her to bet getting upset now. “Oh. I guess I don’t need to be crying either, huh?” “No. It’s been a long time. Who is that you’re talking to?” Heather told her she didn’t know who was on the phone. “Why don’t you let me have it, and I’ll figure it out for you? That way, you can go and eat your breakfast and get ready for your job.” “Okay.” The singsong voice told Merce she might well have had the wrong person. “I’m going to have to tell Mr. Watson I got to answer the phone. Maybe he’ll let me answer it at work.”
“Don’t count on it, Hey-hey. You did get upset for nothing. Go eat, and I’ll take you to work.” The voice of the stranger was soft. Playful to Heather. But when she spoke to her, Merce could tell how protective she was of the other woman. “What the fuck are you calling here for and upsetting Hey-hey? Whoever you are, you’d better believe she isn’t going to be harmed by your shit again. Do you understand me?” “She’s mentally challenged, isn’t she?” Merce didn’t know why she’d said that aloud, but she knew it to be true.
“You’re the Heather Grey I think I was supposed to talk to. I thought the other woman said she was Heather, but I don’t know for sure now. Are you the sister of Mark Grey?” “She is Heather Grey as well. I’m her niece. And yes, I’m the sister of Mark Grey.” Before she could tell her the news, Heather began speaking again. “Mark is dead then. I guess I assumed it was a scam to get my aunt to give you money. Not that it matters to you, but you’re right on her being challenged.
Thank you for that, at least— not calling her retarded. What happened to Mark?” “He was being arrested for several things at once but grabbed an officer’s weapon two different times. The second time he killed an officer at the scene. The second officer died later of his wounds. Mark was killed justifiably.” She said she didn’t doubt it. “You’re aware, I’m assuming, that he was married.” “Yes. Judy Grey. I’ve never met her. Mark would call here, telling me about the shit she was supposed to have done to him. I didn’t believe it, of course. Mark could never tell the truth because a lie was easier for him. Is she dead?”
Merce told her she was in the hospital but doing much better. “He told me he had to knock her around a little. I would have helped her, but I had had enough of his shit when he was living around here. And my aunt had as well. Besides, my thinking was if she didn’t want to be knocked around, she should have gotten herself a gun and blown his fucking head off. But then, that’s just me. What else did you want? If you think I’m going there for any reason, then you can get that shit out of your head right now. I don’t now or ever want to have anything to do with Mark, or his death, for the rest of my life.”
“What about your sister-in-law? She might need you.” Heather told her that she had enough dealing with her aunt. “You’re caring for her then?” “I am. I have been since I was eighteen, and she needed someone other than a nursing home, which would take what little money there was for her. Or I should say what little money was allotted to her. My father thought she was a burden, just not his.” Merce told her she was sorry. “No worries on your part. Hey-hey and I are getting along just fine on our own. So you can understand why we’re not going to be sucked into any drama. We have enough here on our own.” “I guess I can understand that. Judy is the one that asked me to find you and let you know that Mark was dead.
Also, she’s going to have a baby. There had been many before this one, but without Mark around to knock her about, she might be able to bring this one to term.” There was silence on the other end, but Merce thought she might not get a second chance to tell the other woman this. “There was insurance as well. I’m not entirely sure how much there is, but Judy should be all right.” There was very little noise in the background. Merce might have thought she’d been hung up on but for the singing from Hey-hey that she could hear. Just as she was going to ask Heather what was going on, she spoke again. “Hey-hey and I will be there in a few days. If you can stop her from getting the insurance, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want any of it.
I’m going just fine on my own here, but if Judy is saying she’s having my brother’s child, she’s lying.” The line was cut off this time, and it left Merce with more questions than it did answers about a great many things. Putting her phone on the desk, she sat there staring off into space, letting her mind think about what was going on with Judy and Mark. “Are you all right?” She kissed Del when he interrupted her thoughts. Smiling at him, she thought of the best way to ask him what was forefront in her mind. “What is it? You know you can ask me for the moon, and I’ll give it to you.”
“That’s just what I need. The moon in my pocket.” Kissing him again, she stood up and asked him to have a seat. When he was settled, she sat on his lap. “Now, I want you to think about this before you say anything. Do you trust Judy Grey? I mean, in all the time she’s worked for you—how long has that been?” “Just over five years, I guess. And do I trust her? I’ve had no reason not to have trusted her. Why are you asking?” She told him of the conversation she’d had with Heather. “So she didn’t explain what she meant by that. Do you think there is a cause for her to be suspicious of Judy? As I said, I’ve not had a reason to not trust her. However, we never let her into our accounts. There was never a time when she was in charge of the money, nor did she go to the bank for us. At least that was what we said.
I’ll talk to David and see what he has to say.” “Could you do it now? I don’t know why I think Heather is telling me the truth, but I do. There hasn’t been any reason for me to not trust Judy like you said, but now that it’s been put out there, I’m a little wary of what Heather might mean.” He picked up the house phone he used instead of his cell. She’d noticed he did that when at home. Del would put his phone near the front door rather than carry it around. “Don’t tell him what I’m thinking. Just sort of work up to it.” “Hey, David. Merce was just talking to Judy’s sister-in-law and wonders if there is any reason for us not to trust Judy.” She smacked him on the chest, and he laughed. “She told me to work up to it, but I thought this way was better.
We don’t beat around the bush anyway. I think we’ve been friends too long for that.” He paused again. “Yes, I can put it on speakerphone. Merce is right here with me.” “Merce?” She said she was there. “It’s funny you should be asking about that today. I just got my bank statement from my personal account, and there is just over ten grand missing. I’ve called the bank, and they’re looking into it. I don’t normally keep that much in there, but my wife and I are thinking of getting a boat to do some traveling with, and it’s not there. I’ve checked with my wife, and she said she would never do that. She wants to go boating as much as I do.”
“Did you ever give Judy your account information?” He said he’d not. “Do you leave out your checkbook? Something she could use to get the information she’d need?” “No.” Then she heard his fingers snap. “Wait. I didn’t use her for banking, but there was one time when there was an issue with my mail she got from the post office for me. When we were first using Judy to go to the post office to get company mail, she picked up mine as well. When I got it from her, there were several envelopes open. Two were credit card offers, and one of them was my statement. I never thought of it again until just now. Do you suppose she did it then? Got what she needed to use?” “It would certainly make it so you’d not be suspicious of her if it turned up now.”
Asking him to hold on, she called Peter to have him come over and see what he could make of it. “Peter said for you to put a seal on your account. He also wants to know if the money was taken out all at once or over a period of time.” “All at once.” She relayed the information to Peter. “This is insane, Del. I mean, she’s been working for us for about five years now, right? Why now? And I’m assuming you found the same thing.”
“I’ve not, no. But as I said, Merce contacted Mark’s sister, and she wasn’t coming here until she heard there was insurance. I’m not sure why it was the mentioning of the baby, but that got her coming here, and I think that’s a good thing.” David answered a few more questions for her as he spoke to Del. “Was there any time when we sent her to the bank for the company that you remember? I don’t. Not even to give her a credit card to order supplies for the office when she needed them.” “We didn’t even open an account she could have used.” Things started to fall into place while speaking to Peter and listening to the men. This woman was far smarter than anyone thought. Peter even said that Del and her should put a hold on their accounts too. At least until they found out more about Judy.
“I’m going to look into some things here in the meantime. Until you hear from me or Merce, I’d not let her even go to the post office for the company anymore. It’s much too dangerous feeling now.” David agreed, and when he hung up, Del looked at her. His face told her a great deal. He didn’t care for not trusting someone that worked for him. Also, she’d bet anything that his mind was working on other things he’d seen but not noticed until he had to think about them. “Peter is going to have someone look into her life. Also, other things, like if her name really is Judy. I’m worried more about David than I am us.” Del told her that David was going to be all right too, or he would have told him differently. “I’m glad to hear that. No one wants to feel they’ve been cheated.
Especially if she’s been playing him for the last few years.” “Did you ask her what she meant by what she said?” Merce told him she’d never gotten the chance. “I see. Well, I don’t, but I can understand how you came to see what we know. I can make a call or two. If I were to call my mom, she’d be able to find out a great deal. She’s been in this town all her life, and she might just be able to make a few calls of her own and find out exactly what Heather is talking about.” “What if it’s nothing more than a sister-in-law that is out to make trouble?” He asked her if she thought that was the case. “No. As I said, I don’t think Heather was going to come here at all until I mentioned the baby. For all we know, there might not even be one of those.
Or worse yet, there never was a child at all. She didn’t tell us how many she’d lost, but I would think it would be something a woman would just know. Not just how many, but the date and time as well. I would, I think. By the way, we need to get ready to go and see to the kids tomorrow. I don’t want them to have to stay in that place any longer than they have to.” The plan had been to go and get the kids a few days ago, but they had to wait on paperwork to be completed. Mostly it was to prove they were related to the children and could afford to take all four of them into their home.
Even Peter wanted things to go well for them, and he’d been working nearly nonstop in getting everything ready. Tomorrow they had an appointment to meet the kids, then later in the day to meet with the judge. “I’m not wearing a suit, as you suggested. Neither is Peter if he gets to see the kids as well.” She nodded, telling him they might be frightened by the sight of such huge men in suits.
“I don’t know why, but I think you’re just telling me that to make me feel better.” “No. I’ve looked at the paperwork on your cousin. He’s only five feet six inches tall, and a hard wind would blow him away. You guys aren’t nearly that tiny, and it might be too much for them.” Del told her he thought she was correct. “You had better be learning to say that more often. I’m nearly never wrong.” They were both laughing as they headed to dinner. Tonight it was just the two of them. Merce was about as excited as she’d been in some time to have dinner alone with a man. Especially this one. He was, as far as she was concerned, the best man in the world. ~*~
Todd held his two sisters’ hands as they waited in their room. Brian was with them, but he wasn’t allowed to get up and move around too much. He’d come to the place with a broken leg a few days ago, and it was still painful for him. Brian told him that his mom’s new husband had beaten him up when he wanted to go out to dinner with them. He told him they left him at home all the time with just cold pizza and soda pop. Soda pop was something that none of the kids liked. “Who do you think they are, Todd?” He told Amy he didn’t know, but they were going to have to be quiet, or they’d be put to bed again without supper. “I know. But these people, do you think they’re going to ask us questions that will make us cry?
Poor Jane didn’t like being told she wasn’t going to get to go back home ever again.” He didn’t either. But that was what the police had told them two days after they arrived here. That their father had turned their care over to the orphanage, even though they weren’t orphans, and said he didn’t want them anymore. Every time he thought of that, it made his heart hurt more. His momma had died, then his daddy said he didn’t want them. Not that he didn’t believe he’d say that about them. Since their momma had died, their father had been saying all kinds of things to them. Like he didn’t want them. That they were the scourge of the earth.
He’d had to look that word up, and it dug into his heart that someone would say that about their own kids. Todd could still see each word as he had read it to his sisters. A scourge is like being the scum of the earth. There was nothing worse than being called a scourge. Low as a thing could get. A disgrace to the world. Nothing or anything. Just flat-out gross. When the door opened to their room, he and his sisters stood up. “You’ll behave yourself, or you’ll not have dinner again, do you hear me?” They nodded. “And you’ll not be whining and blustering about how you want to go home.
I told you, and that officer told you. He doesn’t want you anymore. None of you. Your father has moved on, and you should as well.” “Yes, ma’am.” Todd watched as they wheeled Brian into the large room. He thought it was funny that this room was the only one that was decorated. The rest of the rooms looked as bare as the trees did in the winter. But he also knew that when spring rolled around, the rooms would be the same, and the trees would be pretty again.
They were seated just as two women and two men came into the room with them. The younger woman smiled at them, but he was afraid it was a trap. Everything was a trap nowadays. Every move he and the others made was thought of over and over to look for traps and such to get them into some kind of trouble. He was sick to death of not having food when he wanted it. Or being able to talk about anything that he wished with his sisters. Even Brian, who he’d only heard of until the other day, was someone he wanted to talk to.
“My name is Merce Archer.” Todd squeezed tightly on his sister’s hands. When she squeaked, he let them go and stared at the woman when she laughed. “I take it you know who the Archers are. I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of terrible stories about the person. Is it Katie? Katherine Archer that you’re afraid of?” Todd wanted to tell her but looked around the room. The people, all four of them, looked as well. Then the big man sitting next to Merce stood up. Todd felt his butt tighten up so tight he was afraid it would never open again. “We’d like to speak to the children alone.” The woman that had brought them into the room said that wasn’t allowed.
“I’m sure under normal circumstances, you don’t allow it, but that’s what we’re going to do. Or you can allow us to take them out to dinner, as we said we were going to do when we got here, without any trouble. That is still going to happen, by the way. As soon as the police arrive.” “Why is it that every time someone comes here, they think to change the rules to suit themselves? I’ve explained to you that we don’t allow the children to have time alone with people we don’t know. Also, leaving this facility is against the rules for all children. You’ll just have to deal with me being in here and not taking them anywhere. As I have told you twice now.” When the police arrived, the children were led out to a long limo and put in the back with the big people. Even Jane had a nice car seat, and Brian was put into a special harness thing that held him still while they were getting ready to leave.
It all happened so fast that Todd wanted to stick his tongue out at Mrs. Shelby and give her the finger. Not that he’d ever done that before, but he thought this was a good time to start. Instead, he and the others just sat there holding hands. “Now. I want you to know that this is your great Aunt Katie. Her sister was your grandma. Not that you ever met her, but that’s who she is. She also raised James and Mary when they were smaller, and their mother and father died.”
Todd knew that but kept his mouth shut. “You can talk freely if you want. No one here will say a word to that old bat.” “She’s mean.” Todd tried to shush his sister Amy. “She is. You know it too. We might not get any dinner for the next hundred years, but that don’t change up that she’s mean to us.” “You must be Amy.” Amy nodded at Merce. “I’m happy to hear that you guys haven’t had your tongues cut out. As I said, you can say what you want. Also, I want you to be aware that there will be no more skipped meals for you. I’ll take care of her if she tries that.”
“I believe you.” The adults laughed at Brian, but none of them thought it was funny. They were trapped as surely as if someone had stuck them into a cage and never was going to let them go home. “My mom said I wasn’t going to do her any good with me hanging on her tit. I had to ask Todd what it meant. She’s not all that nice either. Uncle James told her what he was doing with his kids, and she thought she’d do the same. My daddy said she was a follower but wasn’t smart enough to think up anything on her own.” “That’s about right. However, can you tell me why your father didn’t come and get you, Brian?” He told her about the divorce and what the lawyer told her.
“Did your dad ever try and harm you?” “Nah. He and me, we were buddies. But he’s away now. I think he’s in a place called Gurwanda. I don’t know where that is, but I heard my mom telling Uncle James that she’d taken care that he was never coming home. None of us are going to get to go back to our homes.” Merce asked Brian if it was called Grenada. “Yeah, that’s it. He is stuck there without papers. I guess I can understand that. My mom had all the stuff in his office burned up the day he left on a business trip. Then she told me he had left us. I didn’t believe her. Dad would never leave me without saying goodbye and giving me a hug.” While Brian cried, Todd watched the two men.
When one of them put out their hand, he flinched from it, sure he was going to be hit again. The man seemed angry for a second or two, then he smiled. It was tight like he was still mad, but he didn’t yell at him. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m assuming you’ve been hurt by someone recently.” Todd looked at his sisters, then back at the man. “You don’t have to worry about any of us harming you guys. And I can swear to you that I’ll kill anyone that tries.” “I’ve heard that before.” He nodded to his cousin. “His mom’s boyfriend thought it would be fun to break his leg before they brought him to the orphanage. My father would knock us around enough he’d have to take us to the hospital. We were never allowed to say anything like it happened, so we learned really early not to trust anyone.”
“Do you know that I came to see you once?” He barely remembered the older lady, but for some reason, he’d been told not to ever trust an Archer. “I see by your face that you were told about me and what a horrible person I was to your father. He isn’t a nice man. But these two men are my sons. And this is my son Del’s wife, Merce. My name is Katie. You can call me aunt if you wish, but I’m hoping that after today you’ll be my first grandchildren.” He didn’t understand how that worked. Since he’d never met any of his relatives before, he wasn’t sure of a lot of things. However, Todd didn’t think that just because you were an aunt to someone, you eventually became a grandma. “We’d like to take you home with us.” Todd sat there for a minute or two before realizing they were waiting on him to get out of the limo. Sure they were going to be back at the home. He was tense until he realized they were in front of a restaurant, one he’d never been to before.
Del got down on one knee and looked at all four of them. “I’ve just been thinking that this isn’t going to be a place you’re going to enjoy. I was thinking steaks, but I’m now wondering if you’d like a pizza or some burgers more.” “Burgers. I love hamburgers without any cheese on it, but cheese on my French fries.” He looked at Amy when she spoke. “Well, I do. What do you want to eat? Whatever they plop down in front of you like they do at that place? If they take our food from us for being here, don’t you want something you’d like to remember?” “I don’t want you or Jane to be without at all.” She hugged him, and Todd felt his eyes fill with tears. “I love you guys, and I don’t want you to starve because of this night, Amy. You’re all I have.” They were loaded back into the car and taken to a hamburger place he’d seen commercials about when he lived at home.
Going inside, Del picked up Jane when she started to fuss about the little fall she’d taken, and they all found a table. Almost sick with worry, Todd let someone order for him. Peter sat beside him and let him see a folder he had with him. It was adoption papers. It had not just his name on them, but his sisters’, as well as Brian’s. Todd asked the big man what that meant. “Just as Del told you. He and his wife are going to take you home with them as their children. They’ll take good care of you, and you’ll never have to worry about them giving you away to a place like you’re in now, or I’ll personally kick their butts. But that’s not going to happen. They’ll be good parents, and you’ll want for nothing.” He said all he wanted was a bed and food all the time. “I’m sure you do, son. I’m sure you do. However, there are a lot of things they’ll be able to give you that I’m betting you’ve not had from your parents. Your mother, more than likely, but not your father.
They’ll both love you all like you’re all the candy in the world wrapped into a nice box with a bow.” He couldn’t help it. Todd had been trying for so long to be brave for his family, but it was just too much right now. Crying hard, his body shaking with it, it wasn’t until he was lifted up and put over a strong shoulder that he knew he was going to be able to talk to Del. They were outside on a bench when he was asked if he was all right. “Yes, sir. I’ve been making sure my sisters were all right since Momma died, and I’ve been scared to death that someone would take them away and I’d never see them again. Then my cousin, who I never seen before, comes along, and I have to take care that he’s not hurt either. That woman, she’s meaner than a snake and takes our food from us when we’re bad.” He looked up at Del.
“I promise you, if you take my sisters and not me, they’ll be as good as gold. Just make sure my father doesn’t try and sell them off like he wanted to. He would have, too, if not for the social worker coming by all the time after Momma died. Now we’re in this home that I don’t know, and we got nothing from our home. I just don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m going to have me a heart attack before I can relax again. You understand?” “I do, and I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through all that. No seven-year-old should have to be stressed out over keeping his sisters safe. But you’ve done a good job, Todd. They’re very safe, and it’s all do to you.” Todd thanked him. “Now, later today, we’re going to go see the judge about the adoption.
We want all four of you, but my wife is going to see if she can find Brian’s dad and get him home for him. Also, we’re never going to have to worry about your father. I’m going to take care that he understands what he’s done is wrong.” “You gonna kill him?” Del didn’t answer, and that scared Todd just a little. Then he realized it was all on his father and not him, so he smiled at the big man. “You can beat him up, but if you go to jail, they’ll not let us go home with you. And I’d surely like to go there. I don’t care what sort of house you have either, so long as we can have a warm bed and some food when we want it. We’ll be good too.” “I’ve figured that out as well.” Todd nodded.
“All right. Let’s go back in and have some lunch, talk about some of the things you’d like to see in your room when we get home, as well as some of the things you’d like to have for school and such. My mom, Katie, she’s wanting a hug too, if you can find it in you to give her one. She’s been more worried than you have about the four of you.” “She must have had some really bad dreams then. I know I have.” Del told him she’d never tell them that, but she more than likely had. “You’re not kidding us, are you, Del?
I mean, you’re not going to just take us back there and never come back? I’d understand it, I would, but it would hurt badly if you did.” “I’m going to talk to Peter about having you stay with us while we’re here. That way, you don’t ever have to go back. Then when that meeting is over, you’re going to have to brace yourself. I have four more brothers at home and a grandpa of my own, as does Merce. You’re going to have so many relatives around you that you might wish you were back at the home.” “Never.” Del nodded at him, and they went back to their seats. His burger and fries were waiting for him as soon as he settled. Taking his first bite of a hot French fry he’d had in forever, it seemed, Todd hoped the man was right. He surely did. It would be nice to have a hot meal all the time again.