Secret is in the Bones by Heather Sunseri Paynes Creek psychological thriller romantic suspense

Secret is in the Bones (A Paynes Creek thriller)

She needed peace, not murder. He wanted love but found danger. Will a talented pair of investigators live to see their romance bloom?

Forensic photographer Faith Day can’t forget her tortured past. And returning to her hometown to help care for her nephew means rebuilding all she’s lost. But her brave plans shatter when her best friend is suspected of her own husband’s brutal slaying.

FBI Special Agent Luke Justice never rests until the culprits are caught. But when a violent case touches the life of the woman he loves, he can’t help but make it personal. And with a second investigation into a vicious prison gang diverting all his attention, he fears he’ll struggle to protect her from the killer’s disturbing taunts.

Discovering an ominous photo of herself at the crime scene, Faith is terrified the murderer is someone she knows. And when Luke uncovers a sinister connection to Faith, he suspects they’re all being lured into a lethal trap.

Can Luke and Faith stop the slaughter before they join the body count?

Secret is in the Bones is the beguiling third tale in the Paynes Creek Thriller romantic suspense series. If you like deadly twists, devious psychopaths, and against-all-odds chemistry, then you’ll adore Heather Sunseri’s fast-paced story.

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Secret is in the Bones - Read Chapter One

Chapter One

J.P.

Routines are a killer’s best friend.

J.P. laughed at the thought while he waited for his target to exit the police station.

It was just after eight p.m. A breezy, late September night. J.P. had studied Penelope Champagne’s every move for over a week—what time she went to work as the Paynes Creek dispatcher each day, what days she worked, what she did when she got home, what time she put her little brat to bed, what time her husband left the house for his shift as an EMT.

Penelope Champagne had become so predictable that J.P. was certain he could step into her life and live it better than she did. This was almost too easy. But he wasn’t actually looking for a challenge.

Penelope was his ticket to bring Faith Day back to Paynes Creek. Faith was the real challenge. And tonight, he would put his plan into motion.

He was still kicking himself for losing track of Faith sixty miles outside of Antonito, Colorado. She’d been heading west, probably toward the west coast. Most likely some hippie town in Oregon where he would have been forced to further endure the skunky smell of weed. Colorado had been bad enough. A bunch of fucking potheads.

Upon further reflection, he figured losing Faith was for the best. Luring her back to Paynes Creek would be better in the long run, seeing as having her in Kentucky was a part of the master plan.

Although, he did like having her mostly to himself in Colorado. That was where she’d stayed the longest, traveling the countryside with that ridiculous trailer.

He’d thought about claiming Faith as his own in Colorado. But that asshole Fed came along and ruined everything. He wasn’t sure what Special Agent Fuckface had said to her, but he wasn’t gone thirty minutes before Faith had packed up and left the Mountain View Dude Ranch.

She didn’t even wait long enough to get the details of the dead night watchman’s autopsy. He laughed at the memory. That fat prick barely saw it coming. He simply couldn’t let him live after he placed his hands around Faith’s neck. What kind of jerk did that? He acted like it was a joke.

But pretending to choke a woman you barely knew?

No, sir. You don’t get away with that. Not on my watch.

The man had to die.

So he killed him and made it look like a suicide. The autopsy should have told a more accurate story, had they bothered to order one. Hell, a medical examiner didn’t even need to perform an autopsy to find out it hadn’t been a suicide.

J.P. had gotten away with that one—his little gift to Faith.

He left Faith another gift last week. She didn’t know it yet, of course, but she’d hear about it soon enough.

He smiled, reflecting on what he’d done to the man who had tried to keep Faith in Colorado. Glancing sideways, he reached over and grabbed the photograph he’d borrowed of Faith and the Coloradan. He discovered the framed picture right after Darren Murray got what was coming to him, and he nabbed it as a souvenir.

Faith wasn’t smiling in the picture, but Murray appeared thrilled to have an arm around her.

Just tracing a finger around Faith’s lips in the picture gave him a hard-on. He grabbed a dirty towel from the floorboard of the passenger side and wiped the picture frame free of fingerprints. Then he set the photograph so he could still see Faith’s inviting eyes.

Soon, he would have full say as to who put his hands on Faith. He would not stand for some rancher asshole touching his property, that was for sure.

He sat up when Penelope finally appeared. The sun was just sinking lower into the sky behind the police station. He watched her, as he had many times, dig for her keys as she reached her minivan. She slid behind the wheel, pulled down the visor, and messed with her hair. She took her long, red curls and tied them into a knot on top of her head.  As she applied a layer of lip gloss, he wondered if he might play around with her before he carried out his plan.

He quickly thought better of it, instead deciding to stay focused. Faith was the woman for him. The ginger didn’t interest him.

“Come on, you little bitch,” he said. “The medical examiner isn’t going to care what you look like.” What was she even doing? Like every night, she was just going to go home just in time for her husband to turn and burn for his night shift as an EMT.

And as soon as Penelope put the little shit Danny down for the night, he’d slip in and lay his trap for Faith.

By killing her best friend.

***

J.P. followed Penelope at a careful distance, slowing as they neared her house.

She turned into the driveway of her modest ranch home.

As the garage door went up, he scoffed at the contents. Like so many materialistic Americans, she couldn’t fit her vehicle inside the garage because it was stuffed floor to ceiling with crap they probably never used and definitely didn’t need.

He continued past the home, circled around the block, and parked his truck two streets away from the Champagne house. He didn’t really care if anyone saw it. He’d get rid of the pickup soon enough.

The sun dipped down further behind the trees, leaving the town of Paynes Creek bathed in shadows. The air was cool and smelled of dying leaves as the ridiculous summer humidity Kentucky experienced gave way to colder autumn air.

He slipped surgical gloves over his hands before grabbing the five-by-seven-inch decorative picture frame from the passenger seat. After he climbed out of his beat up, old truck, he glanced up and down the quiet neighborhood street, spotting a husband walking beside his wife on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She looked extremely pregnant and was pushing a stroller. Neither of them looked older than twenty-five.

“You didn’t waste any time putting your wife right where she belonged,” he whispered under his breath as he closed the door. “Good for you, dude.”

Turning away from the family, he headed in the opposite direction, up a driveway, through someone’s backyard, slowly sauntering toward the back door of Penelope and Steven Champagne’s home.

As he neared the house, he spotted the couple through a small window, standing in the middle of their kitchen.

“What the hell?” he said, ducking behind an oak tree, but keeping a visual. “What the fuck is he still doing there?”

Steven Champagne wrapped his wife in a warm embrace. He bent his neck and placed what appeared to be a soft kiss on her lips.

“Aww, isn’t that just the fucking sweetest? Now, get lost, Steven, or it will be your fault when little Danny becomes an orphan.”

After another kiss, Steven tapped a finger to his wife’s nose and turned toward the front of the house. Penelope followed him.

Glancing around to make sure he hadn’t caught the attention of any nosey neighbors, he darted through the Champagne’s back yard. He was thankful the sun was finally setting. When he reached the sliding glass door on the Champagne’s patio, he slowly slid it open, relieved that people of small towns were stupid enough to leave their doors unlocked.

He stepped softly through the kitchen, listening for the happy couple. Not hearing them, he darted to the opposite kitchen wall and peeked around the corner into the front foyer. He spotted Penelope through the glass storm door. She had walked her husband to his car, like a dutiful wife should.

He turned back to the kitchen and immediately saw a bottle of wine open on the counter.

“Oh yes,” he laughed. “This was going to be easier than I thought.” It was like Penelope had read his mind. Of course, she was a creature of habit. The fact that she’d already opened a bottle of wine was of no surprise.

He sprinted to the living room, careful to stay out of sight of the front window. Because Penelope had yet to turn on any of her lights, the room was darkening. It would be easy to go unnoticed by Penelope and Steven outside.

He carefully set the picture frame he’d brought on one of the bookcases that framed their television.

“See you in the morning,” he heard Penelope say. “It’s PJs and chick flick time for me.” He looked outside just in time to see the fiery redhead do a little dance before throwing her arms around Steven for another kiss.

He turned and raced down the hallway to the master bedroom. He knew from casing the house previously that Penelope had a prescription for Ambien, an opportunistic complement to the wine Penelope was looking forward to drinking.

He rushed through the bedroom and into the master bath. Went straight to the medicine cabinet and wrapped his gloved hand around the bottle of sleeping pills.

The sound of the front door forced a mad dash back through the master bedroom and across the hallway to their kid’s room. He reached for the knife at his hip, assuming that Danny was already in his bed, but he wasn’t there.

He shrugged as he heard Penelope approaching. She turned and entered her bedroom, he presumed to change into the PJs she was just speaking of.

So far, this was shaping up to be easier than he’d even imagined. However, watching her lift her shirt up and away from her body sparked the faintest hint of arousal. But he squashed the impulse before it had a chance to take root. He was more fucking disciplined than that.

He listened as she made her way into the bathroom and ran water. Washing her face, maybe? It didn’t matter.

Shaking the image of her bare skin out of his head, he exited Danny’s room and raced down the hallway while the running water could drown out his movement.

In the kitchen, he spotted a pad of paper sitting on the kitchen table. Ripping off a page, he went to the counter where the open bottle of wine sat.

He tapped several doses of Ambien onto the granite countertop. Using a knife from the butcher block by the stove, he crushed the pills into powder. After folding a crease in the paper, he transferred the powder onto the sheet of paper, tilted it, and let the drug slide into the wine bottle. Next, he picked up the bottle and swirled the liquid to mix the deadly cocktail.

Hearing movement one room over, he set down the wine bottle, then wadded up the piece of paper and stuffed it in his pocket. He darted to the sliding glass door, and, using his gloved hand, opened the door and slid out into the night.

That had been way too easy.

Now, all he had to do was enjoy the show.

***

Darkness had fallen over the quiet suburban neighborhood of Paynes Creek. It was easy for J.P. to hide in the shadows as he watched Penelope move through the house, enter the kitchen, and flip the light switch.

He could tell by the way she moved, swaying her hips, almost dancing as she walked, that she was in a good mood. It made what was about to happen that much sweeter. J.P. could tell Faith that her best friend died happy—that she’d had a delightful night with her husband and that she was downright gleeful as she poured the glass of wine that would slowly take her life.

Of course, he’d also tell Faith that her friend’s death could have been avoided had she just stopped running from her troubles. This kill was on her.

Armed with her glass of wine, Penelope headed for the living room, where J.P. assumed she would curl up and watch the chick flick she had mentioned to Steven before he left.

Passing from window to window, J.P. stalked Penelope from room to room, thrilled to make sure everything went exactly as planned. Simply orchestrating Penelope’s demise had sent a feeling of excitement to the pit of his stomach. And now, as his tongue made a swipe from one corner of his lips to the other, he knew it wouldn’t be long.

After switching on a lamp, she plopped down on the sofa, curling her legs under her body and placing a crocheted blanket across her lap. She pointed the remote at the TV and began scrolling and clicking. Finding what she wanted, it didn’t take long for her to set the remote aside, settle in, and lift the glass of red wine to her lips.

“That’s it, drink up,” he whispered. His earlier surveillance proved she always downed two glasses of wine in a single sitting, though only one of tonight’s special blend would do the trick. He glanced around, making sure he was alone. The last thing he needed at this point was to be seen.

She watched her movie and sipped her wine. Sipped her wine and watched her movie. The suspense of it had him wiping his palms against his pants.

The longer it took, the more uncomfortable his pants became. Looking down, he smiled as his hard-on grew.

As she took another long sip of wine, he unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and began to take care of the nuisance that was making him restless. He did his best to stay quiet in the bushes, but as he stroked, an image of Faith came to mind—how she looked in the photo, her face glowing from the light of a campfire. Just imagining Faith wrapping her slender fingers around the length of him had him coming in a matter of seconds all over a bright blue hydrangea.

Temporarily lost in the euphoria of an orgasm, he missed Penelope making a phone call. The sound of her voice had him lifting his head.

“Who the hell are you calling?” He zipped up his pants, moved closer to the window.

Though the sound was slightly muffled through the double-paned window, he recognized the sound of slurred, incoherent words. And when her words stopped, she sort of just slumped further into the sofa and let her phone fall to the floor.

“Fuck!” He took off in a sprint to the back of the house. No time to slip on his surgical glove again, he used his sleeve to slide the glass door open. When he reached the living room, he went to Penelope. He placed two fingers on her neck and felt a slow pulse. “It won’t be long now,” he smiled.

The sound of a siren in the distance had him jerking his head up. Hubby was coming back.

“Well, this is fucking inconvenient,” J.P. said to Penelope, who moaned in her unconsciousness.

He grabbed the nearby lamp and jerked it hard enough to rip the cord from the wall, leaving them in darkness except for the television flickering behind him.

He ran to the kitchen. Sliding a glove back on over his right hand, he grabbed the kitchen knife he’d left on the counter. He would just have to finish the job. A little messier than he had planned, but he couldn’t leave her alive.

When he appeared in the living room doorway, an ambulance came to a screeching stop in front of the house. He watched as Steven leaped from the driver’s side. Was he alone? He didn’t see his partner.

This was definitely going to be messier than J.P. had planned.

Steven flew through the front door and came to a halt when he saw J.P.

“Who the fuck are you?”

J.P. cocked his head, staring at Steven.

Steven looked to Penelope. “What did you do to her?”

J.P. stayed silent as he assessed the situation. Steven didn’t hesitate long before he charged him. But J.P. had the advantage. He’d trained for moments like this.

J.P. ducked to the right as Steven’s right fist came at his face.

Penelope stirred. Her eyes fluttered open. “Steven?” she slurred.

Steven came at J.P. again, but he was ready. J.P. stabbed Steven with one of the Champagne’s own kitchen knives, driving it up and into Steven’s heart. He pulled the knife out and stabbed again, this time in the gut and twisted. He then shoved him backwards and onto the couch beside his wife. Blood spread out from his body and onto the sofa he landed on.

“Steven?” she murmured again. Her next words were incoherent. She placed a hand on her husband’s chest. When she pulled it back, she stared at the blood covering it. “Wha…” She could barely speak. She’d yet to even look up at J.P.—the stranger in her house. She was too busy wrapping her fingers around the knife and attempting to pull.

But it was no use. She passed out again as blood seeped through her satin PJs.

Another vehicle came to a stop in front of the Champagne house. A petite woman pushed out and ran toward the front door.

“Oops. Time for me to go.”

J.P. sprinted to the kitchen and through the sliding glass door, closing it behind him, and disappeared into the night.

It wasn’t the scene he had meant to create, but hopefully it was enough to get Faith out of hiding and back to town.

Secret is in the Bones - Read Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Faith

There was something off in the air that morning.

A crisp, cool autumn breeze forced me to hug my light sweater closed as I stepped down out of my trailer and took in the view.

I had parked my 1969 Airstream at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground back in May, shortly after my nephew was born. Since then, waking up to the view of horses running in the fields each morning never got old.

Gus meowed behind me. “You can come outside,” I told her. But she simply stuck her nose up in the air and turned toward the bedroom in the back. It was nap time for her majesty.

A scattering of fallen leaves crackled against concrete. And I swore I could nearly taste the scent of pumpkin spice coming from my neighbor’s place. It was a little early for these signs of autumn, but it was Kentucky, after all. You simply never knew when the weather could change. It could be ninety degrees again by the end of the week.

My neighbor, though, decided two weeks ago, when it was still ninety degrees, that it was time to invite autumn in. A sweet, young grandmother who went by Darla Jane had spent what some would say was a week’s salary on fall-scented candles at the local Dollar General. She claimed candles in the scents of “flannel” and “sweater weather” made her feel nostalgic and cozy in between times when her grandkids came to visit. What did “sweater weather” smell like? I, certainly, had no idea.

Dressed in a pair of yoga pants and a cropped sweater, Darla Jane exited her trailer carrying two mugs of coffee. “I made you a latte.” She was forty-five years old and claimed to make enough money working January through April doing tax returns to pay for the expense of traveling the United States in a luxury RV she’d purchased used.

I unhooked a fitted sheet from the clothesline I had strung earlier that morning, folded it, and set it on top of the laundry basket.

I took the latte from her. “Thank you.”  Her RV was equipped with more luxury than most houses I’d known, including a top-of-the-line espresso machine.

“How do you do it?” I asked her.

“Do what?” She sat in one of my outdoor chairs and crossed her legs.

“Manage to look like a supermodel who has accomplished more before nine a.m. than most do in an entire day.”

“Well, first of all, this isn’t my first latte. So my life is pretty much fueled by caffeine. Also, I do yoga every morning around six a.m. to start the day. And that’s after I’ve completed a skin care routine that I perfected in my twenties. By seven, I’ve checked my email, and then I spend the next two hours taking care of any business I need to address. So, by some accounts, I have done more by nine a.m. than many do all day. But you’re one to talk.” She waved a hand at me.

“Meaning?”

“How many hours did you work on your photography this morning as you simultaneously did laundry?”

I allowed a smile to play at the corners of my lips, then scoffed as I sipped the latte. “Mmm,” I said. “Creamy, salted caramel.”

She was right, though. I had spent the morning editing and categorizing the last set of photographs I had taken as I ventured through the Midwest on my way back to Kentucky. I had uploaded some of those photos to various stock photography sites, but I also held on to some as part of another project I was working on.

“Speaking of photography,” I said, holding up a finger. I set my latte on a side table, then rose. “Be right back.”

I darted inside my Airstream and grabbed the set of photos I had printed that morning for Darla Jane. When I returned, I held the stack against my chest and said, “Before I hand these over to you, promise you won’t cry.”

“Cry?” she asked, confused. Then her eyes narrowed. “Are those the photos you took of my babies?”

While Darla Jane was only in her mid-forties, younger than probably ninety percent of other grandmothers, she couldn’t be prouder of “her babies,” as she liked to call them.

I handed her the photos, then sat and grabbed my latte. As I sipped, she flipped through the photos. And sure enough, puddles of moisture swelled in her eyes.

“You promised,” I said.

Her eyes lifted for a second. “I didn’t promise shit.” She sniffed, while smiling at the same time. “These are incredible. Look at my sweet Catherine. And Cody. And oh-my-God, look at Carson.” When she had completed three passes through the photos, she looked up. “You really have an eye, my friend.”

“Thank you.” Friend, I thought. How long had it been since someone I’d just met called me “friend”? And since Penelope had blown off our weekly video call last night, hearing Darla Jane say that… Well, it was nice.

“Where did you learn photography? You’re obviously trained, based on the equipment you used that day. And these pictures are just… wow!” She fanned herself with the photos. “Warms this grandmother’s heart.”

I shrugged. “I took some college classes.” I didn’t bother to tell her that most of my college learning came from forensic photography classes. I’m not embarrassed by it; I just didn’t wish to have the conversations that might come from mentioning it. “I’ve also studied techniques of other photographers and took some online classes. Mostly, photography for me has been a whole lot of practice.”

“You’re being modest.” She hugged the photos close again. “I love these. This is the nicest thing someone has done for me in a really long time.”

“You’re wel—” My words were cut off at the sound of a truck crunching against the gravel. A large, black SUV with tinted back windows pulled into the parking spot in front of my Airstream.

We both stood. My heart sunk to my stomach as I stared at Luke Justice behind the wheel. How the hell did he find me?

Beside me, Darla Jane said, “What do we have here?” Clearly, she was not intimidated by the site of a federal law enforcement vehicle, and instead focused on the dark-haired man with the oh-so-handsome face chiseled to perfection.

Luke, who stood at six-foot-two, stepped out of the truck and took a few steps toward us.

“What we have here,” I said, crossing my arms. “…Is a man who doesn’t know how to take a hint.”

Darla Jane looked at me. “You know this hunk?”

“Hi, Faith.” Luke removed his expensive Maui Jim sunglasses to reveal moss green eyes women swooned over. “You’re a tough woman to track down.”

“Clearly, not tough enough.”

Darla Jane cleared her throat. Luke held out his hand. “Luke Justice.”

With a kind, flirtatious smile big enough to stop most men in their tracks, Darla Jane slipped her small hand into Luke’s. “Darla Jane Bloom.”

“Nice to meet you.” He slid his glance in my direction. “I’m sorry to barge in unannounced, but I need to talk to you.”

I turned to Darla Jane. “Thank you for the latte. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Sure thing,” she said with a grin. “Thanks again for the pics.”

Luke followed me inside the Airstream. His large presence inside my home always made the space seem smaller. And though I’d known Luke for almost a year, he still managed to intimidate me.

“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked. “Water? Tea?” Why did I feel the need to be hospitable to this man?

“No, thank you.” He walked over and peered out the front window. “The Kentucky Horse Park Campground, huh? I certainly hadn’t predicted that.”

When he faced me again, I set my latte aside, then leaned a hip against the kitchen counter. I didn’t owe him an explanation for why I was parked at the Horse Park. “I guess I don’t have to ask how you tracked me down. Being a federal agent and all.”

“I didn’t use FBI resources to find you.”

I lifted a brow.

“Your Aunt Leah told me where to find you.”

I shifted slightly. Aunt Leah wouldn’t have given him my whereabouts without good reason. “And how did you manage to manipulate the information from her?”

“Why did I have to, Faith?” He held up a hand. “Actually, that’s not important right now. I’m not here to argue with you. Something’s happened.”

I straightened. “What? Is it Aunt Leah? The baby?”

“No. They’re both fine.”

I relaxed slightly.

“It’s Penelope.”

“Penelope? She missed our call last night. Where is she? What happened?”

“She’s in the hospital. She’s going to be fine. But Steven is dead.”

“Oh, God,” I said, reaching out a hand to brace myself. Steven was Penelope’s husband—the love of her life. “An accident? Danny?”

“Danny’s fine. I think he’s with Penelope’s mother. Let’s sit down.” He stepped toward me, grabbed my elbow, and led me over to the dining table.

I slid into the booth and just stared at a spot in front of me. “I should have known something was wrong. Something didn’t feel right when I woke up this morning. She hadn’t answered when I called last night. She never blows me off like that.”

“What time was that?” Luke asked.

My head shot up. “You didn’t say what happened. Why does it sound like you’re putting together a timeline?”

“The police aren’t saying much. What I know, I got from Cooper.”

“Cooper Adams?” I said. “Is this an FBI matter? Oh, God.”

“No. Coop’s pretty tight with the new police chief.” Luke reached across the table and took my hand. “Steven’s partner called 9-1-1 about eleven p.m. last night. She found them. Apparently she found Penelope unconscious next to Steven. She was covered in blood but did not appear to be injured. Steven was stabbed in the chest and stomach. A knife was sticking out of his body. Danny wasn’t there and thankfully didn’t see his parents that way. As of early this morning, police have yet to speak with Penelope. They pumped her stomach at the hospital, but she has yet to regain consciousness.”

“Pumped her stomach?”

“It seems she was loaded up with something. They’re not saying.”

“I need to see her.”

“You know they won’t let you.”

“Do you or Coop have any idea what might have happened?”

Luke’s eyes darkened further.

“What is it?” I studied his face. “You don’t think…”

He squeezed my hand tighter. “Based on what the chief told Coop, there is no evidence of a break-in.” He started to say more, paused a moment, then said, “I think we need to hear what Penelope says after she wakes up.”

“I need to see her.”

“Like I said, they probably won’t let you.”

“Then I want to see the crime scene. Maybe Chief McCracken will let me photograph it.”

“He’ll consider you too close. Hell, he and his officers are too close.”

I pulled my hand away from Luke’s and stood. I walked over to the sink and filled a tumbler with water. After taking a drink, I turned. I hadn’t heard Luke get up and approach, but he was right there when I faced him.

He wrapped his arms around me. “I’m sorry to bring you this news.”

“Why didn’t you just call?” I asked, grabbing a fistful of fabric at his waist. I surprised us both by allowing him to hold me.

“Would you have answered?”

“Probably not. But they have this thing called ‘leaving a message.’”

He pulled back, and slipping a crooked finger under my chin, tilted my face so that I could look up at him. “I realize we aren’t in a very good place right now, but you know me well enough to understand that I wouldn’t deliver this news over the phone unless I had no choice. Want to tell me how long you’ve been living twenty miles outside of Paynes Creek?”

“I’ll tell you anything you want if you’ll get me inside Penelope’s house.”

“That’s completely unfair.”

“But can you do it?”

Secret is in the Bones - Read Chapter Three

Chapter Three

Faith

Penelope lived in a modest home near the Paynes Creek City Park. It was convenient for Danny, who loved playing at the park’s playground.

The house was a two thousand square foot ranch with a one-car garage. I remembered when Penelope and Steven purchased the house. Steven wanted to buy a larger house in one of the newer neighborhoods, with a garage that could accommodate both of their vehicles and a riding lawn mower, but Penelope said she wanted a mid-century house with “more character” like the one she grew up in.

Two squad cars were parked directly in front of the house, and one unmarked vehicle that I pegged as belonging to detectives was across the street. A large, white SUV belonging to the medical examiner sat in the driveway.

A pang of grief shot through my heart. Poor Steven. And Penelope. How was my dear friend going to get through this? Their love had been damn near worthy of fairy tale status.

Luke pulled his truck behind the unmarked car. I scanned the area for other vehicles. Of course, neighbors had come out of their houses. Half of them had probably already heard from a “friend” on the force what had happened. The other half was busy making up their own version of the truth. Officers had blocked off the street from media and other gawkers, but the bloodsuckers had already heard and were set up behind the roadblock. “I see Marla Manfield didn’t waste any time staking her claim on true crime real estate,” I said. “Blucking Fudsucker!” Marla’s hair, the color of ground paprika, was tough to miss. As was her heavily made-up face and unnaturally long eyelashes, a look that she felt was necessary for her career as a television sensationalist.

“She’s certainly a rabid Chihuahua when it comes to staking a claim on a story.”

Before we were even out of the car, another vehicle pulled up behind us. I turned my head and spotted Chief McCracken, Paynes Creek PD’s recently promoted chief. “The chief is here.” I already knew Mac McCracken. I’d respected him. He was a seasoned detective when I’d worked for the PCPD as a forensic photographer. He’d treated me with kindness, unlike some of the other assholes who had ignored my reports of break-ins a year ago.

“That was part of the deal I made him. I told him you had information that might be useful.”

I stared at Luke for a moment. I knew he was referring to the fact that I’d tried to call Penelope the night before. That would be useful to investigators for establishing a timeline. It wasn’t much, but if it would get me inside… “Fine.” I turned to exit the vehicle, but Luke placed a hand on my arm to stop me.

“The other part of the deal is that you and I talk later.”

Without answering, I pulled my arm away and climbed out of the truck.

“Miss Day,” Chief McCracken said as he approached. “It’s been a while. Welcome back to Paynes Creek.”

“Thank you. It has been a while.” I held out my hand and shook his. “Congratulations on your recent promotion.”

“Thanks.” There was skepticism in his voice, and he studied my face with a critical eye. “Special Agent Justice tells me you want to photograph the crime scene. And you have information that might be useful.”

“I would appreciate that very much.” I lifted my camera. “I’m happy to turn over everything I get.”

“That’s a given, if I decide to let you in.”

I shifted uncomfortably and glanced toward Luke before turning back to the chief. “You were actually on my very short list of people I wanted to speak to after I got settled back in Paynes Creek.”

I could feel Luke’s eyes on me. I hadn’t told him that I’d planned to settle back in Paynes Creek, eventually.

“That’s interesting. Because you’ve been on a list of people I’ve been told I needed to reach out to. But I was under the impression you were still out west somewhere.”

“Came back to the area just recently,” I said. Luke shifted beside me. He clearly knew I’d been back longer.

The chief gestured toward the house. “You’re close friends of Penelope and Steven Champagne. That gives you a conflict of interest in this case. Tell me why I should let you see the crime scene.”

“Penelope is a friend, Chief. But everyone at the station has a conflict of interest. I’m the best forensic specialist you have.”

“Chief,” Luke said. “She sees things others don’t. I can attest to that.”

The chief crossed his arms and rolled back on his heels, considering me. “Oh, I remember. But unfortunately, Faith’s point to all of us being conflicts of interest has merit. The case has already been handed over to the State Police.”

“What?” I glanced around at the cars again. “But they’re not here.”

“KSP Detectives and ERT are on their way.”

I pinned him with a hard gaze. “Come on, Chief. Let me walk through the scene before they get here.”

He rocked back on his heels again, looking up to the sky.

God, I didn’t want to beg.

When he met my eyes again, he said, “You contaminate the crime scene it in any way…”

“I won’t. I promise.”

He looked at his watch. “You have five minutes. Don’t touch anything.” He looked at Luke. “You have supplies to cover her clothes and feet?”

“I do.” Luke placed a hand on my arm and started to lead me away, but the chief spoke again.

“Well, if anyone asks, you and I spoke, and I hired you for today’s assignment. Beyond that, I looked at my calendar, and I can meet with you this Thursday to discuss an ongoing arrangement.”

“Thanks, Chief.”

He nodded. “Get a move on it. You don’t have much time.”

Luke and I rushed to his truck.

“My heart is racing,” I said as he handed me a pair of paper overalls. “What are we going to see in there?”

Luke and I slipped into the overalls. “Nothing good,” he said. “You need to squash all knowledge of whose house this is. Look at the crime scene as if the people involved are strangers.”

I nodded and took the shoe coverings and gloves.

Armed with my camera, we headed toward the house as a couple of detectives walked out. As recognition passed over their faces, they started to speak to me—to stop me from entering—when I heard the chief address them behind me.

“Detectives, let them pass. I need to see both of you over here.”

“They’re about to be told KSP is taking over,” I presumed.

“They’ll take that better than hearing the feds are moving in,” Luke chuckled.

I rolled my eyes.

After slipping the foot covers over my shoes and the gloves on my hands, we stepped into the foyer. Immediately, the metallic smell of blood and an underlying smell of death hit me. I rubbed the spot over my heart as anxiety kicked in. When we rounded the corner from the foyer into the living room, I stopped dead and sucked in a breath. “Oh, God, Luke.”

Luke placed his own gloved hand on my elbow to steady me, but said nothing.

The first thing that drew my eye, of course, was Steven Champagne’s body lying on the sofa, his arm stretched out to the floor. The medical examiner—Dr. Corinne Michel—was leaning over the body, examining Steven’s chest. Her blond hair was tied into a low knot at the base of her neck, and she wore body and head coverings to keep any of her DNA from contaminating the crime scene.

“What the hell happened?” I asked Luke in a low voice.

“I don’t know, but you don’t have much time.”

“Right.” Using all of my years of therapy, I squashed my emotions, tucked aspects of my grief into a box, and closed it off. Then I got to work. It was useful to remind myself that I was a professional. I never got used to seeing the dead, but I had a job to do. And the victim—in this case, someone special to me—needed me to do my job. I needed to represent Steven since he wasn’t here to tell us what happened.

Corinne looked up and studied us through safety glasses. “Who the hell let you two in?” She didn’t sound angry, just annoyed.

“Hi, Dr. Michel,” Luke said. “We won’t get in your way. Chief McCracken was kind enough to let us take a look to see if we can help.”

“Uh-huh.” She continued doing her job. “I’ve been in this town long enough to know how small towns work. But if you mess up my examination or touch my body in any way, I won’t hesitate to throw either of you under the bus.”

“We won’t,” I assured her. “We’ll be in and out in three minutes.”

I began snapping photos of every angle of the room. Blood covered the sofa. I photographed blood spatters, drag marks, the knife, and an overturned lamp that had been ripped from the wall. I used my wide-angle zoom lens to take what photos I could manage in the short time frame, rather than getting close to objects. I respected the risk the chief took by letting us inside, and I had no desire to abuse the opportunity. After getting photos of Steven and the area surrounding him, I took photographs of the entire room. Someone had been watching television, so I snapped images of the TV and the shelves on either side. By the mostly empty glass of wine on the coffee table, and knowing that Steven typically worked the night shift on Friday nights, I assumed that that someone had been Penelope.

“She’d been drinking wine,” I said softly, then turned toward the kitchen. I shifted into work mode easily enough. I needed to move quickly, so shoving the grief I felt for my friends deep down was the only way.

Once in the kitchen, I spotted the bottle. I took more photos.

I also snapped a picture of the countertop, which appeared to be coated with a powdery substance. Against the backsplash was a prescription pill bottle with the lid off. I zoomed in on the bottle and captured that the prescription was for zolpidem—also known by its brand name of Ambien—and that it had been prescribed to Penelope Champagne more than four years ago. Strange, I thought.

“What do you make of the powder on the counter?” I asked Luke.

“Not sure,” he said. “Have you known Penelope or Steven to take drugs?”

“No. Never,” I said. “And I can’t imagine Penelope would ever do something so stupid as to snort Ambien?” I gestured toward the pill bottle.

“They’ll test the counter and the wine bottle,” Luke said, sounding confident in the state police’s ability. “And the glass in the other room, for that matter.”

We exited the kitchen and made our way down the hallway. I looked inside Danny’s room and snapped a couple of photos, but other than his race car bed being unmade, nothing seemed out of place.

Next, we turned toward Penelope’s bedroom. Her bed was made. Some clothes lay at the foot of the bed. A pair of shoes were discarded close by. I took photos of Penelope’s bedroom, then snapped several photos of the master bathroom, including inside the medicine cabinet.

With gloved hands, I turned a couple of bottles so that I could see the names of the prescriptions.

Corinne poked her head in. “I’m assuming y’all weren’t hoping to talk to the KSP detectives.”

Luke and I traded looks. “Are they here?” Luke asked. When Corinne nodded, Luke remained calm and said, “Thank you. As much as we’d love to talk to them, we’ll save it for another time.”

We walked quickly down the hallway. When we reached the living room, we spotted a man and a woman heading up the driveway toward the front door. I looked right and into the kitchen, then nudged Luke. “The sliding glass door in the kitchen is open.”

He stared at me for a second, and I thought he was going to make us face the consequences of being caught in the middle of the crime scene. But then he nodded. “Yes, go.”

We slipped out the back door and made our way around to the front, pausing on the side of the house to see what activity was going on in front of the house.

“Take your coverings off.” Luke stripped his gloves, foot coverings, and overalls off and wadded it all up into a compact ball. I followed suit.

We watched two detectives enter the house. Another spoke to Chief McCracken and his two detectives. The chief spotted us, but quickly went back to his conversation and did nothing to point attention toward Luke and me. The chief probably didn’t want the hassle of getting caught interfering with the crime scene any more than we did.

“Walk like you’re supposed to be here,” Luke said.

“No problem.” I followed Luke straight to his SUV. I didn’t bother putting the equipment in the back seat. I just opened the door and climbed into the passenger seat. I tossed the protective coverings into the back seat and held my camera in my lap as Luke pulled away from the curb and headed down the street.

***

Luke pulled in front of my Aunt Leah’s house—the house Aunt Leah had lived in most of her adult life along with my Uncle Henry, and the house I’d moved to at age seventeen when my mom and stepfather were killed in a fire.

Uncle Henry and my brother Finch had each received harsh sentences for their crimes committed against my mom, Scarlett, and her husband, Eli Gentry, after they were killed one night when Finch’s anger got out of hand. Although they pleaded guilty in a deal negotiated between Henry’s and Finch’s attorneys and the Commonwealth’s Attorney, the judge overrode the sentence and saw to it that they each received a harsher sentence than had been agreed upon.

Of course, the trial dug up all sorts of skeletons from my family’s closet. That made my decision easy to stay away from the trial and to leave Paynes Creek behind the past year. I still hadn’t seen Uncle Henry or Finch since the day I confronted Henry at his and Leah’s kitchen table. I never did confront my brother.

And Finch’s wife, Aubrey? She would most likely spend the rest of her life in prison for the heinous crimes she committed.

And I wasn’t sad about it.

I flinched at the memory of Aubrey nearly burning me alive. Remembering that day and the day my mother was killed like each event had just happened had me rubbing the burn scars on my neck.

“Faith,” Luke said, shutting his truck off and interrupting my thoughts. “We need to talk.”

Staring straight ahead, I let my hand drop to my lap. “I just can’t right now.” Swallowing against the lump in my throat, I pushed out of the truck. Thanks to the hyperthymesia that plagued me, the devastating emotions I relived every single day—every single time I remembered my mother’s death, my brother’s and uncle’s incarceration, Aubrey’s attempt to kill me—kept me from having any sort of normal relationship. And that wasn’t going to change.

I knew Luke wanted to talk about us and why I had hidden my whereabouts from him. No amount of talking was going to fix what might have been between us once. No amount of talking would fix me.

When I was outside the truck, I turned back, keeping the door open, and lifted my eyes to meet his hard stare. “Thank you for taking me to Penelope’s house. I know you took a great chance in doing so.”

I didn’t want to further risk getting Luke into trouble, which was why I wouldn’t have him drive me to the hospital to speak with Penelope. We’d both seen the crime scene. We knew any logical investigation would point toward Penelope. And the state’s detectives would not go easy on her. I would have to do my own investigative work to be ready for whatever the police accused her of. I know Penelope didn’t cause whatever happened inside that house.

“You’re welcome,” he said, then started to say something else, but stopped.

I closed the door, and as I turned to head up the sidewalk to Aunt Leah’s front door, Luke also got out.

He rounded the truck and walked right past me.

“Where are you going?”

“To say hello to Oliver. He and I are buddies.”

“What?” I said, following him. “Since when?”

“Since the moment he was born.”

I followed him to the door, which Leah was already opening.

“Luke!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know you’d be stopping by.”

He thumbed back at me like we were just old friends. “That one needed a ride.” He walked past Leah as if he’d done it a thousand times before, kissing her on the cheek as he did.

All I could do was stare, dumbfounded. Leah gathered me into a hug. “I’m so sorry about Steven and Penelope, honey. Have you been to see her?”

“Not yet.” I wasn’t sure I would be able to get close to her, assuming police were stationed outside her hospital room.

Once we were in the house, Leah closed the door. She’d aged ten years during Uncle Henry’s hearings, but she looked good today—as if she’d shed at least five of those years in recent months. Maybe it had something to do with getting to take care of her grandnephew, Oliver.

Oliver was born on April 1 in the hospital closest to the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. Aubrey had refused any drugs during the delivery, and she had refused to hold Oliver after the delivery.

According to Leah, Finch had named Oliver based on conversations he’d had with his wife back when they were ecstatic about the pregnancy.

“There are a lot of unkind words and contradicting stories being tossed around this morning,” Leah said, bringing me back to the present. When I tossed a disapproving look her way, she added. “But you know me. I don’t listen to the ignorant and narrow-minded. I’ll let you tell me the truth.”

I traded looks with Luke. “I’m afraid I don’t know enough yet. Other than Penelope is going to need your prayers directed her way.”

“I’ve already started. Now tell me: how bad is it?”

I let out a long breath. “It’s bad, Aunt Leah. Chief McCracken has brought KSP in to run the investigation.”

“What? He just handed the case over?” She seemed to think about that. “They think Penelope is responsible. And there’s a conflict of interest.”

Neither Luke nor I said anything.

“Oh, dear,” Aunt Leah said. “Your faces say everything. Well, come in. Let me fix you something to eat.” She shewed us toward the kitchen.

“No, Aunt Leah, I’m fine.”

She sent me a disapproving scowl but seemed to decide not to argue. “Well, I know Luke wants something.” When Luke looked at her, she said, “I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

He shrugged, then continued on to the back of the house where the kitchen and Aunt Leah’s adjoining office were located. That’s when we both spotted my nephew Oliver lying on his back in a portable play pen between the two rooms. He was playing with his feet, and he nearly had one of his socks pulled off.

I never knew quite how it had happened, but Aunt Leah was able to make sure she got custody of Finch’s and Aubrey’s son. And while I wish I had been here to help from the very beginning, I was thankful she had custody of Oliver. The thought of my nephew getting lost in the foster care system nearly broke my heart.

Oliver was almost six months old now and was thriving in Leah’s care. I was pretty sure that Oliver had given Leah a reason to pick herself up after everything went to shit last year.

“Hey, my little man,” Luke said. “Put it here.” He leaned over, took Oliver’s little hand, and directed it to give Luke a high-five.

Oliver’s face lit up when he saw Luke. And as his little hand touched Luke’s larger palm, Oliver laughed. He actually laughed.

“You two,” Aunt Leah waved a hand at Luke and Oliver, like Luke and Oliver had done this very thing a thousand times before.

Realizing I was smiling, I immediately frowned. “What is going on here?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Aunt Leah stirred something on the stove that smelled like beef stew.

“What do you mean, what do I mean?” I pointed between Luke and Oliver. “Why does it look like Luke and Oliver are practically best friends?”

Luke straightened. “I told you. Oliver’s my buddy.” He went to the fridge and took out a soda. He offered it to me.

Giving my head a shake, I squinted my eyes, studying the scene in my aunt’s kitchen. Aunt Leah had greeted Luke like he’d been here a million times before. Luke greeted Oliver as if Oliver was his nephew. And now he was helping himself to a can of soda from my aunt’s refrigerator? “Yeah, you said you’ve known him since birth. How is that possible? I’ve been here.”

“Honey, why don’t you sit down.” Aunt Leah said. “You seem upset. Let’s talk about this.”

I studied both of their faces. Part of me wanted to hear what they had to say. I wanted to know how Luke had developed a relationship with Oliver.

He leaned over Oliver and made googly eyes at him. Oliver cackled again, nearly rolling over onto his stomach in the process. When Luke straightened, he popped open the can and took a drink, eying me as he did.

While that part of me truly wanted to know, another part of me knew I didn’t have much time before the state police would show up to question Penelope, if they hadn’t already. I didn’t have time to figure out how Luke had made himself at home in what was supposed to be my life.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Leah,” I said. “I can’t. I would love to know what weird thing is going on here.” I motioned around the room, pointing between Oliver and Luke and between Luke and Aunt Leah. “But I need to run an errand. Can I borrow your car?”

Luke narrowed his gaze at me—at the abrupt subject change. “Where are you going?”

“That’s none of your business. You stay here and play with my nephew and eat my aunt’s food.”

Aunt Leah sat a bowl of stew on the old farm table in the center of her kitchen. “You should eat something, honey.”

“I will later.” I leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, then repeated, “Can I borrow your car?”

“Of course, but—”

“I won’t be gone long, I promise.” I grabbed Aunt Leah’s keys from a nearby hook, then went to Oliver. Bending over, I picked him up and lifted him high into the air, only to bring him down and give him a big, loud kiss. He giggled into my neck. It was the sweetest sound against my skin. And God, he smelled good—the sweet scent of baby.

Putting him back in the Pack ’n Play, I brushed his cheek with my finger. “You be good, little one.” And after a quick glance at Luke, I said, “I’ll be back soon to protect you from big bad wolves.”

I was almost to the door when Luke stopped me. He spun me around and held me in place with his hands. “Be careful. The state guys probably haven’t had a chance to take over police protection at the hospital yet. But they will soon. This is going to get worse before it gets better.” He placed a hand on my cheek, and added, “Call me when you’re ready to go home, and I’ll drive you back.”

With a nod, I turned and left.

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