The USA TODAY bestselling author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and Burying Water series makes her suspense debut with this sexy, heartpounding story of a young woman determined to find justice after her best friend’s death, a story pulsing with the “intense, hot, emotional” (Colleen Hoover) writing that exhilarates her legions of fans.
A woman who almost had it all . . .
On the surface, Celine Gonzalez had everything a twenty-eight-year-old woman could want: a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a job that (mostly) paid the bills, and an acceptance letter to the prestigious Hollingsworth Institute of Art, where she would finally live out her dream of becoming an antiques appraiser for a major auction house. All she had worked so hard to achieve was finally within her reach. So why would she kill herself?
A man who was supposed to be her salvation . . .
Maggie Sparkes arrives in New York City to pack up what’s left of her best friend’s belongings after a suicide that has left everyone stunned. The police have deemed the evidence conclusive: Celine got into bed, downed a lethal cocktail of pills and vodka, and never woke up. But when Maggie discovers a scandalous photograph in a lock box hidden in Celine’s apartment, she begins asking questions. Questions about the man Celine fell in love with. The man she never told anyone about, not even Maggie. The man Celine believed would change her life.
Until he became her ruin.
On the hunt for evidence that will force the police to reopen the case, Maggie uncovers more than she bargained for about Celine’s private life—and inadvertently puts herself on the radar of a killer. A killer who will stop at nothing to keep his crimes undiscovered.
December 23, 2015
My wrists burn.
Hours of trying to break free of the rope that binds my hands behind my back have left them raw, the rough cord scrubbing away my skin and cutting into my flesh. I’m sure I’ll have unsightly scars.
Not that it will matter when I’m dead.
I resigned myself to that reality around the time that I finally let go of my bladder. Now I simply lie here, in a pool of urine and vomit, my teeth numb from knocking with each bump in the road, my body frozen by the cold.
Trying to ignore the darkness as I fight against the panic that consumes me. I could suffocate from the anxiety alone.
He knows that.
Now he’s exploiting it. That must be what he does—he uncovers your secrets, your fears, your flaws—and he uses them against you. He did it to Celine.
And now he’s doing it to me.
That’s why I’m in a cramped trunk, my lungs working overtime against a limited supply of oxygen while my imagination runs wild with what may be waiting for me at the end of this ride.
My racing heart ready to explode.
The car hits an especially deep pothole, rattling my bones. I’ve been trapped in here for so long. Hours. Days. I have no idea. Long enough to run through every mistake that I made.
How I trusted him, how I fell for his charm, how I believed his lies. How I made it so easy for him to do this to me.
How Celine made it so easy for him, by letting him get close.
Before he killed her.
Just like he’s going to kill me.
November 30, 2015
The afternoon sun beams through the narrow window, casting a warm glow over Celine’s floral comforter.
It would be inviting, only her body was found in this very bed just thirteen days ago.
“Yeah,” I respond without actually turning around, my gaze taking in the cramped bedroom before me. I’ve never been a fan of New York City and all its overpriced boroughs. Too big, too busy, too pretentious. Take this Lower East Side apartment, for example, on the third floor of a drafty building built in the 1800s, with a ladder of shaky fire escapes facing the side alley and a kitschy gelato café downstairs. It costs more per month than the average American hands the bank in mortgage payments.
And Celine adored it.
“I’m in 410 if you just . . . want to come and find me.”
I finally turn and acknowledge the building super—a chestnut-haired English guy around thirty by my guess, with a layer of scruff over his jawline and faded blue jeans—edging toward the door. Given the apartment is 475 square feet, it doesn’t take him long to reach it.
I think he gave me his name but I wasn’t listening. I’ve barely said two words since I met him in front of Celine’s apartment, armed with a stack of cardboard flats and trash bags. An orchestra of clocks that softly tick away claim that that was nearly half an hour ago. I’ve simply stood here since then, feeling the brick-exposed walls—lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and filled with the impressive collection of treasures that Celine had amassed over her twenty-eight years—closing in on me.
But now I feel the need to speak. “You were the one who let the police in?” Celine never missed work, never arrived late. That’s why, after not showing up for two days and not answering her phone or her door, her coworker finally called the cops.
The super nods.
“You saw her?”
His eyes flicker to the thin wall that divides the bedroom from the rest of the apartment—its only purpose is to allow the building’s owner to charge rent for a “one-bedroom” instead of a studio. There’s not even enough room for a door. Yes, he saw her body. “She seemed really nice,” he offers, his throat turning scratchy, shifting on his feet. He’d rather be unplugging a shit-filled toilet than be here right now. I don’t blame him. “Uh . . . So you can just slide the key through the mail slot in my door when you’re finished, if you want? I’ll be home later tonight to grab it.”
Under different circumstances, I’d find his accent charming. “I’ll be staying here for a while.”
He frowns. “You can’t—”
“Yeah, I can,” I snap, cutting his objection off. “We’re on the hook with the lease until the end of January, right? So don’t even think of telling me that I can’t.” I’m in no rush to empty this place out so some jackass landlord can rent it next month and pocket my money. Plus . . . My gaze drifts over the living room again. I just need to be in Celine’s presence for a while, even if she’s not here anymore.
“Of course. I’m just . . .” He bites his bottom lip as if to stall a snippy response. When he speaks again, his tone is back to soft. “The mattress, the bedding, it’ll all need to be replaced. I would have already pitched it for you, but I figured that it wasn’t my call to make. I pulled the blanket up to cover the mess and tried to air the place out, but . . .”
I sigh shakily, the tension making my body as taut as a wire. I’m the only jackass around here. “Right. I’m sorry.” I inhale deeply. The linen air freshener can’t completely mask the smell. Her body lay in that bed for two days.
“I’ll be fine with the couch until I can get a new mattress delivered.” It’ll be more than fine, seeing as I’ve been sleeping on a thin bedroll on a dirt floor in Ethiopia for the past three months. At least there’s running water here, and I’m not sharing the room with two other people. Or rats, hopefully.
“I can probably get a bloke in here to help me carry it out if you want,” he offers, sliding hands into his pockets as he slowly shifts backward.
“Thank you.” I couple my contrite voice with a smile and watch the young super exit, pulling the door shut behind him.
My gaze drifts back to the countless shelves. I haven’t been to visit Celine in New York in over two years; we always met in California, the state where we grew up. “My, you’ve been busy,” I whisper. Celine always did have a love for the old and discarded, and she had a real eye for it. She’d probably seen every last episode of Antiques Roadshow three times over. She was supposed to start school this past September to get her MA in art business, with plans to become an appraiser. She delayed enrollment, for some reason.
But she never told me that. I found out through her mother just last week.
Her apartment looks more like a bursting vintage shop than a place someone would live. It’s well organized at least—all her trinkets grouped effectively. Entire shelves are dedicated to elaborate teacups, others to silver tea sets, genuine hand-cut crystal glassware, ornate clocks and watches, hand-painted tiles, and so on. Little side tables hold stained-glass lamps and more clocks and her seemingly endless collection of art history books. On the few walls not lined with shelves, an eclectic mix of artwork fills the space.
Very few things in here aren’t antique or vintage. The bottles of Ketel One, Maker’s Mark, and Jägermeister lined up on a polished brass bar cart. Her computer and a stack of hardcover books, sitting on a worn wooden desk that I’d expect to find in an old elementary schoolhouse. Even the two-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree has well-aged ornaments dangling from its branches.
I wander aimlessly, my hands beginning to touch and test. A slight pull of the desk drawer finds it locked, with no key anywhere, from what I can see. I run a finger along the spine of a leather-bound edition of The Taming of the Shrew on a shelf. Not a speck of dust. Celine couldn’t stand disorder. Every single nutcracker faces out, equidistant from the next, shortest in front, tallest in back, as if she measured them with a ruler and placed them just so.
Being enclosed in this organized chaos makes me antsy. Or maybe that’s my own ultra-minimalist preferences coming out.
I sigh and drop my purse onto the couch. My phone goes next, but not before I send a text to my personal assistant, Taryn, to ask that she arrange for a firm double mattress to be delivered to Celine’s address. Then I power the phone off before she can respond with unnecessary questions. I’ve had it on silent since my plane landed in San Diego five days ago for the funeral. Even with two proficient assistants handling my organization’s affairs while I’m dealing with my best friend’s death, the stupid thing hasn’t stopped vibrating.
They can all wait for me, while I figure out where to begin here.
I know I have a lot of paperwork to get to the lawyer. All estate proceeds will eventually go to Celine’s mother, Rosa, but she doesn’t want a dime. She’s already demanded that I sell off anything I don’t want to keep for myself and use the money for one of my humanitarian efforts in her daughter’s name.
I could tell Rosa was still in shock, because she has always been a collector by nature—that’s where Celine got it from—and it surprised me that she wouldn’t want to keep at least some of her daughter’s treasures for herself. But she was adamant and I was not going to argue. I’ll just quietly pack a few things that I think would mean a lot to her and have them shipped to San Diego.
Seeing Celine’s apartment now, though, I realize that selling is going to take forever. I’m half-tempted to dump everything into boxes for charity, guesstimate the value, and write a check. But that would belittle all the evenings and weekends that Celine devoted to hunting antique shops, garage sales, and ignorant sellers for her next perfect treasure.
My attention lands on the raw wood plank shelf that floats over a mauve suede couch, banked by silky curtains and covered with an eclectic mix of gilded frames filled with pictures from Celine’s childhood. Most of them are of her and her mom. Some are of just her. Four include me.
I smile as I ease one down, of Celine and me at the San Diego Zoo. I was twelve, she was eleven. Even then she was striking, her olive skin tanned from a summer by the pool. Next to her, my pale Welsh skin always looked sickly.
I first met Celine when I was five. My mom had hired her mother, Rosa Gonzalez, as a housekeeper and nanny, offering room and board for both her and her four-year-old daughter. We had had a string of nannies come and go, my mother never satisfied with their work ethic. But Rosa came highly recommended. It’s so hard to find good help, I remember overhearing my mother say to her friends once. They applauded her generosity with Rosa, that she was not only taking in a recent immigrant from Mexico, but her child as well.
The day Celine stepped into my parents’ palatial house in La Jolla, she did so with wide brown eyes, her long hair the color of cola in braided pigtails and adorned in giant blue bows, her frilly blue-and-white dress and matching socks like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Celine would divulge to me later on that it was the only dress she owned, purchased from a thrift shop, just for this special occasion.
Rosa and Celine lived with us for ten years, and my daily routines quickly became Celine’s daily routines. The chauffeur would drop Celine off at the curb in front of the local public school on our way to my private school campus. Though her school was far above average as public schools go, I begged and pleaded for my parents to pay for Celine to attend with me. I didn’t quite understand the concept of money back then, but I knew we had a lot, and we could more than afford it.
They told me that’s just not how the world works. Besides, as much as Rosa wanted the best for her child, she was too proud to ever accept that kind of generosity. Even giving Celine my hand-me-down clothes was a constant battle.
No matter where we spent the day, though, from the time we came home to the time we fell asleep, Celine and I were inseparable. I would return from piano lessons and teach Celine how to read music notes. She’d use the other side of my art easel to paint pictures with me of the ocean view from my bedroom window. She’d rate my dives and time my laps around our pool, and I’d do the same for her. We’d lounge beneath the palm trees on hot summer days, dreaming up plans for our future. In my eyes, it was a given that Celine would always be part of my life.
We were an odd match. From our looks to our social status to our polar-opposite personalities, we couldn’t have been more different. I was captain of the debate squad and Celine played the romantic female lead in her school plays. I spearheaded a holiday charity campaign at the age of thirteen, while Celine sang in choirs for the local senior citizens. I read the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times religiously, while Celine would fall asleep with a Jane Austen novel resting across her chest.
And then one Saturday morning in July when I was fifteen, my parents announced that they had filed for divorce. I still remember the day well. They walked side-by-side toward where I lounged beside the pool, my dad dressed for a round of golf, my mom carrying a plate of Rosa’s breakfast enchiladas. They’d technically separated months earlier, and I had no idea because seeing them together had always been rare to begin with.
The house in La Jolla was going up for sale. Dad was buying a condo close to the airport, to make traveling for work easier, while Mom would be moving to Chicago, where our family’s company, Sparkes Energy, had their corporate headquarters. I’d stay wherever I wanted, when I wasn’t at the prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts that they decided I should attend for my last three years of high school.
The worst of it was that Rosa and Celine would be going their own way.
Rosa, who was more a parent to me than either of my real parents had ever been.
Celine . . . my best friend, my sister.
Both of them, gone from my daily life with two weeks’ notice.
They’re just a phone call away, my mom reasoned. That’s all I had, and so I took advantage. For years, I would call Celine and Rosa daily. I had a long-distance plan, but had I not, I still would have happily driven up my mom’s phone bill, bitter with her for abandoning me for the company. I spent Christmases and Thanksgivings with Rosa and Celine instead of choosing to spend them with Melody or William Sparkes.
To be honest, it never was much of a choice.
Through boyfriends, college, jobs, and fronting a successful nonprofit organization that has had me living all over Africa and Asia for the last six years, Celine and Rosa have remained permanent fixtures in my life.
Until thirteen days ago, when Rosa’s sobs filled my ear in a village near Nekemte, Ethiopia, where I’ve been leading a water well project and building homes. After a long, arduous day in the hot sun, my hands covered with cuts from corrugated iron and my muscles sore from carrying burned bricks, it was jarring to hear Rosa’s voice. California felt worlds away. At first I thought that I hadn’t kept myself hydrated enough and I was hallucinating. But by the third time I heard her say, “Celine killed herself,” it finally registered. It just didn’t make sense.
It still doesn’t.
Hollowness kept me company all the way back—first on buses, then a chartered flight, followed by several commercial airline connections—and into Rosa’s modest home in the suburbs of San Diego. The hollowness held me together through the emotional visitation and funeral, Rosa’s tightly knit Mexican community rocked by the news. It numbed me enough to face Rosa’s eyes, bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles, as she insisted that I come to New York to handle the material remains of her only child.
The case is all but officially closed. The police are simply waiting for the final autopsy report to confirm that a lethal dose of Xanax— the pill bottle sitting open on her nightstand was from a prescription she filled only two days prior—combined with an unhealthy amount of vodka was what killed her. They see it as a quick open-and-shut suicide case, aided by a note in her handwriting that read I’m sorry for everything, found lying next to her.
The picture frame cracks within my tightening grasp as tears burn my cheeks, and I have the overwhelming urge to smash the entire shelf of happy memories.
This just doesn’t seem possible. How could she do this to her mother? I shift my focus to the picture of Rosa—a petite brunette with a fierce heart, who gives hugs to strangers who look like they’re having a bad day and spouts a string of passionate Spanish when anyone tries to leave the dinner table before every last bite is finished.
Before this past week, I hadn’t seen Rosa since last Christmas. She still looks frail eleven months after the doctors told her that the double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation had worked and she was considered in remission. It’ll be a year in January since the day Celine phoned me to give me the good news: that Rosa had fought breast cancer hard. And had won.
So why the hell would Celine make her suffer so horribly now?
I roam aimlessly through the rest of the apartment, in a state of extreme exhaustion after days of travel and jet lag and tears, taking in everything that remains of my childhood friend.
But there are things here that surprise me, too—a closet full of designer-label dresses that Celine couldn’t possibly have afforded on an administrative assistant’s salary, a bathroom counter overflowing with bold red lipsticks and daringly dark eye shadows that I never saw touch her naturally beautiful face, not even in recent photos.
Knowing Celine, she bought those dresses at secondhand stores. And the makeup, well . . . She would have looked beautiful with red lipstick.
I smile, sweeping the bronzer brush across my palm to leave a dusting of sparkle against my skin. I’m supposed to be this girl—the one with the extravagant clothes and makeup, who puts time and stock into looks and money. As the fourth generation of one of the biggest energy companies in the world, I will one day inherit 51 percent of the corporation’s shares. Though my parents don’t need to work, they each run a division—my industrialist father managing the ugly face of coal burning while my mother distracts the world with a pretty mask of wind and solar energy farms, hiding the fact that we’re slowly helping to destroy the world.
I grew up aware of the protests. I’ve read enough articles about the greed and the harm to the planet that comes with this industry. By the time I turned twenty-one, still young and idealistic and embroiled by the latest disgrace involving our company and an oil tanker spill off the coast of China, I wanted nothing to do with the enormous trust fund that my grandmother left me. In fact, I was one signature away from handing it all over to a charity foundation. My biggest mistake—and saving grace—was that I tried to do it through my lawyer, a loyal Sparkes Energy legal consultant. He, of course, informed my parents, who fought me on it. I wouldn’t listen to them.
But I did listen to Celine. She was the one who persuaded me not to do it in the end, sending me link after link of scandal after scandal involving charity organizations. How so little of the money ever actually reaches those in need, how so much of the money lines the pockets of individuals. She used the worst-case scenarios to steer me away from my plan because she knew it would work. Then she suggested that I use the trust fund to lead my own humanitarian ventures. I could do bigger, better things if I controlled it.
That’s when I began Villages United.
And Celine was right.
VU may only be six years old, but it has already become an internationally recognized nonprofit, focused on high-impact lending projects throughout the world geared toward building self-sustainable villages. We teach children to read and give them roofs to sleep under and clean water to drink and clothes to wear and books to read. Between my own money and the money that VU has raised, we have now left a lasting mark on thirty-six communities in countries around the world.
And I’m not just writing checks from my house in California. I’m right there in the trenches, witnessing the changes firsthand. Something my parents simply don’t understand, though they’ve tried turning it into a Sparkes Energy PR venture on more than one occasion.
I’ve refused every single time.
Because, for the first time in a long time, I’m truly proud to be Maggie Sparkes.
I haven’t even warned them about my newest endeavor—providing significant financial backing to companies that are developing viable and economical green energy solutions. VU was preparing to announce it to the media in the coming weeks. As much as I can’t think about any of that right now, I’ll have to soon. Too many people rely on me.
But for now . . . all I can focus on is Celine.
I wander into her bedroom, my back to another wall of collectibles as I stand at the foot of the ornate wrought-iron bed, the delicate bedding stretched out neatly, as if Celine made it this morning. As if she’ll be back later to share a glass of wine and a laugh.
I yank the duvet back, just long enough to see the ugly proof beneath.
To remind me that that’s never going to happen.
Edging along the side of her bed—I actually have to turn and shimmy to fit—I move toward a stack of vintage wooden food crates that serve as a nightstand. A wave of nostalgia washes over me as my finger traces the heavy latches and handmade, chunky gunmetal-gray body of the antique box sitting next to the lamp. The day that I spied it in an antique store while shopping for Celine’s sixteenth birthday, it made me think of a medieval castle. The old man who sold it to me said it was actually an eighteenth-century lockbox.
Whatever it was, I knew Celine would love it.
I carry it over to the living room, where I can sit and open it up. Inside are sentimental scraps of Celine’s life. Concert stubs and random papers, a dried rose, her grandmother’s rosary that Rosa gave to her. Rosa is supremely religious, and Celine, the ever-devoted daughter, kept up appearances for her mother, though she admitted to me that she didn’t find value in it.
I pull each item out, laying them on the trunk coffee table until I’m left with nothing but the smooth velvet floor of the box. I fumble with a small detail on the outside that acts as a lever—remembering my surprise when the man revealed the box’s secret—until a click sounds, allowing me to pry open the false bottom.
Celine’s shy, secretive eyes lit up when I first showed her the sizeable compartment. It was perfect for hiding treasures, like notes from boys, and the silver bracelet that her senior-year boyfriend bought her for Valentine’s Day and she was afraid to wear in front of Rosa. While I love Rosa dearly, she could be suffocating sometimes.
My fingers wrap around the wad of money filling the small space as a deep frown creases my forehead. Mostly hundreds but plenty of fifties, too. I quickly count it. There’s almost ten thousand dollars here.
Why wouldn’t Celine deposit this into her bank account?
I pick up the ornate bronze key and a creased sheet of paper that also sits within. I’m guessing the key is for the desk. I’ll test that out in a minute. I gingerly unfold the paper that’s obviously been handled many times, judging by the crinkles in it.
My eyes widen.
A naked man fills one side. He’s entrancingly handsome, with long lashes and golden-blond tousled hair and a shadow of peach scruff covering his hard jawline. He’s lying on his back, one muscular arm disappearing into the pillow beneath his head, a white sheet tangled around his legs, not quite covering the goods, which from what I can see, are fairly impressive. I can’t tell what color his eyes are because he’s fast asleep.
“Well then . . .” I frown, taken aback.
I’m not surprised that Celine could attract the attention of a guy like this. She was a gorgeous young woman—her Mexican roots earning her lush locks, full lips, and voluptuous curves tied to the kind of tiny waist that all men seem to admire.
Nor am I surprised that he’s blond. It has always been a running joke between us, her penchant for blonds. She’s never dated anything but.
But I am surprised that she’d have the nerve to take—and print out to keep by her bed—a scandalous picture like this in the first place.
I wonder if she ever mentioned him to me. She always told me about her dates, utter failures or otherwise. Though it’s been years since she was seeing anyone seriously, and she was definitely seeing this guy seriously if she was sleeping with him. Celine usually waited months before she gave that up to a guy. She didn’t even lose her virginity until she was twenty-two, to a guy she had been dating for six months and hoped that she would one day marry. Who broke up with her shortly afterward.
So who the hell is this guy and why didn’t I ever hear about him? And where is he now? When were they together last?
Does he know that she’s dead?
Worrying my bottom lip between my teeth—it’s a bad habit of mine—I slowly fold the paper back up. Celine’s cursive scrawl decorates the back side in purple ink. Words I hadn’t noticed before.
Words that make my heart stop now.
This man was once my salvation. Now he will be my ruin.
Born in small-town Ontario, K.A. Tucker published her first book at the age of six with the help of her elementary school librarian and a box of crayons. She currently resides in a quaint town outside of Toronto with her husband, two beautiful girls, and an exhausting brood of four-legged creatures.