"Kemmerer will melt your heart and blow your mind." --#1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout On his own Thomas Bellweather hasn't been in town long. Just long enough for his newlywed mother to be murdered, and for his new stepdad's cop colleagues to decide Thomas is the primary suspect. Not that there's any evidence. But before Thomas got to Frederick there had only been one other murder in twenty years. The only person who believes him is Charlotte Rooker, little sister to three cops and, with her soft hands and sweet curves, straight-up dangerous to Thomas. Her friend was the other murder vic. And she’d like a couple answers….Answers that could get them both killed, and reveal a truth Thomas would die to keep hidden. The more they dig, the more it seems the only way they'll hear the real story is from the source--the killer. Not the kind of future plan a college recruiter likes to hear. But then, the better it works, the less likely either of them is going to have a future. . .
Release date: December 29, 2015
Print pages: 432
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Thicker Than Water
Mom bought it two weeks ago, and I hated it then. But she started with the whole please and for me and just this once and I gave in. Because she knows my buttons.
Knew. She knew my buttons.
I hate the past tense.
I’m definitely not a suit guy. She knows that.
She knew that, like she knew how I liked my oatmeal and the reason my hair got too long and how I still don’t like to sleep with my door closed even though eighteen is way too old to be afraid of the dark. If she’d walked into a store to buy me clothes on a random day, she’d walk out with the right things: T-shirts and hoodies and jeans and dark socks. She knew the right kind of charcoal pencils and the right brand of sketchpad and the right time to leave me alone.
The last time she bought me a suit was for Homecoming sophomore year. I wasn’t a suit guy then either, but I’d worked up the nerve to ask Anne Marie Lassiter and she’d said yes, so a suit it was.
I outgrew the girl before I outgrew the suit.
Just this once.
Of all the things Mom said to me, that’s the one that keeps echoing. Because it wasn’t once.
I’m on my third try with this stupid tie, and I’m getting to the point where I just want to hang myself with it. It’s yellow and navy, the colors of the ribbons on her wedding bouquet.
The colors of the bars on Stan’s police uniform.
Ironically, they’re the colors of the bruises on your neck when you die of strangulation.
Trust me. I got a firsthand view.
Just this once.
My hands are shaking now, and I yank the tie free and fling it on my dresser.
Stan knocks on the door and sticks his head in without waiting.
He does that. I hate that.
I don’t hate him, though. Not yet, anyway. I barely know the guy.
Stan probably figured he was hitting the jackpot, marrying a single mom with an eighteen-year-old kid. Get the stepdad brownie points without the work. At first I was worried that he’d be a pain in the ass, being a cop and all. That whole gotta-be-the-bigger-man crap. But I stayed out of his way, he stayed out of mine. He treated her well and made her happy. Good enough for me.
He’s still standing there, looking at me in the mirror.
“What?” I say.
“You about ready?”
I think about telling him I can’t get the tie knotted, but then he’d offer to help me and this would be all kinds of awkward.
This is already all kinds of awkward.
“Yeah,” I say.
He disappears from the doorway.
I ball up the tie and put it in my pocket.
Stan doesn’t say anything during the drive to the church. I don’t either. When he makes a turn, the click of the signal makes my head pound.
It’s weird sitting in the front seat with him. I should be in the back. Mom should be up front, providing a buffer of conversation, asking me about school and graduation while simultaneously asking Stan about cases he’s working on.
Stan is a detective.
I wonder if it’s a blow to his ego, a cop’s wife murdered in his own bed ten days after their wedding. Poor ol’ Stan, the subject of police gossip.
God, I’m such a dick sometimes. Maybe I do hate him. Words are trapped in my mouth, and I’m afraid to say any of them, because they’ll explode out of me with enough force to wreck the car.
Why haven’t you done something?
Why couldn’t you protect her?
HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN?!
Stan was at work when she died. I was in my own bed.
I don’t know which is worse.
I didn’t hear anything. I found her when I woke to use the bathroom.
Maybe I hate myself. Maybe I hate everyone.
“You all right?”
I glance at Stan. His eyes are on the road ahead, and his voice is quiet. I don’t know why he’s even asking. Of course I’m not all right. “Fine,” I say.
He doesn’t ask anything else.
Mom would pry. She’d dig the secrets out of me with the dexterity of an archaeologist, leaving my feelings intact while letting the truth rise to the surface. Like I said, she knew my buttons.
Then again, Stan is a detective, so he can probably do the same thing. Maybe he doesn’t want to pry.
The dead heat of summer gives me a big wet kiss when I climb out of the car, reminding me why I don’t wear suits. Reminding me that I probably should have gotten a haircut when she asked me. My neck already feels damp, and I’m glad I didn’t mess with the tie.
I’ve never been to this church, a long, squat brick building with a steeple at one end and an aluminum roof. Stained glass windows glitter with the Stations of the Cross. Nice. Colorful depictions of suffering and torture. Great place.
I don’t know why we’re having the funeral in a church anyway. Mom dragged me to church all the time when I was a kid, but we haven’t gone in years. Maybe she and Stan went. I don’t know.
Cops are everywhere. Clustered in groups clinging to the shade along the side of the building, off by the parking lot grabbing a quick smoke, slapping Stan on the shoulder.
They ignore me. Good. Sort of.
The atmosphere is wrong here. There’s no sense of loss, no anguish and grief. I feel like I’m trapped in a glass box with my own twisting emotions, watching everyone else at a social event.
I don’t know anyone except Stan. I’m sure I met a few of these people at the wedding, but it was a small ceremony at the courthouse, and no one stands out. Mom’s two friends from back home called to tell me they couldn’t get time off again, couldn’t make the drive out for the second time in two weeks. I said fine, whatever. The only thing worse than being here alone would be mom’s friends treating me like a six-year-old who can’t get a straw into a juice box.
Everyone is standing in groups. Only one other guy is across the parking lot, standing under a tree. He’s not in uniform, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a cop. He’s built like one. He looks like he’s texting. Must really be feeling the loss.
He feels me watching him, because his eyes lift from his phone.
I look away before he can catch my gaze, then pull into the shade myself. It doesn’t help. Part of me wants to put a fist through this brick wall. Another part wants to run from here, to pretend none of this is happening.
Suspicious glances keep flicking my way, as if I’m the oddball here, instead of all the people who don’t even know the woman they’re supposed to be mourning.
Maybe it’s just me. Cops make me nervous. Always have. Maybe it’s a teenager thing, the way they always look at you like you’re on the cusp of doing something wrong. Maybe it’s the year Mom and I spent avoiding the law because Daddy was a very bad man, and we couldn’t risk any kind of trouble.
Maybe it’s the interrogation I had to sit through after finding Mom’s body.
I don’t know what I’m doing here. When we moved in with Stan, I left my friends three hours away. Now we’re way on the south side of Salisbury, in the middle of nowhere, at this frigging church with death scenes embedded in the walls and a bazillion cops who are all here for him, not her.
I yank at the collar of my shirt and feel someone watching me.
At first I think of the guy with the cell phone, but when I glance across the parking lot, he’s gone. It’s a girl in a purple dress. She stands with an older woman, and by older I mean that there’s a chance her wrinkled skin might give up the fight and slide the rest of the way down her body. Ol’ Wrinkly is wearing an honest-to-god navy blue hat with a veil. She looks emotional while she talks to Stan, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
What a joke. If she knew my mother, she didn’t know her well. I’ve never seen her before.
I’ve never seen the girl before either, but since she’s looking at me, I look back at her. She’s got to be about my age. Thick, curly caramel hair, skin too pale for summertime, dark framed glasses, curves in all the right places. She’d be a challenge to sketch, because the tiny waist and the curves would make her look like a superhero comic, especially with that rack.
I jerk my eyes away. I shouldn’t be checking out a girl at my mother’s funeral. Mom would cuff me on the neck and tell me to behave myself.
But the girl peels away from the overwrought woman and heads my way. She’s wearing high-heeled sandals, and she stumbles a bit on the crooked pavement. The movement makes her hair sway, and she brushes it out of her eyes.
Then she’s in front of me, holding out a hand. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
I shake her hand, and it feels too formal, like I’m meeting a college recruiter. But I can play this game because it’s better than thinking about my mother rotting inside a wooden box. “We haven’t.”
She doesn’t let go of my hand. “Tom?”
She could call me Princess Sparklepants if she wants. I couldn’t care less about my name at this point. “Whatever.”
She finally releases my hand. Her expression says she’s picked up on some of my tension. “Thomas, then. How do you know Stan? Is one of your parents on the force?”
Of course she thinks I’m here for him. No one in this place knows Mom.
I have to clear my throat, because my answer will embarrass this girl, but it’s not like I can lie about it. “He married my mother.”
Her face goes more pale, if that’s possible. I don’t like that. It reminds me of another pale face, which makes me start thinking about bruised necks again.
“It’s fine,” I say, even though it’s not. I try to keep the anger out of my voice, because she doesn’t deserve it. I don’t even know what good it’s doing me. My voice comes out all gravelly. “I’ve only lived here a few weeks. I don’t know anyone.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says softly.
What am I supposed to say to that? I don’t even know this girl.
I find myself shrugging before realizing that makes me look indifferent. People are watching me again. The attention weighs on my shoulders. Do they know who I am, or are they wondering like Charlotte? Which would be better?
I’ve been quiet too long. My jaw feels tight. She reaches for my hand again. Her fingers are small and gentle and soft against my palm, such a contrast to the businesslike formality of her handshake. “You don’t need to stand here by yourself. Come meet my family—”
“I’m fine.” I hold fast, jerking my hand away from her. I can keep it together here, alone, by the wall, but I can’t take a dozen strangers talking at me.
“Okay,” she says softly.
I take a long breath, then blow it out through my teeth. “Sorry,” I grit out.
We stand there in silence for a moment.
“Do you want me to get Stan?” she finally asks quietly. “You don’t seem . . .”
Her voice trails off, and I frown. “I don’t seem what?”
Again, my tone is rougher than she deserves, and she licks her lips, recalculating. Her spine straightens, but she doesn’t move away. “You don’t seem like you should be alone right now.”
Stan is thirty feet away, talking to two other guys in uniform. They’re doing the guy version of sympathy, clapping him on the shoulder.
I knew her longer, I want to shout.
Mom would shush me and tell me to be more respectful.
I don’t miss her yet. It doesn’t even feel like she’s dead. It feels like she’s on vacation or something. I keep thinking I need to store all these thoughts and memories for later, when she gets back.
I look back at Charlotte. “No. Leave him.”
“Is anyone else here for you?”
I laugh humorlessly. “None of this is for me. I feel like I’m crashing a stranger’s funeral.” I sound like an angry freak, and I rub my hands down my face. “I don’t know anyone.”
Now I just sound pathetic.
“Is that your tie?” she says suddenly, and I realize she’s looking at my pocket. “Too hot?”
“I couldn’t tie it,” I admit without thinking, and then I feel like a real moron. What kind of guy can’t tie a tie? And then brings it with him, like he’s waiting for someone to get around to helping? I glance away, embarrassed. “She bought me the suit. Made a big deal about matching it—”
I have to stop talking. Pathetic has reached a new level. I want the anger back. Anger was better than this tight, choking feeling in my throat.
Charlotte tugs it out of my pocket and threads it between her fingers. “May I?”
It takes me a moment to figure out what she’s talking about. She’s too short to get the tie around my neck without my cooperation. I could refuse. I could grab the tie and shove it back in my pocket and send her scurrying back to her people.
But it’s a needed distraction, and I find myself ducking down, letting her loop it over my head, enjoying the soft feel of her fingers as she tucks it below the collar of my shirt. She’s close, and I catch her scent, something clean and citrusy.
“People are staring,” I murmur.
“Let them stare.”
“Is this a service you provide?” I say, intending to tease, but my voice is too broken for that.
But she’s kind, so she takes the bait and runs with it. Her eyes are on the knot as she threads the fabric. “Absolutely. Tying ties, buttoning jackets . . . you should see me pin on a flower.”
I almost smile, but then her hands make the final loop. Satin slides against cotton, and then the knot hits my neck. Quick and sudden and tight. I can’t breathe.
I jerk the fabric out of her hand without thinking.
My movement is too sudden. She stumbles back, catching herself against the wall.
I gasp, pulling at the knot of fabric. It’s barely tight, but I can’t stop myself.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine,” I choke out. This is insane. I need to get it together. The knot finally gives an inch. Air can’t seem to make it into my lungs. “It’s not even tight.”
I suck in a breath and sound like an asthmatic. I run a hand down my face. This is not getting it together.
“You all right, Char?”
It’s another cop in dress uniform, talking to Charlotte but looking at me like I’m a purse snatcher or something.
No, looking at me like I’m a murderer.
This guy’s young, not much older than I am. His hair is military short, almost blond, and his eyes are just looking for trouble. I swear to god he’s holding his hand near his gun, and I’m tempted to fake him out, just to see if he’d pull it.
Knowing my luck, he’d shoot me.
Right this instant, I’d welcome it.
“I’m fine, Danny,” Charlotte says. “This is Thomas. Stan’s new—”
“I know who he is.” Of course he does. Everyone in uniform probably does. I’m sure some of them still think I did it. But Danny takes the edge off by putting a hand out. “I’m sorry about your mother.”
I shake his hand. “Thanks.”
His grip is solid, almost too tight. He doesn’t let go, and I can tell he’d hold fast if I tried to pull free. “You want to tell me why you put your hands on my little sister?”
Oh. Now I get it.
Charlotte is looking worriedly between the two of us. “It’s fine, Danny—he didn’t touch me.”
“I saw him shove you.” His grip tightens. “You’d better watch yourself.”
His tone grates against my nerves and reminds me why I don’t like cops.
“He didn’t shove me,” Charlotte says.
“Watch myself?” I say to him. “It’s my mother’s funeral.”
He gives a little laugh, and he lets go of my hand, somehow making it feel like a shove. “Yeah, you look really broken up about it, taking the time to rough up a girl.”
My hands are in fists again, anger weaving its way through the less aggressive emotions. This narrow stretch of shade has turned too hot, almost stifling. I can smell my own sweat.
I hate this suit.
Danny’s watching me, his eyes almost predatory. I’ve gotten in my share of scrapes, and I can read the signs. Dangerous potential rides the air. He wants to hit me.
My mother’s voice is like a whisper in my head. Behave yourself, Tommy.
I force my hands to loosen. Danny’s right, in a way. I did shove her. I shouldn’t have put my hands on her. Someone spends five minutes being kind, and I act like a caged animal.
It takes a lot of effort to back down. “Sorry,” I say, turning away from them. “I didn’t mean to cause a problem.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to find my sister dead in her bed. Get me?”
Something snaps inside of me. Anger splits into fury. My fist swings.
I’m strong, and years of being the new kid taught me how to throw a punch. It’s stupid, and reckless, and my mother’s voice is screaming in the back of my skull.
Tommy! He is a police officer!
It sucks that he’s a cop, too, because he knows how to deflect a punch. He catches my arm and slams me into the wall of the church. My hand is pinned behind my back and I inhale brick dust. The tie drags on the bricks, too, pulling tight against my neck.
I am such an idiot.
He’s enjoying this. We’re the center of attention now. He’s probably hoping I’ll fight him so he can continue playing the badass.
I don’t want to fight him. This is her funeral. Her funeral. My throat is tight and my eyes are hot. Reason catches up with action and I’m swimming in a special blend of humiliation and shame.
I will not start crying right now. I will not.
Charlotte is smacking her brother, it sounds like. “Danny! Danny, stop it! What is wrong with you?”
Hot breath finds my neck, followed by a little shove. The bricks scrape at my skin. I expect him to hold me here, to suffer the judgmental stares of the crowd that I can hear gathering. Or maybe he’ll tell Stan to keep me in line, or something equally demeaning.
Instead, he speaks low, just to me. “Did you get off on it? Think about it in the shower this morning? All hot and bothered for killing your mother?”
Rage flares, hot and painful, blinding me with fury. I jerk back, trying to break his hold, knowing it’s futile.
But suddenly I’m free. My head is buzzing, and he’s on the ground, yelling. Clutching his head. Charlotte is standing back, glancing between me and him, her breath quick.
Did I hit him? What just happened?
Before I can get it together, a hand falls on my shoulder, pushing me back against the wall. I feel metal against my wrist.
I freeze. Another one of these jerkoffs is cuffing me and talking about assault on a police officer.
Now Danny’s on his feet, talking about resisting arrest. He grabs my arm and drags me away from the wall. The crowd grows.
We’re heading for a police car.
I’m going to miss the funeral.
I still can’t believe Danny arrested him.
It’s his mother’s funeral.
Ben leans down and whispers. “Easy, Char. You’re going to break a nail if you keep clutching the pew like that.”
“I want to break Danny’s neck.”
“He’s just looking out for you.”
Ben is my favorite brother, and his tone is sincere, so I don’t glare at him. “He doesn’t need to look out for me. Thomas wasn’t doing anything wrong. He just lost his mother, and instead of standing here grieving, he’s getting fingerprinted at central booking.”
“Shh!” Grandma leans around my mother to give me the evil eye. “Charlotte, have some respect.”
She doesn’t glance at Ben, despite the fact that he started the conversation. Shocker.
It’s not like our discussion matters anyway. The most depressing thing about this funeral is that there’s not much mourning going on. No one knew Marie well enough, and Stan is at the front, away from the crowd. It’s like we’re all going through the motions.
Ben shifts closer and drops his voice. “He started the fight, Char.”
“No, Danny started the fight.”
Ben sighs, but I can tell he agrees with me. “The kid made it physical. First with you, then with Danny.”
The kid. Ben is five years older than I am, but you’d think he was sixty-three instead of twenty-three. He never would have arrested Thomas. He never would have let it get to that point. He would have shaken the guy’s hand and offered him a kind word. He probably would have invited him to stand with our family. Ben is the kind of cop who carries peppermints in his pockets for scared kids and remembers the name of everyone he meets. He’s the brother I run to when I need a shoulder to cry on.
Danny is the brother I avoid, and he’s the last person I would have wanted witnessing that moment beside the church. He takes everything a little too personally. He just graduated from the police academy. Ben says he’ll calm down once he realizes that the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay isn’t exactly a hotbed of police activity. More than once, Ben has defused a situation after Danny lit the spark.
“Danny provoked him,” I say.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t hear what he said.” I can imagine it was horrible. Almost everything that comes out of Danny’s mouth is. “But I know he provoked him.”
Ben shakes his head. “I don’t care what he said. It’s not an excuse to hit someone.”
“I didn’t see Thomas hit him.” I’ve run it through my head a dozen times in the last hour. Danny shoved Thomas into the wall, leaned in to speak, and then he was suddenly on the ground. Thomas didn’t throw a punch—unless he’s the Flash or something. I didn’t see a hand swing.
Maybe he threw his head back? Cracked Danny in the forehead? Would that be enough to throw someone to the ground?
“Why were you talking to him, anyway?” says Ben.
It’s a good question, and I don’t have a ready answer. I keep my eyes forward. The priest is giving a blessing and the scent of incense is thick in the air.
I think of Thomas standing outside the church. He was unfamiliar, with thick, dark hair that fell somewhere between edgy and hipster. When I got close, I noticed the high cheekbones. The strong jaw. The lean frame.
The eyes clouded by distress.
If I say any of that, Ben will accuse me of being a romantic. “I was being polite. I didn’t know who he was.”
“You should stay away from him until this is all sorted out.”
“He didn’t look guilty, Ben. He looked like he wanted to punch the wall to keep himself from crying.”
“I’m not kidding, Char. Don’t let your hormones cloud your judgment.”
Now I do glare at him. I might actually be gaping. I fight to keep my voice at a whisper. “Did you seriously just mention my hormones?”
“Save the attitude.” Ben’s face is stone serious. “I’m looking out for you, too.”
It’s not like Ben to play the heavy. I frown and try to reevaluate the interaction with Thomas. No matter how I replay it, Danny comes off as a real prick.
Ben leans closer, until I catch a hint of his aftershave. “I know that breaking into a detective’s house when he’s working the night shift, killing his wife, and then leaving without taking anything, all while her son sleeps down the hall, sounds pretty unlikely.”
His tone catches me by surprise. “You think he did it?”
“A lot of people think he did it, Char.”
When I pulled the tie tight, Thomas reacted like I’d tried to strangle him. Grief? Or guilt?
Grief. Had to be. “You all think he killed his own mother?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time someone did something horrible.” Ben shrugs a little. “Besides, would you rather think there’s a murderer sneaking in bedrooms and strangling people?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time for that either.”
He doesn’t say anything, but his lips flatten into a line, and I wish I could take the words back. He’s remembering Lilly Mauta.
Well, he’s remembering her murder. He never laid eyes on Lilly until her mother called nine-one-one three years ago. It was Ben’s first call as a police officer. His first dead body. He didn’t sleep for days. It takes a lot to rattle him—but that did it.
I had laid eyes on Lilly lots of times. She lived half an hour north of here, but her parents drove her down for ballet lessons. We weren’t friends, but we were ballet classmates.
Her murder is still unsolved.
I already know from my brothers that the murders were dissimilar. We don’t get a lot of violent crime around here, so the two cases drew a comparison immediately. Two killers, no question. Lilly’s death was slow and sloppy. A night of teen passion gone too far was the leading theory.
This one was clean and precise and deliberate.
Well. From what I’ve heard. No one is discussing the details of the case with me.
“I don’t think he did it,” I say to Ben.
His eyes flick skyward. “That clears him, then. I’ll get the Sergeant on the radio right now.”
“Hey. What are you two whispering about?” Matthew leans be. . .
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