Love At Last : Excerpt Chapters 1 – 3

            Chapter 1

            The moment she closed the door behind her, Willow realised something was wrong. Silence permeated the house, and the unexpectedness of it unsettled her. Since her friend, Meri, had moved in with her two months ago, the house was never quiet anymore. Meri loved music and always had it playing in some part of the house. Tonight though — nothing. Maybe she was overreacting, and Meri had just gone out. She really hoped that was the case.

            “Meri? Are you home?”

            More silence.

            Willow moved farther into the house looking to see if she could find a note explaining the quiet; the lack of response. It was unlike Meri to go out without leaving a note or not to have told her in advance.

            “Meri?” she called again as she moved into the living room. “Are you here, babes?”

            Nothing.

            “Meri, are you home?” she called once more, unease crawling its way along her spine.

            Shrugging out of her jacket, she walked back to the hallway to hang it up. A low, pain-filled moan caught her attention. The uneasiness ramped up. Moving through the hallway, she called once more, “Meri, are you in here? Are you okay, babes?”

            Willow stopped to listen, trying to pinpoint exactly where the sound was coming from, hoping to hear it again so it would point her in the right direction. Then she heard the moan anew. Realising it was coming from the living room, she moved toward it. As she rounded the long sofa, she stopped in her tracks, unable to comprehend the sight before her. Meri lay on the ground, curled up on her side in a fetal position, clearly trying to protect the twins she was heavily pregnant with. She was severely beaten, lying in an ever-growing pool of blood beneath her hip. Icy panic flashed through Willow. That amount of blood couldn’t mean anything good for Meri’s pregnancy.

            “Oh God, Meri.” Willow dropped to her knees beside her friend. “Babes, can you hear me? Meri? Meri!”

            Getting no response, Willow jumped to her feet. She raced back to the hallway to get her cell phone. Her hands shook so badly she misdialled three times before she finally managed to get through to the cell phone emergency line — 112.

            “One-one-two, what is your emergency, please?”

            Giving her name, Willow told the operator what the problem was as quickly and concisely as she could.

            As the tears coursed down her face and her breath hitched, Willow could barely manage a whisper. “Please. She’s pregnant, and . . . Oh God, there’s just so much blood.”

            “Stay with me here, Ms Martin. I’ve dispatched an ambulance and the police. They’re on their way to you as we speak,” the operator soothed.

            While staying on the line, Willow kept talking to Meri, trying to get her to respond. It seemed to Willow as if the blood was rapidly expanding. She was so far out of her depth that panic, icy and insidious, held her in a tight grip. By the time emergency services and police arrived, Willow’s panic was full-fledged. She had never felt so alone in her life.

            Standing to one side, so she was out of the way, she watched everything the paramedics did as they worked on her friend.

***

            Just when Adam thought the day couldn’t get crappier, it finally ended. He couldn’t get away from the station quickly enough. He felt called to be a policeman since he was a little boy. It was all he remembered ever wanting to be. But days like today made him question the wisdom of his choice. Crime, in general, offended his moral code, but when it involved children, as today’s case had, it was always difficult to deal with. It cut especially close to the bone now that he had a child of his own.

            Giving thanks that he’d at least get to hold his infant daughter again, he headed to collect her from her day mother. He looked forward to some downtime to decompress, maybe relaxing on the couch with a cold one after he’d gotten Gracie settled for the night. A couple of blocks from home, his cell phone rang, interrupting the sounds of rock music flowing through the stereo as his daughter slept on in her car seat.

            His partner ringing at this time of evening generally wasn’t a good sign. It would seem likely that his crappy workday wasn’t quite over yet. Biting back a sigh, he answered.

            “Hey, Gav. What’s up, bud?”

            “Hey, man. Just got a call in from dispatch. One-one-two caught an assault, possibly attempted murder. I caught the case, but since I’m headed off on sick leave for my shoulder op in a couple days, Cap’s decided he wants you to take over from me as the lead on this one. I’m almost at the scene now. I’ll message you the address as soon as I get there. You can meet me there.”

            Mentally cursing, using every imaginative expletive he knew, Adam turned the car around, heading towards his parents’ house instead of his own.

            “Let me just drop Gracie off at my mom’s. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

            He disconnected the call, dialled his mom, and ten minutes later dropped his sleeping baby off with his parents.

            “Thanks, Mom. I appreciate it.” Bending, Adam placed a gentle kiss on the older woman’s cheek.

            “You’re welcome, my boy. Don’t worry about Gracie. We’ll keep her here tonight. Dad and I can drop her off at daycare in the morning. You just head straight home when you’re done. A good night’s rest will do you good. You’re looking tired, my boy. You work too hard.”

            He thanked his mother again. After giving his daughter one last kiss on the head and hugging his mother goodbye, he headed to the address his partner had messaged him.

            Pulling up to the house on a quiet street in an ordinarily tranquil neighbourhood, Adam absently noted the flashing lights. A few people stood around watching the commotion, huddling together and murmuring amongst themselves. It certainly was a sight out of the ordinary for them. Approaching the front door, he found it standing wide open, vehicles and people stood all over the driveway.

            He stepped into the foyer and looked around for his partner. When he didn’t spot Gavin, he called a uniformed officer over to inquire as to where to find him. She informed him the man was in the living room, pointing him in the right direction.

            As he moved that way, he caught the sound of quiet weeping. Clearly distraught, they obviously needed someone with a gentle touch dealing with them tonight, but after the miserable day he’d had, it couldn’t be him. He was all out. As he turned back to find the uniform he’d just spoken with, he caught a glimpse of a beautiful woman talking to a paramedic. He took a step closer to get a better look and felt somewhat dazed – a bit like he’d walked into a brick wall.

            She was a tiny bundle of perfect. The policeman in him was ingrained. Even when admiring a good-looking woman, his well-trained eye assessed. He estimated she couldn’t be more than five foot two or three. Although not overweight, she certainly had the voluptuous curves that a man craved to get his hands on. A mass of blonde waves tumbled down her back to just below her waist.

            Pulling his gaze away from her, he started turning away. In his current mood, it was probably best to leave her to Gavin. He was good with people. He’d know what to say to make her feel at ease.

 She chose that moment to unexpectedly turn her head, looking directly at him.

His heart clenched at the sight of her tear-drenched eyes, the colour of the deepest blue sapphires, still so beautiful despite the tears. Suddenly, he had an intense desire to haul her into his arms and comfort her, which made no sense at all.    Adam had never had such a visceral reaction to anyone before. Changing his mind, Adam moved towards her. Those intense blue eyes followed his progress as he crossed the floor.

***

A sense of being watched penetrated the fog in Willow’s brain. She turned her head to seek out the source and spotted a man standing in the doorway of her living room. Although she immediately noticed he was handsome, despite her grief, it was more than that. He had a presence about him that commanded attention. Their eyes met, and her brain seemed to stall. For a long moment, she seemed incapable of speech. She simply stared. And in that long moment, the horror of her surroundings retreated from her thoughts.

            “My apologies for intruding at a difficult time, ma’am. I’m detective Adam Dawson – the investigating officer in this case.  I just need to ask you a few questions.”

            “I’m not sure how much I can help you. I didn’t see anything. I found her like this.”

            “No problem, ma’am.” Adam smiled reassuringly. “Let’s see what we can piece together, okay?”

            Nodding hesitantly, Willow agreed.

            “What is the victim’s name?”

            “Merida Davids.”

            “And what’s your relationship to Ms Davids, ma’am?”

            “She’s my friend. She recently got out of a relationship and has been staying with me while she gets back on her feet.”

            Looking back over at Meri, she closed her eyes against a sharp pain in the region of her heart. Willow tried to breathe through the pain and panic. She couldn’t envisage a life without Meri in it.

            They’d been friends since nursery school. Their friendship had endured school, boyfriends, university, the craziness of youth – queuing for hours in the pouring rain for concert tickets, an urge to drink shots at three in the morning while belting show tunes at the top of their lungs. She couldn’t remember a time they hadn’t been there for each other. It had even survived Meri’s relationship with a man whose solution to everything was violence. Thankfully, it seemed JJ had finally managed to destroy their relationship beyond repair with his wild jealousy and violent temper.

            “Was there a particular reason she left the relationship, Ms Martin? Or was it a case of it having run its course?” the detective asked.

            “Her partner was abusive. He was always good at using his fists. If he had a point to make, a beating was his way of getting it across.” Willow saw no need to beat around the bush.

            She’d always feared one day his violent temper would result in one of those beatings being the death of Meri. But eventually, Meri came to her senses, leaving him when the last beating resulted in yet another hospital visit. When she discovered she was pregnant with JJ’s twins, she’d voiced fears that if she didn’t leave, it could very well end in tragedy. So, she’d packed her bags and moved in with Willow.

            Willow was worried about Meri though. She loved having Meri living with her, but it hurt to watch her friend slip deeper and deeper into depression as time passed. Clearly, Meri missed JJ, but he was toxic for her.

            “Do you have any idea when last Ms Davids had any contact with her ex-partner?”

            “I’m not sure exactly, but I do know that since she moved in, he’s been coming around to the house and phoning her constantly, begging her to come home.”

            It had concerned Willow. She could see JJ’s constant presence was eroding Meri’s hard-won resolve not to go back to him.

            “When was the last time you saw Ms Davids?”

            “We had breakfast together this morning before I left for work at around eight thirty. She wanted to know what she should make for dinner, as usual. Meri decided when she moved in that she would take care of the household duties while she stayed, as her way of making a contribution.” Willow’s voice hitched. “That was the last time I saw or spoke to her.”

            Tears trailed down her face as the realisation dawned that it might very well be the last thing she and Meri got to talk about ever again. She was very grateful to the big detective for giving her a moment when he handed her a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and said nothing more.

A sound behind her had that hypnotic gaze swinging away from him, effectively releasing him. His gaze shifting beyond her. He noticed the paramedics moving toward him.

            As they wheeled the gurney past him, he a saw a young woman lying there. Nasty bruising was already visible, but underneath the vivid colouring, her skin was deathly pale. What snagged his attention was the enormous baby bump starkly highlighted by the white sheet covering her. It seemed today was his day for all the lousy cases. Stepping aside, he let the paramedics through on their way out to the ambulance.

            Forensics passed the gurney at the front door. The same police officer who’d assisted Adam pointed them towards the living room, and they moved towards where he stood. The room behind him was in complete disarray, bearing testament to the fact that the victim on the gurney had clearly put up one hell of a fight. Sadly, it didn’t seem as if it had done her any good. He knew the best way he could help this poor woman was to find out who had done this and bring them to justice.

            The metallic sound of the gurney being locked into place snagged her attention. She saw the paramedics wheeling Meri towards the door. Turning back to the detective, Willow spoke again.

            “Forgive me, detective, I have to go with Meri now. I’m all she has left. I’ll arrange with my neighbour, Ms Ellis, to come over. She’ll lock up behind you.”

            “I understand, ma’am. It’s no problem. I’ll be in touch to follow up a little later then.”

            Thanking him, she headed for the foyer. As she collected the jacket she’d hung there what seemed like forever ago now, she made a quick call to her elderly neighbour to ask her to come over. Someone needed to be there while the police processed the crime scene – her home. She needed to be with Meri.

            Ms Ellis, always so willing to help, promised to be right over.

Spotting the elderly lady coming up the drive as she reversed her car out, Willow stopped but left it idling as she got out to speak to her neighbour. With a hug and a heartfelt thank you, she climbed back into her car to follow the ambulance to the hospital. Beside herself with fear for her friend, Willow cried the entire drive to the hospital.

 

 

            Chapter 2

            In the short time, she’d been standing at Meri’s bedside in the intensive care unit, Willow had come to despise the antiseptic smell and the mechanical sounds of the life support machines keeping her friend tethered to life. She hadn’t thought they would let her stay the night with Meri as they weren’t blood-related. But since she was pretty much all her friend had left in life, they allowed her in, feeling that her familiar presence would be soothing to the other woman.

            Her heart ached as she looked down at the hideously injured woman lying in bed before her. Tears welled, yet again, streaking down her reddened cheeks. She’d cried so many tears already since she found her best friend lying on her living room floor, she thought there were no more left. Apparently, she was wrong.

            She reached out and took Meri’s hand in hers. It was icy cold. She lifted it to her cheek, cradling it gently as she tried to warm it. Through the tears, she looked down, silently willing Meri to open her eyes. She felt lost, adrift without her vibrant presence. There was never a dull moment when they were together. She would give almost anything to have Meri wake up. To see that enchanting smile of hers that always lit up the room and drew people to her.

            A quiet clearing of a throat caused Willow to whip around. Standing behind her was the handsome man from the previous night. Not sure why she hadn’t expected him to show up so soon, she stared at him blankly for a moment. So much had happened since then, she hadn’t given him another thought. She was surprised she hadn’t; he was most definitely memorable.

            He had a handsome face saved from being beautiful by a rather nasty scar running from just in front of his left ear, curling around the bottom part of his cheek and disappearing under his chin. In a distant part of her mind, she wondered how badly it had hurt.

            A strong, square jaw gave him a rather formidable appearance, but he had surprisingly full, soft-looking lips that went a long way to soften his face when he smiled. Intelligent eyes the colour of polished amber looked out from under straight eyebrows. And those eyes were focused squarely on her. Despite the dire circumstances, she couldn’t help but feel a flutter of awareness in her stomach.

            “I hope I’m not intruding?” the man enquired.

            Giving him another once over, Willow tried to marshal her thoughts.

            “No, it’s fine,” she finally answered. “I remember seeing you at the house last night. Do you have news?”

            Willow watched in fascination as those lips quirked up in a brief smile.

            “Apologies, ma’am. I don’t. I have more questions, and I need to take down a written statement from you.”

            The detective, Adam, she recalled belatedly stuck his hand out in greeting. Willow hesitated a moment but took it eventually. She stilled as electricity raced up her arm. Pulling her tingling hand away from his, she returned his smile with an uncertain one of her own.

            “What more can I tell you?”

            “Ms Martin, there are a couple of points you spoke about last night I’d like to follow up on. I was wondering if you perhaps have some time now?”

            “To be honest, like I mentioned last night, I really don’t know much. I’m not sure how I can be of any further help. As I said, that’s how I found her when I got home. It won’t surprise me if JJ is involved in this though. This is exactly his style.”

            “I’m interested in a bit of background regarding Ms Davids. There might very well be something there that will point this investigation in the right direction. Based on how well you know Ms Davids.”

            “Yes, Meri and I have been best friends since we were about five.”

            “Could I steal you away for a few minutes? Maybe chat at the coffee shop? That way if you’re needed, they can call you, and you’ll be able to get back here quickly.” At her nod of assent, Adam gestured for her to precede him from the room to the elevators.

            Willow took a seat at a table while Adam went to get their coffee at the counter. She took the time to study him, again marvelling at how comfortable she felt in his company despite not knowing him at all. Not having much exposure to male company growing up, she wasn’t usually at ease being around men other than her brother. At least not until she got to know them. He just seemed to give off “trust me” vibes.

            Adam returned to the table with their coffee, cutting her reverie short. Sitting down opposite her, he took a notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his sports jacket. Willow found herself surprised at how much information he’d already gathered. Clearly, he’d been busy since last night. The questions were astute and well-honed, digging for maximum knowledge to get a sharply accurate picture.

            Willow wasn’t sure if it was the stress of the last twenty-four hours, or that she felt at ease with the detective, but she found the words just tumbling out, sharing with him all the things that had plagued her about JJ all these years. She shared about his violent temper and all the times it had led to Meri being rushed to the hospital. How it had always been her greatest fear that one of the beatings JJ gave Meri would eventually lead to her friend’s demise. She even told him of her suspicions – that despite a lack of evidence, she was convinced that JJ was the person responsible for this one too.

            Eventually, Willow’s outburst wound down. For a moment, she felt embarrassed to have ranted like that. But she also felt lighter for having finally gotten all of it off her chest. They were nearly done, with just a couple more questions to go, when Willow’s cell phone rang, and she recognised the hospital’s number.

            “Oh God, Meri!” was all she said as she whirled out of her chair and sprinted for the stairs, in too much of a rush to wait for the elevator.

            Adam followed her quickly, skidding to a halt at the nurses’ station to see Willow huddled over to the side, staying well out of the way as the staff worked on reviving her friend. The machines Meri was attached to beeped, hissed, and jangled as they worked valiantly and fought desperately to keep her alive.

            Willow was ashen and her eyes enormous as she stared at the chaos before her. The pain and horror etched on her beautiful face had him clenching his hands in impotent fury. He had no way to change what had been done and no way to comfort her in the face of a rather inevitable outcome. Nobody was saying it, but he’d borne witness to too many scenes like this one to believe there’d be a happy ending to this regretable story.

            Suddenly, the group around the bed parted as the nurse at the head began to wheel the bed towards the door. Another nurse went over to speak to Willow. As the other nurses rushed past him, he heard the words “operating theatre three, premature labour, and haemorrhaging” uttered. Looking back over, he saw the nurse holding Willow’s hand, still talking to her. As if the news the nurse was sharing with her was a burden too heavy to bear, Willow sank to the floor sobbing like her heart was breaking.

            Walking over to the nurse, he indicated he’d take it from there. Grateful, she gave him a sad, tired smile and left them to it. He sank down beside Willow on the floor. After a brief internal battle, he placed an awkward arm around Willow’s shoulders. They sat like that until she finally cried herself out. Then they sat in silence as they waited for news.

 

 

            Chapter 3

            The memorial service over, Willow made her way out of the beautiful little chapel in the picturesque coastal village of St James, Cape Town. She took a moment to appreciate the exquisite view of False Bay as she gathered her composure. She wasn’t sure she was ready to face any one of a handful of people who had come to pay their respects to Meri. Grief cut sharp and deep.

            Willow felt as if there was an enormous weight lying on her chest. She couldn’t seem to draw an easy breath. Still reeling from the loss of her friend, she couldn’t seem to find peace of mind either. Meri’s twin girls were currently under protection in the neonatal ICU as law enforcement waited to hear from authorities what was to be the fate of babies’. Willow was hoping that the other woman had made provisions for her children.

            Making her way down the church path to the parking lot, she noticed a dark-haired man leaning against her car. He faced away from her, apparently enjoying the same view she’d been admiring. In the moment it took to realise it was Adam Dawson, she’d gone ice cold. For that very brief moment, she’d thought JJ was waiting for her. He’d been leaving her random messages and making threatening phone calls late at night. During the first call he’d made, he’d gone so far as to blame her for Meri’s death. He’d managed to twist it in his mind, so no blame lay at his own door.

            In all the years Willow had known JJ, he’d never taken responsibility for his actions. It was always someone else’s fault that he behaved the way he did. Therefore, he felt entirely justified in lashing out at her, threatening her.

            Coming to a stop in front of Adam, once more she tried to gather herself. She felt emotional, raw after all that had happened in the last two weeks. And later that day, she’d be going to the attorney’s office to hear Meri’s last wishes. She didn’t feel ready. It made it all too final. But she was the only one who could do it. It fell to her to make sure her lifelong friend’s behests would be carried out.

Other than the fact that her friend had wanted to be cremated, Meri had never actually shared with her what she wanted for her children should anything happen to her. No doubt Willow would be finding out soon enough.

            She avoided Adam’s gaze as he assessed her with the eyes of a seasoned policeman, eyes that missed nothing. An awkward silence ensued since neither could find the right words to break it. Willow wasn’t even sure how he’d managed to find her in the first place. Eventually, she broke the silence.

            “Good morning, Detective. This is a surprise.”

            “Ms Martin. I was wondering if you had a spare moment or two?”

            Unsure how to read the tone of his voice, Willow took a moment before she answered, weighing her words before responding.

            “Now isn’t a good time. I have an appointment in a short while. Is it something that can wait?”

            Straightening away from her vehicle, Adam nodded.

            “Yes, of course. Sure thing. Give me a call when you’re free.”

            Instead of walking away, as she’d expected him to do, Adam once again gave her a measured look. He looked like he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure how. After a long, uncomfortable moment, he spoke again.

            “Are you doing okay? You look like you’re not getting any rest.”

            A rather expressive eyebrow rose gracefully, a small smile tilting her lips.

            “Is that your polite way of telling me I look like hell, Detective?”

            A dull red crept into Adam’s cheeks, and he had the grace to look sheepish.

            “Sorry. That didn’t come out right. You look beautiful. I just meant you – um – never mind. I should probably let you get going. Don’t want you to be late for your appointment.”

            He looked so aghast at the words coming out of his mouth that for the first time in what seemed like forever Willow found herself laughing. She couldn’t help it. It felt rusty but so good.

            “Relax, Detective, I’m just teasing. I know you meant well. But you’re right, I need to get going. I’ll give you a call as soon as I have a minute.”

            Willow pressed her car’s remote to unlock her door. Before she could open it though, Adam stepped around her and opened it for her.

            “Thank you.”

            Nodding, he replied, “Drive carefully,” before turning and walking away.

            Puzzled by the odd exchange, she sat and stared at the retreating figure for a moment before starting her car. She didn’t want to be late.

***

            Lame, Dawson. Lame! Could you possibly have embarrassed yourself any more? Adam derided himself as he made his way back to his own vehicle. He still had no idea what had possessed him to follow her all the way out to the southern suburbs of Cape Town, miles away from his northern suburb office. But he’d known that it was her friend’s memorial service today and had felt a strong urge to be there for her. This was so out of character for him.

            Something about this woman drew him to her. On the surface, she gave the impression of being a strong woman, but he also got the impression there was a fragile interior hidden deep within. So, he’d gone to the memorial service. Maybe he was crazy, but he wanted to make sure she was okay. He stayed out of sight, sitting at the back of the church. But just being there soothed something in him, knowing that if she needed a shoulder to lean on, he would be on hand to offer one.

            He’d wanted to go over and comfort her when she’d broken down during the service. It had taken willpower not to. Watching her cry had been difficult. Something he thought he was long immune to. His ex-wife had used tears as a tool to manipulate – people and situations – to her will. He’d finally wised up and grown indifferent. She’d taken to calling him cold-hearted when it stopped working. But Willow Martin’s tears had been a genuine expression of how deep the hurt ran. And it had made him want to soothe the pain.

            Get a grip, dude! This is an active investigation. Just where exactly do you think this thing could go anyway? She’s off limits. Adam dropped his forehead to the roof of his car in disgust. What the hell was wrong with him? Where was the professionalism he prided himself on? As the complainant in her friend’s murder, Willow Martin was out of his reach. If his captain got an inkling that he had these thoughts, he’d take him off the case fast enough to give him whiplash.

            If he wanted to help her find justice for her friend, he was going to have to put thoughts of Willow out of his mind. When he saw her pull out of the parking lot, he climbed into his own car and drove the forty minutes back to his office. He had a ton of work to do, and none of it included mooning over the gorgeous Ms Martin.

***

            The offices of Fitzsimmons and Reed were elegant and understated. Willow was greeted by the receptionist who whisked her off to a private waiting area away from the hustle and bustle of the open reception room. Having barely waited five minutes, she’d been collected by the attorney’s personal assistant and escorted to the office of Patrick Fitzsimmons.

            “Good day, Ms Martin. Please have a seat.”

            Murmuring a greeting, Willow took a seat in front of the large oak desk at which he sat.

            “Before we start, I would like to extend my condolences. Ms Davids was such a lovely young lady. I was sorry to hear of her passing.”

            Swallowing down the lump in her throat at his words, Willow replied, “Thank you, Mr Fitzsimmons. It’s been a difficult couple of weeks.”

            “I can imagine.” Pausing, he gave her a moment to compose herself before continuing. “Well, let’s get down to the business of why you’re here.”

            She simply nodded.

            “I have known Merida since she was a little girl. Her grandmother was originally my client, and when she passed, she left everything to her granddaughter. I was entrusted with looking after Merida’s affairs. A couple of years ago, she came to me fearing for her life and asked that I draw up a comprehensive, ironclad will should anything happen to her. Sadly, it seems, she was right to be concerned.”

            Emotion crossed the older gentleman’s face, and Willow realised he’d been quite fond of Meri. She shouldn’t be surprised; Meri had always had that effect on people.

            “What I find so difficult to accept is that she’d left that situation. She’d been staying with me while trying to get back on her feet.”

            “No, my dear. Merida was staying with you because she needed you, not because she needed to get back on her feet. She was a rather wealthy young lady.”

            Reeling in shock, Willow simply stared at the man. She didn’t know what to say. How had she and Meri been such close friends from childhood, yet Meri had never shared something so personal with her?

            “I’m sorry, my dear. I can see this comes as quite a shock. Merida only learned of her inheritance when she turned twenty-one. She didn’t want it to change her life or the way people saw her. She’d seen the change in her parents before their passing, and she didn’t want the same thing happening in her life.”

            Needing a moment to gather herself, Willow went over to the window and stared out sightlessly. Her jumbled thoughts were focused inward. Her heart ached that her friend had felt she couldn’t share her good news. But as the shock wore off and she thought about it more, it made sense. JJ was possessive enough as it was. She could only imagine how much worse it would have gotten if he’d known. He would probably have felt entitled to a share of the money. She was sure he’d have found some twisted way to justify it in his mind. Taking a deep breath to settle herself, she returned to her seat.

            “I’m sorry. That was a bit of a jolt. I just needed a moment. Please, continue.”

            Giving Willow a kindly smile, the attorney went on.

            “Merida has divided her estate equally between you and her two infant daughters. You’ll each receive a third. In your case, the money will be transferred to you as soon as everything is settled. In the case of the twins, theirs will go into a trust I am in the process of setting up for them until they’re twenty-one.”

            Mr Fitzsimmons continued to lay out the terms and conditions of the last will and testament of Merida Elizabeth Davids as finalised just a scant three months earlier. It seemed as if Meri had intuitively known she was running out of time. When he finally got around to mentioning what exactly her third entailed, Willow felt her jaw drop open but seemed incapable of remedying the situation. The bombshell had her reeling yet again.

            “Surely there must be some mistake?” she finally managed.

            “No, my dear. There’s no mistake.”

            “Are you sure?” Shaking her head, Willow held up a hand. “Of course, you’re sure.”

            Smiling, the older gentleman nodded.

            “Mr Fitzsimmons, what about Chelsea and Kelly? Did Meri make any provision for the girls other than financially?” she continued.

            “Ah yes, the twins’ custody. According to her wishes, she requested that the High Court be petitioned to appoint you as their legal guardian, should you be willing to accept such responsibility.”

            “Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely! How soon would we be able to start proceedings? How long would it take before I can bring the girls home?”

            Laughing, Mr Fitzsimmons replied, “It warms my heart to see you so eager, Ms Martin. Now that we’ve ascertained you’re willing, we’ll get the ball rolling. The court rolls are quite full, but we’ll see what we can do to get the matter expedited so we can get those little ones into your home and care as soon as possible. I know a few people. I’ll see what favours I can call in.”

            Willow filled in the paperwork required of her, and the meeting wrapped up not too much later. Getting to his feet, Mr Fitzsimmons held out his hand to Willow. Willow took it.

            “It’s been a pleasure, Ms Martin. Well, as far as it can be under the circumstances, anyway.”

            “Thank you, Mr Fitzsimmons. For everything.” As emotions rose up again, Willow tried to wipe a lone tear away as surreptitiously as possible. A bit awkwardly, Mr Fitzsimmons patted a fatherly hand on her back in silent understanding.

            “My pleasure, young lady. I’ll be in touch as soon as I have news for you.”

            Letting go of her hand, the older gentleman escorted her to the door, opening it for her when they reached it. Bidding him a final farewell, Willow made her way down to her car in a daze from all the news she’d just received.

            Better than most, Willow knew they all had their own demons to slay. Climbing into her car, Willow rested her head against the steering wheel. The emotions of the day crashed over her, and she had to take a moment to catch her breath. Closing her eyes, Willow vowed to Meri that she would love her children and raise them as if they were her own, giving them the best life she could.