Wrecked Palace, an all-new contemporary romance standalone in the Wrecked Series by author Catherine Cowles is coming January 19th, and we have the first sneak peek!
The sound of a phone ringing pulled me out of a deep sleep. I groaned and blinked against the darkness. The only light in the room came from the glow-in-the-dark stars peppered all over my dorm room ceiling. I fumbled around on my nightstand, trying to find the ringing device.
“Turn off your freaking phone before I toss it out the window,” Bell called from across the room. Our other roommate, Kenna, let out a mumbled moan.
“I’m trying.” My fingers found the charger cord, and I tugged the phone onto my bed. Glancing at the screen, my chest squeezed. 1:13 a.m., and Will was calling. I hurried to hit accept. “Will? What’s wrong?”
I’d given my little brother a phone before I left for college. I kept the low-budget mobile topped up with minutes because I needed a way to get in touch with my siblings, and for them to be able to reach me. Our house phone hadn’t worked in years, and my parents weren’t exactly keen on us kids using their cells.
“I don’t know what to do—”
Will’s voice was cut off by a cry. Sobs that could only be coming from my one-year-old sister, Mia, sounded over the line, followed by someone pounding on a door. “You owe me a fucking score, asshole. I paid. Give me my shit!”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “What’s going on? Where are you guys?”
“I’m in the girls’ room. I put a dresser in front of the door, but there’s a guy in the house. He won’t leave.”
The light flicked on, and Bell and Kenna were by my side in a flash, hearing the distress in my voice. I motioned for Bell to grab her phone. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“They’re not here. They haven’t been in days.”
More pounding cut in. “Give me my fucking score or I’ll gut you when I get in there.”
My heart hammered against my ribs in a painful rhythm. “Bell, call the sheriff. Someone’s in the house. Will has himself barricaded with the girls in their room.”
Bell blanched but immediately began dialing. As soon as someone picked up, she started recounting the situation. Kenna eased down next to me on the bed and rubbed my back.
I turned my attention back to Will. “Stay calm, buddy. The police are on their way.” But how long would it take for them to get there? Our small island off the coast of Washington state didn’t have its own dedicated police force. We shared access to a sheriff’s department with the rest of the chain of islands. That meant in an emergency like this one, deputies had to take a boat before they got onto the island.
The tremble in Will’s voice broke something deep inside me. “It’s going to be okay. I’m with you.” More pounding rang out in the background, and Mia started crying harder. “Is Ava holding Mia?”
“Yeah, I put them in the closet.”
My hand fisted in my sheets. My ten-year-old little brother was savvy enough to know he needed to hide his little sisters away. What the hell had my parents been doing since I left for my junior year four months ago? “You’re so smart, Will. And so freaking brave. What’s in front of the door again?”
“I pushed the dresser and then a bed.”
“That’s great. That will keep him out.”
“I hope so.”
God, I did, too. If something happened to my tiny terrors…I tried to force out the horrendous images taking over my mind.
Bell waved a hand at me. “There are two deputies already on Anchor. They’re heading to your place now.”
I gave her a tight nod. I wanted to feel relief, but I couldn’t. Not until I knew, with one hundred percent certainty, that the kids were okay. “Did you hear that? There are deputies coming now. They’re already on Anchor.”
Will sniffed. “Okay.” There was more yelling and pounding, then a cracking sound. “I think the door’s breaking.”
I squeezed my eyes closed, sending up a thousand silent prayers. “Get in the closet with Ava and Mia.”
“I can’t. I have to fight him if he gets in. I have my bat.”
My sweet, brave boy. Tears leaked from my eyes. “He’s not going to get in. Just hold on.”
Shouts sounded across the line. I heard someone yelling that they were from the sheriff’s department and to get down on the floor. There was more screaming and then a shot. The crack of the bullet was so loud, Kenna jerked beside me. All of my muscles locked. “Will, are you okay? What’s happening now?”
“I’m okay. I don’t know.”
“Will, it’s Deputy Raines. Are you okay in there?”
My shoulders sagged in relief. Will answered the deputy in a shaky voice. “We’re okay.”
I heard a door opening, and Mia’s cries got louder, but it was Ava who spoke. “I want Cae Cae.” The sound of her pleading shattered the last piece of my heart still holding itself together.
“I’m gonna be there soon, Ava.”
“Did you hear that, Avs? Caelyn’s coming soon.”
The deputy began speaking again. “We need to take the bad guy out to the patrol car. Then we’ll come back for you.”
“Okay.” Will’s voice sounded stronger now. “I have to move the furniture, Caelyn.”
“Don’t hang up!” I was desperate. This was my one lifeline to my siblings, and I couldn’t let it go. “Put the phone on speaker and lay it on the bed.”
“All right.” Something rustled, and then Will spoke again. “Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you.”
The sounds of furniture being pushed across the carpet, and Will grunting, came over the line. I held my breath until I heard a knock.
“It’s Deputy Raines. Can I come in?”
A door creaked in the background.
“Are you guys okay?” Deputy Raines asked.
“Yeah, we’re okay,” Will answered.
The slight tremor in his voice had me fisting the sheets even tighter. I never should’ve left Anchor. I should’ve simply found the cheapest apartment possible and worked at a bar or a restaurant on the island. But instead, I’d been selfish, desperate to use the scholarship I’d worked so hard for.
Ava’s voice cut into my thoughts. “Can you take us to Cae Cae?”
“Who’s Cae Cae?” Raines asked.
“My sister. She’s on the phone,” Will said.
“Is it all right if I talk to her?”
The phone beeped as he took me off speakerphone. “Ms. O’Connor, we’ve got them. They look scared but are perfectly safe.”
I burst into tears. Through my sobs, I managed to get out, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Of course. We’re going to take them to the sheriff’s station on Shelter.”
“Okay. I’m in Seattle. I go to college here. But I’m going to get over there as fast as I can. Will you take this phone so that you can update me if anything changes?”
“I’ll keep the phone with me. Take a deep breath. They’re going to be fine.”
But that wasn’t completely true. Sure, physically, they were okay. But emotionally? The kids were traumatized. And I didn’t know the first thing about how to heal those wounds. But like with everything else, I’d simply have to find a way. I just had to get to my siblings first.
Ava hurled herself at me as soon as I crossed the threshold of the staff lounge at the sheriff’s station. I caught her, lifting her into my arms and rocking her back and forth. “I’m here now. You’re okay.”
She pressed her little face into my neck. “I was so scared.”
I held her tighter against me as I squeezed my eyes closed. “I’m so sorry, Avs.” As her small body trembled against me, I vowed that she would never feel scared like that again.
I scanned the room, my gaze catching on Harriet, Kenna’s adoptive guardian. She’d been the one to arrange a boat for us from Seattle to Shelter Island and had immediately headed to the sheriff’s station herself. She rose, little Mia fast asleep in her arms.
I blinked back tears. “Thank you so much, Harriet. I don’t know what I would’ve done…”
“Oh, hush now. You know I’d do anything for you girls.”
Kenna crossed to the older woman, pressing a kiss to her cheek. “Thank you.”
“I’m happy to help however I can.”
“Where’s Will?” I asked.
Harriet inclined her head to the hallway. “Deputy Raines was getting him a soda and a snack. I think the adrenaline was wearing off. He was getting a little shaky.”
My eyes fell closed again as if I could will away the nightmare of the past few hours. I had so many questions, but I didn’t want to ask any of them in front of little ears. I pressed a kiss to Ava’s head. “Can you go to Bell? I want to find Will.”
Ava nodded and went easily into Bell’s arms. Bell snuggled her close. “I missed you like crazy.”
The small smile that Ava gave Bell had my shoulders easing a fraction. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I headed back into the hallway, looking for any sign of the vending machines. After a couple of wrong turns, I spotted a head of floppy brown hair. “Will.”
His head snapped up at my voice, and he shoved the soda at a deputy who looked vaguely familiar. Will charged, hitting me with a force that had me stumbling back a step. When had he gotten so big? I wrapped my arms around him as more tears filled my eyes. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” he whispered, a catch in his voice.
The deputy made his way over to us. “Hi, Ms. O’Connor. I’m Deputy Raines.”
“Please, call me Caelyn. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
“I’m happy to help.” A pained smile curved his lips. “The sheriff wants to chat with you whenever you’re ready.”
I wanted to chat with the sheriff, too. But first, I had a few questions for Will. I brushed the hair back from his eyes; he was in desperate need of a haircut. “When’s the last time you saw Mom and Dad?”
Will released me and winced. “On Friday.”
Blood roared in my ears. It was early Monday morning. “Why didn’t you call me?” I’d given Will the phone for a reason. Our parents had never been overly attentive. Why my mother hadn’t just gone on birth control, I’d never know, because she certainly wasn’t interested in raising her children. She did the bare minimum, which often consisted of a single bag of fast food for dinner and using the television as a babysitter. But they’d never left us alone for days on end before.
Will nibbled on his bottom lip. “I didn’t want you to come back from college.”
“Why not?” I couldn’t hide the hurt in my voice.
He squared his small shoulders. “You need to finish school and get a good job so you can get us out of there.”
“Oh, Will.” I pulled him into my arms, the tears I’d been trying so hard to hold back since I arrived at the station, sliding down my cheeks. I should’ve been embarrassed that this was all coming out in front of some deputy I barely knew, but I couldn’t find it in me to care. All I cared about was wrapping my tiny terrors up in hugs and taking them somewhere safe.
“What’s gonna happen to us?” Will whispered.
God, I wished I had an answer for that, but I knew I’d never let these kids go into foster care. “We’re going to figure it out together. But I’m not leaving you. You’re not alone.”
Will sagged against me. “I’m sorry I didn’t call. I should’ve when they started getting worse.”
I stiffened. “What do you mean getting worse?”
Will released me, looking from me to Raines and back again. “They’re doing drugs.”
My jaw tightened. My parents had always been heavy drinkers, and I knew my dad smoked pot, but I’d never seen any hints of anything harder. The fact that my ten-year-old little brother could see the signs of drug use and knew what it meant… It shattered what little naïve hope I had left that my parents would get their acts together. “You don’t have to go back there. Not ever again.” I turned to Deputy Raines. “Right?”
“Correct,” he agreed. “Child Protective Services has already been here. The children have been placed in Miss Harriet’s care until a more permanent decision can be made.”
The roaring in my ears quieted a fraction. Harriet was a godsend, a true angel. Not only had she taken in Kenna when she needed a place to live; now, she was giving us safe harbor, as well. “Thank you.”
I gave Will’s shoulder a squeeze. “Why don’t you go hang with the rest of the crew while I talk to the sheriff? I know Kenna and Bell want to see you.”
Will nodded stoically. “You’re not gonna leave, right?”
My heart clenched. “Not without you.”
“’Kay.” He headed down the hall towards the lounge.
I couldn’t bring myself to look away from his small form until he disappeared from sight. I inhaled deeply, steeling myself for what was to come. I turned back to Raines. “How bad was it?”
Raines grimaced. “House was a wreck. Everywhere but in the girls’ room. It looked like Will had been sleeping in there, too. He’d moved his mattress between Ava’s bed and the crib.” I was going to kill my parents. For what they’d put these kids through, the fires of hell would be too kind. “There wasn’t a lot of food left in the house either.”
I swallowed against the bile rising in my throat. “Please tell me that means they don’t have a chance in hell of getting these kids back.”
“It’s not gonna happen. The sheriff wants to fill you in on why exactly that’s the case.”
There was an ominous tone to Raines’ words that had my stomach twisting. “Lead the way.”
The deputy guided me down a maze of hallways before stopping in front of a door and knocking.
“Come in,” a gruff voice called.
Raines pushed the door open. “Sheriff, this is Caelyn O’Connor. Caelyn, this is Sheriff Spaulding.”
I stepped forward. “Nice to meet you, sir. Thank you for taking care of my brother and sisters.”
The man, who looked to be in his late fifties, inclined his head to a chair opposite his desk. “Have a seat.”
I did as instructed, and Deputy Raines took his leave. I couldn’t help twisting a loose thread on my jeans as Sheriff Spaulding took my measure, seeming to assess every weakness and flaw in a matter of seconds. “You’re in school at Seattle University.”
“You working? Taking out loans?”
He must’ve known my parents weren’t helping me in any way. They’d just been happy to have one less mouth to feed. “I have a full academic scholarship. I work part-time to cover my room and board.”
Spaulding nodded, seeming pleased with my answer. “Your parents…”
“Are total and complete wastes of space?” I offered.
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that.”
I gripped the loose thread on my jeans tighter. “Will said he thought they were using drugs.”
“Your father has gotten mixed up with a bad crew. We had suspicions before, but tonight confirmed it. He’s dealing, and I’m not talking pot.”
The string popped off my jeans. “Dealing? He was bringing those people into the house? With the kids there?”
Sheriff Spaulding’s gaze hardened. “I’m afraid so. In and out of the house.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“You’d have to find him first. And we can’t seem to do that.”
I stiffened. “What do you mean?”
Spaulding leaned back in his chair. “We found your mom holed up in a motel room, high as a kite, needle by the bed. But no sign of your dad.”
Needles. We weren’t even talking prescription pills. “I was home this summer. They were neglectful, yes, but Mom was still caring for Mia. They drank too much, but I saw no sign of drugs.”
“A lot can change in four months, Caelyn.”
Apparently, a whole life could fall apart. “What about the guy who broke in?”
Sheriff Spaulding laced his fingers together and rested his hands on his desk. “Dave Herbert. Arrested on a slew of charges. He won’t be breathing free for a few years, at least.”
It wasn’t enough. He’d scared my siblings to death, probably would’ve hurt them or worse. My stomach roiled at the thought.
“That’s not all,” Spaulding continued. “Your brother gave us a cell phone. I think he thought it might help us find your folks because it belonged to your dad. What was on that phone…it’s going to lead to a lot more arrests.”
“That’s good, right?” I wanted all of these assholes off the streets and far away from my family.
“It is good. But while all this is shaking out, I want you to be cautious.”
All of my muscles seemed to seize at once. “You think they’ll come after the kids?”
Spaulding’s jaw went hard. “I’d like to think not. But desperate people do stupid things. They could think going after the kids might shake your dad loose. Or that the kids know where your dad is. Miss Harriet has assured me that she has a state-of-the-art security system. I think you’ll be safe on her estate, but I want you to be careful when you’re out around town. Maybe give the kids’ schools a heads-up.”
My mind swam with all of the possible risks. I hated that we might bring trouble to Harriet’s door. But what other option did we have? “Thank you. We’ll be careful. Will you keep me up-to-date on the arrests?”
“I’ll keep you in the loop as much as possible.”
“I don’t need to know the ins and outs of the cases. I’d just like to know when I can take a deep breath again.”
Spaulding’s expression gentled. “I understand. We’re going to put Harriet’s estate and the kids’ schools on the drive-by loop so there will be a police presence. That should discourage anyone from doing something stupid.”
“Thank you.” It should’ve made me feel more at ease, but the fact that the sheriff thought it was necessary just ramped my anxiety up another level.
Unease slid over the sheriff’s features. “We’ll need Will to testify about the phone and the people he saw coming and going from the house. Possibly Ava, as well.”
“What? No. That can’t be safe.”
Spaulding met my gaze dead-on. “If we want this Herbert clown and your mother to get the maximum sentences, we need that testimony.”
I closed my eyes, letting my head fall forward. For Will, Ava, and Mia to be truly safe, to heal, anyone involved needed to go away for as long as possible. “They’ll testify.”
I held up a hand, cutting the sheriff off. “But I need you to do something for me in return.”
His eyes grew shrewd. “And what would that be?”
“Help me get custody of my siblings.”
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One night was all it took for everything to change.
From college student to guardian in a single breath.
My siblings became my world.
No time for date nights or romantic dreams.
I traded quiet weekends for sleepless nights.
Giving my all to make sure they were cared for.
But Griffin had a brokenness that called to me—one that mirrored my own.
Gruff and just a little bit reckless.
He was the last thing I needed. But everything I wanted.
Only someone isn’t happy about this new life I’m building.
Deciding to set fire to everything I hold close.
And when the smoke clears, there might be only ashes left behind…
Writer of words. Drinker of Diet Cokes. Lover of all things cute and furry, especially her dog. Catherine has had her nose in a book since the time she could read and finally decided to write down some of her own stories. When she’s not writing she can be found exploring her home state of Oregon, listening to true crime podcasts, or searching for her next book boyfriend.
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