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“Do not think at this moment, Cara Westling.
Concentrate on nothing but saving your life.
You want your daughter to be without a father and a mother?”

Cara Westling, a newcomer to the small town of Payton, Idaho, is grateful she’s landed employment with the highly respected J.L. Larrett. A victim of abuse both from her father and ex-husband, Cara is struggling to build her own self esteem—and a new life for herself and her troubled thirteen-year-old daughter, Riley.

But J.L. Larrett is not the man people think they know. 

One week into the job, J.L. forces Cara to do the unthinkable—help hide the body of a woman he’s murdered. If she refuses, she could pay with her life. 

If she obeys, the stain on her soul may be more than she can bear. 


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!”


“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.”



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? 

“Godplease 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?


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. 


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—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.