I’d spent the whole night trying to figure out how to help Hazel, and when it became too hard and I felt as if I were running in circles, I went to the only person I could think of who could help me. The person I always turned to during the hardest moments.

Big Paw sat in his office chair with his wrinkles deepening into a frown as I told him everything Hazel had unfolded to me the previous night.

“I always hated that Charlie Riley. He’s a toxic creature to this here town, and it’s about time we get rid of him.”

“How? Hazel said there’s no way. His presence here is too big, and even when people get one step forward, he pushes them two steps back.”

“Not this time. He doesn’t get to push my loved ones into a corner.”

“But that’s what he’s doing, and there’s no way we can push back against him.”

“Yes, there is. When you are pushed in a corner, you put on your boxing gloves, and you fight back, Ian. You think I’ve never faced hard times? Of course I have, but do you know how I’ve made it through those tough periods?”


“I didn’t give up, I kept fighting, and when I needed it the most, I reached out to others to help me. We don’t have to face every battle alone. Sometimes, all of the time, we’re stronger together.” He reached out toward me and placed his hand against mine. “I’m glad you came to me with this. Now, get to work today, and be up bright and early tomorrow. We have a long drive to take tomorrow.”

“A drive to where?”

“To the one person who is Charlie’s blind spot. We’re going to see Hazel’s mother.”

“What? How? She’s in prison, and she won’t even see Hazel. She hasn’t seen her in months.”

“She doesn’t have to see Hazel. She has to see me, and seeing as how I’m already on her visitor list, it won’t be a big deal. I was going up there tomorrow, anyway. The only difference is I’m bringing you along with me this time around.”

I had so many questions for him. Questions about why he’d been visiting Hazel’s mother. Questions about why we were going to visit her in the first place and how she could help the Charlie situation. Questions about . . . everything.

But the way Big Paw smiled my way showed me that I was supposed to just trust him.

Therefore, I did.

As we headed toward the prison, my stomach sat knotted up with the thought of seeing Hazel’s mom, Jean. When you thought about meeting your girlfriend’s mother, you didn’t assume it would be in a prison. Talk about unorthodox.

“Now, let me do a bit of the talking first to get the conversation moving,” Big Paw ordered. “I don’t want you making any trouble by saying something offbeat.”

We walked inside and went through all of the security procedures before being led to a table to wait for Jean to come out.

When she did, she looked surprised to see me sitting at the table with Big Paw.

“You brought a guest,” she said, looking him dead in the eyes as she took her seat. “Where’s Holly?”

Wait, what?

Jean knew Big Paw and Grams? How was that possible?

“She wasn’t feeling too well today. She couldn’t make the drive,” he told her.

I shifted around in my chair, trying to get comfortable but knowing it was impossible. Jean had a heavy sadness about her whole persona. It was pretty hard to witness. You could tell she’d been through a lot of hard shit in her life just by looking into her eyes. She gave me a sideways grin, and it disappeared quickly before her eyes shifted to her clasped hands.

“I got you some pictures,” Big Paw mentioned, pulling out a stack of photographs. He held each photo up for Jean to witness, and tears began falling down her cheeks as she took in the photographs of Rosie that Big Paw was sharing with her.

“She’s getting big,” she commented.

“Yes,” I agreed. “She looks so much like you.”

“She looks like Hazel,” she corrected, fiddling with her hands. “When Hazel was a baby, she had those big eyes too.”

“Wait, so how do you and Big Paw know each other?” I asked, bewildered.

“Holly and I’ve been visiting her quite a bit over the past few months,” he explained.

“Yeah, he’s been a pain in my ass,” Jean joked.

“And she’s been a pain in mine, always has throughout the years.”

“Years?” I asked.

Jean nodded. “We’d crossed paths many moons ago, when I was a teenager. I was pregnant with Hazel and on my own when I came to Eres. I was running from a troubled childhood, and when I got here, Holly and Big Paw took me in with arms wide open.”

“It seems to be what they do,” I said.

“Yeah, but I didn’t make it easy for them. I got involved with your mother and father, and I made a few choices I shouldn’t have after Hazel was born. I started hanging out with Sarah and Ray, and they introduced me to Charlie, and we all know how that ended up.” She gestured around her and frowned.

All this time I’d blamed Hazel’s mother for the beast that Charlie was, but it seemed as if my parents were the ones responsible for bringing Charlie and Jean together.