Seventeen-year-old Sam, the daughter of a New England heiress, has tried hard to fulfill her father’s dying wish: “Take care of your mother for me.” Not an easy job. When her impulsive, romance-writing mom announces her engagement to a man whose last heiress wife died under suspicious circumstances, Sam tries to dissuade her mother. But her mom is convinced she’ll finally have the “Happily Ever After” she writes about.
And then Sam’s life implodes. Her mom’s fiancé turns up dead, and a mountain of circumstantial evidence points to Sam as the killer. On trial for murder, she fights to prove her innocence with the help of her boyfriend’s dad, an ex-homicide cop.
Just when things are looking especially bleak, Sam uncovers evidence she never expected to find. She faces a tough decision: At what point does the price of loyalty become too high?
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Mystery / Suspense
I pulled up across the street from the house and flipped off my headlights. My fingers tapped out a steady drumbeat on the steering wheel as I debated what to do next.
That’s when I heard the shot. Seconds later, she streaked out of the house, her hair flying behind her. She flung something silver and shiny into the bushes on the way to her Jeep and peeled out of the driveway.
I waited until I was sure she was gone. I slid my hands into my gloves and headed for the bushes. Thanks to the porch lights, it didn’t take long to find the shiny silver object, caught between some thick bottom branches.
The handgun felt light in my fingers, inviting, beckoning me. I brought it to my nose and inhaled the acrid scent of gunpowder. Oh my God, was he dead?
I climbed the steps to the front door. I doubted it was locked. It wasn’t. I slid inside and crept down the hallway toward the study. He sat staring intently at the computer screen. Definitely not dead.
I could fix that. I shot him. Twice.
When it comes to men, my mother’s chooser is total crap. Except for my dad. But ever since he died five years ago, my mom imagines that every guy she dates must be one of those “too good to be true” heroes from the romance novels she writes. They’re always great to look at, but that’s about it. The bleached blond yoga instructor turned out to be getting a little side action with his fitness club manager. As for the waiter who could have been a stunt double for Chris Hemsworth, the first three dates went great—until he suggested they do a three-way with the bartender. Since Mom’s into over-sharing, I got to hear all the gross details.
At least those guys had a short shelf life. But Adam Holloway, her latest? He’d been around for months, fawning all over my mother, telling her how beautiful and brilliant she was and how he’d never met anyone like her. My mom lapped up his schtick like an alcoholic having her first drink in weeks.
Mr. Holloway was some kind of a financial advisor, and while my mother was talented and gorgeous, I was pretty sure the main attraction was the size of her trust fund. He was always talking about money and investments he had in mind for her. And the other day, when Mom had gone upstairs to change, I’d caught him going through files in her desk. When I confronted him, he insisted he was looking for a pen. Who keeps pens in their bottom file drawers?
Mom would figure it out. It was just a matter of time, and he’d be out the door, too.
Don’t worry, I told myself, as I launched into Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” on our Steinway, letting the music take me to my happy place. When I’m playing, I don’t think about my mom’s weird love life or my lack of one.
So, when Mom swept into the living room wearing one of her floor-length vintage numbers and giddily announced that Mr. Holloway was coming over, I was more annoyed at the interruption than worried.
“This is a special occasion, darling. Why don’t you run upstairs and put something nice on?”
Special occasion? Yup. A definite alarm bell went off inside my head. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“Oh, come on, Samantha. It wouldn’t kill you to wear something other than jeans. You have a closetful of clothes you never wear.”
True. Mom loved to shop and often brought home dresses she was sure I’d love. But retro romantic ruffles and floral prints were my mom’s thing, not mine. My idea of dressing up was boots, leggings, and a long tunic. Sometimes I wondered if my mom knew me at all.
I sighed and climbed our winding marble staircase to change. They were probably planning to tell me they were going on some romantic cruise together. Mom loved Mediterranean cruises, and she finally had a boyfriend who’d lasted long enough to accompany her.
In my room, I pawed through the racks in my walk-in closet and finally pulled out a plain black sheath I’d worn for a choral concert last winter. Definitely a good fit for my mood, which was growing darker by the minute.
After changing, I moved to the ancient oak desk that had been my dad’s and sank down on my office chair to sort my papers and books for that night’s homework. Organizing my stuff always made me feel like there was something I could control in my life.
I glanced up at the poster of Michael Feinstein in concert at the Rainbow Room. He was one of my heroes, keeper of the Great American Songbook I loved playing so much. Ellington, Gershwin, Berlin, Porter—I couldn’t get enough of their music. Just like my dad, and his dad before him, who’d played the trumpet in orchestras for Broadway musicals. What I wouldn’t give right this moment to be down in an orchestra pit playing piano.
No such luck. I descended the stairs to await the arrival of Mr. Holloway.
“Good heavens, Samantha,” my mother groused the moment she saw me, “you look like you’re dressed for a funeral!”
I started to snap back that she’d told me this was a special occasion, so I’d put on my favorite concert dress. But the doorbell rang before I had the chance. My mother darted to the door to greet the latest man of her dreams.
I had to admit Mr. Holloway was a good-looking man—chiseled jawline, jet black wavy hair, smoky gray eyes, and the whitest, most perfect set of teeth I’d ever seen. I wondered if they were real—probably, but definitely bleached.
He gave my mother a lingering kiss on the lips and handed her a bouquet of lilies. He always brought her flowers, and she cooed on and on about how thoughtful he was.
Then he dashed over to me and kissed me on both cheeks. “Two beautiful women in the same room. What more could a man possibly want?”
I was dying to tell him to cut the crap. Why was I the only one in this family with a working bullshit meter? I glanced up at the enormous crystal chandelier and imagined it crashing down and annihilating the jerk.
“Let me get drinks for us,” he said, moving to the bar as if this were his house and his liquor. I watched his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He looked so damned smug as he poured two glasses of champagne and a ginger ale for me. He handed us our drinks and joined my mother on the couch. I sat across from them, studying the ridged pattern on the plush cream-colored rug. It reminded me of a maze with no escape.
Mr. Holloway lifted his glass and said, “Here’s to our future.”
Our future? This didn’t sound like a cruise.
Mom’s eyes sparkled as she clinked glasses with him and then rose to clink her glass with mine. “Darling, we wanted you to be the first to know. Adam and I are getting married. At last, you’ll have a stepdad, and we’ll be a complete family again.”
Oh God! NO! This could not be happening. The ginger ale sloshed around in my stomach, and for a moment, I thought I might be sick. I knew I was supposed to say something, but my mouth felt like someone had stuck glue on my tongue.
Mr. Holloway jumped into the silence. “Your mother has told me how close you were to your father, and, of course, I could never take his place. But I hope you know how much happiness your mother has brought me, and how much I look forward to sharing my life with her—and becoming your stepdad.”
They both looked at me expectantly.
I managed to stammer out, “I... I hope you’ll both be very happy. But...this seems a little sudden. You’ve only known each other a few months.”
My mother shifted slightly in her seat. I could tell she was annoyed from the tightness around her mouth. “Sam, when you’re a little older, you’ll understand that sometimes, when it’s right, when you’ve met your soulmate, you just know.”
Barf. “Sure. But long engagements are good, right? Just to be sure, and all that.” Did I sound as desperate as I felt?
“Nonsense,” Mom said. “There’s no need to wait.” She gazed adoringly at Holloway, who slipped his arm around her.
“Your mother insists she can plan a wedding in a month. She’s amazing, isn’t she?”
Amazing doesn’t begin to describe it.
They blathered on about possible wedding and reception sites, the flower arrangements, and the string quartet they hoped to book. “Oh, and we should get that wonderful soloist I heard last spring at the club to sing ‘Love Everlasting,’” Mom said.
It didn’t seem to occur to her that I was an experienced accompanist, and it might be nice to include me in the festivities. Thanks, Mom.
I sat there like a stone. Finally, I rose and said, “I have a ton of trig homework—gonna head upstairs.”
My mother glanced at me, seemingly unaware I’d been sitting there for the last half hour listening to her plan what I was almost sure was a big mistake. “Of course, darling,” she said smoothly. “All this wedding talk must be a giant bore.”
“Not at all,” I lied, as Mr. Holloway jumped up and did his ritual kissing of me on both cheeks.
“I am so grateful to have found your mother,” he said.
* * *
I flopped down on my bed and grabbed the picture of my dad. His sandy hair was falling into his eyes. He was laughing, and I was perched high on his shoulders, holding an ice cream cone, which had begun dripping down on his head. “It’s raining chocolate,” he’d said, “and I forgot my umbrella.”
I hugged the picture to my chest, and squeezed my eyes shut. He’d never see me graduate, go to college, maybe have an actual career in music. Sometimes I imagined waking up and discovering it was all a bad dream—that my dad hadn’t died after all from the brain cancer that spread so quickly his fellow oncologists said there was nothing they could do.
My dad was the best. He’d been the parent who’d tucked me in at night, read me endless stories, and listened to my middle school woes when I got older.
One of the last things he’d said to me was, “Take care of your mother for me.” How the hell was I supposed to do that when she kept making bonehead decisions?
I retrieved my backpack, fished out my phone, and texted Kali. “Can u talk?”
Two minutes later, she FaceTimed me. “What’s up?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” I said.
“My mother just announced she’s marrying that guy she’s been dating.”
“Wow! That was fast.”
“Didn’t you tell me he was a lot younger than she was?”
“Yeah. He could moonlight as a model for one of my mom’s romance novel covers. But I’m pretty sure his main goal in life is to get hold of my mother’s money. I told you how he was snooping around, right?”
“She should check him out.”
“What a sane person would do.” And that’s the problem. I bit down on my lower lip. Whenever my mom was in the middle of one of her insta-romances and I suggested that she be a little cautious when it came to her love life, she blew me off, accusing me of being an “old worry wart.” She was right. Living with her, I was perpetually worried—and definitely aging fast.
“I don’t know what to do. The guy’s a total dip-wad, and Mom’s clueless. It’s like he’s read her books, and he’s feeding her lines from her own dialogue.”
“You think he has?”
“Read her books?”
“Wouldn’t be surprised. He’s so slick he reminds me of one of those slippery pond frogs we used to try to catch when we were little kids. I can’t stand him. You don’t know any hitmen, do you?”
“You’re no help.”
“Sorry. Not to change the subject, but... Do you think Noah might like me?”
A glimmer of irritation flashed through me. I loved Kali. We’d been friends ever since we’d taken creative movement together as four-year-olds at her mother’s dance studio. But I got tired of her need to collect guys as though they were interchangeable charms on a bracelet. She was bubbly, flirtatious, and totally irresistible with her enormous blue eyes fringed with dark thick eyelashes.
As usual, she’d grabbed the lead in our school’s musical. This year, we were doing West Side Story. But Noah, who’d been cast as Tony opposite Kali’s Maria, wasn’t nipping at her heels like every other guy in our class. As the more or less invisible rehearsal accompanist, I couldn’t miss their chemistry in rehearsals, but I wasn’t sure if it extended offstage.
“I don’t know. You sound awesome together. I almost started crying when you guys sang ‘Somewhere’ in rehearsal today.”
“Really? Geez, thanks. Well, you’re friends with him, right?”
“Kind of. We’ve taken a lot of the same classes.” Noah and I were both in the Advanced program, and we’d worked on a couple of psychology projects together.
“I see him talking to you a lot during breaks. Let me know if he says anything about me, okay?”
“Sure.” Up till now, he’d never mentioned her. Which I secretly appreciated. How many times had guys sidled up to me, acting all friendly but then quickly steering the conversation to Kali and whether she might be… you know, interested?
It got old.
“So, like, I was thinking you could slip my name into the conversation—see if he says anything about me.”
“Okay,” I said, because I always said “yes” to Kali.
I wondered if she could tell from the expression on my face or the flatness of my voice that I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about asking Noah about her. Or that I needed her, for once, to focus on being there for me.
After we clicked off, I tried to tackle my trigonometry problems, but it was hopeless. What could I say to my mom that would convince her to at least get a background check on Holloway?
I needed to plan out my arguments for when I talked to her. I booted up my computer and stared at the blank page. Where to start? Maybe with how she deserved a great guy? Bring up Dad?
Mom, you’re an amazing person. You deserve someone who’ll really love you. Remember how Dad talked about wanting that for you? We owe it to him to make sure Mr. Holloway’s the real deal and check him out.
Sounded reasonable, right? Except my mom could be very unreasonable when it came to me speaking up to her. On anything. Maybe go more direct—Reality check? Okay, how about:
You know, Mom, we can’t pretend people don’t know you’re an heiress.
She couldn’t deny that. Right? How many articles had there been about New England heiresses where she loomed front and center? Journalists loved the human-interest angle—that my great-grandfather made his fortune by taking a chance on his pilot friend’s idea of putting wheels on suitcases.
Okay, so then maybe I could say something like:
Unfortunately, there are people out there who might want to take advantage of a wealthy widow. I’m not saying Mr. Holloway is like that, but he does seem really interested in money. I mean, that’s his career, right? It only makes sense to double-check, right?
The trouble was things that made sense to everyone else didn’t necessarily compute for my mother. Better mention the evidence:
I saw him snooping in your files. Plus, the other day, I walked in on him studying what looked like a spreadsheet on your desktop. He closed the screen the minute he saw me. He looked guilty, Mom.
Now for a strong close:
You know how much I love you. All I want is for you to be happy.
I pushed “print” and re-read what I’d written. Then I paced back and forth, rehearsing my spiel. I thought it sounded pretty good. So why did I feel like I was about to take a test I couldn’t possibly pass?