Authors: Jolene Betty Perry
a novel by
Jolene Betty Perry
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval systems, without prior written permission of the author except where permitted by law.
Next Door Books/Jolene Betty Perry
Copyright June 2013
Cover photo through istockphoto – triggerphoto
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author.
First day of law school internship – June
I felt like a ridiculous imposter. A little girl in her mom’s suit, all dressed up for work. Only my mom never wore a suit to work—she wore a lot less. And I was a law student. Law students worked in law offices all the time. I was supposed to feel like I belonged.
But even as I hit the button for the fifth floor where I’d meet the prosecutor I’d be shadowing, panic pushed into me and said I hadn’t actually left anything of my past behind me. That at any moment someone would eject me from the building, and I‘d have to start all over. Again.
I shoved that thought away because just going to college was a million miles away from where I grew up. And the minute Amy inherited her uncle’s house, we left the city... Well, and the state. Inconvenient for the middle of law school, but worth it. Not just for escape, but I needed a place I belonged—or at least a place where I had a better chance of faking like I needed to. Also, I was no longer looking for Josh around every corner... Though, that part of the move came with mixed emotions.
The elevator door opened to a small waiting room with thick glass between me and the secretary and a microphone to speak through. Right. District Attorney’s office. Criminal Prosecutors. They probably didn’t want random people walking in.
I ran a hand through my dark hair and gave my short bangs a quick smooth over before I approached the microphone. Just as I started to speak, the door opened to reveal a woman about six inches taller than me—not too difficult a feat at my five foot three. She adjusted the glasses on her pointed face before a smile broke out. “You must be Ashley Paige. I’m thrilled to have some help.”
My whole body relaxed in relief as I switched my leather bag to shake her hand. “Yes. That’s me.”
“Donetta Harper.” She nodded one curt nod, but her smile remained. “Come on in. I’m going over cases now to make offers, so your timing is perfect. It’ll give you a good idea of how we do one of the first steps in the process.”
“Great,” came out in a rush of breath.
It might all be okay.
Fourteen cases later, my brain hurt. Donetta had me look over the file first and tell her my thoughts before turning them to her for her to come up with an offer to send to the defense in case the defendant was ready to plead guilty. Ninety days in jail seemed like a pathetically small amount of time for breaking your girlfriend’s nose, but I kept quiet. I was there to learn and observe, and I was the one who requested working on the domestic violence cases. It’s just that no one could have prepared me for how it would feel to see case after case of people hurting the ones they claimed to care about. On top of which, I had read close to a dozen letters from victims trying to explain that it had all been a big misunderstanding. I didn’t expect that. Not in so many of the cases.
“How do you listen to these people begging you to drop charges on someone who beat the crap out of them?” I asked as I flipped the last file closed—my tall stack finally complete.
Donetta sighed and leaned back in her chair, rubbing the bridge of her tiny nose. “They have something I lost a long time ago.”
She seemed so exhausted over the messes people’s lives were in, and I was starting to question whether or not I could do this job without yelling at the victims to get a life and run away. “What did you lose?”
“They have this hope. They see the best in everyone—even someone they don’t feel safe around. They know that some people stop hurting the people they used to hit. Some people reform, get better. And they all have hope that the person they’re with, is that person.”
“You’d think self-preservation would win out. How could you love someone who hurt you? Or who hurt your children? The people you love?” My whole body hardened as I thought about my friend Josh, and what he deserved in parents but never had. He was supposed to be in the fourth bedroom at Amy’s house.
“It’s not always black and white. I wish it were. My job would feel better and much simpler.” She flipped through a police report on one of the last few files, her hair still tightly pulled back, even after our long day.
I felt my desire for this job begin to shatter at her thought because I was there and in law school because… “The law is black and white.”
“But situations aren’t.” Donetta shrugged. “I, fortunately, get to do my best to enforce the law, but it doesn’t mean I don’t see extenuating circumstances, people that I used to have hope for…”
All I could think is that if someone had stood up for Josh, his ashes wouldn’t be sitting in my room. Being here was supposed to make losing my best friend easier, not harder. But every person hurt was a version of Josh. Hot tears pressed against the back of my eyes, once again making me feel weak and forcing me to realize that distance did not equal actually leaving my past in the past. “I need the bathroom.”
Day one and I was breaking down—definitely an imposter here in the land of nice suits and big degrees.
Donetta was already absorbed in her computer and all I could think was how thankful I was that she didn’t see me wiping tears as I stepped out of her office. I hoped it would get easier to do this job because otherwise, I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to handle the next three months, much less a whole career.
I could not have done this much school for nothing.
* * *
I pulled in front of Amy’s house just after five to see the neighbor’s teenage daughter making out with a guy on her porch in that desperate way you do when you’re short on time and high on want. A flood of teen memories eased some of the tension from my day, even though at twenty-two, those days weren’t that far behind me. Instead of spoiling their moment by getting out of the car, I sat and waited as my song finished on the iPod. But as one song turned into four, me being practically parked in their front yard began to make me feel a little like a stalker.
We’d only been in Amy’s house for a week or so, and I’d seen the two teens who lived next door come and go, but just a glimpse of their dad, and nothing of the mom. The boy was tall, gangly and blond, and the girl, short, dark with thick brown hair—almost like they weren’t from the same family. The dad must be working, which made me wonder where the mom was, or if the girl was bold enough to let her boyfriend feel her up on the front porch when her mom was inside.
My car started to get hot now that I’d turned it off, Mesa in June was like that, and it was stupid for me to be sitting in there anyway. They were on the
Just as I slammed my car door, he jumped back all wide eyes, bleached hair, and cocky smile, which meant he knew exactly how cute he was. The girl immediately started to push him off her porch with a smirk. I tried to focus on getting to my house instead of their whispers to each other.
After a day of work, I was ready to sift through Amy’s takeout menus for dinner and maybe nap in the back yard.
“Hey!” the girl called, her voice tinged with worry and desperation. “Excuse me? Ma’am?”
I stopped and turned when I realized she was running
way. Since when had I become a
“Yes?” And then I glanced down at my blouse, heels and pencil skirt, and guessed I looked like a real adult to someone her age. Weird.
I tried not to smile and the hilariousness of the situation—me seeming adult-like, and her obviously worried about me “catching” her with her boyfriend on the porch, but failed.
“Um… So…” Her brown eyes were large—probably a little panicked. Her skin was bronzed dark from the sun, making her look exotic somehow, and much prettier than my fifteen-year-old self.
“Um, so?” I was getting a kick out of her desperate face and was pretty sure I’d just flustered her further.
Her fingers twirled through the ends of her thick dark hair as she fought for words. “So, I’m technically…” She pushed out a breath.
“You’re maybe hoping that I won’t say anything about the boy on your porch this afternoon?” I suggested as I pulled up a brow. Part of me wanted to scowl and make her sweat, but I just couldn’t do it. Her wide-eyed fear was something I recognized and remembered all too well. Mom was a tyrant when it came to boys—not that it ever did me a lot of good. Boys were a good distraction.
The breath she’d been holding came out in a whoosh. “That would be awesome, thank you. My dad is a little… Weird about boys.” She rolled her eyes. “Weird about a lot of things.”
“And you don’t worry about what your mom will think?” I smirked.
Her face fell and her body tensed almost immediately. “I haven’t seen my mom in four years. I worry about her never, and think about her even less.”
I almost believed her on the worry part, but couldn’t believe the never think about her, part. “Fair enough.” I folded my arms. “I’ve never even spoken with your dad, so he won’t be hearing from me.”
“I’m Marie Steeple.” She held out her hand. “But everyone calls me Ree.”
“Ashley. And your brother?”
She rolled her eyes again. “Trevor.”
“Nice to meet you, Ree.” I stepped back.
“No, wait.” Her whole body shifted forward. An action that felt more kid-like than teen, and made me smile. “You moved in just last week, right?”
“You watched.” I held her gaze because with the way her and her brother crouched on the porch to watch us move, I guessed they thought they were being stealthy.
She flushed a little. “We get bored.”
“It’s alright. Anyway, I’m starved. Night, Ree.”
“No, what do you do? I mean, three of you live there, right? Are they married? Are you?” Her questions tumbled over each other.
And I should have been annoyed but there was some kind of fresh innocent curiosity that I found amusing. “Been thinking about this a lot?”
“No,” she answered too quickly.
The girl was so like me—or the me I would have been if I hadn’t been raised to be suspicious of everyone. “I’m Ashley. I’m a law student who is spending the summer at the District Attorney’s Office as part of my degree. Amy and Kenneth and I all grew up in the same neighborhood. They’re not together. Kenneth and I are not together. They’re both going into corporate law, part of the same internship this summer, and I’m probably sticking with criminal. Did I cover everything?” I teased.
“Yeah.” She shuffled her feet a few times. “I was just curious, you know.”
“Okay.” I glanced up her thin legs and sweet smile. That boy was probably ten times more experienced than the blushing girl in front of me. Rarely a good combo, and a pang of worry pushed through me. It was silly, really. We’d just met, I didn’t know her, and I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I’d be much influence in her life, if any.
“Maybe you all could come for dinner sometime?” Her eyes lit up, which made me wonder what could possibly be her motivation.
“Yeah, maybe.” I started to walk away, needing to do something about dinner that didn’t involve any actual cooking.
“Ashley?” Ree called.
“Yeah?” I turned at the top of the small porch steps.
“Thanks.” She bit her lip as she tucked her hair behind her ear—everything about her screaming
It’s amazing how two words can bowl you over because of the feeling put into them. A lump formed in my throat from I don’t know where, and I nodded to buy myself time to speak. “Next time, use the back porch. I’m not your only neighbor.”
She actually snickered before jogging back up her steps and inside the craftsman house that was probably almost identical to ours—as almost every house on the street. Skinny from the front, long from the sides, and with a large porch on either end. Bigger than anywhere I’d ever lived, and I was sure that any day something would happen for my new life to be pulled from me.
Ree gave me one last wave before stepping into her house, looking me over carefully again. She was a cool kid, and at that moment I was probably almost as curious about them, as she was about us. But inviting neighbors over was something people did to be polite—it wasn't something that actually happened.