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CHAPTER 1

   
I’ll tell you my story. I know you might not understand. But please believe I didn’t mean to do any of this. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be in this position. I’d give anything to turn back the clock. Start again. Be me again.

That first day it started I couldn’t even cry—until hours later. The tears came cold and angry, full of revenge. By then it was too late.

It was Tuesday, November 14.

I hunched behind the sleek cherry wood desk I’d occupied for one week at Jack Larrett Financial, cell phone to my ear. My new boss, who’d insisted I call him J.L., was in his office, door closed. Forty minutes ago a brassy blonde, streaming indignation, had barged into the office, demanding to “see J.L. right now.” She wore skin-tight jeans tucked into boots, a tight red sweater, and a white scarf around her neck. No coat, even though the temperature was in the mid-thirties. Idahoans know how to handle the cold. Since the woman and J.L. had disappeared into his office, I’d heard voices raised more than once. Good thing they were so intent on their conversation. My thirteen-year-old daughter was on my cell—her after school check-in call. She was crying. Again.

“Mom, I can’t go there anymore.”

It was her sixth day at Payton Middle School.

“I hate it. Everyone hates me. And I hate this stupid town and my stupid life!”

“Riley—”

“Do you know what Brittany said to me today?”

No telling. On Riley’s first day at school a popular girl named Brittany Masters had raised her head like some hydra looking for a victim. My sweet Riley looked the part. Again.

“She told me I’m fat and ugly, and no one in the whole town of Payton will like me. Ever. And all her friends were around when she said that. They laughed.”

Oh, Riley. The words arrowed through me. What had I done to my daughter? She’d been bullied in Seattle, too, but at least she had a couple of friends. Here, she had nobody. I’d hoped and prayed this small town would provide a better life for her.

Riley heaved a sob. “Can’t we just go back home?”

Tears filled my eyes. What home? Jeff, her father, had walked out on our marriage for another woman—after years of abuse to me. Now I couldn’t even find him to pay child support. We couldn’t afford to live in Seattle, especially with all the debt he’d run up on my credit card. And I had no one to turn to for help. My mother had died at sixty from cirrhosis of the liver. I hadn’t talked to my father in years. I had no friends. Jeff had seen to that. Live with a controlling, jealous husband for long, and he’ll scare away everyone else from your life.

Only a miracle had led me to this job in Payton, five hours away. Another miracle had enabled me to find a tiny two-bedroom house, barely affordable on my salary, given all my debt payments.

“Riley.” My voice caught. “I’m so sorry. Please hang on until I get home.” I checked the wooden clock on the wall. Three-fifty. Another hour and ten minutes.

“And then what, Mom? What’re you gonna do to change anything? I hate my life. I just want to die.”

No.” My throat ached. “Don’t say that.” Before we left Seattle I’d caught Riley with my bottle of sleeping pills in her hand. That shook me to the core. I’d thrown out the pills. But how to mend my daughter’s heart? “Please just wait till I get home. Somehow we will fix it. You will find friends here. I know it’s hard, making a change.”

Riley sniffed.

“Do you hear me? Okay?” My voice clenched. “Please.”

Silence.

“Riley?”

Fear for her wrapped around my lungs. Friends are everything to thirteen-year-old girls. Friends are the world. With them, life is good. Without them, worse yet, being bullied and shunned by others, life is intolerable. Hopeless, even. I knew this firsthand. I was thirteen once. And we’ve all heard it on the news in the past few years. Like that young, precious girl with so much potential who was bullied on Facebook—and ended up hanging herself in her bedroom. I have pictured that scene, the mother finding her body, too many times to count. It leaves me frozen in terror. It’s beyond comprehension.

Riley, talk to me!”

“Okay.” The response sounded so small.

“Okay what?”

“I’ll wait for you to get home.”

I closed my eyes. “That’s my girl.”

She was my girl, all right, that was the problem. She’d learned her victimhood from watching her father beat me. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. Now I had to teach my daughter to be strong.

How to do that, when I hadn’t learned it for myself?

It took another minute for Riley’s crying to lessen. She sighed. “I’m gonna make some cookies.”

I winced. Baking cookies was her way of self-soothing. But eating them only fed her weight—the very thing she was most teased about. It was a cycle I didn’t know how to break. I could only hope this stage wouldn’t last much longer. Riley wasn’t really heavy. Just a little … pudgy. Baby fat, I’d say. I’d been that way, too, at thirteen. The weight fell off a year later.

We talked for another few minutes, until I was sure she was steady and I could let her go. “Riley, I love you so much. See you soon.”

I clicked off the call and dropped my head in my hands. My heart broke for my daughter. Girls her age could be so cruel. Why did Brittany and her friends have to treat Riley like this? What had she ever done to them?

“God, please help.”

The words slipped from my mouth of their own will. I shook my head. Why was I even praying? There was a time I had believed, after I left my parents’ home at eighteen. I’d even asked Jesus to accept me as one of His own. Then I met Jeff, got married, and found myself right back in abuse. Little good my faith had done after that. During those terrible years, I still believed there was a God up there, but He had not saved me from the violence.

I know that may sound trite to you. The old why didn’t God help me? question. Seems like we hear it every day. But it’s not trite when you’re the one facing it.

A female voice rose behind J.L.’s closed door. I straightened, listening, but couldn’t make out any words.

I wiped the tears away, my thoughts still snagging on Riley. But the sounds pulled my attention.

Had J.L. made some bad investments, lost the woman’s money? His reputation was stellar. He was Payton’s most influential businessman and biggest civic supporter. Apparently he prepared taxes for just about everybody in town—and many in the surrounding towns as well. For many of his clients he also served as an investor. People thought he walked on water. And he’d been so kind to me, offering me this job when surely there were others more qualified. Offering me hope.

In J.L.’s office all went quiet.

Maybe this was personal. Was she his ex-wife? I knew J.L. was on his second marriage. They had a daughter Riley’s age. She went to some private school in Hayden, just south of Payton.

I checked the clock again, picturing Riley alone in our little kitchen. An hour left until I could go home to her. By then it would be dark.

Work beckoned. I tried to focus but found myself studying the tall coat tree in the corner of my reception area. A long rugged pole of gnarled wood with deer antlers as hooks. Definitely an Idaho piece of furniture.

Would Riley ever be happy here? It was so different from Seattle.

I looked back to the work on my desk. This first month of my employment was a probation period. I had to prove I was worthy to keep around. If I lost this job, I’d have no savings to fall back on. Riley and I would be out on the streets.

A sound pulsed through my boss’s door. My head jerked. What was that? Something … muffled. I stilled, head cocked, but heard no more.

All the same, something inside me tingled.

I held my breath, listening, vaguely registering the gold plaque on my boss’s door. J.L. Larrett, CPA, ChFC—Chartered Financial Consultant.

Still no sound. In fact, not even the low drone of voices.

Slowly I relaxed.

All right, Cara, fingers on keys.

I turned back to my computer, rolling my chair closer to the desk, and forced myself to refocus on my work. I still had a lot to learn. When J.L. discussed investment accounts with a client, he’d sit at the small conference table in his office, using a TV-sized monitor that hung on the wall. I would bring up the client’s accounts, and all the information would appear on that monitor. J.L. could access the file with his own mouse, scrolling through as needed. I’d learned the task of locating computer files easily enough. But I was also responsible for paying bills, keeping his books, scheduling appointments, and generally running the office. With tax season coming up in January, I needed to send out tax preparation documents to each client. It seemed early to me, but J.L. said he wanted them mailed before the holiday season. In January and into February, clients would fill out their income and expense data on those forms and return them to J.L., giving him the information he needed to prepare their returns.

The clock read 4:10.

I laid my hand on the computer mouse—and heard J.L.’s door click. I looked up to see him in the threshold, the door halfway open. He was a large man, six-feet-two, with a belly. Nearing sixty. Bushy brows over hazel eyes. Thinning brown hair and a round face. He was wearing what he wore every day—cowboy boots, jeans and a button-down shirt. A gold Rolex was the only sign of his success. J.L. had a way of filling a room. He had a commanding voice and was charming and jovial in his confidence, quick with a smile.

He was not smiling now.

Something wasn’t right. I felt it at the back of my neck.

I pasted a pleasant look on my face. “May I help you?”

He surveyed me, as if weighing what to say. “Please come inside.”

“Certainly.” I rose.

J.L. stepped back and nudged the office door wider. As I entered, he closed it behind me.

At first glimpse I didn’t see his visitor.

J.L. stepped between me and the conference table. He spread his hands, a grim expression on his face. “I’m afraid our … discussion didn’t go so well.”

I frowned. Glanced behind me toward the chair in front of his desk.

“She’s over here.” J.L. moved aside and pointed to the floor beyond the conference table.

I threw him a wide-eyed look and moved around the table to see.

In a horrifying second I took in the scene. The woman lay on her back, unmoving, elbows bent, hands resting on her shoulders. Booted feet askew. Mouth ajar, eyes open and glazed.

I gasped. Stumbled backward. “Is she …?”

“Dead. I’m afraid so.”

The word rattled around in my head.

“What happened?”

J.L. sighed. “She brought this on herself.” He spoke so casually, as if commenting on the weather.

I gaped at him.

My gaze tore back to the woman. Her white scarf lay two feet away on the carpet. Red marks bruised her neck. Her fingers were spread against her shoulders—as if her hands had been near her throat, then fell away.

Realization punched me in the gut.

A forever second passed. I lifted my eyes to J.L., my head shaking back and forth, back and forth. A strange little sound spilled from my mouth.

He raised his arm toward me. I cringed.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s all right.”

All right? Air wouldn’t come to my lungs.

“I need your help, Cara.”

He’d killed this woman? Killed her. Strangled her to death. And here I stood alone with him, his big body between me and the door.

“Are you listening to me?”

Who was this man? How could he do this?

“Cara.”

My gaze wobbled over the woman. Up to J.L.’s face.

“I’m sorry to bring you into this, but I have no choice. I need your help. And you are going to do exactly what I tell you.”

No words would come.

“Understand?”

I stared at him, unfocused. “Why did you do this?”

“We’re partners now, you and I.” J.L. spoke calmly, as if to a frightened child. “We have to work together to get her out of here. If we both do our job, no one will ever know this happened.”

My body went numb. “Out of here?”

“The body, Cara. We have to take care of it.”

What? No, no, no.

“Just do what I say, and you’ll soon be home with your daughter.”

My veins went cold. Was that a threat?

J.L. pointed toward the chair facing his desk. “See her purse on the floor? Pick it up and bring it to the table.”

My eyes filled with tears. “Please.”

Get it.”

“I don’t … I can’t—”

“Cara!” His calm melted away, sweat popping out on his forehead. “Do you understand what we’re dealing with here? The trouble you could be in? You have to listen to me.”

Me, in trouble?

Images stuttered through my head. Fighting my way out the door. Calling the police. I had to get home to Riley.

J.L. leapt around the table and grabbed my arm. I folded over, trying to make myself less of a target. It was all too familiar, a man’s wrenching hand on me. Would he hit me next? Just one more violent man in my life.

What was wrong with me? Why did I keep inviting this? 

“Do not think at this moment, Cara Westling.” J.L.’s face thrust inches from mine, his words like dropped stones. “Concentrate on nothing but saving your life. You want your daughter to be without a father and a mother?”

No. No! This could not be happening.

I shook my head. The rest of me had gone numb.

He pushed me toward the desk. “Get the purse.”

I know you’ll judge me. You’ll say to yourself—I would never do such a thing. That’s the problem with judging—inserting your cool-headed rationality into someone else’s chaos. Well, you aren’t me. You haven’t lived through what I have. You don’t know what it’s like to be stripped of your worth, to think you somehow deserve to be mistreated. To believe there’s no way out.

Most of all, you weren’t there.

On jellied legs, I moved.


  

CHAPTER 2

   
Riley measured butter and dropped it into the mixing bowl. Next came the white and brown sugar. No need to look at a recipe. She’d made chocolate chip cookies loads of times.

She couldn’t stop crying. Every ten seconds she had to stop and wipe her eyes.

Why did her life have to be so bad? Especially this whole year. In January Dad had left—just walked out the door one night and didn’t come back. He’d called once since then. One time. Had the nerve to say, “You know I love you.” Yeah, right. Not as much as he loved Cindy Whatever-Her-Name-Was. And he’d told Riley Cindy was pregnant. Well, good luck with that. How long before Jeff Westling left her and her kid, too?

Riley added the vanilla and egg to the dough mixture.

Then things got even worse. Ten days ago Riley and her mom had moved to this dumb little town. Now Riley was five hours away from her Seattle friends, Kristy and Maya. Plus, there was mean girl Brittany at this new school. Why was she so awful? She and her little groupies. They were popular and skinny and pretty—and they knew it.

Riley hated them.

No way could she go to school tomorrow. She couldn’t take their garbage anymore. After Dad left, Riley’s mom started telling her she should never let a man treat her wrong. Well, what about other girls? Why should she put up with that?

Riley turned on the hand-held mixer.

The way those girls laughed at her every time she walked past them. Called her Miss Piggy. Her cheeks would get all hot, and she’d start to sweat. She wished she could just be a little ant and crawl down a crack somewhere. But it didn’t stop at school. They put stuff on their Facebook pages about her, and on Snapchat. Oh, sure, that first morning at school they’d all let her be social media friends with them just so she could see what they started posting. And they exchanged phone numbers so they could text. By the afternoon, everything turned into a nightmare.

The dough was blended enough. Riley stopped the mixer and wiped her eyes again. Then dumped in the chocolate chips, hearing the crackle as they slid out of the bag. The dough and chocolate smelled creamy sweet.

If Mom made her go to school tomorrow, she wouldn’t. Well, she’d pretend to. But as soon as Mom drove away, Riley would walk back home.

She pulled out the cookie sheet and dropped the dough on it, pushing it off a spoon with her finger. She stuck the pan into the oven and turned on the timer for nine minutes. Riley liked her cookies firm on the bottom and soft inside.

Now what?

She pulled out a chair and slumped into it. Put her elbows on the kitchen table and planted her face in her palms. Mom just didn’t get it. She loved Riley and was the best mom ever. But she was forty. So old. She couldn’t understand how it was, how Riley’s insides shook. How sometimes she just wanted it all to end. You couldn’t go through life with only a mom loving you. A mom didn’t go to school with you. A mom didn’t hear what people said about you all day, or see the faces they made. Little stuck-up snots.

Why did they do it?

The kitchen filled with the smell of baking cookies.

Riley hung her head and cried harder.

Her cell phone pinged.

She stilled. Her eyes moved to the phone over on the counter. It was lit up, but she couldn’t read the text from where she sat. She stared at the phone. Could be Kristy or Maya from Seattle.

It could also be Brittany or one of her friends.

“Just wait till tonight,” Brittany had sneered after the last bell at school.

“Why?” Riley could barely get the word out.

“You’ll see.”

And Brittany walked away with her best friend, laughing and laughing.

Riley had tried to push it out of her mind. Hadn’t even told her mom that part when they talked on the phone.

But now she stared at her cell, her skin crawling.

Riley caught her top lip between her teeth—and pushed back her chair. She walked to the counter. The phone had gone dark.

Her heart started to beat hard.

She clicked the bottom button, and the phone lit up again. The text was on the screen. From Brittany.

 
Found the perfect picture of u Miss Piggy. Didn’t know u could look so good. Will put on FB.

 
Riley froze.

A minute went by.

What would be on that picture? Something horrible. Something that would make the whole school laugh at her.

Riley let out a sob.

The aroma of cookies grew stronger.

The timer sounded. Like a zombie she walked to the oven and stopped the noise. She turned off the heat and used an oven pad to pull out the pan. Laid it on a trivet on the counter.

She didn’t even want to eat the cookies anymore. Didn’t want to do anything. She could only stare at her now-dark phone, imagining what was going to happen next. What the “picture” of her would be. Brittany had been planning this. She’d had time to mock up something terrible.

Riley eyed her phone again, knowing she should pick it up, check Facebook. But she was too scared to do it.

Not knowing was worse than knowing.

Wasn’t it?

She wasn’t even that big. Just not super skinny. At least her thighs didn’t rub together when she walked. And sometimes she thought she was almost pretty. But her hair was nothing special, just dark brown and long. Her eyes were brown, too. Why couldn’t she be blonde like her mom? And Riley’s face was kind of … full.

Didn’t know u could look so good.

Riley thought of her mom’s sleeping pills. How they’d been thrown away.

She couldn’t stand the not knowing. People were probably out there laughing at her right now, and she didn’t even know why.

 Her nerves buzzed, and her arm felt like it weighed a ton. Riley took a deep breath—and picked up her phone.

   

CHAPTER 3

   
The mind does strange things in times of high trauma. Some moments of that afternoon are branded into my brain. Others are vague smears of memory.

As I picked up the dead woman’s purse, something happened inside me. Emotions leveled out, like water settling into rocks. Sheer action set in. A natural self-defense mechanism, I guess. Without it, I couldn’t have done what I needed to do. For myself. For Riley.

I set the purse on the conference table.

J.L. managed a little smile. “See, that wasn’t so hard. Sorry about grabbing your arm. That was most ungentlemanly of me.”

My gaze returned to his victim.

“Open the purse.” He spoke rapidly. “What do you see inside?”

I pulled back the zipper. “A wallet.” My voice trembled. “Keys. Cell phone. A little bag, maybe for makeup.”

J.L. leaned close to examine the contents. I could feel heat coming off him, could smell his fear. He wasn’t as calm as he pretended.

“Move the wallet, see if there’s anything below.”

I did as I was told. Nothing.

My boss straightened. “Get her car keys.”

I pulled them from the bag.

“Hold them up for me.”

I obeyed. He peered at them, frowning. His gaze snagged on something. Acknowledgment flicked across his face.

“See that big house key?” He pointed to a large gold one. “Doesn’t belong to her. Take it off the ring.”

I tried three times before getting it off. My fingers kept slipping.

“Lay it on the table.”

I put it down. J.L. hurried to his desk and pulled a tissue from its box. Wrapped it around the key and rubbed. Then dropped both items into his front pocket.

He moved to the office window, facing the street. The sun had set, twilight washing over the town. His back was to me, one hand on his hip, as he studied the scene.

I glanced toward the door. No way could I run through it, snatch up my own car keys and be out of the building in time. He’d be on me before I reached the hallway.

“You’ve seen the alley out back?” J.L. turned around.

“Yes.” He owned the small building we were in. On both sides were other buildings much like this one. One housed a jewelry store, the other, a bakery. All the businesses had back doors that led to the narrow alley. Our back door was in the storage room.

“I see Paula’s car out front.” J.L. indicated over his shoulder. “Old blue Hyundai on the other side of the street.”

Paula. Not the name of his ex-wife.

“I’ll get her to the back door. You’ll put her scarf over your head and around your neck. Take her purse. Get her car and go around the block. Bring it into the alley. We’ll put her in the trunk.”

The words nailed into me. This was insane. Besides, I wasn’t as blonde as Paula, wasn’t wearing a red sweater. Mine was blue. What if someone saw me driving her car?

No matter. Of course I wouldn’t drive to the alley. I’d go straight to the police station. It couldn’t be far away. I’d find it.

J.L. studied me, as if reading my thoughts. “You will come to the alley.”

How did he do that?

Paula’s keys weighted my hand. I could not look at her again, couldn’t bear to see her mouth gaping. The dead of her eyes.

J.L. stepped toward me. “Do you know who my closest friend in town is?” His tone was low, the words tight. “Anthony Rainwell, Kootenai County Sheriff. He and I go way back. I know everybody in Payton. Who do you know?”

I swallowed.

J.L. jabbed his thick finger toward Paula’s purse. “Whose fingerprints are on that purse, Cara? Inside it? How about those keys in your hand? I went to the bathroom, see. Came back and found you standing over Paula. You two had words when she first walked in. You must have just—lost it. I feel terrible about it. Poor Paula.”

My mouth dried out. He’d done it all with such cunning. Made me pick up the purse. The keys. Words croaked out of me. “They’d never believe that.”

“They’d never believe you.” J.L. leaned close. “You want to go home tonight? Or to a jail cell?”

 Jail? What would happen to Riley?

“Please, just let me go. I won’t tell anyone. You know I won’t, I need this job.”

It was a lie, of course. How could I ever work for this man again? But I’d say anything to get home to my daughter.

“Cara, stop. You’re going to do this.”

“But I … I can’t. I can’t touch her body.”

“You can. You will. Your daughter is the same age as mine, right? I’d do anything for my daughter. Wouldn’t you?”

I was going to be sick.

J.L. straightened, pulling back his shoulders. “Get the car. Now. If you’re not in the alley in two minutes, I’ll call Tony Rainwell myself. Tell him what you’ve done. I don’t want to do that, Cara. But I will.”

Air clogged my throat. Obey, and I’d only get into this deeper. Refuse—and I knew he’d make the call. I didn’t stand a chance against this legend of a man. The one who’d given a million dollars toward a new park in town, who rode up front in the Fourth of July parade and played Santa at Christmas. Oh, yes, I’d heard all the stories the day I moved to Payton.

J.L. walked to his desk and picked up the phone.

I pictured Riley alone as I was hauled off to jail. She’d end up in Child Protective Services for who knew how long, even if I could in the end prove my innocence. She was already so frail. It would be too much for her. She would try to kill herself.

“No, don’t!” My hand shot up. “I—I’ll go.”

And I did, on feet detached from my body. First I snatched up the white scarf and stuck it on my head, wrapping the ends around my neck and over my shoulders to hang down my back. I draped it forward a little, hoping to hide some of my face. Then I snatched up Paula’s purse and was out the door and through my front office. Into the hallway. Outside, the cold slapped me in the face. I kept my head down, crossing the street as quickly as possible. I remember getting into the car and throwing the purse into the passenger seat.

I drove around the block and into the alley, my mind on hold. From deep within me a voice whispered it would still be okay. When I got home I would think through this. Figure out how to convince the police what had happened. I’d be out of a job. But Riley and I at least would be together. We’d flee this town and never look back.

In the darkening alley, J.L. was waiting for me, watching through the cracked open back door. I put the car in Park, fumbling for a latch to open the trunk. My pulse beat in my ears, and my hands shook. I leaned over, searching under the dash, left hand scrabbling. Where was it?

J.L. threw open the car door and pushed me aside. He bent down, feeling near the floor, then yanked. I heard the click of the trunk opening.

He drew back, practically pulling me from the car. “Hurry.”

Paula lay just inside the opened door. J.L. shoved his hands beneath her armpits. “Get her legs.”

No, no, no, my mind shouted, even as I grasped her leathered boots. Twice my fingers slid off; twice I had to grip harder, until my knuckles ached. For a small woman she was so heavy, the dead weight stretching my shoulders in their sockets. I managed to raise the lower half of her off the floor and backed out into the alley. The whoosh of blood in my head drowned out all other noise.

If anyone else stepped out their door right now, my world would end.

We reached the yawning trunk. I could not lift the body high enough to put her inside.

“Swing away from the car,” J.L. demanded through clenched teeth.

I stumbled back, and he heaved Paula’s shoulders and head into the trunk. He took hold of her knees and shoved the rest of her inside. Slammed the hood.

My ankles gave out. I clung to the car’s bumper to stay on my feet.

“Move!” J.L. propelled me to the driver’s seat.

“What are you doing?” I fought to get away. “I’m not driving this car!”

“Yes you are.”

“No I’m not!”

“Quiet!” J.L. grabbed my wrists. “You want somebody to hear us?”

We both gulped air, our breaths intermingling.

“We’re almost done, Cara. We have to get her away from here.”

You get her away.”

“It’ll take both of us. You drive this car. I’ll follow in mine.”

“I can’t. I have to go home at five o’clock. Riley needs me.”

“You’ll just be a little late, that’s all.”

“I can’t be late!” I couldn’t bear to think of Riley, crying in our kitchen, wondering where I was.

“You have to do this.”

I saw no way out. J.L. would not let me go now.

“At least let me get my cell phone.” I could call Riley, let her know I’d be late.

No. You cannot take your cell phone. Now get in.” He pushed me into the seat.

“Listen.” J.L. leaned down, speaking with intensity. “Turn right out of the alley. Keep going all the way up Third until it ends. Turn left, then right when you hit Highway 95. You’ll be going north toward Sandpoint. Go up 95 out of town and turn right on Shelkins. After a mile it’ll turn into a dirt road. Pull over to the side, turn off your lights and wait for me. Got it?”

I’d dropped into a nightmare. Any minute I’d wake up. “How do I know you’ll come?”

His face contorted. “Why do you think I pulled you into this? I needed somebody else to drive the car. I’ll be no more than a mile behind you. I’ll drive you back. This will be over.”

This would never be over.

“Cara.” J.L.’s expression darkened. “Do you want to get home safe tonight?”

My head nodded.

“Then go!” He slammed the door.

My eyes closed. For a moment I hung there, weighing the rest of my life. Picturing the body in the trunk. This car would be like a neon sign driving out of town. Surely everyone would know—

J.L. pounded on the window.

I jumped.

“Go.”

My hand rose. My fingers shifted the car. And I drove.

I couldn’t feel my feet.

At the end of the alley I hesitated, peering in the rearview mirror. I could not see J.L. in the near darkness but knew he was there. If I turned left, he’d see. But he wouldn’t be able to stop me. I’d drive around until I found the police station.

With a dead woman in the trunk.

And what would J.L. do? Call his best friend, the Sheriff. The police would be waiting for me by the time I walked into their building. I would not go home tonight. To Riley. I could not imagine what would happen to her.

Have you ever done the unthinkable for your child? Have you ever thought how far you’d go to save your son or daughter?

I turned right.

Following J.L.’s directions, I hit Highway 95 and turned north. Out of town I drove, pulling in puffs of air that could not fill my lungs. My body shook, even though heat was beginning to fill the car. One desperate name kept repeating in my head. Riley, Riley, Riley. Chaotic questions rumbled in my brain. What would I tell her when I got home? She’d start calling my cell if I wasn’t there by five-fifteen. What would she think when I didn’t answer? How could I walk in our door and act like nothing had happened? How could I sleep tonight? Or ever again?

At Shelkins I made another right, heading into the hills. After about a mile of the narrow, twisting road, it turned into dirt. I pulled off as far as I could without hitting trees—and cut the lights. Anyone coming up the road would see me in their headlamps. They’d likely stop, ask me if I needed help.

This was madness. I needed to turn around right now. Go to the police.

I waited.

The seconds ticked by, falling into eternity. They became one minute, then two.

Three.

Four.

I started to shiver. Where was J.L.?

Then it hit me. What if he’d lied? What if he never came?

My limbs turned to stone. I think my heart stopped beating.

But that’s just what would happen. Of course he’d lied. He’d never come. That had been his plan all along. He’d sent me out here alone with a dead woman in the trunk. Driving her car.

How stupid was I?

The sickening thoughts ricocheted down the tunnel of my history. I’d been helpless against the abuse of my father. Then my husband. After all that, I’d had the audacity to hope. To think I was finally gaining a little strength. I’d found a home in a different state, landed a good job after just a telephone interview. I’d managed a new start for myself and Riley. Amazing feats for me. Now this. The most victimized, wrecking ball of a choice I had ever made in my life.

J.L. Larrett—Mr. Town Saint and the County Sheriff’s closest friend—had conned me into taking the fall for murder.

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