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Mary Stone Publishing

A Taste of… Autumn’s Deceit

Chapter One

Izadore Peck shifted her minivan into park and closed her eyes for a brief second. Her four-year-old son chattered happily from his booster seat behind her, sharing the important details of his busy day at preschool. From what she could gather, one of Bram’s buddies brought his goldfish to school for show-and-tell and caused quite the sensation.

“Can we get a goldfish, Mommy? Pleeeease!”

Bram’s plea was expected, and Izzy already had her answer prepared. She said a mental prayer as she unbuckled her seat belt and turned to meet Bram’s bright blue gaze. “I think that’s a great idea. It would be a good first pet for you, but how about we wait until your birthday? Make it extra special?”

She didn’t add that her main worry was stretching the monthly budget to allow for aquarium supplies and fish food. Having enough to feed her child was her main concern.

Bram clapped his hands together, his eyes wide with excitement and wonder. “A birthday fish!”

He didn’t seem to remember that his next birthday was still six months away, and Izzy wasn’t about to remind him. With any luck, he’d forget all about the goldfish by the time August rolled around. Or maybe her manager at the grocery store would give her a substantial raise.

First-pet raises are a thing, right?

A headache brewed at her temples like an oncoming storm, but Izzy forced a cheerful grin and helped Bram out of the van. He sprinted toward the front door of their home, and she followed on aching feet.

Ten-hour shifts spent ringing up orders, remembering umpteen million produce codes, and convincing an endless barrage of Karens that their “fifty cents off two Hamburger Helpers” coupon had definitely been applied took a toll. A heavy one.

But those tedious hours also paid the bills.

“Mommy, I want mac and cheese!”

Luckily, Bram’s idea of a gourmet meal remained well within their budget.

“You got it, bud.”

While Bram took off up the stairs, Izzy plopped her purse on the kitchen table and grabbed a pot to fill with water. Before she made it to the faucet, the doorbell chimed its singsong alert.

Exhausted. I’m too exhausted for visitors.

Approaching the door with the caution borne of being a single mom, Izzy sent up a silent prayer that it was a Girl Scout or Jehovah’s Witness—anyone she could kindly and quickly send on their way—and pasted a pleasant expression on her face.

With my luck, it’ll be Wilma from two doors down complaining about how high the damn grass is.

The suburban Richmond house that she and her late husband had purchased as their starter home came with an abundance of tight-knit and occasionally obnoxious neighbors. Izzy admitted the yard hadn’t looked the same since Gordon’s passing, but she’d been focused on the more pressing matters of surviving and raising their son alone.

Annoyance simmered in her chest, just thinking about a confrontation. “This is the wrong day, Wilma. The. Wrong. Day.”

As she viewed her visitor through the peephole, however, her irritation dissipated, replaced by genuine concern.

A young woman stood on the front steps with hands clutched together and a forlorn cast to her downturned features. Izzy guessed her to be younger than twenty. Possibly under eighteen. The girl’s bottom lip puckered out as her chin trembled, and Izzy figured it could only be moments before she broke into tears. Or froze to death in the unusually cold weather Richmond had seen over the past few days.

Unlatching the door, Izzy prepared to swing it wide open, then paused. She knew her neighbors well enough, but this girl could be anyone. Still, the poor thing clearly needed help. Opening the door a few inches, Izzy met the stranger’s troubled gaze. “Hi. Can I help you?”

“I hope so.” Eyes that glistened an unremarkable shade of bluish gray searched Izzy’s face. “My name is Jane, and I was driving, and I…I’m not feeling well.” A tear fell, and she swiped it away. “I think I’m getting a migraine, and it’s affecting my vision. I need to call my parents to come get me, but my phone is dead.” As if needing to prove she wasn’t lying, the young woman stuck out her phone, the black screen facing up. “I’m nowhere near home. Could I maybe use your phone?”

Izzy followed Jane’s pointed finger toward the driveway, where a weathered gray sedan sat beside the minivan. Her heart softened, and she swung the door open. “Come on in. I’m Izzy, and I promise we’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.”

The quip caused a lump in Izzy’s throat. That had been one of Gordon’s go-to catchphrases. If her husband had been there right now, he would have had Jane well at ease and laughing “in a jiffy.” Gordon also would have given Jane a quick vitals check. He’d been a high school guidance counselor by day, but he’d moonlighted as an EMT.

Wishing she’d had him teach her what to look for, Izzy gave Jane a quick inspection as she crossed the threshold. She seemed fine—a little pale, maybe—but nothing out of the ordinary.

Jane’s posture shifted once she entered the Peck home, her shoulders lowering in apparent relief. Izzy motioned toward the couch, scanning the young woman more thoroughly as she sat, trying to decide whether she’d ever seen her before.

Basic blue jeans with a white t-shirt beneath a gray flannel jacket made up Jane’s outfit. Plain canvas tennis shoes and long, dullish brown hair rounded out the look in a clean but wholly basic style.

Izzy wasn’t sure she would have remembered ever running into someone so unremarkable, which made her immediately feel judgy. It was true, though, and not in a bad way. Even if they had met before, the girl’s clothes were plain, her face devoid of makeup, and her posture exactly like every other young person Izzy could recall seeing at the grocery store or in town. Pleasant, but ordinary.

And she already told you she doesn’t live anywhere near here, you idiot. Of course you don’t recognize her.

Heading to the kitchen, where her phone was buried somewhere in the depths of her overstuffed purse, Izzy flashed Jane a wide, reassuring smile. “I’ll be right back.”

Not thirty seconds passed as she dug the phone out, but that was more than enough time for Bram to bolt downstairs and boldly introduce himself. Izzy couldn’t make out every word being spoken between the two, but with his usual outgoing sweetness, it sounded as though her son was making fast friends with their visitor.

Izzy nearly busted into laughter as she reentered the living room to witness Bram swinging his foam Minecraft sword in impressive arcs before Jane, like a tiny Men in Tights Broadway performer.

“You wanna try?” Bram proudly held the sword out. “It’s kinda hard, but I can teach you all about Minecraft.”

Jane giggled, opting to let Bram keep hold of the weapon. “Well first, you might need to explain to me what Minecraft is.”

If Bram’s jaw had dropped any faster, he might have fallen over. “You don’t know what Minecraft is? I’ll go get my stuff!” His pudgy, four-year-old legs moved like lightning across the carpet and back up the stairs.

Izzy chuckled. “Oh, boy. You’ve done it now.” She grinned and handed Jane her unlocked phone, the keypad already pulled up. “Here. Call whoever you need to, and we’ll try to keep you entertained in the meantime. Would you like something to drink?”

“Water.” Jane no longer seemed on the verge of tears, or anywhere close. “A glass of water would be great. Thank you.”

Turning toward the kitchen once again, Izzy marveled at the fast effects a charming preschooler could have on any situation. “You’re in for a long and thorough education on the boxy world of Minecraft, by the way. Bram is obsessed.”

“I look forward to it.” Jane’s voice came from directly behind Izzy, sending a bolt of actual alarm through her body.

“You scared m—”

Hand on her racing heart, Izzy started to swivel to face the young woman but stopped at a sudden, piercing pain. The stabbing agony in her back took her breath away. She couldn’t even scream. With a strangled cry, she fell to her knees, unable to believe the excruciating sensation was real.

Nothing hurts this bad. Not unless…

“You’re going to die.” Jane’s calm proclamation clamored through Izzy’s brain, confirming what her body had already predicted. “But please don’t think for a moment that it’s because you’re a bad person.”

Confusion collided with misery, sending Izzy into a foggy, hellish state that stalled her reply, and she collapsed like a deflated balloon, face-first on the floor. “P-please don’t…d-don’t hurt h-him.” Hot, sticky liquid pooled onto the carpet around her cheek.

Blood. That’s my blood. I’m really going to die.

“I have no reason to hurt little Bram.” Jane’s voice continued in an unnerving, cave-like echo. “And from what I’ve gathered when I was watching you, I believe that you truly were an excellent mother. Many of the other mothers didn’t show a hint of happiness when they picked up their children. I’m sorry it’s all over for you now…but it’s okay.”

It’s not okay! It will never be okay, you unbelievable psychopath!

Screaming protests formed on Izzy’s tongue but failed to pass her lips. Her gaze locked on a framed family photo hanging on the wall. In the picture, she and Gordon sat, smiles spread wide with ecstatic joy, snuggling baby Bram between them.

I’ll never see him again. I’ll never hold my baby boy ever again.

The room darkened, even as Izzy’s eyes remained open wide.

“Jane!” Bram’s glee rang through the house. “I brought you my Creeper Legos!”

He wasn’t downstairs yet, but he was well on his way.

What is she going to do with him? He’ll never recover from seeing this.

“Ssshhh.” Jane’s breath was hot on Izzy’s ear. “I won’t let him watch you die. Now, go to sleep, Izzy. And please, rest well.”

One last shot of hateful adrenaline coursed through Izzy’s body, giving her hope that she could defeat this thing. Her hands curled into fists of defiant rage a split second before she went completely limp.

I’m so sorry, Bram. I love you so…

Eyes still locked on the precious family portrait, now featuring two dead parents and their orphaned child, Izzy couldn’t even finish her thought.

Chapter Two

Seated in a quaint downtown Richmond deli, FBI Special Agent Autumn Trent nudged her pickle spear toward her younger sister.

“You sure?” Sarah eagerly plucked the offering from Autumn’s plate before she could answer the question.

Autumn leaned back from the table, pressing a hand across her chest as if to clutch the pearls she wasn’t wearing. “Would I joke about dill pickles?”

The sisters had established a sort of pickle pact when they were just a pair of blond, green-eyed little girls. They were each nearing thirty now—Autumn had less than three months left of her twenties—but some things never changed.

Autumn liked pickles, but Sarah had a mild obsession since birth. Consequently, seven-year-old Autumn had decreed it her big sister duty to surrender all pickles to Sarah. Forever.

As Sarah munched away, Autumn fought the urge to lean across the deli table and hug her close. A lot of things hadn’t changed, and for that, Autumn was eternally grateful. Considering what Sarah had lived through, Autumn was thankful for every smile that brightened her sister’s face.

Sarah sat back against the booth, relaxed and appearing healthy in an oversized college sweatshirt and jeans. With her hair pulled back into a ponytail, she could have easily passed for much younger than her nearly twenty-eight years.

She’s flourishing. Taking her second chance at life and running with it, just as I’d hoped.

Sarah leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table, and her smile drooped. Autumn picked up on the change, quickly shifting into big sister mode.

“What’s wrong?”

“My Intro to Psych professor already has us studying for a big exam.” Sarah took another bite of pickle and washed it down with a slurp of sweet tea. “I mean, I knew there’d be tests, but dang. This semester block just started.”

Autumn relaxed, happy that her sister’s complaints were the stuff of everyday life. “You’re almost two months in. Time flies, but I’d say you’re due for your first midterm exams. Welcome to college life. Keep your coffee stocked.”

Snorting, Sarah rebounded with a grin. “If you’d told me just one year ago that we’d be sitting here having this discussion, that I’d be talking about college classes with my federal agent sister on her lunch break, that I’d have a nice apartment two blocks away from an adorable deli that serves the best BLTs in the world, that I’d feel safe and happy…”

Sarah didn’t have to finish the thought for Autumn to see the truth in her words.

Flashes of Sarah’s life played through Autumn’s mind like a tragic movie. Sarah had endured being separated from her older half-sister as a small child, watching the slow decay of her father, Ryan, as he sank back into the throes of his addictions, leaving home as a teen, and turning to a life of stripping and hooking to keep a roof over her head and food in her mouth.

And just seven months ago…

Autumn’s stomach turned as images of Adam Latham, her former boss, assailed her. Seven months ago, the depraved Dr. Latham—who’d developed a vile obsession for Autumn—had used her baby sister as a lure to trap Autumn and exact his sick revenge.

By the time Autumn had found Sarah, after years of searching, her sister was little more than a dead heap of warm flesh on the cold floor of an abandoned factory. Adam Latham had beaten Sarah. Raped her. Tortured her for days.

And I killed him for it. He’s dead. Sarah’s not. Snap out of it.

“You were thinking about him again, weren’t you?” Sarah searched Autumn’s face with spot-on intuition. “I’m begging you to let it go. If I can get past what that bastard did to me…to us…so can you.”

Autumn managed a nod and a weak smile. “I’m trying. I promise.”

The truth was that Autumn often woke in the middle of the night, screaming, covered in sweat, and desperate to kill Adam Latham all over again. She’d never encountered such deep and undying hatred within herself. Hadn’t believed she was capable of the dark intensity coursing through her veins.

Her boyfriend—and current boss—was the only person on earth who’d witnessed her ongoing struggle. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Aiden Parrish had held her close and coached her through many fits of post-traumatic rage. He’d whispered soothing words and helped get her breathing back on track as she shook and fought to regain a sense of calm.

Each and every time the nightmares invaded her sleep, Autumn woke the next day, sending prayers to a god she didn’t quite believe in, begging for the terrors to cease.

For the previous night’s horror to be the last.

Sarah shook her head, gathering the scrunched-up straw wrappers and napkins onto her plate. “I know you finished the Bureau’s required therapy sessions, but that doesn’t mean you’re magically better. After what happened in that hellhole factory, I don’t think there’s any accurate timeline for recovery.”

Autumn attempted to imagine a version of herself who no longer hated Adam Latham, but the picture failed to materialize. “There might not be a timeline at all.”

“Exactly.” Sarah devoured the last bite of pickle spear. “You understand the human brain better than most people…you’re a doctor of psychology, for crying out loud…and you know it’s okay to not be okay.”

Despite her sister’s willingness to admit she might not be of entirely sound mind, Autumn couldn’t help being proud of Sarah’s growth. “Well, who’s the psychologist now?”

“No way.” Sarah swung her purse strap over her shoulder. “Lawyer. I’m going to be a lawyer. There’re enough shrinks in this family.”

Autumn raised an eyebrow. “There’s one.”

She didn’t remind her sister that she’d also achieved her Juris Doctorate in criminal law. She never sat for the Bar exam, so she never called herself a lawyer.

Originally, she’d started her career off by earning a PhD in forensic psychology while minoring in criminal justice. Dr. Trent had existed before Special Agent Trent came to be.

“And that’s enough.” Sarah flashed her a playful smile as she stood. “I gotta get home and study. You’ve gotta get back to the field office and save the day with your boyfriend.”

Blushing at her sister’s coy comment, Autumn turned the tables as an escape route. “Speaking of boys. You and Keaton sure have been spending a lot of time together lately.”

Special Agent Keaton Holland had transferred to Richmond’s Behavioral Analysis Unit from Washington, D.C.’s Violent Crime Unit in December after the two teams had collaborated on a few cases. Agent Holland held out for maybe a month before his interest in Sarah couldn’t be denied. It still took Sarah about two months to show any recognition of the attention.

Now, at three months in, none of Autumn’s curiosities had been answered. Keaton and Sarah’s relationship hovered within some invisible gray area. It couldn’t be described as just friendship but had yet to develop enough to earn any other label. The mystery drilled holes of impatience through Autumn’s brain.

Sarah shrugged, her expression neutral. “I mean, I guess if you call Keat hanging out at The Lyft while I serve up beers to bored Richmond blue-collars spending time together, you’d be correct. But that’s a pretty broad interpretation.”

Autumn envisioned the handsome special agent stationed on a stool at the bar her Aunt Leigh—Autumn’s adoptive mother’s best friend—owned. She wanted to point out how Sarah had called him by his nickname, Keat. Or add that it was telltale that Keaton was willing to simply hang out for hours with a glass of water and a bowl of peanuts just to be near Sarah while she worked.

Plus…Sarah hadn’t seemed to mind one bit so far.

“You’re right. I’m probably just reaching with that one, huh?” Autumn dropped a generous tip on the table and followed Sarah toward the deli exit, attempting to keep her face just as unreadable as her sister’s.

If she wanted to, Autumn could have grabbed Sarah’s arm and stolen the information from her instantly. But she wouldn’t do that. She didn’t like to use her “gift” for selfish reasons.

The same event that had torn them apart as children—Autumn’s abusive biological father throwing her into a table so violently that she’d required brain surgery to survive—had changed more than their living situations. Both girls were taken from the custody of Autumn’s parents, but while Sarah was sent to live with her temporarily recovered addict father, Autumn was shuffled into the foster care system…her newly discovered gift in tow.

Merely touching another human being enabled her to discern that person’s true emotional state.

Autumn had considered the sixth sense a curse as she’d navigated the choppy waters of adolescence. Even when a childless older couple adopted her at thirteen and gave her the loving home every kid deserved, Autumn had perceived her newfound ability as a negative phenomenon. A real curse.

“You’re definitely reaching.” Sarah held out her arms. “Same time next week?”

Though Autumn labeled her ability as sixth sense cheating, she bear-hugged her sister, unwilling to withhold the affection they’d both been denied for decades, and sick to death of trying to keep her power in line with an imaginary moral compass.

The definite butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation that Autumn gathered during the five-second embrace confirmed her suspicions.

Sarah was bluffing about Keaton. Big time. Or maybe she’s as happy to be with me as I am with her.

“Same time next week.” Autumn buttoned her coat while Sarah exited into the crisp February air before lowering her voice. “And maybe by then you’ll be willing to tell me a little more about ‘Keat.’”

Autumn’s phone vibrated in her coat pocket. She fished it out, certain it was Aiden before glimpsing his name scrolling across the screen.

Bingo.

Grinning, Autumn envisioned her handsome boyfriend, the veritable Federal Bureau of Investigation poster boy. His light brown hair had a slight wave that he somehow kept eternally tamed, and his intense, cool-blue eyes were always investigating his surroundings—even when he was off duty. He was probably removing imaginary lint from his pressed suit jacket sleeves as he waited for her to pick up.

“How may I help you, SSA Parrish?”

When they’d officially started dating, they’d agreed to keep their work life and personal relationship separate. This had proven to be a naïve pipe dream at best, but Autumn, nevertheless, kept trying.

“Your lunch break just got longer.” Aiden’s voice was part growl. “Do not, I repeat, do not return to the field office. Not yet.”

Set into motion as though she’d been hit by lightning, Autumn jogged toward her car. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

“I can hear you running.” Aiden’s intense concern only made her feet move faster. “I’m serious. Don’t come back to work until I give you the go-ahead. We’ve had a…development.”

She turned up her speed. “A development that says I can’t end my lunch break?”

Aiden sighed, sounding older than his forty-two years. “A young boy just…appeared on the front steps. He told the first agent he saw that he’d been ‘sent by nobody’ to deliver a present to ‘Agent Parrish and his superhero team.’”

Autumn jumped into the driver’s seat, slamming the door behind her. “A present?”

“He’s got a package taped to his chest.” From Aiden’s ragged breathing, she could tell he was rushing as well. “Bomb squad is trying to clear it. Until they do, you stay away. That’s an order, Agent Trent. You…stay…away.”

Turning the ignition key, Autumn’s heart skipped several beats. Her coworkers, her boyfriend—so many people she cared about—were in dangerous proximity to a possible explosive, and an innocent child might be experiencing the last few minutes of his young life.

“I can hear your engine.” Aiden exchanged his usual composure for a bark. “Stay. Away.”

“I love you. Please be careful.”

Autumn Trent disconnected the call and entered the flow of city traffic, picking up speed as she chose the quickest route possible for her return to the Richmond FBI Field Office.

Welcome to the nightmare…

To Special Agent Autumn Trent, it feels like déjà vu when a four-year-old boy appears on the front steps of FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit with a package taped to his chest and a note for “Agent Parrish and his superhero team.” After all, it seems like just yesterday her best friend Special Agent Winter Black was strapped in an explosive vest among a crowd of unsuspecting civilians. Read More