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Authors: Jacqueline Druga






Jacqueline Druga


By Jacqueline Druga

Copyright 20
14 by Jacqueline Druga


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any person or persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


Special thanks to Linda K. and Jennifer S. for all their help.


Cover design by Eloise Knapp


For more works by Jacqueline Druga visit



Friday, May 1
Paris, France


Bella coughed.

At first she didn’t think anything about it. She woke up with the slightest tickle in her throat. The young seamstress attributed the tickle to a change in climate. It was the first time she had been to Europe, and there was no way, in her mind, she was getting sick.

It had to be the weather. But she knew deep in her mind, more than likely, she had caught it from the passenger seated next to her on the flight. He was hacking up a storm, a thick deep cough that grew worse just before they landed.

She remembered thinking, ‘Poor guy’ and even offered him a piece of hard candy to help.

“Thank you, it’s the cabin pressure
,” he said. “Just making my sinuses go haywire.”

He looked sick. His face was pale and sweaty. He didn’t look that bad getting on the plane.  But she also was well aware of what flying could do to a person who was battling even the most minor of colds.

Three years earlier, Bella had taken a flight from Boston to Florida. She had a small ear infection and within one day of landing she had bronchitis.

Her only hope was that if she was getting ill, she would get better before she headed back to the States. She had two weeks to get well, or else, like the man that sat next to her, Bella would feel like hell before that long flight was done.

It wouldn’t come to that.

It was only a tickle.

That was the morning.

She had her breakfast, cleared her throat a lot, but didn’t feel bad. Just every once and a while she had a slight cough.

The Paris fashion gala was one of the biggest in the world and she was going to be a part of it. She was a designer by heart, but could sew and make anything faster and better than anyone. When Rico Dilucco called her to be part of his team, she had no idea what it would entail.

To Bella, she was living the dream.

Of course, it involved turning over her small home based designer business in Wisconsin to her sister. But that was fine with Bella. A simple girl, from modest means, was seeing the world and sending money home to her parents.

She heard a country song when she was a little girl and told her mother, “One day I’ll send you money and you can enjoy life.”

Her parents worked hard. Bella quit school to help add income to her family, got her GED, and by the time she was twenty-one she was making prom dresses.

She was pretty accomplished at the young age of twenty-seven, and no one could say Bella was anything but a genuinely good person.

She met Rico when he had a show in Chicago. Bella attended the conference and fate had her discovering Rico stranded on the highway on the way to the airport.

Rico could design the best of clothes, but couldn’t change a tire to save his life.

Bella helped.

Rico in all his dramatics told her she was a
God send.

“Yeah, well, you should see me sew a dress,” Bella said.

“That good?” Rico asked.

“The best in Wisconsin. I don’t know how much weight that carries.”

Rico laughed and then asked if she attended the gala and did she spot anything that was off.

As if it were a quiz, Bella aced it. There were things that were wrong with a few of the dresses. Minor things.

He asked for her number. Bella didn’t think anything of it until he showed up at her shop. Rico gave her a hands on interview and hired her on the spot to be his ‘go to person’ behind the scenes.

Bella was fast and no one could tweak a design better or faster than she could.

The Paris event was huge. It was the overseas grand finale before returning to New York. They were expecting royalty at the gala. They were wrapping up a six show tour, Los Angeles, to Honolulu, Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, and finally Paris.

Rico planned a wonderful two day holiday for them all in the UK, after Paris.

Bella needed the break.

But her usual excitement during rehearsal and final fittings was marred by that nasty cough.

That simple tickle in her throat turned into a stuffy head and constant cough by lunch. She tucked a ton of tissues in her sleeve, and turned her head a lot. Her eyes blurred out of focus from watering and by late afternoon, all Bella wanted to do was find a corner to crawl into and sleep.

In fact that is what she did.

She found a cozy spot, and passed out. When Rico found her, she had covered herself in extra fabric and was shivering.

“Sweetheart, you are sick and on fire
.,” Rico said, then immediately instructed her to go back to the hotel and then managed to get a doctor to come in and check on her,

“Looks like we have a touch of pneumonia,” the doctor said. “Nothing major. But if it gets worse, you will need to be hospitalized.”

Bella hated to miss the show, but she really was too sick to stand. Both Rico and the doctor ordered her to stay in bed.

She hadn’t the strength anyhow to get up.

The next morning, Bella wasn’t any better. She felt worse but didn’t say anything.

It was apparent on Rico’s face that he was taken aback by her appearance. “You need to go to the hospital.”

“No,” Bella tried to cough, but the truth was, it was like a blockade in her chest. Her voice was coarse. “I sound worse than I feel.”

“Well, the room is taken care of. Call Marian when you need to change your flight. But you relax and get well. We’ll meet up in New York.” Rico leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “At least we know you aren’t contagious.”

“Thank you, Rico, thank you so much. I’m sorry.”

“No need to be sorry. Just get well, and promise me you’ll call for help or go to the hospital if you get worse.”

“I promise and I’ll take my medication.”

He adjusted her covers in a fatherly way, said his last goodbye and as he left the room, he showed her that he was placing the ‘Do not Disturb’ sign on the door.

Belle was grateful for that. She didn’t need the maid to come in. She only wanted to sleep. Never had she felt so sick in all her life. Before going back to bed, she called her parents to let them know she was under the weather.

She said she was sorry to miss the holiday in London, but she had to get better.

With the privacy note on the door, no one bothered her at all.

No one came into the room until she was supposed to have checked out.

That was when they discovered Bella three days later.

She was dead.

Chapter 1


Monday, May 4
Cleveland, OH

Text messaging was Ava Mason’s preferred means of communication. In fact, she was probably worse than her two teenage step children.

Sending messages was much more private. Talking on the phone meant going to the car or out of earshot, because everything Ava said was always misconstrued and taken out of context.

They arrived early at Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, she didn’t plan it that way, it just happened and that didn’t work well for Ava. Just more aggravation. But she had to drop off her six year old, Landon, at the sitters.

After checking out the time and seeing that they still had fifteen minutes before going in the building, Ava sent a text to the sitter, certain she’d be back in time to get Landon to afternoon kindergarten. That was of course, if they didn’t tote Cassie off to a juvenile
detention. Then again, Ava couldn’t be so lucky. She thought that way. Many times thinking, ‘
Please someone take her. How did I get myself into this
?’ Never did Ava project that, she didn’t want to be construed as the evil stepmother. However, if anyone observed her home life, they’d probably tell Ava, “
Be that evil stepmother, pull out the poisonous apple, damn it.’

Cassie was that bad. Her twin brother Calvin wasn’t as horrible. He, at least, had a heart....almost.

Ava held high hopes for Landon, he was from her previous marriage.  That marriage meant the world to her and that world collapsed when Landon’s father was shot in a random robbery when he stopped to buy a gallon of milk after work. It took her a while to bounce back, but she was pregnant with Landon and that was her focus. She wanted to have another baby, then again, her second husband Darren was rarely home. And the prayers for a normal child with him hinged on the fact that he didn’t deliver the seed of hell. Based on his track record with his two children, there was still a chance, no matter how good Ava was, she’d carry a spawn from the dark side.

Ava’s mother laughed at that notion. She also laughed at that fact that Ava was trying to get pregnant. Her biological clock had been ticking so long, it had actually started to tinker out, according to her mom.

“Problem is,” her mother said. “You waited too long to get out of depression. When you finally said, ‘Okay I’m ready’, you were too old and Darren looked like a prize.”

“I am not old. I’m far from old.”

“But your husband is. Why’d you marry such an old man?”

Darren was only ten years older than Ava. She supposed her mother wasn’t happy about the marriage, because Ava and Landon were planning on moving to Vegas with her mother, and then she met Darren.

He was a great guy, with a great smile and a sad story. A career man who made a good living, but struggled to care for his two young children.

Landon wasn’t even two when they met. Six months later they were married and Ava became a caretaker for the kids while he was constantly out of town on business.

She also had to deal with his ex-wife, who was actually a good person with a bad drug problem.

Back then the twins were twelve, and while they should have understood the circumstances of their mother, they didn’t and they hated Ava. They blamed her for everything. Especially for the fact they rarely saw their mother.

But the truth was, they couldn’t be with their mother. The state simply didn’t allow it and any visits had to be supervised.

The twins were always good to Landon. Since Landon had never known his biological father, Ava was ecstatic when Darren seemed to love him and treated him so well.

So much had changed the moment Darren stepped into her life. That happened when he stepped into the daycare center she was working at. He was with Senator Adams doing a pre-election photo op.

She went from preschool teacher to Mommy Dearest. At least in the eyes of her stepchildren.

No matter what they did wrong, they claimed it was because of Ava.

Ava didn’t get it. They were raised in a well to do home and had never wanted for anything. Yet, they rebelled.

And as they sat outside the courthouse again, Ava’s stomach did flips. She looked down to her phone, and because she knew her mother was probably still asleep in her time zone, Ava sent her a text.

‘Maybe I’ll be lucky and they’ll keep her’ Ava wrote. ‘Keep you posted. Love you.’


She exhaled and looked at Cassie who sat next to her. The teenage girl wore headphones and stared intently at her music player. Her dark hair was a mess. She wore baggy shorts and a shirt too small for her. She didn’t even dress up for the occasion. Why would she? To her it was a ‘scold and go’ ordeal. She had seen the Juvenile Municipal judge so much, Ava swore she and the judge were probably friends by now on social media.

Ava’s phone beeped, she looked down. It was a message from Darren. He was across the state.

‘Good luck today’ it read. ‘And Rosie is texting constantly. Heads up. Don’t give her money.’

Another exhale. What was Ava to do if Rosie called? Ignore her? As bad as Rosie was, Ava felt sorry for her. She was the kids’ mom. She needed help but every attempt to help her had failed.

She replied, ‘Ok’ then shut off her phone.

A few more minutes and they’d go inside.

“You have to take them off
,” Ava said to Cassie pointing to her headphones.

Cassie didn’t respond.

Ava tapped her leg.

Annoyed, Cassie removed one of the earpieces. “What?”

“You should put them away before we go in.”

“Whatever.” She replaced the headphones.

Ava tapped her leg again. “You should be a little more worried about today.”

Cassie pulled the earpiece away. “Is there something you want?”

“I’m trying to talk to you about today.”

“Well, don’t.” Cassie returned to covering her ears.

“They’re gonna lock you away,” Ava said. “I hope they do. I hope your cell mate is a big mean lesbian who beats your ass every day and makes you clean her feet.”

Cassie huffed and ripped off the headphones. “Why do you insist on talking to me when I’m not listening? What did you say?”

“Nothing. Time to go in.” Ava stood.

Cassie stood. All five feet of the small teenager screamed attitude. She looked up and down at Ava as if in disapproval of what she wore. “Can you look any more like a soccer mom?”


“You’re so embarrassing.” Cassie shook her head and flung open the door nearly hitting Ava.

There was nothing embarrassing about Ava. Although she wouldn’t label herself as looking like a soccer mom, she just liked to be plain, right down to her short simple brown hair and the style of clothes she wore.

When she had to, she cleaned up well.

Court wasn’t an occasion to look like a Stepford wife.

Ava was pretty certain on how things would go. They’d go in, the judge would yell, issue a bigger fine, and then say ‘next’. That’s the way things always went.

This day was going to be different. Ava saw the slight look of panic on Cassie’s face when a woman, Judge Gaines, stepped to the bench instead of their usual Judge Pinket.

She was filling in.

Would a substitute judge be like a substitute teacher? More lenient?

That would be Ava’s luck.

They were called and stood before the Judge.

Cassie looked beyond her.

“Shaker Heights School district versus Cassandra Mason,” The truant officer spoke. “Your honor, under Ohio Senate Bill 181, Miss Mason is considered a chronic truancy.”

“I see that.” Judge Gaines peered at the paperwork, then to Cassie. “Look at me young lady.”

Cassie shifted her stance and looked up.

“This is your third appearance this year. Fines paid. I suppose asking the standard questions on why you don’t go to school would be useless.”

“I guess.” Cassie answered.

It was apparent her reply didn’t go over well with Judge Gaines.

The judge asked, “Does the father reside in the home?”

Ava answered. “He does your honor. He works out of town and travels a lot. He works for Senator Adams.”

“Is that supposed to impress or influence me?” she asked.

Ava shook her head. “No, ma’am, not at all.”

“This is absolutely ridiculous. Young lady, do you... look at me! I am speaking to you.”

After a huff, Cassie peered up again.

“Do you realize the fines are just an easy out?” The judge scolded at Cassie. “I could put your mother in jail.”

“My mother is an addict. It might help.”

Judge Gaines looked at Ava.

“I’m her stepmother.”

“Then I could put your stepmother in jail right now. How would you feel about that?”

Cassie scoffed a laugh. “Um, happy? Go ahead.”

The judge raised her voice. “Are you serious? You stand here in my court of law with this attitude? Perhaps a few days in Juvenile Center may change that attitude.”

Cassie’s eyes widened.

“Mrs. Mason?” The judge asked. “What do you think?”

“I think your honor needs to do what is best.”

Judge Gaines nodded to an officer. “Take her in the back. Call services to come and get her.” She slammed a gavel. “Next.”

Cassie was far too cool to show that she was upset, but Ava knew she had to be. Especially when they took her headphones and music player and handed it to Ava.

Admittedly, Ava was a little nervous when they escorted Cassie out. Cassie never looked back.

There were papers to be signed and an officer from the center would contact Ava as soon as they got Cassie processed. Until then, Ava knew very little so there was no reason to tell Darren, just yet.

She did however send a text to her mother as she left the courthouse.

‘Finally, it’s gonna be a good and quiet day.




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