USA TODAY bestselling author Kimberly Belle returns with a deeply addictive thriller exploring the dark side of the digital world when a mommy-blogger’s assistant goes missing.
When Alex first began posting unscripted family moments and motivational messages online, she had no intention of becoming an influencer. Overnight it seemed she’d amassed a huge following, and her hobby became a full-time job—one that was impossible to manage without her sharp-as-a-tack personal assistant, AC.
But all the good-will of her followers turns toxic when one controversial post goes viral in the worst possible way. Alex reaches out to AC for damage control, but her assistant has gone silent. This young woman Alex trusted with all her secrets, who had access to her personal information and front row seats to the pressure points in her marriage and family life, is now missing and the police are looking to Alex and her husband for answers. As Alex digs into AC’s identity – and a woman is found murdered – she’ll find the greatest threat isn’t online, but in her own living room.
Written in alternating perspectives between Alex, her husband, and the mysterious AC, this juicy cat and mouse story will keep you guessing till the very end.
Release date: November 29, 2022
Publisher: Park Row Books
Print pages: 352
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The Personal Assistant
I know the second I crack an eye that the day is going to be brutal. Hot and muggy, the kind of heat that gathers into thick clouds that turn violent later in the afternoon. I feel it before I am fully awake, the low pressure clanging in my temples.
Then again, that’s probably just the tequila.
Pictures flash through my head, stop-start images from last night.
Me disco-dancing around the kitchen... AC pouring shot after shot... My husband, Patrick, watching with a grin.
Oh, God. AC. My social media assistant and operations assistant and every other assistant role you can imagine, my work wife and right-hand gal. Remorse creeps in as I roll to my side, breathing through a wave of nausea. I’m supposed to be the responsible one, the older and wiser boss who sets an example, not her drinking buddy. That last shot was a mistake.
No. The mistake was the half dozen that came before it, and the way I tossed them back one after the other, boom boom boom, like a sorority sister on a mission. I should have stopped after the first one, well before AC’s face started turning fuzzy around the edges.
On the nightstand, two white Excedrin flank a sweaty bottle of water. Patrick, my hero. With a grateful groan, I drop them on my tongue and turn the bottle up, but at the movement or the sudden surge of liquid, my stomach flips and rolls. For a few hairy seconds, I wonder if I will keep them down.
I stare at the ceiling and talk my stomach off the ledge, consoling myself with the reason I was celebrating in the first place.
One million followers.
Even serious, stoic Patrick had to blink twice when I shoved my phone in his face. His eyes bulged at the digits atop my Instagram page, a number that after so many months refusing to budge finally flipped into surreal territory.
The thought sets off a chirrup in my chest, a familiar fizzle and pop behind my breastbone.
One million freaking followers, and they’re following me. @UnapologeticallyAlex.
“I don’t get it,” Patrick said the first time my fame eclipsed his, when a fan handed him her phone and asked for a picture with me. “What are you selling? Some mantra about staying positive in a house with two hormonal girl-monsters? A motivational meme you pilfered from the internet and slapped your logo on? Don’t take this the wrong way, but why is that woman grinning like she just met Beyonce?”
Patrick doesn’t understand the charm of Unapologetically Alex because he’s a numbers guy, a self-made moneyman who dishes financial strategies on the nightly news. He covers topics like how to become a millionaire before the age of twenty-two. How to cultivate real wealth and lifelong financial freedom. How to never work for anyone but yourself ever again. For all my husband’s brilliance, the world of Insta-influencers is as real to him as the tooth fairy. It’s like trying to explain the appeal of cats to a dog person.
The only thing Patrick understands about my job is the financials. How for every ten thousand followers I have, I can demand a higher price for sponsored content; how when those followers are engaged—watching my videos, liking my posts and commenting—I can demand even more. And I’m not going to lie. After years of raising two girls on my own, without a penny or pat on the back from their father, the money is the best part.
But that night in the restaurant after my fangirl left, I did my best to explain the rest.
“She’s grinning because I’m not a rock star. I am her cheerleader, the person who believes more in her than she believes in herself. I am the woman she could be if she just learned to live unapologetically.” It’s my slogan, the one I close out every post and video with. “That’s why she’s so excited, because she’s me. I’m her. We are the same person.”
“She’s you.” Patrick looked over and sure enough there she was, typing away happily on her phone, uploading the picture he’d just taken of us. “She doesn’t look anything like you.”
“It’s not about looks but how I make her feel. She and all the millions of women just like her are sick of scrolling Instagram and feeling shitty about themselves as a result. Why do women insist on comparing ourselves to people we don’t know and will likely never meet? When did external validation become a prerequisite for our inner peace? Doubts, stresses, anxieties, expectations, comparisons. Let all that shit go. Live your own life, be your own person. Show the world your authentic, badass self and the rest will come. You are perfect as you are.”
It’s the speech I’ve used many times on panels and interviews to explain the success of Unapologetically Alex—a persona I fell into almost by chance. It all started with a silly post that went viral, but in the comments and DMs I noticed a theme: a very loud, very vocal tribe of women who are sick of stuffing themselves into the mold other people created for them. The perfect mother, the perfect housewife, the perfect hostess and friend and lover. What even are those things, anyway? And why would we let anyone else define how we want to live our own lives? But for whatever reason, they latched on to that post and appointed me their de facto leader. After that, all I had to do was hang on to that crown.
A billion users. A hundred million images uploaded a day. After that first, viral post, I wanted a piece of the Instagram pie.
But cranking out a constant stream of content is exhausting, and followers and likes don’t necessarily equal money in the bank. It’s why I hired AC, to take over some of my day-to-day tasks and free up my time so I can translate my platform into actual cash. A podcast series, sponsorships that pay with checks instead of boxes of merchandise that clog up my garage, a kick-ass book proposal that’s about to go to auction—these are just a few of the projects in the pipeline.
As if my thoughts have conjured him, Patrick appears in the bedroom, a steaming mug and a plate in his hands. “Morning, sunshine.” He flashes a smile. “I figured you might be having a rough go of it.”
I groan and push myself to a sit. “Why didn’t you stop me after the second shot? You know how tequila makes me crotchety.”
“Woman, I tried. I told you about that time in Tulum when you drove your bike into the ocean and spent the entire next day hanging over an eco-toilet. Or when you fell headfirst into the bushes outside Lasky Steakhouse, and I had to drag you out by your ankles. I even poured the bottle down the sink, but you made AC go out and get another. You seriously don’t remember any of this?”
I wince, shaking my head, and it thuds in response. “Please tell me I was passed out by the time she came back.”
“Uh, no, you were not passed out. You were screaming about belly shots.”
He hands me the mug, then reaches past me for a button on the wall. The motor hums and tugs the shades upward, filling the bedroom with bright light.
“Sadly, no. There were no belly shots, but not for lack of trying. Though I will say, that image of you draped across the kitchen island in your underwear, screaming for AC to—and I quote—‘pour the freakin’ tequila in my belly button so my smokin’ hot husband can suck it out’ will stay with me until the end of time.” He lifts my white tank to reveal my stomach, where the skin is still sticky. “Very little liquid actually made it into your belly button. AC was laughing too hard.”
I plunk the mug on the nightstand and cover my face with both hands, discovering the remnants of yesterday’s mascara in tiny beads smeared down my cheeks. “No. No no no no no. Tell me I did not do that. And tell me the girls didn’t hear.”
My twins from my first marriage, Gigi and Penelope, whose rooms are at the top of the stairs, are twelve going on twenty-five. An age where they are all raging hormones and shitty attitudes and mortified by my very existence. They tell me this with slamming doors and rolling eyeballs, because otherwise they would have to actually talk to me, their mother, who is too loud, too silly and weird and embarrassing—mostly the last one. There’s nothing quite as savage as a preteen’s ridicule. It leaves a mark, one that lingers for a very long time.
Patrick sinks onto the edge of the bed, sliding the plate onto my outstretched legs. He picks up a triangle of toast and presses it to my lips. “Here. The bread will soak up some of the booze.”
“The girls, Patrick.”
He dips a meaningful gaze to my plate—a bite for an answer. Good God, I love this man. Solid and stable and endlessly good-natured, an excellent protector and stepfather to my two girls. The kind of man who is the polar opposite of their deadbeat father.
And Patrick has always been so generous, sharing this house and his bank account with me and the twins, never treating it as his money but ours. His financial advice segment at WXBA is another way he gives back, his contribution to the city in the form of investment tips and money tricks in language anybody can understand. Atlanta’s very own money guru.
I nibble off a corner of the bread, and it’s gone soggy in the middle from the butter, but he used the good kind, the organic one with sea salt. When my stomach doesn’t revolt, I follow it up with another.
“This is delicious, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. And judging by the side-eyes the girls gave me this morning, I’m guessing they heard most of it, though I did give them a stern talking-to in the car on the dangers of binge drinking. I’ve never seen them so excited to get to school.”
The thought of that awkward twenty-three-minute drive unravels something in my chest. Patrick adores taking the girls to school. It’s one of the few times he gets them all to himself, and they tell their stepfather things they would never in a million years tell me, their own mother. It’s good for him to get some special time with them, eye rolls and all.
My phone buzzes on the nightstand, and we both ignore it.
“Thank you for being the responsible one, and for taking such good care of me. But mostly, thank you for not fussing.” I reach up to cup his cheek with my free hand.
“Last night you told me if I fussed, I could forget about getting another blow job. Ever. For the rest of my life. No way I’m risking that.”
I laugh. “Even when drunk off my ass, I know what makes Patrick Hutchinson tick, and guess what? It’s not money.”
“Don’t tell anyone. The truth would ruin me.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.”
We are quiet for the span of three breaths, a shared moment of complicity.
His hand skims up my leg, making the skin of my thigh tingle. “How’s the head?”
I test it with a little shake. “Better.”
I drop the last bite of toast onto the plate, and Patrick moves it to the nightstand, his gaze never leaving mine. The fingertips of his other hand hit the fabric of my pajama shorts and keep going. Six years with this man, and he can still do this to me—melt me with a look, heal my hangovers with a kiss. I wrap my arm around his neck and pull his face to mine, so handsome it makes my heart ache.
On the nightstand, my phone buzzes again and again, a solid stream of messages and notifications, reminding me of the million things on the agenda for today, the meetings and the strategizing and the twins’ late-afternoon soccer game halfway to Tennessee. I let all that shit go and feel my husband’s warm, willing body on top of mine. His strong hands, having their way with me.
His lips freeze halfway across my collarbone, and he glances at the screen, lit up with an avalanche of incoming notifications. Patrick spends a lot of time in a newsroom. He witnesses every crazy storm and school shooting. Of course he has to look.
“Oh.” He lifts my phone from the nightstand. “Oh.”
“Just some trolls.” He shakes his head, replaces the phone. “Really angry ones.”
Last week a few trolls were after me because of the casual mention of the fact I have a house cleaner, and the week before that the jeans I was wearing weren’t earth-friendly enough, and before that an eagle-eyed follower identified the champagne I was sipping as Ruinart instead of some cheap prosecco. I’ve been in this business long enough to have learned to ignore the haters. And I do. Mostly.
I think about what they could possibly be objecting to this time, posts and comments I’ve made in the past few days. I shuffle through them in my mind, but it could be any one of a million things. Trolls, internet warriors, keyboard crusaders, whatever you want to call them—they’re always angry about something.
I pick up the phone, and the notifications roll by faster than I can read them, an endless stream of vitriol.
Also, these aren’t trolls. These are handles I recognize, ones I interact with all the time. I know the emojis they favor and the superlatives they throw around in my comment sections. Amazing. Obsessed. Thank youuuuu. These are women normally gushing with gratitude, who share my posts and DM me like we’re old friends. Now they have nothing but ugliness, pummeling me with hateful words that sear themselves onto my skin like a cattle brand.
I push Patrick off and lurch to a sit, trying to make sense of the storm rolling across my cell phone screen.
And that’s when it happens—the toast making a reappearance, the tequila returning for revenge. I toss my phone and the covers and sprint to the bathroom.
@Patriciainpa Ummm @rachel76 did you see this latest post? Am I the only one who feels hoodwinked?
@rachel76 I see it, and no, you’re not the only one. WTF is wrong with this woman? Unfollowing.
@Patriciainpa I’m still following but only to see what horrible things come out of her mouth next. If nothing else this thing with @unapologeticallyalex is gonna be hella entertaining.
@misterfluffles @rachel76 @patriciainpa I’ve been telling you all along this bitch is not what she seems, and neither for that matter is her husband. Do y’all believe me now?
I’m brushing my teeth when Patrick comes into the bathroom, my cell phone clutched in a fist.
“Did you find it?” I say around a mouthful of foam. All the phones in this house have the same passcode—a rule Patrick and I insisted on when the twins got theirs—and I assume that’s what he’s been doing in the bedroom all this time, searching for the source of the blast. The post that sometime during my tequila-infused slumber turned into ground zero.
“Found it.” Patrick’s gaze flits to mine in the glass. His shirt hangs loose from where I pulled it out of his pants, his hair still mussed from my fingers. But the look on his face sets off a sinking sensation in my gut. “It’s the one you uploaded last night.”
I flip on the water, spit into the stream, use it to rinse out my mouth. “I didn’t post anything last night.”
The words come automatically, because it’s another rule. I don’t upload anything before AC double-and triple-checks for typos, and I definitely don’t post when I’m drinking. An iffy word choice, a misinterpreted sentiment—you never know what people will latch on to and blow up big enough to knock you off your perch. That’s the thing about internet pedestals, they’re shaky. I’ve seen too many other influencers crash and burn.
“I didn’t post.” I say the words, but my skin goes hot with foreboding.
“According to the fifteen thousand notifications and counting, you posted.”
My molars snap shut because fifteen thousand. It’s a number that any other morning would make me merry as a rat, whacking away at the endorphin lever. Fifteen thousand is a lot.
I stare at him in the mirror, trying not to notice how his mouth looks pinched. “How many likes?” Ratio is important. When the comments outnumber the likes, it means there could be a problem.
“Only a couple hundred.” Patrick winces, because he knows what it means, too. “Not all the comments are bad, FYI. Some of your followers are actually sticking up for you.”
It’s easier for someone like Patrick, whose entire brand is built around teaching people how to find financial freedom. The trolls generally leave Patrick alone. What person in their right mind could possibly object to having more money?
“Oh my God, just tell me!”
“Okay, so you know that actress in that show the girls are always talking about, the one about some boarding school for rich kids in France?” Patrick steps closer, reaching past me to turn off the water. “Dark hair, big lips, fake British accent?”
Something screeches through my mind like a bad memory, one that flicks away before I can grab hold.
“Krissie Kelly, the one I can’t stand? That one?”
While it’s true I’m not a fan, I didn’t post about Krissie. And even if I did—which I definitely didn’t—I’d know better than to say what I really think.
But my heart taps double time because I was talking about her just yesterday. Penelope and I got into an argument about it, because she worships Krissie Kelly.
He slides a thumb up my phone screen. “Apparently, she posted a video from some friend’s birthday party and—”
“It wasn’t just some friend, it was her best friend, who also happens to be a porn star, and that video was like an episode of Girls Gone Wild. Booze everywhere, which, okay, fine, I’m one to talk, I get that. But she also didn’t bother to hide the powder and pills on every horizontal surface or the threesome taking place in the corner. This is not someone we want our daughters to be looking up to, Patrick. She’s a bad influence.”
He blinks at me in surprise. “That’s pretty much word for word what you said when you reposted it.”
“I reposted her video?” He nods, and the knot between my shoulder blades loosens, just a tad. “Okay. I can spin that. I’m a mother. I’m speaking up for impressionable children everywhere. That’ll work, right?”
“Maybe, but it’s the words in your caption that people seem to be latching on to. Three very long paragraphs calling her an attention-seeking slut—”
“I called her a slut?”
He makes a face. “It gets worse. You also said—and I quote—‘Somebody please tell me what’s so great about Krissie Kelly. She can’t act, she’s ass-ugly and she’s got the brains of a dodo bird, and the only talent that is even remotely relevant is her willingness to hang her bare ass out for all the world to see. Somebody get that girl a GED and some self-esteem, and while you’re at it maybe a nose job because the one she’s got isn’t doing her any favors. Can we please stop worshipping this talentless train wreck? Eyes wide open, people. Krissie Kelly is—’”
“‘—a two-bit whore.’”
For a long moment, I can’t speak. I don’t know what to say. Krissie Kelly is a train wreck, which I might not find so offensive if my girls weren’t so obsessed with the former Disney star, and though I may have said those words in the privacy of my own home—I’ve thought them plenty of times—there’s not enough tequila in the world to make me upload a post that damning.
“Oh my God. Oh my God.” I toss my toothbrush into the sink and whirl around, snatching my phone from my husband’s fingers and navigating to my profile, and there it is. The reposted video with the scathing caption, just like Patrick reported. It’s as awful as he said. I tap the link for insights—likes, comments, shares and reach—and my fingers clamp around the phone. “A hundred and seventy-five thousand views?”
I stare at my screen in disbelief. A hundred and seventy-five thousand people saw my post, and almost half of them aren’t even following me. “Oh, no. No no no no no. This can’t be happening.”
Patrick doesn’t respond, because he knows that sometime in the middle of the night, while I was sleeping off the tequila, I went and did that thing millions of people spend countless hours brainstorming and concocting and scheming to do but almost no one ever achieves. ...
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