Every good story starts with a lie.
Jane and Lily are the best of friends, old college roommates, and they believe they tell each other everything. From Lily’s perfect marriage to Jane’s on-again, off-again romances, the two women trust each other with all their secrets.
When Lily winds up in the hospital, beaten beyond recognition and in a coma, all evidence points to her husband.
Except for the pictures littered around the crime scene, pictures of a naked woman with her face blurred out and Jane’s name scratched on the back of the photos.
Jane starts her own investigation to find the truth—after all, Lily would have told her if she was having marital problems—but when she discovers Lily’s secret life, she starts to believe that not only is Lily not innocent, but she’s not who Jane believes her to be.
In a tangled web of mystery and secrets, two friends must learn that no one is who they seem, and discover their own truths buried in their lies.
Every good story starts with a lie.
Moonlight streams through my kitchen window and bathes my countertops in clean, white light. It’s deceptive, the moonlight. Nothing about the night is clean.
My phone vibrates against my hand as I press my index finger over the fingerprint scanner. Text eighteen of twenty rolls in.
A second layer of security prompts a sixteen-digit pass code that appears random but is really a set of my best friend’s and my husband’s birthdays. And mine. My real birthdate. Not the one I scratch out on medical history forms or that sits on mine and Evan’s marriage certificate. The birthdate I hold tight. Hold secret.
I scroll through my girls’ home safe messages. The phone vibrates again—nineteen out of twenty reporting in. Four in the morning—curfew. Cuts down on profits, but I’d rather them be safe and rested than deal with the kind of client that books all-nighters. I check the names, all in code.
Zelda hasn’t checked in. My hands start buzzing, my adrenaline already revving up.
Any of the other girls, and I’d assume they’d forgotten. Not Zelda. A pre-law student from some trailer town in East Texas, she’s who I used to be, responsible and wide-eyed and believing the promises she makes to herself.
My eyes flit to the upper kitchen cabinet where I keep my gun. Thirty minutes. The girls get a thirty-minute grace period before I go after them and kick some client ass. No one messes with my girls.
I pull out a pie sheet and get to work on pie one of four. Cherry pie, this one. I check the clock. Should have enough time to throw it together. At the very least, it’ll keep me from running out of this house, guns blazing, before the grace period is up. And it gives me a head start on getting ready for our annual spring barbecue. As Evan would say, win-win.
Twenty minutes later, I finish up the intricate basket weaving of the pie’s top crust and gently press on the University of Texas logo I’ve cut out of the extra dough. Our friends will love it. I shove the pie into the overstuffed refrigerator and wipe my hands on my apron. Mrs. Susie Homemaker, that’s me.
The house is quiet, except for the ticking of Evan’s grandmother’s mantel clock. Our home is full of inherited antiques, and not one of them is mine.
My grandmother had this gorgeous colonial-style buffet from the late 1800s. She kept all her china inside and a crystal candy bowl on top, filled with glass fruit. Every visit to her house, she’d let me pick two tea cups with matching plates out of the buffet, and we would have a tea party. Even as a kid, I loved that buffet. She told me after I grew up and had a house of my own, I could have it.
That was before.
Evan is upstairs in our room, sleeping the sleep of Lumeria. My phone still hasn’t vibrated with a message from Zelda, and I push down the sickening twinge in my stomach. Worry won’t help her. Certainly won’t help me.
I hop onto the counter and reach for the top of the cabinet, my fingers brushing against the slick metal of my Beretta, hidden beneath the silk greenery I spent hours arranging last summer.
Gun safety says to keep bullets separate from the gun.
Street survival says that’s a good way to get killed.
I grab the rubber grip, check the safety, and hop down from the counter.
“Lily, what are you doing?” Evan’s voice is a gunshot through the kitchen, hitting the bullseye on my spine and plowing straight to my heart.
I slip the Beretta into my apron pocket and turn around, the gun’s weight tugging at the ties around my waist.
Evan’s hair is sticking up in the back, Dennis the Menace style. His gray eyes are slitted like a napping cat’s, one who’s been awakened before he’s ready.
“Baking,” I manage and hope the chitter in my bones doesn’t come through my voice. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“You’re baking from the top of the cabinet?”
My stomach dead drops. Oh god.
“Thought I stored your grandmother’s pie plate up there.” There’s a definite tell to my voice now. Good grief, I used to be so much better at this. Either I’m getting used to telling the truth or the years of living a double life are finally wearing me down.
Evan’s eyes slide to the countertop, where his grandmother’s pie plate is displayed on an easel. Where it’s been displayed on an easel since we moved into this house, three years ago.
I give him a sheepish smile and grab the pie plate.
“Honey, you need sleep. You can’t keep waking up in the middle of the night.” He reaches a hand out to me.
I’m going to have to get him to up his sleeping pill strength.
“This is my body’s natural awake time. I’ll get in a nap later, like I always do.” I prop my hand on my hip and lean a bit, letting him see down my negligée. “You could stay home from work and join me.” I lick my lips, making him an offer I know he’ll refuse. The only thing Evan loves more than me is his job.
“I could join you now.” His eyes go all glinty and his eyebrows raise, giving me his come-hither look. “Such a sexy chef.” He comes close, so I put the kitchen island between us. I want him, I always want him, but I can’t right now. I check the clock again. Four minutes. Zelda has four minutes before I know she’s in trouble. And there’s no one to save her except me.
A mischievous smirk tugs at Evan’s mouth, and he growls, a low, predator sound that would normally have me growling back and tackling him right on this island.
“I’d love to, you sexy beast.” I purr my words, curling my tongue around each syllable even as I untie my gun-weighted apron. “But I’m out of butter.”
Evan stops mid-growl. “Butter? You’re saying no to this”—he gestures at himself—“for butter?”
“Sorry, love.” I walk around the island and kiss him on the cheek. “Gotta make the pies for all those people you invited over.” I give his butt a squeeze. “After everyone’s left, I expect you to eat this pie off every inch of me.”
He groans as I disappear into the laundry room, where I hide my apron and pull on jeans and a cardigan over my negligée, discreetly hide my gun in my purse, and scoot out of the house, my heart barely recovering from the near miss. If he knew my secrets, he’d smash my heart to bits and never look back.
Evan doesn’t know.
And I intend to keep it that way.
* * *
I pull up in front of the hotel and unbutton my cardigan. My white silk negligée tucked into my skinny jeans looks like a blouse, covering just enough to rev up imaginations and make people forget my face.
The hotel is a high-end, modern thing built in the past year. One of those hotels with a rooftop pool, overpriced drinks, and horny businessmen galore.
I don’t like this part of my job. I’ve done my best to keep my face, my name, my new life, out of the game, to keep myself protected with layers of separation. But Hank quit last week with no notice, the son of a bastard, and it’s been like losing my phone. Without him, I’m vulnerable. I haven’t found a new bodyguard. It’s as if I’ve been blacklisted.
I park on the street, risk a parking ticket, and double check that my gun is hidden inside my Louis Vuitton. The Beretta’s weight is a comfort, like one of those anxiety blankets. Except with better firepower.
It’s been awhile since I’ve visited a hotel, and those first few steps across the marble floor, they’re a little wobbly. But like muscle memory, my old life comes flooding back, and as I walk to the front desk, my spine straightens, my hips sway, my lips relax, even as everything inside me goes pretzel-shaped.
“My card stopped working. Can you help me?” I make sleepy, sultry eyes at the college guy running the night shift and hand over a stolen key card. “Room 710.”
The guy’s tired and distracted by a pretty set of breasts in distress. He takes the key card from my hand and recodes it within seconds.
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver,” I gush, sway my hips again, and head to the elevator, so that image will stick in his mind. Not my face. Just in case. I keep my head down, my eyes trained on the floor, avoid looking up. If the cameras are checked, they’ll see a tall brunette. And that’s it.
A few minutes later, I press my ear against Room 710’s door, but can’t hear anything.
A soft breath of danger brushes against my intuition. I’ve learned to listen.
I take out my gun, screw on the silencer, slide off the safety. In eight years, I’ve never had to use the thing, but practice something long enough and you become an expert.
I touch my key card against the lock and conceal the Beretta against my side. The lock clicks open.
I take a breath, hold up the gun, and shove open the door.
The lights are off. The room is pitch black except for a sliver of light peeking through the blackout curtains, but I can’t see anyone in the bed.
“Zelda?” I whisper, but I may as well shout. “Honey, it’s time to go.” My voice is all-is-well, when this is anything but.
I tiptoe to the bed. If I can get her out of here without causing hell from the client, all the better. I don’t want to use the gun. I will, but I don’t want to.
Sex, whiskey, and sweat hit me in layers.
“Zelda?” No movement on the bed. My stomach really starts to sour, because now I’m thinking it won’t be a gun I need, but an ambulance.
I flip on the light, gun out.
The room is trashed. Lamp on the floor, lampshade bent. The side chair is tipped over. An empty whiskey bottle stands guard over a line of heroin on the desk. Not Zelda’s. She’d never go against my rules.
The bed is chaos. Down comforter piled on the floor, sheets rumpled and ripped.
And blood. There’s blood on the pillowcase. Next to a peppermint stick, the bright red and white a blast of color next to the darkened dried blood.
No Zelda. No client.
I don’t want to, but my fingers reach out, trembling, and even though ninety percent of me never wants to touch peppermint again, it’s the ten percent that controls me now. I should leave, I should run.
The candy zings my fingertips. I slip it into my purse, get out of the room before I leave my prints anywhere, and slide behind the wheel of my car just as the sun tips the sky from purple to dark pink.
- Daphne du Maurier - Finalist - Mainstream