DEAD GIRL RUNNING
I have three confessions:
- I’ve got the scar of a gunshot on my forehead.
- I don’t remember an entire year of my life.
- My name is Kellen Adams … and that’s half a lie.
Girl running… from a year she can’t remember, from a husband she prays is dead, from homelessness and fear. Tough, capable Kellen Adams takes a job as assistant manager of a remote vacation resort on the North Pacific Coast. There, amid towering storms and lashing waves, she hopes to find sanctuary. But when she discovers a woman’s dead and mutilated body, she’s soon trying to keep her own secrets while investigating first one murder…then another.
Now every guest and employee is a suspect. Every friendly face hides a mask. Every kind word sounds like a lie. Kellen is driven to defend her job, her friends, and the place she’s come to call home. Yet she wonders—with the scar of a gunshot on her forehead and an amnesia that leaves her unsure of her own past, could the killer be staring her in the face?
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"How long has it been since you've been outside?"
Cecilia wet her lips, and the wind off the Atlantic Ocean blew them dry again. "Winter is hard in Maine. I couldn't leave the house then."
Her cousin Kellen slashed the air with the flat of her hand. "It's July."
Kellen had always been like that. Decisive. Bossy. Pretty, blonde, manicured even in jeans and jacket and hiking shoes. "I was ill."
The two cousins climbed the granite cliffs, braving the oncoming storm to speak in private.
"You were hurt," Kellen said. "Gregory is hurting you."
"No. No." Don't make me admit anything. "He…he …I frustrate him. He's my husband, and I'm not very bright."
Kellen stopped walking. Took Cecilia's shoulders. Turned her and looked into her eyes. "You're brilliant. You were accepted to Vanderbilt, no small feat."
Cecilia couldn't maintain eye contact. "I'm not a good wife. I don't always understand what he wants."
Kellen shook her. "He's thirty-eight years old. You're twenty. He should understand you."
Cecilia wasn't used to climbing. Her ribs hurt when Kellen shook her, hurt where he had kicked her. "He doesn't hit me. He, um, disciplines me when I need it."
"Disciplines you? When do you need it?" Kellen could not have sounded more incredulous.
"I…I didn't cook his eggs right. So he…he…that night, he had me kneel in the corner, and he cracked all the eggs over my head, the ones in the refrigerator, and opened the window."
"That's sick. That's criminal." Kellen couldn't contain her outrage. "Is that when that sister of his contacted Mama and Papa? After a year of not hearing a word? Said you had pneumonia and weren't expected to live?"
"I'm lucky he chose me. He's one of Lykke family. They're wealthy, influential." The wind off the Atlantic blew hard, ruffled Cecilia's hair, blew her own words back in her face. "They've been here since the country was founded."
"What is all that worth? Nothing! They're so important they won't let me in the house, and your Gregory can't bear to look at me."
"He's busy." Feeble excuse. But it was all Cecilia had.
"Busy ignoring the only relative you've seen in two years!" Kellen took a breath. "You graduated from high school, you wanted to see the country. You were afraid to fly, so my folks gave you a car and said go for it. What the hell they were thinking, I'll never know. First place you get to, you stop and get married to some old guy —"
"He's not old. He's in the prime of life!"
"That's what he told you! He married a girl less than half his age!"
Cecilia looked down at the cracked granite that formed the cliffs. She inched closer to the edge, wanting to see the waves pounding on the rocks below.
Kellen caught her arm. "You're not committing suicide on my watch." She looked back at the estate, at the mansion nestled into the cup of the hill and Cecilia's tiny home on the edge of the cliff. "You're not even in the main house. You're living in the…in the maid's quarters."
"Honeymoon from hell cottage! One bedroom, one bathroom. Built in the 1950s with all the ugly styling still in place."
"The house isn't awful. When the storms blow in, we lose power. But the Lykke mansion is historic. It would be unkind for me to…to impose myself as Gregory's wife." With the backs of her hands, Cecilia whisked away bewildered tears.
"Unkind. That's bullshit. You are his wife. You should be first." Kellen visibly controlled that fiery outrage. "His sister is the problem, isn't she?"
"Erin is older, an important part of the family business." Honesty caught Cecilia by the throat, and she confessed, "She doesn't seem to like me much."
"If you ask me, she sounds as if she loves her brother a little too much."
Cecilia winced. "She feels as if she needs to protect him. She thinks I…seduced him."
"What does she think about him hitting you?"
"I don't know." That I deserve it.
"They're all sick. He's sick."
"No. Really, Kellen Rae…"
"Honey. Sweetheart. You're my cousin. When your parents died and my folks brought you home, you were so timid, so sad. I tried to make you strong—"
"You did! You made me so much braver. But I'm not like you. I'm not—"
Kellen's interruption was brutal and direct. "A lesbian?"
They had never spoken of this before. "No. I'm not a lesbian."
Kellen looked out to sea, seeking something on the horizon: understanding, solace…something. "I came out of the closet to Mama and Papa. They threw me out of the house, told me I was going to hell unless I repented."
Cecilia heard a world of pain in Kellen's voice. Putting her arms around her, she said, "I didn't want that for you."
For one moment of weakness, Kellen leaned her head on Cecilia's shoulder, and they stood together, hugging, cousins and sisters of the heart.
Cecilia had always known Kellen was a lesbian, and wondered how Aunt Cora Rae and Uncle Earle failed to see the truth. Probably because they didn't want to know.
"I would have kept quiet," Kellen said, "but my partner…she deserves to be recognized as part of my family."
"Is she lovely?"
"Brenda is a dear. So smart. So kind. You'll like her. She says we can be married, have children and love them, let them be who they want to be."
"Is that why you came here, now? So we could talk about your love?" Cecilia teared up. "All we've done is talk about me."
Kellen's smile disappeared. "No. No guilt. I won't have it. You're already swimming in guilt. Tell me about last year when you broke your leg."
Weary and heart-sore, tired of confronting the truth and being confronted, Cecilia collapsed onto the rock. "I…I got lonely. Gregory was at the main house. I went in search of him and I…fell down the stairs."
Kellen sat next to her. "Fell down? I'll bet he was standing behind you."
More tears leaked from the corners of Cecilia's eyes.
Kellen put her arm around Cecilia's shoulders. "Look at us. Look at you." She held out her phone, clicked on the camera, took a picture of them in selfie mode. "We look alike, but you were always the most beautiful. Your hair"—she caught the length in her fist—"had that burnished gold look. Now it's rough, tangled and the ends are split. You know Mother would be shocked."
Split ends were the ultimate sin in Aunt Cora Rae's house.
"Your mom gave you that perfect skin, that natural kiss of terracotta to your skin. Now you're so pale, you're almost a ghost."
Cecilia looked away, trying to see across the ocean to a different place, a place of comfort and of warmth. "The Lykkes have never had a, um, western American, um…"
"Western American…? You mean, Native American? Part Cherokee?"
"When I told them, they were shocked." Cecilia had overheard Erin saying plenty to Gregory about adding a savage to their family tree.
Kellen's voice rose. "What did they think you were going to do? Scalp them?" When Cecilia didn't answer, Kellen's voice gentled. "Your eyes are so big and blue, and your lashes—you always had the most beautiful lashes. And they're gone! Have you been pulling them out?"
"They fell out when I was sick."
"You're too thin, and Cecilia, you can't even look at yourself."
Kellen was right. Cecilia couldn't look at herself, into her own haunted, shamed eyes.
Kellen continued, "We used to resemble each other so much people thought we were sisters, call us by the other's name. Now…you're haggard, old before your time."
Cecilia sighed, a feeble whimper that made her ashamed. Again. So much shame.
In that distinctive, decisive tone, Kellen said, "Cousin, here's what we're going to do. You're leaving him today. Now."
Fear grabbed Cecilia by the throat. "I can't. I need my…things. My …" Cecilia struggled to think of what was important. "My photos. Of my parents."
"Don't you have them on digital?"
"I don't have a…phone or a …"
"He didn't let you have electronics. Okay. First I'll put you in a cab and send you down to my hotel in Greenleaf." Kellen called the taxi. Because Kellen did what she said she would do when she said she would do it. "I'll walk to that pissant little house you call a home and get your photos. I'll meet you at the hotel. We'll drive to my place in New York. I'll take care of you."
Cecilia felt as if she was fighting a spider web, trying to free herself yet caught ever tighter. "I should tell him. Explain."
"I'll tell him. I'll explain. I'd like to do that." Kellen's relish weighed her voice with pleasure.
Cecilia had to tell the truth. She didn't want to. Kellen would despise her. Who wouldn't? "You don't understand. He'll come after me. I tried to leave once and he was watching me." If you leave me, I'll kill you and I'll kill myself.
"He has cameras in that house?"
"I'm so clumsy. He wants to make sure I don't hurt myself."
"Can you hear yourself? Hear the things you're saying? You're so terrified and battered, you're brainwashed."
Cecilia stared at Kellen, mute with terror.
Kellen knew. Kellen saw. "Honey, I won't let him get you."
"He'll be angry. He's strong."
"I know. But you'll be safe. That's what matters. You can live with me. Heal. Be yourself again. Come on." Kellen helped Cecilia to her feet. "I see the cab coming up the road now."
Kellen was so brave. Bossy, of course. She always had been. Cecilia had never been like Kellen, but she knew, too, her marriage had changed her from a hopeful girl on the edge of womanhood to a trembling leaf in the frigid wind, always waiting, fearing that shocking moment of violence.
Kellen towed Cecilia down the hill toward the road, and in a bracing voice said, "It won't take me more than an hour, then we'll be gone from this place. We'll drive down the highway, windows down, and laugh at the world. Remember how we used to travel together?"
"Yes." Nevada roads. Battered old barns. Long straight stretches of desert roads with no turns or kinks. "Those were…good memories."
"We'll have them again. Today." Kellen dug money out of her jeans pocket, handed it over. "Here's twelve dollars for the cab, then a few bucks for something to eat out of the gift shop. Here's the key card for the room. Don't let anyone in except me. Wait here for the cab."
Cecilia sat in the grass on the side of the road. It had been so long since she had been down to Greenleaf, over a year since her trip to the hospital. The town wasn't three miles from the Lykke estate, yet she didn't want to leave. Cecilia gripped the clumps of grass, her fingers aching.
Because she loved Gregory, even when…he hurt her.
She did love him, didn't she?
She had once, two years ago during that brief warm summer when he had seen her walking the rocky beach. He told her she delighted him with her laughter, that he wanted to spend his life making her happy. He bought her flowers, candy. He tried to buy her jewelry and when she rejected it, he said he respected her. It was the courtship she had read about in books, the gentle wooing she had imagined. He begged, and she had married him. He had made love to her, a glorious experience of worship and respect.
She hadn't wanted to live in the main house with his mother and sister; clearly, they weren't enamored of her and she thought the concept of living in the family home was weird, a thirty-years-plus guy living with his mommy and sister. She had put her foot down—or so she thought—and Gregory had been glad to move into the cottage at the edge of the cliff. He called it their honeymoon cottage and Cecilia was gloriously happy.
Slowly, gradually, the atmosphere darkened. A cold dark winter such as Cecilia, desert girl that she was, had never imagined.
She talked about inviting her aunt and uncle and cousin; Gregory wanted to be alone with her.
He pointed out the things she did wrong; she argued.
He didn't care for her tone of voice; he was older and knew better.
Eventually she found it easier to concede…to everything.
He arbitrarily changed his mind. She pointed that out, and he brutally corrected her.
She got bored and asked for a job.
He laughed at her, asked her what she imagined she could do, her, a high school graduate without exalted family background or higher education.
She walked to the village, went to the bookstore, bought lofty tomes to improve her mind, a few paperbacks for fun reading, an eReader so she could grab a magazine while the northers blew in off the Atlantic…
In a humiliating scene, he came and got her, dragged her out, got her home and spanked her. He hadn't cared about sex, not since the first month, but when she cried he consoled her. Then she was pregnant. When she realized—oh God! she had always wanted children. She rushed to the main house to tell him.
That's when he had pushed her down the stairs; broken bones and a baby's life that faded before it began. You and me, together forever. The two of us, alone.
Now, as she waited for the cab to take her to the village, she tried to think how Gregory would react when Kellen confronted him, what he would do when he discovered Cecilia intended to leave him.
I'll kill you and I'll kill myself.
That was what he had promised, and she believed him.
But first…he would kill Kellen.
Cecilia scrambled to her feet. She ran through red-leafed huckleberry patches.
Why hadn't she told Kellen about the baby? Why hadn't she told Kellen about all the cruelties?
Because she was embarrassed to be so stupid as to pick an abusive man, humiliated to be so weak and afraid. In withholding that information, she had sent Kellen to her death.
Cecilia reached the rise half a mile above the cottage and stopped, gasping, holding her broken ribs. The sun shone on the old tar and gravel roof. Yellow daylilies surrounded the foundation…
Gregory walked around the corner of the house holding something metal, long and cruel-looking.
He would hurt her. He would kill her.
Cecilia froze, gasping, fear and chills holding her in place.
He would hurt Kellen. He would kill Kellen.
Desperation and guilt fought to send her forward.
He knelt at the gas meter, using something—a pipe wrench?—to fiddle with the connection.
Cecilia scanned the area, looking for Kellen, and she spotted her. There she was, in the house, sitting on the couch, facing the front door, her back to the picture window.
Gregory stood, dropped the wrench onto a clump of golden daylilies, wiped his hands on his dark trousers. He was handsome, tall, strong. And so cruel…he walked briskly around the house, on some kind of time table.
Without him in sight, Cecilia was able to move. She ran toward the house. Through the window, she saw him come through the front door—with a pickax, its long spike lethal and shining.
"No!" Cecilia ran faster. "Kellen! Come on!"
Kellen didn't budge. Maybe she was afraid.
No, not Kellen. Even if she was afraid, she would react.
As Gregory approached, Kellen slumped forward on the cushions.
Why? What had he done?
He walked around the couch, behind Kellen, lifted the pickax, slammed it into her head.
Her skull split. Gore…blood…death. Oh God, death!
Cecilia screamed, stumbled to a halt, covered her face with her arms.
Then…a whiff of gas. And she knew. She looked.
Inside the house, Gregory walked to the drawer where they kept the lighter for the fire.
I'll kill you and I'll kill myself.
That's what he intended. But he hadn't killed Cecilia. He had killed Kellen and now—
He clicked the lighter a few times. No spark. No flame.
Something drew his gaze up and out the window. He saw Cecilia standing there. He looked down at Kellen's body. Looked up again, his face twisted by a too familiar fury.
The house exploded.
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