One Child Alive
One, two, three. She counts the bodies dragged from the burning beach house, smoke rising from their cotton pajamas, and remembers a fourth; red hair, freckles, clinging to his mother’s legs, begging to watch the fireworks a while longer. “Where’s the little boy?” she whispers… In the ashes of the Fox family’s seafront vacation home, Olivia Rockwell can barely hold back her tears as she wonders who in the close-knit town of Fog Harbor could destroy such a warm, loving family. Then she spots a little green toy soldier in the sand and follows a set of small footprints along the beach to an abandoned lifeguard hut. Inside, she finds the youngest Fox child, Thomas. The only survivor… Holding his trembling body close, Olivia promises to keep him safe. She knows the agony of losing family at such a young age. But the second Thomas catches sight of Detective Will Decker’s sliver police badge over her shoulder, the little boy’s scream pierces the night. Could the family have been targeted by someone sworn to protect them? Is anyone safe if the police themselves are the primary suspect? Unsure who she can trust, Olivia keeps hold of the tiny horseshoe charm she finds at the scene and follows the trail deep into the web of lies surrounding this seemingly perfect family. But just as a tip-off from a local lighthouse-keeper puts the killer within reach, tragedy strikes: little Thomas is snatched from his bed. Up against a calculating monster who seems to know her every weakness, Olivia must dig deeper than ever before to find this innocent child. But when one twisted killer becomes two, can she stay alive long enough to save him? A totally gripping and utterly addictive page-turner that will have you biting your nails and reeling at the twists. Perfect for fans of Melinda Leigh, Lisa Regan and Kendra Elliot! Everyone is talking about Ellery Kane: ‘ Omg… Wow, just wow, I loved this… addictive… gripping… fast-paced, packed full of twists and turns, kept me guessing and had me captivated and glued to my e-reader… gave me a very bad case of just-one-more-chapter syndrome… I would give it more than five stars if I could… Very, very highly recommended.’ Nicki’s Life of Crime, 5 stars ‘ Perfect… heart-stopping… glued to this book!… Buckle your seatbelt and prepare for a bumpy ride!’ NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars ‘ Fantastic… a hold-on-tight, prepare-to-not-sleep, white-knuckle suspense! Keeps you guessing to the end! ’ Novels and Latte, 5 stars ‘ Grabbed me from the beginning and sucked me in. I couldn’t put this one down and read it in one sitting.’ Nicki's Book Blog ‘ Will keep you turning the pages… on the edge of your seat and biting your lip with no time to catch your breath.’ Spooky's Maze of Books, 5 stars ‘Looking for twists and turns you never see coming? Then this is the book for you!… perfectly paced… keeping you on the edge of your seat. Start this series today! You will not regret it!’ The Butterfly Reader, 5 stars ‘ Gripping… kept me reading until late at night and on the edge of my seat… I LOVED IT! ’ Bookworm86, 5 stars ‘ PERFECTION!… you won’t want to put this book down… keeps you guessing until the end! ’ NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
Release date: June 23, 2021
Print pages: 350
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One Child Alive
Hannah nudged open the bathroom door, planning to reveal herself slowly, knowing her husband, Peter, would be waiting in the bedroom to admire her. She’d convinced him to come home early from the law office—a rare feat—so the magazine’s photographer could take advantage of the golden hour. Following the family interview with Ms. Abbott, the renowned Claude Cappo would snap the cover shot in their backyard just after seven o’clock. Hannah had overlooked no detail.
Peter met her eyes in the dresser mirror, where he stood lacing the necktie she had picked out for him.
“Whoa.” He let out a low whistle as he turned to her.
“Does that mean you like it?” Not wanting to ruin her lipstick, she offered her cheek for a quick peck.
“You look beautiful, Hannah. You always do.”
She took over, straightening his tie and smoothing the shoulders of his matching sports coat. “Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I know it’s not your cup of tea, but Marie insisted. And it will be great publicity for the Children’s Hospital. Not to mention for the law practice.”
He chuckled. “I’m happy to talk up the charity work you’re doing for the hospital. But if I get any busier at the office, I might have to set up a bedroom there. The DA agreed to a plea deal in the Markum case, by the way.”
“You’re a genius.” Hannah beamed. Peter had been voted Top Defense Attorney in Santa Barbara five years running. A skilled trial lawyer with a book of high-profile cases, he always had the DA running scared. That kind of influence attracted attention, hence today’s interview and the tightness in her throat. “So, an office bedroom, huh? Will you let me sleep over sometimes?”
She wiggled her eyebrows at him, giving him a quick swat on the butt before she left to wrangle the children.
Hannah checked four-year-old Thomas’s room first, sighing at the mess she found there. His navy plaid shirt and little blazer lay on the bed just where she’d placed them over an hour ago, overtaken by his green plastic army men. She scooped the soldiers up by the handful and tossed them into the plastic bin, hoping Thomas hadn’t gone far.
Next, she knocked on Dylan’s door, pounding hard enough to jar him from his adolescent stupor—video games, cell phones, and the surge of testosterone that had turned him overnight from a boy into a gangly, pimple-faced zombie. At fourteen, he was the spitting image of his father and just as stubborn. “Ten minutes and counting, Dylan. You need to look presentable.”
“Alright, alright.” A groan, then silence.
“And comb your hair.”
Hannah hurried downstairs, where she spotted eleven-year-old Lily already dressed and seated on the plush sofa that had set them back for more than Hannah’s first car. She could always count on her daughter in a pinch.
Gritting her teeth in frustration, Lily looked up at her. “Will you put this on for me?”
Lily opened her hand, revealing the charm bracelet she’d unwrapped at Christmas. As Hannah looped it around her daughter’s slim wrist and fastened the delicate clasp, a single butterfly charm dangled from the gold band. Hannah had promised Lily another—a pair of ballet slippers—for her birthday in August.
“Where is your little brother?” Hannah asked.
Lily shrugged, mirroring Hannah’s annoyance. “I haven’t seen Thomas since he asked Dylan to play with him. Dylan called him a baby and made him cry.”
Sighing deeply, Hannah glanced at the oversized wall clock that hung above the stone fireplace. It had been a wedding gift from her sister, Nora. Lovely, but a little tongue-in-cheek, since Nora knew she’d never been late—and never would be—a day in her life.
“Will you help me look for him, Lily-bear?” Hannah began back up the staircase. “Be careful with your dress though. It’s silk.”
While Lily searched downstairs, Hannah met Peter on the landing, greeting him with an exasperated smile. She wanted today to be perfect, to finally prove to herself she belonged here. In a neighborhood with a gate and a security booth. In a house three times the size of the one where she and Nora had grown up. In clothes with fancy designer labels. With a husband everyone admired.
“Are you alright?” he asked, squeezing her shoulder.
“Thomas is missing.”
“You know how he gets.” Already, Hannah felt the first signs of panic. A flutter in her chest, dampness beneath her armpits. A sense that time had run out. Because it had, in fact, nearly. In exactly eight minutes, Marie Abbott would appear on the doorbell camera, looking effortlessly chic and expecting the Fox family to be present in their entirety to regale her with tales of their success. Hannah felt like a total impostor.
With tunnel vision, Hannah led the search through the house. They checked all the usual places. Beneath the coffee table and behind the sofa. In the well-stocked pantry and under the bed. Closet doors, flung open. Curtains, pulled back. But Thomas had left no trace.
When the bell rang, Hannah winced as if she’d been struck. Still, she composed herself, took a breath, and followed Peter to the door. He laughed as he opened it. Next to Marie and Claude and their assistant, Thomas shuffled from one bare foot to the other, his red hair wild as the weeds. In his hand, his very favorite toy soldier, Ranger Rob.
“I take it this charming fellow belongs to you.” Marie gazed down at the little boy adoringly, while Hannah plastered a smile onto her own face. Thomas troubled her, with his quiet sensitivity. She feared the world would break him. “Claude discovered him stowed away in the hedge. He gave us quite a scare.”
“That’s Thomas,” Hannah managed. “Always finding the best hiding places.”
Later, after Thomas had been cleaned up and dressed to match the rest of the family, after the interview and the photo shoot by the pool in the golden hour, Marie pulled Hannah aside, showing her a digital mock-up of the cover. “Next month’s issue,” she pronounced. “We’ll call it Santa Barbara’s Perfect Family. What do you think?”
Hannah nodded her approval dispassionately. But in all her life, she had never been more pleased.
Olivia Rockwell flinched at the first explosion. Fireworks bloomed in the night sky, sending ripples of color across the black ocean water and lighting the freckles on her sister’s face. Olivia paused briefly, watching the crowd gasp and cheer, before tugging Emily toward the car.
“But Liv, this is the good part.”
“You’re drunk.” That word had history, and it zipped off Olivia’s tongue, keen as a blade.
“So?” Em shrugged off her hand but followed behind. “That’s the whole point of summer break. I’m only here for a few weeks. Let me have a little fun.”
“Fun?” How many times had their mother used that line, sloshed drunk from a long night at the Hickory Pit? “You asked Warden Blevins for a piggyback ride.”
Another blast illuminated the parking lot and muffled Emily’s sharp scoff. “Well, he didn’t say no.”
“Because he was mortified.”
Pushing thoughts of the red-faced warden from her mind, Olivia unlocked the Buick station wagon she’d inherited from their mother. She was stone-cold sober and, unbelievably, her sister’s antics hadn’t been the most embarrassing moment of her night. Still, she directed a stern finger at the passenger seat that Emily promptly ignored. “He’s my boss, Em.”
“It’s not like I have a thing for him.” In the tradition of little sisters, she raised her voice with one purpose: big sister’s abject humiliation. “You’re the one who’s got the hots for—”
Em groaned as she joined Olivia inside the airless Buick, still stuffy from the warmth of the day. “You’re not hiding it from anyone, you know. And neither is Deck. He barely took his eyes off you the whole night. I told you that sundress would turn his head.”
Though Olivia couldn’t deny Detective Will Decker looked damn good in a swimsuit, she ignored the wiggle of Emily’s eyebrows. She busied herself instead, rolling down the windows, starting the car, pulling out of the crowded lot, and steering for home. Pine Grove Road could be crowded with tourists this time of year, so she opted for the dirt road cut-through instead. “Can you believe Graham Bauer punched that lawyer? I’m pretty sure Deck was too busy reining him in to notice my outfit.”
“Oh, he noticed.” Em giggled. “But nice try changing the subject. Do you think that lawyer guy could really get Graham kicked off the force?”
Olivia didn’t answer. As the car rumbled down the path, her heart drummed faster and louder, matching the distant sounds of the fireworks. “Is that smoke?”
Em leaned out the passenger window, letting the breeze blow back her strawberry-blonde curls. She scrunched her nose. “It smells like it.”
“Look.” Olivia maneuvered off the road, pointing in horror at the silhouette of a sports utility vehicle parked on the shoulder. The bright orange flames transfixed her, flaring from the back seat and licking at the tree trunks like angry waves against the sheer cliffs. Black smoke plumed from its center, signaling doom.
“There’s someone inside.” Olivia’s throat burned.
She cracked her door open.
The fire threw sparks at her, its embers glowing in the grass, warning her to come no closer.
But still, she charged forward until she felt its simmering heat.
Through the open driver’s window, the man lay still in the seat. Only the fire moved, flicking like a snake’s tongue at his back.
Neither the heat nor Olivia’s frantic shouting roused him. She looked back to where Emily stood, wide-eyed and talking hurriedly into her cell phone. At least she’d be safe.
Olivia pulled her thin sweater tight around her body, covered her nose and mouth with her forearm, and darted nearer to the flames. The heat met her like a brick wall. She started to sweat, the soft fabric of her blue sundress clinging to her skin.
Still secured by his seat belt, the man’s body had slumped sideways onto the console. When she shook his shoulder, he made no sound. She reached inside, disconnected the belt, and grabbed his arm, struggling to maneuver him through the door as the fire slithered closer and closer to the cab. The flames taunted her in a dangerous game of strike and retreat.
“Leave him!” Emily yelled.
Olivia’s eyes burned as she choked on the thick smoke, already feeling lightheaded. But she nearly had him. She held the man beneath his armpits, dragging him out and to the ground. His feet dropped heavy as boulders into the grass.
The greedy fire moved faster now. But Olivia’s body refused to move. The man lay half on top of her, his head lolling on her stomach. Though she didn’t know him, she recognized his face in an instant, and she couldn’t look away from the vicious wound in his left temple. The blood, wet and red on her hands, took her right back there to the Double Rock projects, with her father standing over Tina Solomon’s dead body, a knife in his hands. She was eight years old and helpless, her legs useless as stumps.
Olivia gasped for breath, her vision blurring. Above her, the black sky stretched forever. Pinpricks of light danced at its periphery, flickering like stars.
A distant wailing cut through the roar in her head. From somewhere, her sister screamed her name.
She imagined her father scooping her up and carrying her far from this place, the same way he’d taken her from Apartment E that night twenty-seven years ago.
When a pair of strong arms lifted her, she latched on and surrendered to them completely. With the last of her effort, she tilted her head, expecting to see her father’s face. No matter that he’d been dead four months now.
Detective Will Decker pondered the ridiculousness of his tan boat shoes and navy swim trunks. Entirely appropriate for the Hickory Pit’s Barbecue Bash, but completely out of place at a crime scene. The only barbecue here the charred remains of the victim’s SUV that had been doused ten minutes ago by Fog Harbor Fire and Rescue.
Will studied the body near his feet while he waited for the medical examiner, Chet Clancy, to arrive. Already, he could imagine Chet’s practiced voice pronouncing, Single gunshot wound to the head.
Olivia had risked her life to rescue a dead man. Will let his eyes wander to the back of the ambulance, where she sat by Emily, wrapped in a blanket and inhaling oxygen through a mask. Half her mouth twisted at him in an ironic smile, and her dimple tugged at his heart like she held it by a string.
Olivia had nearly died rescuing a dead man.
Finally, Will spotted Detective Jimmy Benson’s blue Camaro skirting the police barricade. JB and his fourth ex-wife, Tammy—they’d remarried in June at the Little White Chapel in Vegas—had been stuck in traffic on the main road for twenty minutes trying to bypass the tourists who’d left the fireworks show. He’d been buzzing Will’s cell every five minutes to unleash a string of expletives while Tammy tsk, tsked in the background.
Will had been fortunate he’d left the beach early, even if he had been running away. He’d heard the call over the portable radio in his truck as the last of the sparklers illuminated the sky. He glanced back to Olivia and shook his head at her, returning her dim smile.
“Damn tourists!” JB ran an exasperated hand through his graying buzz cut and let out a heavy breath. “I’d like to beat them senseless with their selfie sticks.”
Will could always count on JB to reach new heights of inappropriateness. But tonight he seemed especially rattled. “You okay, partner? You look a little flushed.”
After a few raps of his fist against his breastbone, JB belched. “I shouldn’t have had that third plate of ribs, but Tammy okayed it. She let me call it a cheat day, it being the Fourth and all.”
Will motioned Chet over with a grim wave before returning his attention to JB. “Did you tell her every day is a cheat day?” Since mid-March, JB had been living on the edge, lying to Tammy about his strict adherence to her diet regimen. Low-carb at home, carb-load at work had become JB’s secret motto, most often uttered between mouthfuls.
“Now why the hell would I do that?” He glanced back at the Camaro, where Tammy had taken a seat on the hood, and lowered his voice. “Come to think of it, I’ll tell Tammy the truth when you tell Olivia you want to join her in the horizontal tango.”
“Horizontal what?” With his cheeks burning—Will knew exactly what JB meant—he heaved a grateful sigh as Chet approached.
“What do we have, gentlemen?”
Will stepped aside, gesturing to the dead man. “Doctor Rockwell pulled him out of the car before the whole thing caught fire. It looks to me like he’s been shot in the head.”
As Chet dropped to one knee in the damp grass, JB gawked at the body awash in the lights from the emergency vehicles as if he’d only just noticed the man, sunburned and slack-jawed. Still clad in his beach gear, one flip-flop had been lost to the fire. The other lay in the grass, its strap broken. On the man’s left ring finger, a slim gold band. On his right wrist, a Rolex watch.
“Sheesh, City Boy. Him? When were you gonna tell me?”
Chet peered up at them while he examined the man’s head with a gloved hand. “You two know this man?”
Will grimaced at the irony of it. Chief Flack was going to blow a gasket. “I wouldn’t go that far. But he and Graham Bauer got into it today at the beach in front of that B&B, Shells-by-the-Sea. His kid ran up to catch a football and plowed into Bauer. The guy came over and they exchanged a few words. Then Bauer hauled off and punched him. When he came to, he was understandably pissed off. He announced himself as some big-shot attorney and threatened to sue Bauer and take his badge. JB and I had to help security escort them both to their cars.”
The entire incident had left Will with a bad feeling, a familiar kind of dread. Because as much as he wanted to pass judgment on Graham Bauer, he knew a thing or two about the kind of bad decisions that sprouted from a brain pickled in alcohol. One of many reasons he’d sworn off drinking years ago.
“What time was that?” Chet asked, glancing back at the burned shell of the SUV.
“Late afternoon. Around three o’clock, I’d say. I’m fairly certain the B&B security guard, Wade Coffman, wrote an incident report.”
“Any firearms in the vehicle?”
Will shook his head, distracted by his thoughts unspooling back to the crowded beach parking lot.
“Then it’s highly unlikely he committed suicide.” Chet pointed to the circular hole on the victim’s left temple. “Perforating entrance wound to the right temporal scalp. Medium caliber, I’d say. Fired at close range. Exit wound on the left occipital. Any chance forensics found the bullet?”
“They’re waiting for Fire and Rescue to give us the all-clear before we search the area.” Will nodded at the fire engine parked at the scene. Though the car’s remains had been extinguished, the heady smell of smoke still lingered from the small patch of smoldering grass beneath it.
“Got a name for this guy?”
Will turned to JB, his partner’s worried face matching his own. The dead man had a name, of course. A name and a family—a wife and three kids. He’d been too drunk to drive himself, so Will had taken the keys from him and placed them in his wife’s hand.
“Don’t you think you should thank Detective Decker?” A mischievous Emily nudged Olivia with her elbow before she hopped off the back of the ambulance and waved Deck over. “It’s only polite.”
Olivia’s head ached; her eyes burned too. The arm of her favorite sweater bore a small singe mark and a bloodstain. But she could breathe well enough to hiss at her sister, “Em. No. Stop.”
Deck made a straight line toward her, his brow furrowed with concern.
Olivia flashed Em a death stare before he arrived, which she promptly disregarded with a shrug—typical—and slunk away to eavesdrop from the shadows.
“You feeling alright, Red Adair?”
“Ha ha. Very funny.” She tried not to stare at his hand on the tailgate mere inches from her thigh. When he moved it and stuck it in the pocket of his shorts, she knew he’d read her mind. She forced herself to think of anything but what had happened between them tonight on the beach. “Is that…?”
“The guy that had a fight with Graham? Yeah.”
“He had a nasty head wound. Gunshot?”
“Chet says so.”
After an awkward silence, they both spoke at once.
“Are you sure you’re—”
“About earlier—” Olivia stopped short, uncertain what she’d intended to say. She took the easy out he’d given her. “Am I okay? Right as rain, thanks to you.”
He nodded, looking down at his boat shoes. “I suppose it was a good thing then, leaving when you did.”
“And you. It’s lucky you were right behind us.”
“Damn lucky.” Deck retrieved the edge of the blanket that had fallen from her shoulder and returned it there. She gave in and let her eyes meet his. Between them, the cool night air felt weighted with all that went unspoken.
The fire engine suddenly roared to life, its siren wailing through the trees like a banshee and sending a shiver straight through Olivia. Pulling in alongside it, she spotted Graham in a patrol car, his partner nowhere in sight. Only in a small town like Fog Harbor could a cop be drunk on the beach in the afternoon and back on duty by the evening. Still, it rattled her, the way his eyes darted.
Deck shouted to JB. “What’s going on?”
“Another fire.” JB jogged up the side of the road toward the ambulance.
Breathless, he rested his hands on his knees, spitting out the words with effort. “That fancy rental up by Shell Beach.”
“Ocean’s Song?” Olivia knew it well since her friend, Leah, owned the B&B next door.
Will’s face paled. “Shit.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“That’s where Peter Fox and his family were staying.”
The sky caught fire and burned. A tower of flame and smoke grew above the redwoods, casting an eerie orange glow in the dark as if the sun had risen too early.
Pedal to the floorboard, Will followed behind the red engine racing toward Shell Beach, gaping out his truck’s front windshield at the menacing inferno. He didn’t like leaving the scene of a murder, especially with Graham showing up. Though Graham had sobered, he’d still acted like an ass, insisting he’d take over in their absence.
“Pull over here.” JB directed him into the ditch, twenty or so yards from the BEACH ACCESS sign.
While the engine sped toward the turnoff, Will steered the truck to a stop and flung open the door, ignoring the smell of smoke that rushed in to meet him. Anxious to lay eyes on the place, he jogged through the tall grass, stopping to wait for JB.
“No offense, but could you move any slower?”
JB raised his middle finger. “It’ll still be on fire when we get there, City Boy.”
The dirt access road led straight to the sands of Shell Beach. Out of place on the rocky coastline of Fog Harbor, it boasted a smooth, white shore, a functioning lifeguard stand, and the best sand dollar-picking in Northern California. The perfect place for a family vacation.
Sharp as a blade, that thought pierced Will’s stomach and twisted, the moment he caught sight of Ocean’s Song through the haze.
Flames engulfed the north end of the house, greedily consuming the bungalow one room at a time. A crew of firemen battled the monster, beating it back with a hose, even as it leapt to life again.
As Will looked on from a distance, the blaze broke through the picture window, and the small crowd of onlookers gasped and moved back, briefly abandoning their cell phone recordings of the devastation.
“Damn.” JB whistled. “That’s one hell of a fire. You think we have a second crime scene?”
Will didn’t answer him. The whole night had begun to feel like an awful dream, the kind that leaves you breathless and drenched in your own sweat. Now, he could only watch and wonder what they’d find upon waking.
With the fire finally doused, Will and JB approached the charred remains of Ocean’s Song. While most of the sprawling house had been spared due to its sturdy cinder block construction, the back had burned beyond recognition. Near the swimming pool deck, ashes blackened the usually pristine sand.
From the periphery of the scene, Fire Lieutenant Jeff Hunt waved them over. The waxing moon spotlighted his tired eyes and drooping shoulders. No surprise to Will since he’d heard the old guy worked himself to the bone, doing double duty as the fire investigator. He even coached the local high school wrestling team on his off days. “Walk with me, Detectives.”
The lieutenant led them up the access road, past the remaining fire engines, and around to the front of the house. “What a night. And I was thinking my biggest problem would be the kiddos getting drunk and setting off illegal fireworks. We usually have at least two grass fires and one lost finger. Hell, I’d take a missing appendage any day over this.”
Will waited for JB to insert his foot in his mouth like usual, but his partner kept it shut instead, wiping a sheen of sweat from his brow as they walked.
“What can you tell us?” Will glanced over Lieutenant Hunt’s shoulder at the intact front door. It yawned open, a warm yellow light glowing from within the foyer and beckoning them inside. From here, nothing seemed amiss. But Will could smell the lingering smoke, caught in his nose like a hideous perfume. A persistent reminder of the hidden devastation.
“For starters, we’ve got three dead bodies.”
“Three?” JB sucked in a breath. “Jiminy Christmas!”
His worst fears confirmed, Will’s heart lurched in his throat. “Burned?”
“Shot in the head from what I was told, but Doc Clancy’s on his way. We’ll let him make the call. Fortunately, only one of the victims was impacted by the fire. We were able to contain the blaze to the back portion of the house. The other two were found just inside the door and moved . . .
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