The Keeper of Secrets bonus chapter is a crossover with Carly and characters from the Rose Gardner series. THE CHAPTER WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR BOTH SERIES. Proceed at your own risk.
Keeper of Secrets Bonus Chapter
“Are you nervous?” Marco asked as he reached for my hand across the console of his Explorer.
I shot him a curious glance “What? Why do you ask?”
A grin spread over his face. “Because you keep moving around in your seat like you’re sitting on an ant hill.”
We were traveling down a county road I’d grown to know a year ago, and butterflies were fighting to get out of my stomach. It had been three months since my father’s death, and this was the first chance I’d gotten to come to Henryetta to see Rose, Neely Kate, and everyone else.
“Yeah,” I said with a sheepish look. “I guess I am.”
He narrowed his gaze as he turned to me for a second before turning back to face the road. “Why? They’re excited to see you.”
“And meet you,” I said with a laugh. “Neely Kate is pissed that Jed got to meet you before she did.”
He winked. “Something tells me she might not hold a grudge.”
“Shows how little you know Neely Kate,” I said then grimaced. “Just kidding. Sort of.”
He laughed. “I’m excited to meet all of them too.”
We passed a familiar farm, and I knew we were close to Rose’s farmhouse.
“It’s gonna be up here on the right,” I said, pointing ahead. “There’s a driveway tucked between some trees.”
“Right there?” he asked as we approached the turn off.
My heart was in my throat as he turned onto the gravel driveway and Rose’s white farm house came into view. Memories of the first time she brought me here flooded my head—the terror of finding out my father wanted me dead along with my suspicion that two women would just take a stranger home to their house. But I did my best to be helpful, and I felt like I belonged there, especially after her dying sister moved in. I’d helped take care of Violet during her last weeks, not only because Rose needed me to, but because I’d grown close to Violet while she was on her literal death bed.
I also remembered the day I left. I was even more scared than when I’d showed up. By then I’d figured out the lengths my father would go to to win. And winning in this case meant killing me. In Henryetta, I knew I had friends to help protect me. Once I left, I was on my own.
I glanced over at Marco and thought of Hank and Max. I definitely wasn’t alone now.
Two kids were on the front porch of the white two story farmhouse. Ashley, who must have been seven or eight now, stood behind the railing encircling the porch, bouncing with excitement. Mikey, her little brother, stood next to her, looking more nervous.
“That’s Ashley and Mikey,” I said.
Marco pulled the Explorer to a spot in front of the house. “Rose’s niece and nephew?” he asked, even though he already knew. I figured he was trying to help me shake out the nerves.
“Yeah, after Violet’s death and their daddy’s arrest, they live with her now.” But he knew that too, only he was too nice to call me out on it.
Marco turned off the engine and gave my hand a squeeze. “You’ve got this.”
Nodding, I leaned over and kissed him. “Thanks for coming with me.”
His smile lit up his face. “Are you kidding? I can’t wait to meet them.” He kissed me back then opened his car door.
I got out and the blond little girl ran down the steps, shouting, “Carly! You’re finally here!” She threw her arms around my legs and squeezed tight.
“I thought we were early,” I said with a laugh.
“You are,” a familiar female voice said from the porch, “but she’s been ready for you for at least an hour, so in her mind, you’re late.”
I smiled up at Rose, who stood in the open doorway. Her long dark hair hung loose down her back. She was wearing jeans and a pale pink T-shirt.
Ashley let go and smiled up at me like she couldn’t believe I was standing next to her.
“Hi, Rose.” I said as I started up the steps. “Thanks for having us today.”
She pulled me into a hug, her arm wrapping tightly around me. “I’m so glad you came. We just wish it was for a few days instead of hours,” she said, her voice breaking. She held on for several more seconds before letting go, then wiping her cheeks. Looking up at me with watery eyes, she said, “We’re just so glad you’re okay.”
Her gaze dropped to Marco who was standing at the bottom of the stairs.
I gestured toward him. “Rose, this is Marco Roland.” My stomach fluttered. “My fiancé.”
He smiled back at me with so much love, it stole my breath. I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to have him in my life, let alone that he wanted to marry me.
Marco started up the stairs, grasping the railing to help him make the ascent. He’d been having trouble with his leg when Wyatt had kidnapped me, but Wyatt hitting him with a crowbar had added to the damage. The doctors said he’d likely have a permanent limp. He’d already worked through a lot of it with physical therapy so that you could barely notice, but he couldn’t run, and stairs proved to be a challenge.
Obviously, his career in law enforcement was over. He claimed he didn’t care, but I knew he was still a little upset over it.
When he reached the top of the steps, he held out his hand to Rose, but she embraced him instead. “We’re huggers around here,” she said with a laugh.
“I can deal with that,” he said, chuckling.
Rose pulled back and took him in. “Carly did good.”
His face flushed. “I think I got the better end of the deal.”
For a moment, I thought Rose might think that Marco was referring to all the money and my father’s business that I’d inherited, but her spreading smile made it clear she knew what he meant. “You know,” she said, “I think you’re right.”
We all laughed, and she reached for my hand to exam the ring he’d given me. It wasn’t a large, ostentatious ring like Jake had given me, but that ring had never fit me. Instead, Marco had cleaned out his bank account to buy me a round half-carat diamond on white gold band.
“Classic,” she said as she looked back up at me. “I love it.” She turned to face him. “It’s perfect for her.” She drew in a breath. “Come in. Joe’s upstairs changing Hope’s diaper. She had a massive blowout right before you got here.”
We followed her into the living room, and I stopped to get my bearings.
Not much had changed since I’d last been here. The furniture was the same, only now there was a baby bouncy seat on the floor next to the sofa and kids’ toys piled in a basket next to it.
A little brown dog ran downstairs and headed straight for me, jumping up on my legs in excitement.
“Muffy!” Rose protested. “Stop!”
“I don’t mind.” I scooped her up and kissed the top of her head. “I missed you too, Muff.” I turned to Marco. “This is Muffy.”
He lifted a hand to let her sniff him then when she seemed satisfied, he rubbed behind her ear. “Hey, Muffy. I’m Marco.”
“So you met the dog before you met me,” a man said good-naturedly from the staircase, holding a baby. “That pecking order sounds about right for around here.”
Muffy squirmed so I set her down, and she ran back to Joe, looking up at the baby like she thought she was Hope’s guard dog.
Joe reached the bottom of the staircase and Hope squirmed in his arms. She was dressed in a pink, short sleeve top and gray leggings, and a pair of plain white socks. Her head was covered in a mass of thick, dark hair. Her back was to his chest, and his arm was under her arms, holding him tightly against him. She was smiling and cooing until she saw us, then turned serious.
“I’m Joe Simmons,” he said, stretching his free arm out. “And you must be Marco.”
“That I am,” Marco said, pumping his hand. “Thanks for having us today.”
“Please,” Joe said with a laugh. “The pleasure is ours. We’ve missed Carly, and Rose and Neely Kate had to see her for themselves. Hell, Jed and I had to keep them from driving to Dallas after everything went down. They wanted to make sure she was really okay.”
Rose reached over and took the baby while he was still talking. They made the hand over look so effortless. It was obvious they’d done it a few hundred times.
“That and Neely Kate was ticked that Jed had seen her twice and she hadn’t seen her at all,” Rose said.
“Is Neely Kate still coming over?” I asked, glancing around the room, although I wasn’t sure why. If she’d been here, she would have greeted me on the porch, not be hiding in a corner to jump out and yell surprise.
Rose cringed. “She’s on her way. She was supposed to have been here by now, but Daisy had a nasty poop too.” She made a face. “Don’t worry. It’s not contagious. They’re both teething.”
I nodded as though I understood the correlation.
“I can’t wait to meet her too,” Marco said, slipping his hand into mine. “And to thank Jed again.”
I couldn’t stop looking at the baby in Rose’s arms. She was beautiful.
“And one last introduction…” Rose said. “This is Hope.”
I beamed at the baby. “Hello, Hope. She’s beautiful, Rose,” I said breathlessly.
“Would you like to hold her?”
My eyes flew wide. “Can I?”
“Of course. She’s not very breakable,” Rose teased, then flashed a grin to Joe.
“One time!” Joe protested. “She falls off the sofa one time and I caught her before she hit the floor!”
Rose’s eyes twinkled as she stretched up to give him a kiss. “I know,” she said mischievously. “And to be fair, I’d distracted you.”
He looked down at her and grinned.
It filled my heart with joy to see Rose so happy. She deserved it.
I turned to look up at Marco, and he was watching me with such unabashed love it felt like a heat lamp, warming my skin and soaking into my soul.
Marco deserved to be happy. And so did I.
But holding the baby added something to my wish list for the future. I’d already known I wanted kids, but holding Hope only confirmed it, and I knew Marco would be a wonderful father.
Hope looked up at me with big brown eyes, studying me as though trying to determine if she knew me or if I was a danger.
“She’s so serious,” Marco said.
“She gets like that with new people,” Joe said. “Once she’s determined you’re fine, she’ll warm up.”
Marco held out a hand and Hope grabbed his finger, holding tight.
“You both look like your naturals with a baby,” Rose said. “Have y’all talked about if you’re going to have kids?”
I shot a glance to Marco then back to Rose. “We know we want kids, but we’re not ready for them just yet. We have some projects we’d like to tackle first.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Joe said to Marco. “Because once you have your little one, you’re gonna want to spend as much time with your family as you can.”
Marco slipped an arm around my back and tugged my hip next to his. “I already feel that way.”
Joe studied us both for a moment, then seemed to give a nod of approval. “I can see that you do.”
“Oh,” I said, just remembering. “I have a presents.”
“Do you have one for me too, Carly?” Ashley asked excitedly from the open doorway.
“Of course!” I said. “They’re still out in the back of the car.”
“Can we get it?” Ashley begged.
“Ashely!” Rose protested. “Manners.”
A sheepish look spread across Ashley’s face. “Sorry.”
“What do you say we go get those presents now?” Marco asked.
Ashley squealed with delight, and Marco pried his finger loose from the baby. “I could use some help. It looks like Santa decided to use my car for his deliveries.”
“You know Santa?” Mikey asked in awe from behind his sister’s legs.
“At the risk of losing any street cred I just built up,” Marco said. “No. I don’t know Santa.”
Mikey’s face scrunched up. “What’s street cred?”
Joe laughed. “You were doing fine until you said, ‘street cred’.”
Grinning, Marco shook his head. “Believe it or not, I used to be cool back in the day.”
Joe clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Didn’t we all.”
They headed for the door as Joe said, “I heard you were a deputy sheriff. I work with the sheriff’s office here in Fenton County and I wanted to talk to you about a position—” His words trailed off as they shut the door behind them.
“Joe’s about to offer Marco a job,” Rose said, walking into the kitchen.
I followed while Hope continued to study me. “Oh.”
She walked over to the oven and opened the door, filling the room with the smell of something delicious. “He knows you two plan on going back to Drum in a week or so, but he says there’s no harm in offering you options.” She glanced back at me with an apologetic look. “I told him you both have plenty of money and that the county couldn’t pay him enough to work there, but he claims it’s all the more reason that he might want it.”
A soft smile stretched my mouth. “He’s right. For one thing, Marco is struggling to use any of the money I inherited, but he’s also right that Marco wasn’t a deputy for the money. He did it because he loves it.” A lump filled my throat. “I hate that he can’t do it anymore.”
“He’ll find something else,” Rose said with enough assurance that I almost believed it.
“He already has,” I said, taking a seat the large farm table on one side of the kitchen and setting Hope on my lap. “He’s going to work for his best friend Max. He’s going to be head of security for his resort.”
“That’s wonderful,” Rose said, pulling a casserole dish out of the oven and setting it on top of the stove.
I made a face. “I know you’re disappointed…”
She turned to face me with a fierce look. “Don’t ever apologize for bein’ happy.” She studied me. “You are happy, aren’t you?”
The warmth of my happiness mushroomed in my chest. “Yes,” I said breathlessly. “Very.”
She pulled out another casserole dish, set it on the stove, then walked over and sat in the chair next to me. “Do you want to go back to Drum? Or are you doin’ it because you want Marco to be happy?”
“It was my idea, Rose. Honest. Marco would move here in a heartbeat if I asked him to, and he’d be happy here.” I laughed. “I can already tell he and Joe would be great friends.” I took her hand. “But part of my heart is in Drum. They took me in too, and instead of hiding in the shadows like I did here, I realized I needed to be brave.”
She frowned. “You didn’t hide in the shadows here.”
“I did and we both know it.”
“Well, you were plenty brave enough when you took care of Violet. She was dyin’ and instead of distancing yourself to protect yourself, you gave her your whole heart. That’s bein’ brave, Carly.”
I shrugged. “Maybe, but I didn’t have the luxury of hiding in Drum, and I realized there are a lot of hurting people there. I want to help them.” I paused. “I’m going to start a charter school for all the kids in Drum. The schools are terrible there, and I want them to have a better education.”
My hand was still on hers, and she flipped hers over and squeezed. “You’ll be amazing.”
“Let’s hope it’s not a pipe dream.”
“It’s not,” she said with a nod. “I see the determination in your eyes. Once you set your mind to something, you’ll do it.”
There was a commotion in the living room, and I heard Neely Kate exclaim, “Where is she?”
Rose laughed, then called out, “In here, Neely Kate.” She took the baby from me, grinning. “Prepare to be smothered.”
Sure enough, Neely Kate flew into the room, her long blond hair streaming behind her. I stood as she entered the room and she nearly tackled me with a hug.
“Why haven’t you come to see us sooner?” she demanded, still squeezing tight.
“You know she’s been busy,” Rose said.
“Too busy for friends?” Neely Kate asked in disbelief.
“You’re right,” I said. “I should have come sooner.”
“We were so worried!” Neely Kate said, still hugging me. “And what were you thinking driving off with that maniac, Wyatt?”
“To be fair, I didn’t know he was a maniac at the time.”
“Yeah, because kidnapping you at gunpoint twice wasn’t a good enough clue,” she said sarcastically.
She had a point.
“Neely Kate,” Rose said. “Let the poor girl breath. You’re crushing her with your hug.”
Neely Kate gave one last squeeze then released me, taking a step back and grabbing my hands. “Let me look at you.” She studied me from head to toe.
“Well?” I teased. “Do I pass your inspection?”
“You look good,” she said thoughtfully. She lifted my left hand and studied my ring. “Are you happy?”
A sad smile tipped up her lips. “You’re not movin’ back to Drum are you?’
“Part of me wants to, Neely Kate, honest, but the people in Drum need me. Just like the people in Henryetta need you and Rose.”
“It’s your home,” Neely Kate said thoughtfully. “It’s the place that makes your heart sing.”
“Yeah,” I said, realizing it was true. “It does make my heart sing.” I glanced past her. “Where’s Jed and the baby?”
“Jed’s helpin’ move in that mountain of presents while Ashley has Daisy. Jed was half-afraid I’d drop her when I saw you.”
“There’s some truth to that,” Rose said.
“Well, I want to meet her too,” I said, taking in her bright blue eyes and the look of contentment on her face. She finally had the family she’d always wanted. I was ecstatic for her. “I see motherhood agrees with you.”
“I love her so much,” Neely Kate said breathlessly. “I feel like I’m livin’ in a dream.”
“It’s real,” I said. “We all deserve our happily-ever-afters.”
“Speaking of which,” Rose said with a grin. “Did Neely Kate say mountain of presents? It’s not Christmas for a few more months.”
I shrugged. “I may have gotten carried away.”
“Why don’t we set the table?” Rose suggested. “We’re still waiting on Maeve to show up and then we’ll eat lunch.”
“Is Witt coming?” I asked softly.
Neely Kate gave me a sad smile. “No. He says to tell you he’s glad you’re safe, but he couldn’t make it.”
I nodded, feeling guilty even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d known Witt had a crush on me, but I’d been in no place to start a relationship at the point, and even though I suspected he would have run with me when I’d left, it hadn’t been an option. It had been a year, but seeing me with Marco might have been like rubbing salt in a, hopefully, closed wound.
Maeve showed up while we set the table, and Ashely begged to open presents before lunch, so everyone opened their gifts. Ashley and Mikey were thrilled with their iPads, and when Rose protested, they were too much, I assured her that it was really nothing, and that she and Joe could put settings on them to control their usage.
“Besides,” I said. “It’s the perfect way for Ashley to Facetime me.”
Rose shook her head, but she didn’t look angry. “You’re going to spoil them rotten, aren’t you?”
“Of course she is,” Neely Kate said, winking at me. “It’s part of an aunt’s job description.”
We all sat down to lunch and when everyone was settled, Marco lifted his water glass. “I can’t thank y’all enough.” His voice sounded strained as his eyes turned glassy. “You took Carly in when you didn’t know her from Adam, and then you set her up with a new name…” His gaze landed on Jed. “And then what you did in Dallas…” He swallowed hard. “I can never repay you. Thank you.”
Jed held Marco’s gaze. “Carly’s family, and now so are you. And family helps family. No matter what.”
Rose held up her glass. “To family.”
“To family,” everyone chorused.
My heart felt so full I thought it would burst.
We stayed for several more hours, and I loved that it felt natural to be back. Sometimes time has a way of changing things, but it was obvious I’d always be right at home in Henryetta. Marco would too. Joe and Jed took to him like a long-lost brother and we promised we’d come back soon.
There were plenty of tears when Marco and I left close to five, but I had one more place to go before we headed back to Dallas. Somewhere I didn’t want Rose or Neely Kate to know about.
Marco headed toward downtown Henryetta. I pointed out Rose’s nursery, and then her landscape office downtown when he parked on the square. He held my hand as we walked toward the law office of Carter Hale.
The door was unlocked, and a bored young woman sat at a desk facing the door, filing her nails with an emery board.
“Sorry,” she said, not bothering to look up. “We’re closed.”
“But your door is unlocked,” Marco said. “And we have an open appointment.”
“Sheila?” Carter called from the back. “Who is it?”
I didn’t wait for Sheila to answer, instead, I headed down the short hall to the open door to what appeared to be Carter’s office, then stopped in the doorway. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Hale.”
He gave me an appreciative look, not in a sexy way, more like he’d underestimated me before and now he realized what I was capable of.
“Ms. Moore, please, come in.” His gaze turned to Marco behind me. “And Mr. Roland too.”
I walked over to the two guest chairs in front of his desk and took a seat, Marco sat beside me.
Carter folded his hands on the desk. “Thank you for sending the document. Mr. Malcolm found it quite useful.”
“A deal’s a deal,” I said.
His brow lifted. “And you didn’t tell anyone about this?”
“No,” I said. “Other than Marco, of course. We don’t keep secrets from one another.”
“That’s cute,” Carter said in a dry tone. “But you can’t tell anyone either, Marco.”
“I have no reason to,” Marco said. “And Carly’s right. A deal’s a deal.”
Carter studied him for a moment, then nodded. He’d asked me to drop by his office, but he hadn’t said why,
Suddenly, I blurted out a question I’d been curious about since I’d visited Skeeter in prison, even if it wasn’t any of my business. “Why’s Mr. Malcolm still in jail? Why doesn’t he want to get out?”
Carter’s mouth puckered like he’d just sucked on a lemon. “As hard as it might seem to believe, he hasn’t told me, but he assures me that he’ll be out of jail, all charges dropped by Christmas.”
I wasn’t sure if that was good news or not. There was no denying he’d run a criminal organization, but he’d also gotten screwed over with his deal with the feds.
“Will he come back to Henryetta?” I thought about Rose and how happy she and Joe and the kids were. I wasn’t sure they could be happy knowing Skeeter Malcolm was in such close proximity.
His eyes darkened. “No. He’s planning to open a bar in Lone County. It’s about an hour northeast from here.”
I nodded, hoping that was far enough away.
“Looks like I’ll be going with him,” he said, his face expressionless.
“Sorry,” I said, although I had no idea why.
“Hey,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “Fresh place, fresh start. Skeeter swears he’s goin’ legit.”
“How will he get a liquor license with his history?” Marco asked.
Carter laughed. “Please. Don’t underestimate the power of my persuasion and Skeeter’s money. We can make pretty much anything happen. He’s about to get all charges dropped. I think that proves it.”
I suspected it had just as much to do with the reason Skeeter wanted to stay behind bars as it did with Carter’s persuasion with the DA.
Carter slid an envelope across the desk. “This is the reason I asked you to drop by. Skeeter asked me to give this to you.”
I shook my head. “If it’s money, I don’t need it.”
“It’s not money.” He picked it up and held it out to me.
I took it and opened the envelope, surprised to see a handwritten note.
To Carly Moore:
I owe you one favor, to be granted any time you wish. You only need to reach out and I’ll fulfill it.
I stared up at Carter in shock. “What does this mean?”
“It means the man feels indebted to you, and that doesn’t happen very often, nor does he usually feel inclined to make such a generous reward.” His eyes narrowed. “And he means it. You need anything, he’ll take care of it.” He shrugged. “If he’d been out and made this offer, he would have taken care of your father for you.”
Ice filled my veins. “He will kill someone if I ask him to?”
“You said it, not me,” he said with a lopsided grin.
“Okay,” Marco said, getting to his feet. “I think we should be heading out now.”
Carter rolled his eyes like he thought Marco was being a goody-two-shoes but stood and reached out a hand to me. “Good luck, Carly Moore. And thank you for everything.”
I shook his hand. “Yeah, tell Mr. Malcolm I said thank you too.”
Marco and I headed back to his Explorer, walking in silence until we got in the car. He turned on the engine but didn’t back out of the space.
“You don’t plan to use that thing, do you?” he asked cautiously.
I stared at the envelope in my hand. “No. Of course not.”
But I didn’t plan on destroying it either.
You just never knew what life was going to throw at you, and sometimes you needed all the help you could get. No matter what form it came in.Return to Bonus Reads