Little kids, little problems. Big kids ... federal felony charges?
Attorney Sasha McCandless-Connelly has her hands full with her six-year-old twins, but she adores her pack of nieces and nephews. So when sixteen-year-old Colin calls and tearfully announces he's been arrested, she flies into action to protect him.
Colin’s accused of using the Internet to make threatening statements, a federal felony. Social media posts by Colin threaten his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend with violence—and worse. Colin swears he didn’t make the posts, and Sasha believes him. Then the private messages turn up.
As she shines a light on the high school’s dark underbelly, the teenagers close rank, and the whispered secrets multiply. But she’s confident she can clear Colin’s name. Then someone actually tries to make good on the threat to kill the other boy. Colin’s taken into custody on an attempted murder charge, and the prosecutor vows to try him as an adult.
Someone’s trying to frame him. But who? And why? Sasha navigates a web of lies and ever-shifting alliances as she scrambles to save a kid whose diapers she once changed ... even as she realizes she doesn’t know him nearly as well as she thought she did.
Innocent Mistakes is the fourteenth full-length novel in the USA Today bestselling Sasha McCandless series.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 300
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (2) emotionally riveting (2) entertaining story (3) escapist/easy read (1) likable hero (2) realistic characters (3) satisfying ending (2) suspenseful (2) thought-provoking (3) unexpected twists (2) female sleuth (2) terrific writing (2) unputdownable (2) clever protagonist (1) high stakes (1) learned something (1) quirky supporting cast (1) red herrings (1)
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Behind the book
Innocent Mistakes grew out of the pandemic lockdowns and the fact that my kids were suddenly online a lot. Their learning, socializing, and extracurricular activities all moved to the Internet. Zooming became our new normal. I’m so grateful that they were able to stay connected to some friends, make some new friends, and even reconnect with some old friends who are scattered around the globe. In many ways, this online world has been a lifesaver. But, of course, it also has a darker side. And it’s this darker side that Sasha explores in Innocent Mistakes.
Melissa F. Miller
"No one can keep a secret better than a child."
Les Misérables, Cosette, VIII, l. 8.
Green Glen High School
Siobhan’s leaning against the locker next to Mallory’s, waiting for her to grab her chemistry books, when she sees the message that brings everything tumbling down. Emmaline Clemson runs up to her and shoves a phone in her face. Siobhan rears back.
“What’s your problem?”
“More like what’s your brother’s problem? Is he that hung up on Mallory?”
At her name, Mallory slams her locker shut and whirls around, wide-eyed. “Colin? What did he do?”
Emmaline grins, catlike, and nods at the phone that’s inches from Siobhan’s nose. It’s so close to her eyes that all Siobhan can make out is the Tigers logo at the top. Emmaline’s logged into the school’s intranet.
Mallory grabs the phone, and she and Siobhan bend over it, their heads—one buttery blonde, one coppery red—nearly touching. Siobhan skims the text beneath the picture of Hunter Dalton holding a track and field medal up to his lips and kissing it.
Hunter, you punk-ass bitch. KYS before I do it for you.
The user ID under the words is @tigerpitch10, and her twin brother’s familiar face looks out at her from the avatar circle. She wrinkles her forehead, then gives her head a shake.
“No way. Colin didn’t write this.” She lifts her head and juts her chin forward, hissing the heated denial in Emmaline’s dewy, highlighted face.
Siobhan eyes Mallory. “He wouldn’t. Tell her, Mall?”
Her friend clamps down on her lower lip, denting her berry-colored lip gloss with a tooth mark. “I dunno—it is his login.”
“But why would he write that? It’s not his style.”
“She is dating Hunter now,” Emmaline points out oh-so-helpfully, as if she knows Mallory’s fledgling relationship with Hunter is a sore spot for Siobhan.
Mallory can date whoever she wants. But Siobhan can’t understand why she’s wasting her time with Hunter, of all people. He treats her like crap, for one thing. And he’s a monster, something Mallory knows as well as she does. But she’s promised herself not to give Mallory a hard time about it, so she bites her tongue—literally—and gives Emmaline a dirty look.
“That’s true,” Mallory says.
Siobhan screws up her face in confusion. “You know he’s not jealous.”
She almost blurts “He broke up with you, remember?” but catches herself in time. It’s true, but that’s no reason to give stanky Emmaline ammunition for her gossip vlog, The Tiger Tattler. And it’s also true that neither her best friend nor her brother will tell Siobhan exactly what happened. So, she doesn’t want to go down this path, anyway.
Mallory’s mouth forms a little “o,” but Siobhan will never know how she was going to respond because, just then, the intercom blares to life overhead with a squawk that cuts through the hallway noise of slamming lockers, pounding feet, and shouting voices:
“Colin McCandless, report to Principal Dunbar’s office immediately.”
Emmaline giggles and yanks her phone back, snapping a picture of Siobhan and Mallory in the process. “Ooh, an exclusive shot of Colin’s sister and ex-girlfriend learning that he threatened to kill his romantic rival. My readers are gonna love this.”
“What readers? Your Mom and her cat?” Mallory retorts.
“We didn’t consent to that picture, Emmaline,” Siobhan insists. “You don’t have permission to publish it.”
But Emmaline’s already strolling away, waggling her fingers over her shoulder. “Later.”
Siobhan huffs in impotent fury, and Mallory shrugs. “It’s probably blurry AF, anyway, Vonnie. Miss Whiskers isn’t going to even be able to tell it’s us.”
Siobhan giggles at the mental image of the Clemsons’ white fluffball of a cat peering at Emmaline’s dumb gossip blog. Mallory flashes her a grin.
Ms. Fernandez glowers at them from across the hallway. “Get to class, ladies.”
As they scurry toward the stairwell, Siobhan’s laughter fades and her heart pounds as if she’s the one who’s been called to the principal’s office. She’s known Colin her entire life—literally. He was born three minutes before her. She knows he didn’t send that message. But there’s nothing she can do about it. Not now, at least.
* * *
Colin stares at the monitor on Principal Dunbar’s desk. The principal has swiveled it around so Colin can get a good look at Hunter Dalton’s smirking butt-face as he makes out with his gold medal.
He raises one eyebrow. “So? Hunter won another sprint event. Big deal. Have you seen my WHIP and FPS stats? There are scouts at almost every game now.”
Dunbar frowns, but the guy sitting against the wall clears his throat and leans forward.
“You a pitcher, son?”
Colin turns his attention to the guy in the suit. He’s been so quiet this whole time, silent and watching, that Colin’s almost forgotten he’s there. “Yeah, I am.”
The man smiles a too-broad, fake smile. “You must be pretty good if the college scouts are already coming out. You’re just a sophomore, right?”
Colin bristles. “Yeah, but I’ve been starting pitcher since freshman year.”
Heck, he even played up for part of his eighth grade year. He has a million-dollar arm. Everybody says so.
Suit’s smile is pasted into place. “So you have a lot to lose by threatening to kill Hunter. I mean, no college is gonna touch a kid who’s convicted of a federal felony.”
Colin’s throat goes dry. “Felony?” he croaks.
Principal Dunbar’s frown has a new target. “Agent Merriweather, I think we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Colin’s a minor. We should wait until his parents—”
Colin blurts, “Hang on, wait a second. Hunter’s a d-bag and all, but I didn’t threaten him.”
Dunbar looks like he’s sucking on a lemon, but the man in the suit, Merriweather, is still smiling like this is the most fun he’s ever had. “Tell me, Colin, what does KYS mean?”
Colin’s eyes flit back to the stupid picture. He focused on Hunter and never looked at the comments underneath. There it is, at the very top. His profile pic, his username. He leans forward and reads the comment under his breath.
“KYS, Colin. What does it mean?” The agent’s voice is edged with iron now.
“Kill yourself,” he mumbles.
The agent stands up and leans over Colin’s shoulder. His aftershave smells like a forest. It tickles Colin’s nostrils. He reads the comment aloud in a monotone. “‘Hunter, you punk-ass bitch. KYS before I do it for you.’ Sure sounds like a threat to me.”
Colin gives a half-shrug. It does. There’s no denying that, so he doesn’t. “Yeah, I guess it does. Only problem is, I didn’t write it.”
He’s talking to the agent who looms behind him but locks eyes with his principal. Come on, Dunbar. You know me. I don’t mess around like this. I care about two things: baseball and history. I’m no angel, but you know my plan. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize a full-ride scholarship to study history.
He stares hard, willing Dunbar to get the message. The principal blinks first, shifting his gaze back to the agent.
He gulps, coughs. “Agent, we have a procedure in place for disciplinary infractions. Seeing as how Colin denies writing the message, I’ll inform his parents and instruct the school resource officer to investigate.”
Merriweather snorts. His hot breath ruffles Colin’s hair. “This isn’t a mere violation of a school code, Mr. Dunbar. This threat is serious. By all means, call his parents. Tell them he’s facing federal felony charges, not in-school detention.”
Federal charges? There goes baseball. There goes college. Colin’s heart pounds like crazy. He tries, but fails, to still his jiggling left leg. He tries to speak, but all he manages is a squeak.
“What’s that, son?” Dunbar asks.
Colin clears his throat. “Don’t call my parents. Call my Aunt Sasha. I want a lawyer.”
“But it was … an innocent mistake.” Sasha McCandless-Connelly’s newest client clutches a shredded tissue as the tears run down her face unimpeded.
Sasha stifles a sigh. “I’m sorry to say that’s not the way the law works, Megan.”
Megan wails and twists the source of her current distress—the 3.5-carat monstrosity on her left ring finger. “I don’t understand.”
Take a deep breath. And explain it to her. Again.
“Your future sister-in-law is suing you under a cause of action called conversion. To establish conversion, she needs to show four things. One, she has the right to the ring. Two, you intentionally interfered with her ability to exercise that right. Three, your interference deprived her of the possession or use of the ring. And, fourth and finally, she’s sustained damages as a result.”
“But, I didn’t interfere with anything. Carter proposed, and I said yes. I don’t understand.”
“I know it’s confusing. But the law doesn’t require you to know you don’t have a right to the ring.”
Fire flashes in the younger woman’s eyes. “I do have a right to this ring. This is my ring.”
“No, Megan, that’s the point. It’s Paige’s ring.”
“But Grandma Helene gave it to Carter’s mom. And she gave it to Carter. Why does Paige have any say in what happens to it?”
Sasha keeps her tone gentle. “Because Carter’s mom didn’t have the authority to give the ring to anybody. Helene’s will was clear. Carter’s mom was to hold the ring until Paige was ready to marry and then give it to Paige’s fiancé, whomever that might be. She should never have given it to Carter, and she admits that now. I’m sure she lost sight of Helene’s wishes in her excitement.”
“So it was Carter’s mom’s mistake. Not mine.”
“I know it’s hard to understand, but this isn’t like Monopoly. There’s no ‘bank error in your favor’ card.”
“I’m innocent,” Megan wails.
“What you said earlier is right. Carter’s mom made an innocent mistake by giving you the ring. And you didn’t realize you had no right to it when you accepted it. That’s also an innocent mistake. But the law looks to see who’s harmed, and that’s Paige.”
“But I didn’t know.”
“I understand, but it doesn’t matter. The only intent required—under the law—is that you intend to keep the ring. You do, right?”
Another twist of the band. “Of course I do.”
Sasha shakes her head. “And that’s conversion.”
The bride-to-be changes tack. “But Paige isn’t even dating anyone. What if she never gets married?”
“That doesn’t matter either.”
“So how do we fight this?”
Instead of answering, Sasha asks the question they’ve been dancing around. “What does Carter think?”
A long, heavy silence settles over the conference room. Sasha resists the urge to check her cell phone notifications and allows her gaze to settle on Megan’s flawless, dewy face. She notes the tightening of the bride-to-be’s jaw, the drawing together of her eyebrows. She steels herself for an explosion.
But when Megan answers, she does so in a soft voice. “Carter says to just let it go. Give the ring back to his mom or to Paige or whatever and he’ll buy me a new one—a bigger one.”
“And that’s not acceptable?”
“I’ll look like a sucker. Like a chump.” She lifts her chin. “I won’t start out in the family on such unequal footing. It puts me at a disadvantage.”
“You should reconsider. You’re going to lose this case if it goes to trial—if not before. If Paige’s attorney has half a brain, he’ll file a motion for summary judgment. And he’ll win.”
Megan’s angelic face hardens. “Then I guess I need a better lawyer than you.”
Sasha nods, scribbles a name on her notepad, and rips off the sheet. “Here. Go see him. He’ll take the case. And he does divorce law, too.”
Megan wrinkles her nose. “So?”
Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Do not say it.
She says it. “Within a year of the wedding, I bet you’ll be looking for a divorce attorney.” She stands. “Would you like me to walk you out?”
Megan doesn’t answer. She flings open the door and huffs her way out into the hallway. Before the door can swing closed, Caroline catches it and pokes her head inside.
“I take it your one o’clock appointment is over?”
The firm administrator gives her a knowing look, but she has more pressing concerns than the loss of a spoiled heiress as a client. “Your nephew called—twice. I think he was crying the second time. I put him into your voicemail.”
“Thanks. Wait—which one?”
* * *
Sasha listens to the voicemail a second time, and then a third. It still doesn’t make sense, but she punches in the number Colin left. Her hands shake. While the call connects, she takes a few deep breaths to calm herself. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
“Principal Dunbar’s office.”
“This is Sasha McCandless-Connelly. I’m trying to reach Colin McCandless. He’s a student.”
“Of course. One moment.” The assistant’s tone shifts from one of cheerful competence to something somber, almost grim.
Colin, what did you do?
Her wondering is interrupted when the principal comes on the line. “This is Keenan Dunbar.”
His husky voice jogs a memory and she pictures him, cheering on the baseball team from the sidelines, his face painted in the school colors—one half green, one half gold.
“Mr. Dunbar, I’m Colin’s aunt. He left me a message that said he’s been arrested. Is that true?”
“Not … exactly. There’s been an incident, and the authorities are investigating. They have some questions for your nephew. I suggested we loop in his parents first and he asked us to call you instead. I understand you’re a lawyer?”
Despite the circumstances, she smiles. Good boy, Colin.
“I am,” she confirms. “And I’d like to speak to my client.”
“Client? Uh, okay.”
After a moment of muffled noise, her nephew’s voice, unsteady and unnaturally high, sounds in her ear. “Aunt Sasha?”
He sniffles and blurts, “I’m in big trouble. They think—”
“Listen. Remember what I taught you?”
“Don’t say another word. I’m leaving my office now. I’ll call your mom and dad from the car. Don’t call them. Don’t talk to Principal Dunbar or the police officer until I get there. Okay?”
“Okay, but he’s not a police officer. He’s some kind of federal agent.”
She blinks and tightens her grip on the phone before she drops it. “A federal agent?”
“Yeah. Um, Agent Merriweather.”
This changes things.
“Put him on the phone and, remember, not another word to anyone.”
Instead of Agent Merriweather, the principal comes back on the line. “Ms. McCandless-Connelly, I understand you want to speak to the agent.”
“This is all very unusual.”
“I’ll say. Why is a federal agent questioning a minor without his parents present? What agency does this Merriweather work for? What crime is being investigated? Shall I go on?”
She can almost hear his shoulders slump under the barrage of questions. “No, I get the picture. Why don’t you come on out here? I think Colin probably could use your help.”
She allows herself a moment of satisfaction. She’s showing up at the school no matter what. Having an invitation saves her some time and hassle.
“I’m on my way.” She dumps her laptop and a random assortment of folders into her bag and races out the door, waving to Caroline on her way through the lobby.
She collides into Will in the stairwell and he steadies her before she can do a header down the stairs.
“Whoa, are you okay?” Her partner peers at her over his wire rims, concern wrinkling his eyelids.
“My nephew’s in trouble. He’s sixteen. Do you know a good juvenile defense attorney?”
He purses his lips. “I’ll have to check my contacts list. Is he at Shuman?”
Shuman Juvenile Detention Center is the city’s kiddie prison. If one of the teens who loiters in their parking lot gets picked up for cutting school or dealing weed, they’ll get shipped to juvie. But Sean and Jordan moved to the suburbs for the blue ribbon schools. She’s not sure Colin’s even in Shuman’s jurisdiction. She’s not sure of much of anything.
“No. The details are unclear. A federal agent came to the school and interviewed him. I don’t think he’s been charged with anything—yet. But I think he’s in federal custody. Maybe.”
“The feds?” Will blinks in surprise.
“Yeah. Like I said, it’s not clear. Do you even know what happens to a minor charged with a federal crime? Where will they take him?”
Will’s face is blank. “I have no idea. It’s rare … almost unprecedented. Usually, they refer juvenile cases to the state. They don’t really have a robust criminal system for minors. This isn’t good, Sasha.”
Not good. Leave it to Will, the master of understatement.
“If you have a referral, text it to me, okay?”
“Of course. Go. Take care of your nephew.”
His words float down the stairs behind her. She’s already halfway down.
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