Everyone deserves a second chance.
Henri Novak is at rock bottom. Far from home, trying to save his family’s business from disaster, he must find a way to move forward from his wife’s staggering infidelity. He thinks it’ll be hard to move past the rage and hurt he’s trapped in, until he meets Clarke Kensington and thinks she might be a good distraction from his situation.
Clarke Kensington is also no stranger to trouble—as a private investigator, she’s seen the worst things married couples can do to each other. Following her own divorce, she’s trying to give herself a fresh start in a new city when she meets Henri and feels an undeniable attraction to him.
What starts as a way for two people to distract themselves becomes an unlikely alliance, as Henri and Clarke bond over their broken marriages. But even as they grow closer, will they find a way to trust each other . . . and maybe get a do-over for love?
September, week one, Sunday
They were arguing again. At least once a day it came to this. She squared off in front of him, demanding more. As if he wasn’t trying hard enough. A small single-wide trailer was the home he provided for her . . . for them. Standard-issue beige on the outside; worn, beige, and brown colored on the inside, and oh, it was clean. The clean part was all thanks to her, and was so unlike what he’d been raised with.
It wasn’t huge, their place, but it was a start, and given his beginnings, it was a big fucking deal—a home of his own—however meager.
Come through the front door and you were smack-dab in the middle of the kitchen. A table with three matching chairs pushed under it sat on the right side. Behind the table was a sizable window that looked out into the backyard. It helped with the lighting and gave the room a cozy, homey feeling. Directly across from the table was the sink, stove, and refrigerator, all rolled into one small cooking space.
He’d purchased this place for himself immediately after he finished high school, after his parents were killed in a car crash with a semi-truck, and way before he met her. A sleepless driver, carrying goods for one of the national superstore chains, had fallen asleep while driving, and had plowed head-on into his parents’ auto.
They’d died instantly, leaving him with a sizable settlement to start a life with, a life that he wanted to be different from theirs. He could have gone for more money, many had said, but whatever; he was happy to have what he’d gotten. It was more than he’d had, more than he’d thought to have, no need to be greedy.
Two acres were underneath his trailer home, courtesy of the grandparents on his mother’s side. He didn’t know them, beyond the occasional Christmas gift he’d received, but whatever to that fact too. He was just grateful that they’d passed the land down to their only disappointment of a daughter, who in turn had passed it on to him.
“You can thank your momma for this,” his daddy would say as he surveyed the dump they lived in. Unlike his mother, his dad hadn’t come from much; had married up, was the way he’d told it.
“She was to be my savior,” his father would say, and never was it said with any hint of gratitude. In fact, it usually accompanied by a hard smack across his mother’s face, or whatever body part was in the vicinity of his dad’s hand.
“Are you even listening to me?” she said, bringing his attention back to the present and to the woman standing in front of him. The one that he was not currently listening to. Her face was a mask of impatience. “In your head again. Always daydreaming,” she added.
“I’m listening,” he said.
They were standing between the living room and the kitchen now. The living room, complete with a sofa—the wrap-around kind—and a coffee table, was a much bigger space than the kitchen and was located to the right of it and the front door. Everything else—bedroom and a bath—was to the left of the kitchen. Nothing spectacular, any of it, except it was a start . . . his start.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“Don’t say that. Can’t you see that I’m trying?” he asked, staring at the woman he loved so. Twisted-up-in-a-knot kind of love that left him both happy and scared. Scared that she would leave him. It would kill him if she left.
She was tall like him, with dark brown skin—think dark chocolate melted and you had her skin color. It was another thing he loved about her. Late at night, holding her close, gazing into a pair of the most soulful eyes he’d ever encountered. Those eyes of hers had sucked him in, body and soul, the first time he had seen her. He would move heaven and earth to be with her, and loved her more than anything. He was doing the best he could. Why couldn’t she see that?
“It’s not enough and you can’t give me more and do you want to know why?” she asked, moving closer to him. She didn’t stop until she stood squarely in front of his face, with her index finger pointed off to the side of his head, like her hand was a gun. “Because you’re a pussy. And I’m tired of living with you,” she said,fighting to keep from crying. And yeah, she knew he loved her, but so far that love hadn’t translated into anything beyond lame-ass excuses. She was tired of those too, but mostly she was tired of him being ashamed of her, ashamed of them.
He hit her then, arm bent at the elbow, pulled back to his chest, and all forward momentum, until it made contact with her throat.
“Oh,” she said quietly. Her eyes and mouth formed perfect round saucers of shock.
“I’m sorry,” he said immediately. He hadn’t meant to do that. “I’m sorry,” he said again as the force of his hit sent her flying backwards. Her arms were flailing about now, her face turning from side to side, searching for something to grab that would break her fall and fuck, he thought, there was nothing. Her head connected with the edge of the coffee table first before meeting up with the floor, seconds later.
It was quiet after that. She was quiet after that. Quiet and still. Her eyes were open and staring up at him. Dead eyes, he thought. He’d seen them enough in his line of work to recognize the look. He moved his gaze to the blood that was pouring from her head and tears, from out of nowhere, sprang from his eyes, spilling onto his cheeks, onto his shirt, and then onto her as he bent over to check for a pulse, a long shot hope that her blank stare held some form of life.
Such a fuck-up you are, he said to himself, his dad’s words in his head as he placed two fingers to her throat, feeling for a pulse and nothing. Fuck, he thought again, and moved his hand to her nose then, feeling for air, for any hint of life. Fuck, he thought again, as he sat beside her on the floor, looking at her stomach, his last hope for—and no, nothing there either. It was a flat as it had always been, as flat as she wanted it to be after giving birth. She was gone. He should have known he couldn’t even abuse her correctly. He’d killed her when all he wanted was quiet.
It was a reaction more than anything, and a dormant one before today. His father had taught him more than he’d realized, he guessed, and as much as he had resisted before, he was finally following in his footsteps. His father was well versed in the ways of striking people. Not really people, just him and his mother. A slap across the face, not intended to hurt, just a heads-up that he wanted your attention. There was the hands-balled-up-into-a-fist punch to the gut that left you breathless, balled over, and fighting back tears. However, neither of those compared to his father’s favorite—his swing of choice—a backhanded strike to the throat, identical to the one he’d just laid on her, the woman he said he loved.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, a string of fucks ran on replay in his head. He ran his hand over his face before he reached for her, pulling her into his lap. The tears came in full force then as the import of what he’d done sunk in. He had killed the only person who had ever been there for him. Fuck, he thought again, fighting against the way of shame that threatened to overtake him. This was nothing new, more of the same old shame and falling short of someone’s ideal he’d grown up with.
He pulled her closer, the tears coming in earnest now, at the loss of this one thing he thought would make his life better. It had been better for a while, he reminded himself, a short span of happiness before she got to know the real him. It didn’t take long before she was asking for more, asking him to be different, to be brave. He had never been brave, never would be brave, and wishing and asking wasn’t going to make it so.
He sat for a while, holding her until he had no more tears left to shed, until the sounds of a baby crying pulled him back into the present. His baby, her baby, their baby was crying. He carefully laid her on the floor then, away from the puddle of blood, and went to see about his son, their son.
He checked to make sure the front door was locked. Now was not the time for visitors, not that many came to call anyway, but you never knew. He kept his place on lockdown for a reason, since that run-in with his uncle, the mean-ass brother of his mean-ass father. An unexpected encounter that had turned ugly and left him scared to bring her around his family again. Scared enough to install that big chain-link fence around his property, with its unbreakable lock to hold the gates closed.
The baby’s cry was growing louder now, interrupting his thoughts and anchoring him to the present, for which he was grateful. He could get lost in his mind sometimes, but less so when he had obligations calling him. His child was hungry or wet, he’d bet, and so he went in search of that big-ass purse, black and shiny, that she’d used as a diaper bag. Said she felt less like one of those typical moms, and more fashionable carrying it.
He picked it up from the foot of the table and started rifling through it. There was a stack of tiny-size diapers, along with baby wipes. He took one of each before moving over to the refrigerator, where the bottles of milk she pumped each morning were kept. He’d watched her. It was another effort he’d made to be a different daddy than the one he’d been saddled with.
He pulled a bottle from the refrigerator, taking note of the three that remained. He opened the top and stuck it into the microwave. Ten seconds it took to warm it to the correct temperature. She’d taught him that, too.
With warm bottle, diaper, and wipes in hand, he moved to the bedroom door. There wasn’t anything impressive about this room, besides the bed. A square-shaped room, filled with a bed almost as large as the room itself. It didn’t leave much room to maneuver, but they’d somehow managed, even laughed about it at first.
Going for big had been his goal when he’d purchased it. No more sleeping on the couch or the floor or wherever. He’d wanted the biggest bed he could afford, which turned out to be queen-sized, with a tall, dark, rich mahogany headboard. A bed of a rich man, he’d thought at the time.
The baby was lying in the middle of the it, looking like his momma, only with lighter-colored skin, a mix of his white and her dark brown skin. Its face was a mask of twisted and angry, bawling to let you know he wanted whatever he wanted and he wanted it now.
He reached for the blanket she’d placed underneath his boy, using it to pull him to the edge of the bed. He carefully unwrapped the tight bundle of blankets that kept him warm, and began the process of changing his diaper. This he had experience with too. Had changed him mostly at night, when she was tired, that wanting-to-help-be-a-better-father thing again.
When he was done, he placed the soiled diaper into the Diaper Genie she’d asked him to purchase and went to wash his hands. It was another thing she had taught him to do.
He returned to a quiet baby, thankfully, but decided to feed him anyway. He had work in a few, and he wasn’t sure how soon he would be able to return. He gently lifted his boy into his arms, cradling his head as he placed the bottle into his mouth. A tiny bow-shaped and quiet mouth now.
“It’s just you and me, kid,” he said, meeting the wide-eyed stare of his boy, suckling from the bottle. Burping came next, he knew, so when the last of the milk was gone from the bottle, he gently placed his boy on his shoulder as he’d seen her do countless times. He softly, with a cupped hand, hit him on his back.
It wasn’t long before he heard it, a soft release of air, and it made him tear up again. He held on tightly to his son for a bit longer after that, taking comfort in his presence, feeling both sad and surprisingly uplifted by the knowledge that he wasn’t completely alone in this world. He had her baby, their baby still. He re-wrapped his son in his blanket and pushed him toward the middle of the bed.
He stood for a while, staring at him, considering what to do next, with her and with their baby. The thought of both of them gone made his heart ache, and the first in a series of decisions was made. There would be no getting rid of his child.
But what to do with him, he wondered. He had work in an hour. He couldn’t leave him here alone. Or could he? He didn’t know the answer to that, but he would figure it out. He would take care of his child, some way, somehow, and his second decision was made.
What to do about her? was the next thing he had to decide. He could call someone. He should call someone. It was an accident, after all. Feeling hopeful for the first time, he closed the door to the bedroom and went in search of his phone.
He found it near the front door where he usually left it, put it there right beside his keys, as any family man would do, coming home from a hard day’s work. He had been that family man until a few moments ago. He moved his thoughts to finding someone that could help him.
He stood leaning against the kitchen counter, scrolling quickly through the list of names in his phone and trying not to look at her, lying where he’d left her. No one name stood out. Well, one name, a childhood friend, but he was off in another state with his job. He wouldn’t be back for another week.
There was nobody else was the conclusion he’d come to, and just like that, the idea of calling for help fell by the wayside. With the exception of his childhood buddy, he’d been a loner kid, and was now a loner man. He’d have to take care of this himself and nothing new there. Plus, too much time had passed, and how would he explain that?
He checked his watch. He’d better get moving if he wanted to move her before he left for work. But where, he thought, looking around his small space. Out back, in the shed, a small wooded structure, four foot by three foot, where he kept his work tools and his lawnmower. Yeah, he decided, that would suffice, until he had more time for a proper burial. Another decision made. He walked back to the bedroom, pulled a blanket from the closet, along with two belts that he no longer had use for, and spread the blanket out on the floor beside her. He rolled her over and over until he reached the middle of the rug.
There was a lot of blood left on the floor, he noted as he finished wrapping her up in the blanket. Head wounds could be huge sources of blood loss, he also knew from his line of work. He’d take care of that next, after he finished putting her away. He pulled the ends of the blanket together and secured it with one of his belt. He did the same on the other end. He lifted her then, without much strain. She was tall, yes, but slender.
It was a short trip to his shed. His dogs met him at the door, two Doberman Pinschers that he’d raised from pups to be ferocious. He wanted them capable of ripping apart anyone who dared to come onto his land. With his extended family showing up whenever they wanted to at first, he’d needed fierce.
He unlocked the lock on the shed and carefully placed his bundle inside. Locking the door behind him, he walked back to his home, the dogs trailing along behind him.
Once inside, he grabbed his stash of towels—all but one, he still had a shower to take—and wiped up the blood as best he could, in a hurry now; he didn’t want to be late for work. He stuffed the bloodied towels into a trash bag, the large industrial-strength kind, and took them over to the shed too.
All that was left was to shower and change into his work clothes. His was a short shift today, filling in for a co-worker who wanted a half day, so he’d better get a move on, he thought, standing with his back to the front door, scanning the room, another quick check before moving to the bedroom again.
His motherless baby was quiet now, laying on the bed, staring into the space above its head, making those little baby cooing sounds that she used to love to listen to.
The bathroom was located at the foot of the bed, toward the right side of the room if you were in bed facing him. Another small space, with just enough room for a shower, toilet, and sink.
He stepped inside the bathroom, turning the water in the shower to hot, as it took a few seconds to heat up. In the interim, he went to find his uniform. It was in the closet, freshly washed and ironed by her. In so many ways both big and small, he would miss her.
The baby was where he’d left him, still staring into space. He watched him as he undressed, reassuring himself that he wouldn’t fall, ’cause he was going to have to leave him here, alone. He had no alternative, nothing that wouldn’t give him and what had happened here away, and nothing that wouldn’t end up with him losing his kid permanently, and he’d already decided that wasn’t happening. It was his son and he would take care of him until they met up with her again. And just like that, he’d come to his final decision. He and his son would see her again.
The idea had been skirting around the edges of his brain since the accident, his name for her death, and the answer to the problem of how to live in the future without her. There would be no future without her. There was just getting through the days until they could see her again. He didn’t know when, he’d take each day as it came, taking care of his son, until he felt the time was right.
He stepped into the shower, and his tears fell again in earnest now at his loss, mixed in with his dad’s words. He was sure his dad would have called him a pussy for crying. He hated the word pussy, had heard it too much in his life to hear it from her, but still he didn’t have to hurt her, to become the father that he’d grown up hating. No, there was no cause for what had happened today, which is why his decision to join her felt so right . . . so redemptive.
He stepped out the shower a different man. The last of his tears had flowed down the drain with the rest of the water. There would be no more crying from here on. He dressed, quietly watching his son, growing more and more resolute.
When he was done, using the blanket underneath his boy again, he pulled him closer to the headboard. He should be safe there, no chance he’d fall off the bed? He was much too young to do the rolling around thing that babies did, but just to be safe, he removed the pillows from the head of the bed and placed them on either side of his son. That’s better, he thought, or maybe not. Pillows could suffocate.
He looked around the room for something else when he remembered the baby carrier and went to retrieve it. It was in the kitchen, on the floor at the foot of the table, near where the diaper bag had been. Back in the bedroom, he carefully placed his son in it, and placed the carrier on the side of the bed closest to the wall, on an off chance that he’d become wiggly and move it somehow. Highly unlikely, but it didn’t hurt to be careful. He stood for a while, watching as the eyelids of his son slowly closed in slumber.
It was back to the kitchen then, stopping by his refrigerator for one can of beer, or two, to try and settle his nerves. He needed something stronger, but beer was all he’d ever allowed himself to drink—another thing to steer clear of to keep from falling in his dad’s footsteps. He grabbed his keys and was out the front door and locking it behind him.
It took him a minute to unlock the front gate, drive through to the other side, get out, and re-lock the gate. He turned right onto the road, finally headed to work, mapping out when during his day he could safely return to check on his son. His job allowed him use of a vehicle and time, and he would make use of both until he couldn’t. Plus he had the two dogs that would die before they’d let anyone inside his home.
He was on much surer ground now, emotionally at least, having decided the conclusion to it all. It was a weight lifted, not at what he done—no, he’d never forgive himself for that, but he’d settled on a way to redeem himself, at least one that he could live with.
He blew out a breath, letting go of all those useless thoughts of what a fuck-up he was . . . or had been. All in the past, water under the bridge. He was moving forward now, until he couldn’t.