Josie DeAngelo shimmied her hips to the thump of a Black Eyed Peas tune, sipping her wine and watching lasers paint multicolored polka dots across a sea of familiar faces. Several of her old classmates hadn’t changed much—like their former senior class president and her terrible curtain bangs or the varsity pitcher and his delectably round tush—while others had undergone a complete metamorphosis.
She bit back a laugh as she watched a former soccer player shimmying his shoulders beneath a cluster of red and white balloons. Where he’d once sported a lush, shoulder-length mane, all that remained of his former glory was a thin halo of stringy hair atop a shiny pink scalp.
Ten years can make or break a man.
Josie’s attention shifted to the poster-sized yearbook photos decorating the walls and lingered on the banner. Long Field High—Ten Years Later. The reunion committee had gone all out decorating the ritzy Inn at Goose Creek, but all she could focus on was how much time had passed.
Hard to believe it’s been a decade already.
Angie Carmello hopped onto the barstool beside Josie and raised her voice to outcompete the bass. “Dude has no idea! Not a clue.” Her mouth twisted in disgust before she tipped her head back to gulp half her glass of wine, the motion spilling her dark hair across her tanned shoulders like an oil slick.
Josie’s quick scan of the room revealed an array of potential candidates for the clueless crown. Far too many to hazard a guess. “Who?”
“Pete what’s-his-name. Madeline’s guy.”
Josie followed her friend’s scowling gaze to the brunette gyrating in the middle of the disco ball-lit dance floor. Madeline Keller, a girl she’d called a friend up until senior year. She was Madeline Whitman now.
“They’ve been married, what, three months?”
“Something like that. I heard he bypassed a prenup for her and paid to rent out this place for the reunion.” Angie swirled her wine as she scrutinized the couple. “Look at her, guzzling the most expensive champagne in the place like there’s no tomorrow. She’s gotta be in it for the money.”
Josie massaged her temples. Talking about Madeline was giving her a headache. “Have you seen Roger McNamara?”
After wrinkling her nose at Madeline like she’d inhaled a whiff of rotten eggs, Angie turned to Josie and frowned. “Roger? No, which is really weird. He was at the five-year reunion. Remember The Incident?”
The memory vibrated through Josie like a discordant note, and she stifled a reflexive urge to cover her face.
Lighten up. That was years ago. Who cares?
“How could anyone forget?”
Angie broke into a fit of giggles, slapping her thigh. “Right?”
The contagious sound made Josie join in as she scrutinized the crowd again. The turnout was small—the equivalent of a junior high party in some kid’s basement.
I guess a lot of people have moved on to better things.
“Jimmy never comes to these.”
“Can you blame him?” Angie shrugged. “Reconnecting with my childhood bullies would not be on my to-do list.” Her eyes went wide. “Oh, shit. Bitch incoming.”
Josie didn’t even have to look. She knew exactly who Angie was talking about.
“Hello, ladies.” Madeline raised a hand to get the bartender’s attention.
With an inner scowl, Josie took in her former friend’s slim waist and curvy bosom in the skin-tight red dress.
I wonder if she’s wrapped in shapewear like I am.
Hating to be rude, even to someone she detested, Josie forced a smile. “Looks like you’re having fun.”
“Always.” Her former high school friend wiggled her fingers, causing the huge diamond to compete with the glittering disco ball. “Another glass of bubbly, please.”
Josie and Angie sipped their drinks in silence as her nemesis shook her ass to the rhythm as she waited, drawing the attention of several men. Angie stuck her finger into her mouth, fake gagging.
Come on, bartender. Give this woman her drink.
The track had just changed to a Kylie Minogue song by the time Madeline was served. She shot them a curt smile and flashed the ring one more time. “Goodbye, ladies.”
Angie mimed holding a gun and pulling the trigger, and Josie grabbed her hand. “You can’t do that,” she said in the midst of yet another giggling fit. She hadn’t laughed that much in ages.
A couple hours later, the muscles in Josie’s face burned from their workout, but she was beyond caring. The music had calmed, with Usher crooning “Burn” for the smaller crowd. She lounged with her friends around a table, sipping her fourth glass of wine. Or was it her fifth? She couldn’t recall.
“We shouldn’t drink so much.” Angie burped and pressed a fist against her mouth. Black eyeliner was smudged across her left cheek. “I feel like a dump truck keeps running into my brain.”
The golden curls in Colleen French’s bob bounced as she wrapped an arm around Angie. “That’s because you’ve been drinking nonstop since everyone got here.”
“You’re all becoming fuzzy blobs, and these dancing lights make me want to puke.” Serena twirled her wine glass between her fingertips, almost dropping it several times.
“We drank a ton more last night at that bar with no problem.”
Josie squinted at the woman with the heart-shaped face and pixie cut. What was her name again?
Angie stabbed a finger in the air. “You are correct, Minnie. Can you believe they called the cops on us?”
“That sheriff was such a party pooper.” To cement her point, Colleen blew a raspberry.
Minnie shook her head. “In town for two hours and busted by the cops. Man, if I’d hung out with you guys in high school, my life would’ve been way more exciting.”
Yawning, Josie peeked at her watch and tottered out of her chair, grabbing the table to keep her balance. “Guys, I love you, but I’m beat. Time to go home.”
“We’re splitting an Uber.” Serena swirled her finger around the table at the other women. “Want in? Our cars will be fine here overnight.”
Josie counted the number of heads at the table. “Pass. I’ve had way too much to drink. The last thing I want to do is cram into the back of a tiny car with all of you. No offense.” Just imagining the scene made Josie’s claustrophobia rear its ugly head.
“How are you going to get back into town?” Angie glanced around the room. “Practically everyone’s gone but us, and you can’t drive.”
Minnie tilted her chin toward the bar. “Madeline’s here.”
Josie’s shoulders slumped. Had she really dipped so low as to beg Madeline Keller Whitman for a ride? She pictured the back seat of the Uber, with the stale air of too many people crammed inside and everyone’s sweaty skin sloshing against her own.
Her stomach churned, urging her to stumble over to the bar. “Um, Madeline? Could you give me a ride to the Long Neck?”
Madeline raised her eyebrows. “You didn’t drive?”
“I did, but I’m too tipsy to get behind the wheel.”
Unblinking, the foul woman studied Josie’s face for what felt like hours. Long enough that she was sure a ride offer was in the works.
With a haughty sniff, Madeline dashed her hopes to the sticky floor. “I don’t pick up hitchhikers.”
“Seriously? You’ve known me since I was eight.” Josie swayed and grabbed the barstool to keep her balance. “It’s, like, less than ten minutes down the road.”
Madeline rolled her eyes and turned back to the bar. Before succumbing to the urge to yank half the woman’s hair out, Josie trudged over to her friends waiting near the exit. “That’s a hard no.”
Angie shot Madeline’s back a dirty look and yelled, “What a bitch!”
The others chimed in with their agreements as they pushed through the door and stumbled toward the parking lot. Angie waved down an incoming blue Honda. “You sure you don’t want to ride with us? Or call your folks?”
Josie’s heart began to race as she examined the vehicle. Her lungs grew heavy just thinking of getting into the small space.
“No way. I’ll walk.” Her parents lived in town, but she’d rented a room at the Long Neck Bed and Breakfast for the night, specifically so they wouldn’t see her sloshed. “It’ll help burn off some of that wine.”
Serena frowned. “Are you sure? It’s late.”
Josie spread her arms wide. “Look around you. This isn’t the city. What am I gonna do, get attacked by a bear?”
Serena rolled her eyes. “All right, suit yourself. C’mon, ladies!”
The other women gripped Josie in sweaty hugs before tumbling into the little car. Josie blew them kisses and toddled across the parking lot toward the road. A narrow path ran alongside it into town.
An easy walk on a beautiful evening.
A lonely one too. There weren’t many buildings this far out, but the lack of people didn’t bother Josie. She’d grown up in the secluded part of rural South Carolina. Down the road, in a cozy spot off a side path, she’d had her first kiss. Her toes curled at the memory.
Too bad that guy had suffered from a severe case of wandering eye.
Rustling in the trees pricked Josie’s ears. She froze and squinted into the mass of shadows. A breeze freed strands of hair from her updo, tousling them around her cheeks. Maybe she should’ve accepted that ride after all.
After a few seconds passed without another sound, she shook her head and stumbled forward, picking up her pace along the uneven terrain as much as possible in her cheap heels.
Quit being a scaredy cat. It’s probably a raccoon. There’s nothing to be—
Motion beyond the tree line ahead sent Josie’s heart slamming against her ribs. Wobbling, she bent over and snatched a thick stick off the ground before picking up the pace.
The rustling leaves were joined by the sharp sound of her breathing. Her fingernails dug into the hunk of wood as she hefted it over her shoulder like a baseball bat.
On her next step, a rock shot out from nowhere, slamming against her heel.
Josie spun, regretting the move when the world whirled too. Holding her arms out to steady herself, she peered into the trees, the stick held out like a sword. “I’ve got mace!”
She sighed in relief, straining one final time to see into the darkness. Nothing moved. “Damn, Josie, did you need that fifth glass of wine?” Or was it six?
Josie only made it a few more shaky steps before a shape lunged from behind a tree. A heavy arm wrapped around her throat, cutting off her scream to a terrified squeak. Gasping for air, her fingers clawed uselessly at fabric as she was dragged backward through the dirt and shoved.
Her shoulder and hip struck the ground hard before she slid down into a ditch. A wave of dizziness pummeled her head.
She lay at the bottom for a few seconds in a daze, her reflexes sluggish from booze even as a burst of adrenaline shot through her system.
Get up. Get up and run.
The thought was still materializing when her assailant hopped onto her chest and dug his fingers deep into her neck. Wheezing, Josie bucked her hips and slapped at his head, going for his eyes. All that did was deplete her oxygen faster.
She dug her nails into his hands—his gloved hands—and begged him with her eyes. Please, let me go. I won’t tell. I’ll leave town and never come back.
The hands tightened. “Slut…” The s sounded like the hiss from a snake.
Josie’s lungs burned like fire, and the world around her grew dim. A muffled beat pounded in her ears as the man and the woods and the sky disappeared.
Charleston Detective Eleanor Kline sat on a floral comforter and pulled on a sneaker, fumbling with the laces and wishing she’d taken a chance on the slip-ons her mother had tried to talk her into. The mere act of pausing to tie her tennis shoes was depleting what little excitement she had for taking a morning run.
After double knotting the laces, she rose, wincing as she arched her lower back. The Queen Anne-style bed, drowning in a sea of lace, supported a mattress that was softer than she was used to, and she’d woken up with an aching spine. Bed-and-breakfasts weren’t usually her lodging preference, but her mother had handled the reservations.
The sheer curtains shielding the window puffed out as a spring breeze drifted into the room. She moved to the flowing fabric and gazed at the small gravel-covered parking lot below. An earthy scent tickled her nose, and birds chirped from the rows of thick pine trees surrounding the property.
Ellie smiled and wiggled her fingers in a ray of sunlight. So this is what peacefulness feels like.
When her boyfriend, FBI Special Agent Clay Lockwood, had mentioned getting away from the city to visit his sister and her boyfriend, peace wasn’t the first word that jumped to mind. Ellie’s relationship with Clay had turned rocky even before her suspension from the Charleston Police Department. She’d wondered whether his retreat from the city was a gambit to escape her and her problems, like a terrified passenger abandoning a sinking ship.
If so, Ellie couldn’t blame him. Her life was more than a little chaotic. Bouncing along for the ride often required an industrial-grade seat belt.
Clay had assured her that his impromptu vacation revolved around a desire to clear his head and unwind. His offhand suggestion that Ellie do the same with her newfound free time was the reason she was here in Long Field Township, South Carolina. Home of an inn with more floral wallpaper and frilly decor than she’d ever realized existed.
Wrinkling her nose at the yellow and purple flowers cross-stitched onto the throw pillows, Ellie popped a hair tie off her wrist and wrestled her wild, red curls into a ponytail. Despite Clay’s encouragement to get a change of scenery, the idea to accompany him was hers.
The timing had worked out. The school her foster daughter attended was closed for two days for the teachers’ continuing education courses, and the other days were dedicated to standardized testing. After all the turmoil in Bethany’s life, Ellie figured the least she deserved was a reprieve from stressing over a bunch of Scantrons, and Ellie’s work suspension meant she had nowhere she needed to be either. Clay had seemed enthusiastic over the thought of the three of them taking off on an impromptu adventure.
“At least, until your parents got involved,” Ellie muttered to the empty room.
Before Ellie could stop the bulldozer, her mom had knocked Clay’s original plans into the dirt. In her typical society matron fashion, Helen Kline wasted no time securing reservations at the “lovely” Long Neck Bed and Breakfast that she and Ellie’s dad had stayed at years ago, including separate rooms for her and Clay. She’d even planned a loose itinerary of activities.
For all of them.
Ellie winced as she reached into her red suitcase and rummaged through piles of underwear and shirts until she found a protein bar. Poor Clay. His solo trip to relax and see his sister had turned into a full-on Kline family vacation.
He’d taken the news with characteristic aplomb, and his only caveat was that he’d be spending time with Caraleigh and Luke. Understandable. He was still reconnecting with his sister after her kidnapping as a child. Big brother that he was, Clay probably also wanted to check on how the lovebirds were handling the move from their group home into their new house. Both Caraleigh and Luke were autistic and more than capable of taking care of themselves.
Ellie and Clay’s relationship, on the other hand, might need a little help. Her actions during a recent case to catch the Cupid Killer—a psychopath who’d celebrated Valentine’s Day by cutting the hearts out of unsuspecting victims—had garnered her more than a suspension from the Charleston PD. In pursuit of stopping a cold-blooded serial murderer, she’d lied to Clay.
No. I only massaged the truth.
The psycho had lured his victims to their deaths with a dating app, cutting out their hearts once he’d drugged them and whisked them away to his secret abode.
“What was I supposed to do when Detective Stoddard disregarded all my theories, though?” she asked her mirror. “Twiddle my thumbs in the precinct and let people die until my boss finally pulled her stuffy head out of her uptight ass?”
Her mirror didn’t reply. Though, as crazy as her life had become, she wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.
Leaning forward, she inspected her eyes for any leftover pink eye crust and was glad when she didn’t find any. The drops her doctor had given her had done the trick.
Ellie tightened her ponytail, shaking her head to make sure it held. She didn’t regret her choices on her last case. Not even when they landed her in hot water with the Office of Internal Affairs and resulted in her handing over her badge and gun. Despite her suspension, she’d do it all over again to save lives.
She bit into her protein bar, chewing as she considered how her actions would affect one life…Clay’s. Her boyfriend’s straight-arrow tendencies meant that her transgressions had driven a boulder-sized wedge between them.
“It’s not all your fault,” she mumbled through a mouthful of oats.
Clay’s lack of confidence in her instincts hadn’t helped. They’d both made mistakes, and the only way to return to sure footing in their relationship was if they worked together.
Wrapping her fingers around a half-full water bottle on the nightstand, Ellie guzzled the remaining liquid before heading to the door that connected her room to her mother’s and popping her head inside. “Mom, I’m going for a run. Can you keep an ear out for Beth?” The little girl was still sound asleep on the pullout couch in her parents’ much larger room.
Helen Kline turned as she buttoned her blouse, her red hair neatly curled and brushed. “Of course. Is Clay going with you?” Her rose-colored shorts accentuated toned legs that would make a twenty-year-old jealous.
Ellie leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. “Nope, just me.”
“You two will spend quality time together on this trip, won’t you? Your dad and I can watch Bethany.”
Ellie bit back a groan. “Clay’s reason for coming was to see his sister, not me.”
“But you could go, too, couldn’t you? And then go out for a nice meal or a moonlight walk.” Reaching into her purse, Helen produced a tiny tube and slid a layer of lipstick across her lips.
Ellie didn’t want to talk about her love life with her mom. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
She inched the door closed before her mother could probe further, shoving the room key into the pocket of her leggings as she exited to the hallway. Her stomach grumbled at the spicy aroma of the breakfast goodies.
Mmm, what’s that?
As she approached the lobby, Clay emerged from the dining area, a porcelain plate piled high with golden eggs covered in melted cheese, strips of shiny bacon, and steaming sausage links on the side. His short dark hair was still damp from a shower, and his short-sleeved shirt showed off a well-formed chest and set of muscular arms.
All Ellie could focus on, though, was the plate in his hands. Take a link for the road! She ignored her stomach’s plea. “Wow! That looks way better than going for a run.”
Clay’s brown eyes warmed as he chuckled. “I’m not giving you any sausages. Go earn your breakfast and come back. The owner said she leaves buffet-style pans out for folks who can’t make it to breakfast earlier.”
Her smile shifted to a pout. “I didn’t want any of your stupid sausages anyway. Why are you at breakfast so early?”
He ran his free hand across the back of his neck. “Not feeling large groups of strangers right now.”
“Me either.” She cleared her throat, hating this new anxiousness she felt when he was around. Before her misstep with the last case, their banter had been so easy. “How are you doing?”
“Fine. I’ll be honest, though, this vacation morphed into something way more involved than I intended.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I wasn’t trying to ruin your time away.”
His eyes softened. “You never ruin anything. It’s just a lot all at once. A little…”
When he trailed off, Ellie supplied the word. “Overwhelming.”
“Yes. Really, though, I’m good. And I can’t wait for Bethany and Caraleigh to meet up again. They’re so lovey with each other, it’s almost nauseating.”
Ellie’s heart soared. She and Bethany had been lucky enough to witness Clay and his sister’s reunion after they were wrenched apart all those many years ago, thanks to the detective she’d hired to track Caraleigh down. Bethany and Clay’s sister had hit it off right away.
Ellie clutched Clay’s arm and leaned in, planting a kiss on his cheek. “Enough chitchat. Get back to the room before your food gets cold.”
She nibbled her lower lip as he disappeared down the hallway. He hadn’t returned the gesture. She desperately missed the easy intimacy between them from not long ago.
As she headed for the front door, her shoes squeaked along the hardwood floor. Outside, a strong breeze rumbled past the building, tossing her ponytail hard enough to slap the end against her face. She paused on the inn’s wraparound porch to stretch her calves.
Good thoughts only. Things with Clay will get back to that easy place again. It might just take a little time.
A couple of weeks before, she’d been the one tossing her relationship with Clay into a coffin and contemplating if she should drop the battered box into its final resting place. Another victim of Ellie Kline’s downward spiral.
Her sneakers crunched gravel as she crossed the parking lot. She slow-jogged toward the narrow road leading around the town.
The Vigilante case, the OIA investigation, all the unexpected tweaks to her life over the past few months…they’d all led her to question who she really was. Why she made the choices she made.
Through inner reflections and a month of intensive therapy, she was finally discovering who the real Ellie Kline was. A task that was long overdue, considering her history.
Shocker. The woman who was kidnapped as a teen and forced to play a psychopath’s game while he murdered people has trust issues…who would’ve guessed?
She gritted her teeth. Over the years, the sadistic Dr. Lawrence Kingsley, with his evil human-trafficking empire, had done far more than kidnap her to try to break her spirit, but he was gone now. Dead. And Ellie had finally stopped looking over her shoulder, bracing herself for the next attack.
Therapy had helped. The process was terrifying and enlightening and exhausting, but she was beginning to love who she was, along with the woman she could be.
As for Clay, well, the two of them as a couple was a work in progress.
Reaching the road, Ellie fell into a comfortable stride as determination pumped through her veins.
She’d hoist a shovel and unbury their relationship if it was the last thing she did.
The best-laid plans. The deadliest intentions.
Charleston Detective Ellie Kline should be enjoying her vacation, but instead, she becomes involved in a sinister game of cat and mouse. Suspended from duty and at odds with her FBI boyfriend, a retreat to the sleepy town of Goose Creek, South Carolina, seems like the perfect opportunity to relax with family and heal their relationship.
She should have known better… Read More