Mia covered her mouth to keep from crying out. She hated the dark, but her mother had made her promise. But what was the point of being a good little girl if she couldn’t help her mother? She’d promised her mother not to scream, but she hadn’t promised not to escape… To the world, Mia Thornton is invisible—a quiet, timid preschool teacher. People would never guess that she found the will to dig her way out of a locked shed when she was just six years old. That she never saw her mother again. Now, all Mia longs for is a normal life and friends to call her own. But when she runs into a group of colleagues one evening, she discovers that, once again, she’s been excluded. Stung at the rejection, she pockets the keys of one of the women in a petty act of revenge. Celeste Cooper is fearless, pretty, popular—everything Mia wishes she could be. The next day, Celeste is reported missing. And Mia realizes that it might have been her fault. Wracked with guilt, she joins the search, determined to make up for her mistake. But as she grows closer to Celeste’s family, Mia can’t help but feel she’s being watched… What if Celeste’s disappearance has more to do with Mia than she realizes? And if she keeps digging, does she risk being dragged back into the dark forever? Prepare to be gripped by the pulse-pounding new psychological thriller from USA Today bestselling author Carey Baldwin. Fans of The Wife Between Us, The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl will be totally addicted to Her First Mistake. What readers are saying about Her First Mistake : “ Completely and utterly impossible to put down… gripped me instantly. I have devoured page after page… This is definitely a book that has sucked me in, taken me on a rollercoaster ride… a must read.” Little Miss Book Lover 87 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Kept me up at night turning the pages. I just simply couldn’t put it down. It was full of twists and turns. I didn’t see that ending coming at all. And as for the twist at the end??? Wow just wait for it!! Absolutely brilliant and well worth five stars!” NetGalley reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Wow. What a fantastic book!... I literally couldn’t put it down… kept me hooked throughout.” Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ Wow! Just Wow! I absolutely loved this book. It had me gripped right from the flashback at the beginning to the epilogue at the end!” @what_alex_is_reading “ A wild ride… I read it straight through and couldn't put it down.” Goodreads reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“ I could not put this one down! I finished it in one sitting.” Goodreads reviewer “ Had to keep turning the page... There are a lot of secrets and gripping edge of your seat moments.” @fortheloveofcrime “ Be prepared for a wild ride with this read!” Goodreads reviewer
Release date: April 30, 2021
Print pages: 350
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I Know What You Did
Tonight or maybe tomorrow I’ll tell Arnie all about you.
Mia’s heart fluttered at the remembered promise. She couldn’t wait to meet Arnie, and not only because it was dark and cold in here. Shivering, she adjusted the blanket, spreading it to better cover her shoulders, and then tucked it beneath her arms to make a coat. Her teeth chattered, and the tips of her fingers tingled. She hated the cold, but the dark was so familiar she hardly minded it. She had a flashlight for when she really needed it, but she knew better than to waste the batteries. They cost money, and money was hard to get. If she used the batteries too fast, it made life hard for Mommy.
Mommy talked about Arnie all the time. She said he was tall and had dark wavy hair and a scar on his cheek he got fighting bad guys when he was in the Navy. By now, Mia knew her mother’s Arnie speech by heart:
I couldn’t tell Arnie about you straight off because I figured he didn’t like kids. You remember my friend Sid left on account of he didn’t want the burden. Said he wouldn’t trust himself to look after a dog, much less a little girl. I told Sid you didn’t need looking after, and he left me anyway. But turns out Arnie isn’t like Sid at all. He smiles when I talk about having kids someday. Mia, I finally got a man who likes children!
Next, her mother would clap her hands and hug her. So tonight’s the night. I’ll wait ’til he’s had his whiskey and is in a real good mood so he won’t be mad I fibbed to him. Then I’ll tell him all about you and what a good little girl you are, and you won’t have to hide when he comes over anymore. Why, next thing you know, he’ll be taking us both out for ice cream. What kind do you want, baby?
Then Mia would answer, chocolate, even though she couldn’t remember how chocolate ice cream tasted. Mommy talked about chocolate scoops on top of a sugar cone the same way she talked about Arnie. Like nothing else in this world could beat them. Ice cream and Arnie. Arnie and ice cream. These were the things her mother’s dreams were made of.
Mia secretly wished her mother would go on and on about her to Arnie like she did about him to her. But that couldn’t happen because he didn’t know Mia existed. The hope chest in the front room was used to hide her things—coloring books, a bear with the stuffing leaking out, and clothes usually kept folded in the bottom drawer of the dresser in the bedroom she and Mommy shared when Arnie wasn’t around.
Tears stung her eyes, and she sucked in a breath. She was not supposed to be jealous of Arnie.
Mommy loved them both the same—that’s what she always said to Mia right before she locked her in the shed and told her to be good.
Make Mommy proud.
Mia fought back her tears.
Mommy would come for her soon.
But where was she? Though Mia didn’t know how many days had passed, she was sure Mommy had never left her this long before.
Mia moved her thumb over the button of the flashlight. She hesitated before pushing it. After Mommy had closed the door, and the board that bolted it had groaned into place, Mia had kept the flashlight on until she could see better in the dark, then quickly switched it off. Now, its light looked yellow, and she understood that meant the battery was almost gone, even though, after those first few minutes in the shed, she’d only used it when she had to eat or drink or needed the baby potty in the corner. She swung the dull light around letting it bounce off the row of opened cans lined up against the wall.
One, two, three… eight cans.
She counted them after every sleep. There wasn’t much else to do, and she liked counting. She was six and a half years old and could already make it to one hundred. And because she could make it to one hundred, she knew if she had to, she could get all the way to infinity.
Mia, a smart girl like you can do anything you put your mind to. That’s what Granddad used to say.
She didn’t go to school, but whenever Mommy wasn’t saucing it up, she worked with Mia on letters and numbers. Saucing it up was what Granddad called it when Mommy drank beer until she couldn’t walk straight.
Last year, after he caught a cough that wouldn’t go away, Granddad died, and Mia and Mommy got kicked out of his apartment. That’s when they found the cabin in the woods where they lived now. Mommy said the cabin was a blessing, and that someone must’ve left it especially for them because they had no place else to go.
Mia thought a real house would have been more of a blessing, but still, she liked the woods, which were filled with fast, furry rabbits and chattering squirrels and chirping birds—even a deer now and then. The woods reminded her of walks with Granddad. He had one book with photographs of plants and another with animals. Mia would try to spot as many creatures as she could and match them to their pictures.
She missed Granddad.
Trying not to think about his scratchy whiskers and his big laugh and the way he called her his brave little soldier, she rubbed her legs, which felt funny from sitting too long. She stood up and wobbled over to the cans and aimed the light, but she didn’t have to look inside them to know her food was gone. Like the batteries, she’d tried to make the beans last. Whenever she’d woken from a long sleep, she’d made herself eat from only one can—no matter how loudly her stomach growled. This past wake-up, she’d eaten from the very last can, and she’d cut her finger when she’d dipped it inside to get the juice.
That hurt, but she hadn’t cried because brave little soldiers don’t cry over cuts and scrapes. Now, there was crusted blood on her hand, and her finger felt raw and sore, but she didn’t care.
Where was Mommy?
If only Mia could go back to sleep and not wake up again until Mommy opened the door. But Mia couldn’t fall asleep because her tummy was empty, and she was very, very thirsty.
Like the cans, her water feeder was empty.
She pressed her palms against her hot eyes and hoped as hard as she could that Mommy was coming for her right this minute.
Then her flashlight flickered out.
The beans were gone—all eight cans.
The water, too, and Mommy had filled the big feeder jar clear up to the top.
Mia had taken so many long sleeps.
Her chest suddenly felt tight, like she’d outgrown her shirt. It was hard to breathe. Her legs shook.
Even if Mommy had been too scared to tell Arnie the truth, she would never leave Mia this long. Something was very wrong.
It was time to stop wishing.
It was time to do something.
Mia crept around the shed, trying not to bump into things, until she came to the group of cardboard boxes she’d been searching for. She didn’t like to touch them because they had bugs and spiders inside. Shaking out her hands, she gulped before thrusting her arms deep into one box and then another, checking for anything that might help her, but all she found were rags and old clothes.
What if Mommy had been saucing it up and hit her head again, like the time Mia had to call 911? What if she was sick with a cough like Granddad?
Mia heard whooshing in her ears, tried to take a deep breath, and noticed her chest fighting against her again.
I have to help Mommy.
But there was no way to do that while she was trapped in this shed.
Do not make a peep!
Mommy made her promise. And Mia had kept that promise. Though many times she’d wanted to cry out, she never did. But what was the point of being a good little girl if she couldn’t help her mother?
She raised her fist to her mouth and bit down hard.
Then she tossed away the dead flashlight, straining her ears as it rattled across the dirt floor. Careful not to cut her finger again on the jagged metal top, she grabbed an empty can and squatted. Propping one shoulder against the cool, splintery wall of the shed, she ground the can’s sharp edge into the dirt, then scooped up as much as she could, dumped it out and did it again… and again… and again.
She could no longer stop the tears from rushing out of her eyes and dripping onto her shirt, but so what? Being a brave little soldier hadn’t helped any more than being a good girl.
Gritting her teeth, she kept working.
She’d promised her mother not to scream… but she hadn’t promised not to dig.
Mia Thornton wasn’t a ghost, but people so rarely noticed her she was often tempted to rattle a picture on the wall or creak open a door just to make her presence known.
However, tonight was not one of those occasions.
Seated alone at her table, on a Friday night, she stuck out like a bruise on the tender white throat of a lily. The Piano Man, one of the Gaslamp Quarter’s trendiest establishments, had a reputation for fine cuisine and an ambience that practically guaranteed a happy ending. Here was where a man brought a woman for a third date, an anniversary, or after he’d taken her for granted once too often. The dining room, as advertised, boasted a piano man as well as low lighting and ubiquitous handholding. On the patio, multiple fire pits and an hors d’oeuvre and cocktails bar lured both romantic pairs and singles. But the singles, too, came in multiples—gangs of friends ready to mix and mingle.
Are you celebrating a special occasion? Had been the host’s question before guiding her to a table reserved for two in the dining room.
She’d told him no, but that had been a lie. When Ruth Hudson had invited her to dinner—and at such a nice place—her heart had galloped into her throat. Tonight was to have marked the beginning of a new friendship, and in Mia’s world that definitely qualified as a special occasion.
In preparation for this evening, she’d brushed her medium-length brown hair until it gleamed and applied red lipstick—a color she never wore. She’d only purchased the shade because a clerk at the MAC store suggested she could use a little more pizzazz. But she’d never called Siren Red into service until this evening. After trying on and discarding half her wardrobe, she’d eventually settled on a pretty blue dress and bone-colored pumps.
She checked her watch.
It had now been forty minutes and two chardonnays since the waiter had pulled out her chair. Her mouth felt cottony, and she reached for her water glass but found it empty.
Ruth isn’t coming.
Blinking away the stinging sensation in her eyes, Mia tucked two twenties under the saltshaker and scraped back her chair as noiselessly as possible, intent on slipping from the dining room before any more pitying glances came her way. And she would have, perhaps, succeeded, if her cell phone hadn’t sounded, causing many nearby patrons to turn and glare.
Funny how fast pity can change to indignation.
Although her phone was softly chiming “Crystals”, from the looks she was getting you’d think it was blasting the drum solo from “Wipeout”. She stopped dead in her tracks and fumbled in her purse. An excruciating length of seconds passed before she found and silenced her cell and read the message from Ruth.
Something came up. Rain check?
A wave of relief swept over her. Ruth had not forgotten. She simply couldn’t make it tonight.
No big deal.
Mia tapped out her response:
No worries. How about next Friday?
One second passed and then another.
She stared, but no scrolling dots appeared on the screen.
A reply was not in the offing.
Keeping her gaze on the floor, she made her way to the door. Not until she’d crossed the threshold of the dining room did she glance up—only to find Jane Glasgow entering the restaurant. Too late, Mia ducked her chin.
Jane had seen Mia see her.
Her cheeks heated, followed by the tips of her ears.
Could Mia pretend she hadn’t seen her? Would Jane?
“Mia!” Jane smiled and waved. “Hello!”
At least it was Jane. She wouldn’t go blabbing on Monday morning about bumping into poor Mia all alone on a Friday night. Mia’s shoulders loosened. Come to think of it, Jane seemed to be on her own, too.
Popular Jane would surely be meeting someone.
“Hello, yourself.” Suddenly aware she’d been blocking the door, Mia stepped out of the way of traffic and made an effort to smile. She liked Jane who worked with her at the preschool and had a gentle manner perfect for putting the little ones at ease. Early on, Mia had dared hope the two might become friends, but more than a year had passed, and they hadn’t yet shared a coffee—in or out of the break room.
Of course that was Mia’s fault, not Jane’s.
Mia had never been adept at making friends.
“Are you here with a date?” Jane peered past her.
“Yes. I mean, no.” Why couldn’t she answer a simple question without stumbling? “I was supposed to meet Mrs. Hudson—Ruth—but something came up.”
“Tennyson’s mother?” Jane lifted one eyebrow, clearly surprised.
And why wouldn’t she be? Their posh preschool catered to a crowd teetering on the edge of the upper class. Unless it concerned their children, the moms and dads rarely talked to the staff, much less dined with them on a Friday night. “Like I said, Ruth couldn’t make it. I’m just leaving.”
A look of comprehension crossed Jane’s face. She stuck her index finger in the air. “That’s right! She recently split with her husband. She must be lonely.”
More like desperate if she’d resorted to going out with Mia. Ruth might have lost her friends in the divorce, or perhaps she didn’t want to discuss her failed marriage with them over the main course. In the corner of her mind, Mia understood this. But to her, desperation seemed as good a basis for a friendship as any. “I guess. Anyway, I’ll see you Monday,” she said, her knees locking as she sensed someone behind her.
“Jane! Get your ass over…” a lively voice trailed off.
Jane stepped forward, and Mia rotated the upper half of her body while her legs remained facing the door.
With one hand on her hip, the other waving a purple drink in a martini glass, Celeste Cooper approached, gorgeous auburn hair shimmering over bare shoulders, a billion-watt smile illuminating her path. And she would have an $800 Michael Kors snakeskin tote, just like the one Mia had been admiring for months, dangling carelessly from her arm. The bag gaped. Its glittering contents, lipsticks, breath spray, a big, fluffy pom-pom keychain, and what appeared to be condoms, hinted at a world Mia could only imagine.
A world Mia coveted.
In truth, Celeste Cooper didn’t just have Mia’s dream purse; she had her dream life.
Mia commanded her jaw to unclench.
“Look who I found!” Jane exclaimed.
Celeste frowned, but made a quick recovery. “Hey, Mia.”
“Hey. I was just—”
“Why don’t you join us?” Celeste asked, extending an arm toward the patio.
Mia peeked outside, and there, seated around one of the fire-pit tabletops, she spied the remaining unmarried staff members of Harbor Youth Academy—all the single teachers, save Mia, gathered for a night on the town.
“We’re just getting together for our monthly…” Jane’s tone turned apologetic “… for drinks.”
“You do this every month?”
“Only for the past year,” Celeste said.
There was a brief silence during which tension leaked into the air like moisture from a rain cloud before it bursts wide open.
Jane shifted her weight. “It’s, er, very informal. We didn’t think you’d be interested or we would’ve mentioned it.”
That couldn’t be true.
Perhaps Jane wasn’t as nice as Mia had supposed. Or maybe Jane went along with the others for fear she’d be ostracized, too. But this was no oversight. It was a deliberate exclusion that had been backed up by a code of silence. To think of the effort it had taken to conceal a year’s worth of outings from her. Not to speak in front of her, even once, of the fun they’d had, the bands they’d heard, the men they’d flirted with. All those conversations that had stopped when she’d walked into the teachers’ lounge suddenly made sense.
She managed a tight smile, hoping the scalding embarrassment she felt hadn’t reddened her face. “No worries. Like I said, I have to get home because…” She paused, scrambling for an excuse, but there was no need to invent one—the women who worked alongside her five days a week at the preschool, and who were the closest things to friends she possessed, had already turned their backs.
As she watched them go, tears pricking her eyes, she spotted something on the floor.
She crouched and quickly scooped up Celeste’s fluffy, pom-pom keychain.
Then, instead of calling out to Celeste as she should, she closed her fist around the keys and stuffed them into the cotton tote she’d been carrying around since college.
When Mia raised her head, heavy with sleep, off the vanity, the reflection staring back at her in the mirror made her breath catch. Her dark image, lit only by slats of moonlight stabbing through the shutters of her bedroom window, seemed more ghoul than woman. She dropped her chin and let her gaze travel down her Coldplay T-shirt to her hands, fisted on her knees, her legs crammed into last summer’s too-tight jeans, and finally to her feet clad in white tennis shoes. She could feel the damp seeping through the canvas shoes onto her sockless skin—the shoes were wet, from dew, maybe? She pinched her shirt to sniff the dank, woodsy smell, and her fingers transferred dirt to the fabric.
What time was it?
Her phone lay on the vanity, and she tapped it.
The screen lit up:
A deep breath later she pulled her hands through her hair, her fingers catching on a twig, which she flicked away. Then she got up and walked to the kitchen, filled a water glass and chugged it, killing the fire in her throat. From the kitchen window she could see the front yard, short spikes of grass dusted with porous yellow light, and a reassuringly empty driveway.
Her Jetta was still in the garage.
Her hunched shoulders eased into a more natural position.
So this wasn’t a repeat of the last “incident”—though she’d have to check the gas gauge on her car to be sure.
About three years ago, Mia had gotten up in the middle of the night, dressed, and driven downtown. Aunt Misty heard the car grinding out of the driveway, and when Mia didn’t answer her cell, Aunt Misty used find my phone to locate Mia and then sent the police to check on her welfare. The cops founding her astride a carousel horse at Seaport Village, seemingly awake, but unresponsive to their questions until they brought her around by splashing water in her face.
There had been two previous, less troubling, incidents. One in which Mia cooked bacon and eggs in her sleep and another where she’d cleaned the bathroom; but the Seaport Village excursion was the last straw for Aunt Misty who’d insisted Mia seek help before she killed herself or someone else while sleep-driving. Considering the fact that Mia was afraid to drive, at least while awake, and, at the time, didn’t have a license, she’d readily conceded.
That’s when she’d started up with her former psychiatrist, Dr. Alessandra Baquero.
After a battery of tests, including an MRI of the head and an EEG, Dr. Baquero announced that Mia did not appear to have any organic problems with her brain. No tumor, no seizure disorder, etc. The sleep disturbances were probably related to a combination of post-traumatic stress and the sleeping pills Mia’s primary care doctor had prescribed. Dr. Baquero changed her medication, initiated weekly therapy sessions, and that had put an end to the sleepwalking—until now.
It was only last week that Dr. Baquero pronounced Mia mentally safe and sound and released her from therapy. She was going to be disappointed when she found out about this. Sleep problems were nothing to be ashamed of—Mia knew that. Still, when you can’t remember where you’ve been or what you’ve done, it’s easy to imagine it might have been something awful.
Mia checked her phone.
She’d wait until 7 o’clock before calling Dr. Baquero’s service.
“Thanks for seeing me on short notice.” Mia met Dr. Baquero’s steady eyes.
“Of course, that’s why I keep Saturday hours open. I want to be there for my patients if an urgent matter comes up.”
Mia felt her cheeks flush. As relieved as she’d been when the answering service told her Dr. Baquero could fit her in, Mia worried, now, that she’d taken a slot from someone who might need it more. Her own problems seemed far less urgent once she’d discovered, just half an hour ago, the three-year-old bottle of sleeping tablets spilled open in her nightstand drawer.
Though she didn’t recall doing so, it seemed obvious that after tossing and turning for hours over taking Celeste’s keys last night, she’d resorted to swallowing one of her old pills. She wasn’t sure which was worse—what she’d done to Celeste or keeping an old prescription that had been considered a prime suspect in her sleep disturbances. Nor did she care to admit she might have driven her car in an altered state. This morning the needle on her gas gauge hovered just under the half-full mark, and though she couldn’t be certain, she thought it had read slightly over half-full when she’d returned from the Piano Man last night.
“What’s going on?”
“I know last week was supposed to be our final session.”
“Let’s circle back to that, okay?” Dr. Baquero said. “You told the service you needed to see me right away, so how about you fill me in?”
Mia’s gaze traveled the lilac-colored walls of Dr. Baquero’s office, littered with diplomas and awards, then paused to linger on her desk, crafted from polished walnut and adorned with a computer and oversized mug proclaiming Keep Calm and Kick Ass.
A framed picture faced away from Mia.
Many times, she’d paced the office just to get herself in position to look at that photograph. It was of Dr. Baquero’s daughter—a teen with cropped, silken black hair framing a round face, flawless skin and intense dark eyes that promised to keep your secrets—a young, shorter-haired version of her mother.
She fell back into the depths of the sofa she’d sat upon almost every Wednesday afternoon for the past three years. Her fingers stroked the supple leather. She inhaled its familiar scent, considering. What would Dr. Baquero think of her when she found out Mia had taken a prescription she’d expressly instructed her to throw away? Mia had hung on to the pills as a fail-safe, but since when did the risk of a potentially sleepless night outweigh the danger of wandering around like a zombie, maybe even driving? There was no point in bringing up the sleepwalking now that she knew all sh. . .
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