Sara Linton stood at the front door of her parents' house holding so many plastic grocery bags in her hands that she couldn't feel her fingers. Using her elbow, she tried to open the door but ended up smacking her shoulder into the glass pane. She edged back and pressed her foot against the handle, but the door still would not budge. Finally, she gave up and knocked with her forehead.
Through the wavy glass, she watched her father making his way down the hallway. He opened the door with an uncharacteristic scowl on his face.
"Why didn't you make two trips?" Eddie demanded, taking some of the bags from her.
"Why is the door locked?"
"Your car's less than fifteen feet away."
"Dad," Sara countered. "Why is the door locked?"
He was looking over her shoulder. "Your car is filthy." He put the bags down on the floor. "You think you can handle two trips to the kitchen with these?"
Sara opened her mouth to answer, but he was already walking down the front steps. She asked, "Where are you going?"
"To wash your car."
"It's fifty degrees out."
He turned and gave her a meaningful look. "Dirt sticks no matter the climate." He sounded like a Shakespearean actor instead of a plumber from rural Georgia.
By the time she had formed a response, he was already inside the garage.
Sara stood on the porch as her father came back out with the requisite supplies to wash her car. He hitched up his sweatpants as he knelt to fill the bucket with water. Sara recognized the pants from high school--her high school; she had worn them for track practice.
"You gonna just stand there letting the cold in?" Cathy asked, pulling Sara inside and closing the door.
Sara bent down so that her mother could kiss her on the cheek. Much to Sara's dismay, she had been a good foot taller than her mother since the fifth grade. While Tessa, Sara's younger sister, had inherited their mother's petite build, blond hair and effortless poise, Sara looked like a neighbor's child who had come for lunch one afternoon and decided to stay.
Cathy bent down to pick up some of the grocery bags, then seemed to think better of it. "Get these, will you?"
Sara scooped all eight bags into her hands, risking her fingers again. "What's wrong?" she asked, thinking her mother looked a little under the weather.
"Isabella," Cathy answered, and Sara suppressed a laugh. Her aunt Bella was the only person Sara knew who traveled with her own stock of liquor.
Cathy whispered, "Tequila," the same way she might say "Cancer."
Sara cringed in sympathy. "Has she said how long she's staying?"
"Not yet," Cathy replied. Bella hated Grant County and had not visited since Tessa was born. Two days ago, she had shown up with three suitcases in the back of her convertible Mercedes and no explanations.
Normally, Bella would not have been able to get away with any sort of secrecy, but in keeping with the new "Don't ask, don't tell" ethos of the Linton family, no one had pressed her for an explanation. So much had changed since Tessa was attacked last year. They were all still shell-shocked, though no one seemed to want to talk about it. In a split second, Tessa's assailant had altered not just Tessa but the entire family. Sara often wondered if any of them would ever fully recover.
Sara asked, "Why was the door locked?"
"Must've been Tessa," Cathy said, and for just a moment her eyes watered.
"Go on in," Cathy interrupted, indicating the kitchen. "I'll be there in a minute."
Sara shifted the bags and walked down the hallway, glancing at the pictures that lined the walls. No one could go from the front door to the back without getting a pictorial view of the Linton girls' formative years. Tessa, of course, looked beautiful and slim in most of them. Sara was never so lucky. There was a particularly hideous photo of Sara in summer camp back in the eighth grade that she would have ripped off the wall if her mother let her get away with it. Sara stood in a boat wearing a bathing suit that looked like a piece of black construction paper pinned to her bony shoulders. Freckles had broken out along her nose, giving her skin a less than pleasing orange cast. Her red hair had dried in the sun and looked like a clown Afro.
"Darling!" Bella enthused, throwing her arms wide as Sara entered the kitchen. "Look at you!" she said, as if this was a compliment. Sara knew full well she wasn't at her best. She had rolled out of bed an hour ago and not even bothered to comb her hair. Being her father's daughter, the shirt she wore was the one she had slept in and her sweatpants from the track team in college were only slightly less vintage. Bella, by contrast, was wearing a silky blue dress that had probably cost a fortune. Diamond earrings sparkled in her ears, the many rings she wore on her fingers glinting in the sun streaming through the kitchen windows. As usual, her makeup and hair were perfect, and she looked gorgeous even at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning.
Sara said, "I'm sorry I haven't been by earlier."
"Feh." Her aunt waved off the apology as she sat down. "Since when do you do your mama's shopping?"
"Since she's been stuck at home entertaining you for the last two days." Sara put the bags on the counter, rubbing her fingers to encourage the circulation to return.
"I'm not that hard to entertain," Bella said. "It's your mother who needs to get out more."
Bella smiled mischievously. "She never could hold her liquor. I'm convinced that's the only reason she married your father."
Sara laughed as she put the milk in the refrigerator. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw a plate piled high with chicken, ready for frying.
Bella provided, "We snapped some greens last night."
"Lovely," Sara mumbled, thinking this was the best news she had heard all week. Cathy's green bean casserole was the perfect companion to her fried chicken. "How was church?"
"A little too fire and brimstone for me," Bella confessed, taking an orange out of the bowl on the table. "Tell me about your life. Anything interesting happening?"
"Same old same old," Sara told her, sorting through the cans.
Bella peeled the orange, sounding disappointed when she said, "Well, sometimes routine can be comforting."
Sara made a "hm" sound as she put a can of soup on the shelf above the stove.
"Hm," Sara repeated, knowing exactly where this was going.
When Sara was in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, she had briefly lived with her aunt Bella. The late-night parties, the drinking and the constant flow of men had finally caused a split. Sara had to get up at five in the morning to attend classes, not to mention the fact that she needed her nights quiet so that she could study. To her credit, Bella had tried to limit her social life, but in the end they had agreed it was best for Sara to get a place of her own. Things had been cordial until Bella had suggested Sara look into one of the units at the retirement home down on Clairmont Road.
Cathy came back into the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She moved the soup can Sara had shelved, pushing her out of the way in the process. "Did you get everything on the list?"
"Except the cooking sherry," Sara told her, sitting down opposite Bella. "Did you know you can't buy alcohol on Sunday?"
"Yes," Cathy said, making the word sound like an accusation. "That's why I told you to go to the store last night."
"I'm sorry," Sara apologized. She took a slice of orange from her aunt. "I was dealing with an insurance company out west until eight o'clock. It was the only time we could talk."
"You're a doctor," Bella stated the obvious. "Why on earth do you have to talk to insurance companies?"
"Because they don't want to pay for the tests I order."
"Isn't that their job?"
Sara shrugged. She had finally broken down and hired a woman full-time to jump through the various hoops the insurance companies demanded, but still, two to three hours of every day Sara spent at the children's clinic were wasted filling out tedious forms or talking to, sometimes yelling at, company supervisors on the phone. She had started going in an hour earlier to try to keep on top of it, but nothing seemed to make a dent.
"Ridiculous," Bella murmured around a slice of orange. She was well into her sixties, but as far as Sara knew, she had never been sick a day in her life. Perhaps there was something to be said for chain-smoking and drinking tequila until dawn after all.
Cathy rummaged through the bags, asking, "Did you get sage?"
"I think so." Sara stood to help her find it but Cathy shooed her away. "Where's Tess?"
"Church," Cathy answered. Sara knew better than to question her mother's disapproving tone. Obviously, Bella knew better, too, though she raised an eyebrow at Sara as she handed her another slice of orange. Tessa had passed on attending the Primitive Baptist, where Cathy had gone since she and Bella were children, choosing instead to visit a smaller church in a neighboring county for her spiritual needs. Under normal circumstances Cathy would have been glad to know at least one of her daughters wasn't a godless heathen, but there was obviously something that bothered her about Tessa's choic...
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
About the Book
The victim was buried alive in the Georgia woods — then killed in a horrifying fashion. When Sara Linton and Jeffrey Tolliver stumble upon the body, both become consumed with finding out who killed the pretty, impeccably dressed young woman. And for Sara and Jeffrey, a harrowing journey begins, one that will test their own turbulent relationship and draw dozens of lives into the case.