Current Draft, Chapter One


Who knew a murderer could look so nice.

The plastic edges of Mara Levett’s security badge bite into my fingers as I study her faded picture, fear and anticipation prickling up my neck. She looks more like someone’s mom than the CEO of the nation’s largest weapons manufacturer. Not like the person who must have ordered the coverup of Mom and Dad’s deaths.

Honestly, even if the explosion was an accident, she’s complicit. She put profits ahead of safety, then dodged the fallout when four people paid with their lives. No consequences for her or her company. Certainly no remorse.

I drop the badge like it’s a venomous spider and yank on my favorite tattered running shoes, towers of moving boxes an intimidating city of brown cardboard skyscrapers around me. The early morning sun filters in through gauzy white curtains, illuminating the bare walls and pale floors of my new living room, but it can’t reach the pools of shadow between the stacks. Half-remembered stories and long-dead laughter lurk there. In the dark.

Dad, covered with crusty paint, his brows pinched together as he swept his brush over another canvas. Mom’s bright voice reminiscing about summers spent working the fields as a farmgirl with Grandma and Grandpa.

To think they grew up here… and spent their last days here. This tiny, picturesque town is thirty-six-hundred miles and a world away from home. I hoped living where they met, I’d feel their presence, but so far all I feel is the distance. Hollow echoes.



I blow out a breath. Force myself to focus. Tie my shoes, push off the ground, and head for the door. I need to get outside.


That first step into the newly minted sunshine is a release, the fresh mountain air a thrill in my aching chest. Somehow the July morning is not yet warm. The breeze nips at my damp cheeks and raises goosebumps on my arms. It might be cleaner than I’m used to, but it’s missing the salty tang of the sea.

I don’t want to go back inside, where the shadows and memories wait, not even to grab a sweatshirt. So, I ignore the chill and hunt along the edge of the trees for the running trail I noted last night on my map of the condo complex. When I find the thin, twisty path, I step into a light jog, warming my stiff muscles. The building is lost as the forest closes around me. It’s still, quiet except for the sound of my breath whooshing in and out.

I can’t believe I’m finally here. Tomorrow is the day I’ve focused my whole existence on since the police released their reports six months ago.

Levett Tech’s story had stood. No change in their statement at all. Apparently I’m supposed to just believe Mom and Dad were working late in the R&D lab when the explosion happened.

Yeah right. Dad was a machinist and Mom worked in HR. They had no reason to be anywhere near that blast, especially not here in New Hampshire.

Levett Tech didn’t answer my questions after the funeral, and they sure as hell didn’t address them in the reports. Worse that the authorities refused to release the paperwork for years. The longer Aunt Amy badgered them, the snippier they got.

Anger and embarrassment flash over my skin, turn sour in my stomach. Aunt Amy never felt the frustration I did regarding the investigation. She humored me at first, probably because she felt bad for me. But when the police came down on her, she said it was time to let go.

I lengthen my stride, forcing my attention away from Aunt Amy and the uncooperative cops. Even they couldn’t keep the reports locked up forever.

As soon as the case was closed and the paperwork available, I combed through every word. Took a magnifying glass to the photos.

See, Mel? Aunt Amy had said. It was an accident. I’m sorry honey, but sometimes these things just happen.

Her words did nothing to stem the rising tide of suspicion punching a hole through my chest. If Mom and Dad’s accident was so straightforward, why on Earth did the investigation drag on like it did? Again, why were they in R&D?

Strangest of all were the pictures taken from Levett’s CCTV footage of the lab on the night of the explosion.

Dad was working at a computer. Typing. Then clicking. Then BOOM.

But Dad was left-handed, everyone knew that. He simply wouldn’t have used a right-handed mouse. In fact, he joked all the time about how us right-handed people are baffled by left-handed objects, like scissors.

I begged Aunt Amy to hire a PI. She refused. So, after graduation, I took matters into my own hands.

I’ve waited so long. Schemed and stolen and lied. It will all be worth it when I prove I was right, that something more happened to Mom and Dad.

Levett Tech took them from me. I just have to figure out how.

Panting, I slow to a walk and breathe, the pounding in my chest calming bit by bit. Sticky sweat coats my skin, drips into my eyes. What happened to the crisp morning air?

Hang on.

Golden light shines down through the leaves, making bright patterns that dance across the trail. The sun’s not rising anymore. It’s almost overhead.

How long have I been out here?

Unease blooms in the pit of my stomach as I refocus on my surroundings. I haven’t seen any houses. No roads. No distinguishing landmarks of any kind.

Have I even stayed on the same trail?

I swipe a few damp strands of hair off my forehead and pivot. Only one way to find out.

Ten steps on, the path splits.


Why didn’t I bring my phone? I should know better; Dad used to give me trouble all the time for running without it.

Mouth dry, I crouch down to study the compacted dirt. If I’m lucky, my footprints will lead me home.

Well, to the condo any—

“Hey, are you okay?”

I flinch like I’ve been tasered, falling onto my butt with a loud “Oof!”

There hadn’t been any hint of someone approaching—no footsteps, no rustle of leaves or crunch of twigs. At least not that I noticed.

And yet, a guy’s leaning over me, hands on his knees. I freeze, breath hitching, and gaze up into the most perfect face I’ve ever seen.

The stranger’s loose curls are warm brown, with gilded undertones that shine in the dappled light. His skin is dark, golden tan, his jaw all angles. Eyes are a gorgeous shade of green, shot through with gold and framed by thick lashes. He looks older than my eighteen years, but not by much.

Some small part of me notes through the shock that he’s wearing a tank top, athletic shorts, and running shoes. He’s a runner too. An avid one, by the look of his sneakers. They’re beat to death.

I blink, stunned by both his beauty and the unexpected arrival. His smile fades as we stare at each other.

I shake myself mentally. “Um, what?”

Concern lights his distinctive eyes. “I asked if you’re okay. You’re pretty far out here, and you kind of look upset.”

“Yeah, I’m lost. I didn’t realize how easy it is to get turned around in these woods.”

Abruptly, Dad’s near constant warnings about runners going missing pop into my head. Kidnappers are a real threat, especially out here.

Can I trust this beautiful stranger?

The guy nods. “Best to make sure you always have a way to navigate until you know the trails.”

Duh. Awesome job Mel.

“I was overconfident, I guess. I’ve never been lost on a run before.”

The stranger gives me a dazzling smile. “Well, lucky for you, I know these woods inside out. I can help you find your way.” He straightens up, holds out a hand.

I chew my lip. Should I tell this guy—however attractive—where I live? What if he works at Levett Tech? I stole Mara’s badge to access classified intel. I need to keep to myself. On the other hand, I have no idea how to get home.

“Thank you,” I say, taking his hand. “I appreciate the help.”

As I haul myself off the ground, my eyes fall on the bands of lean muscle running up his arm. A quiet gasp slides through my lips, my cheeks warm.

Worried he might catch me looking, I turn my gaze quickly to his face. But I have to wonder—could the rest of him look as good? No one at my school in California had been muscled up like that. Not even the athletes.

Thankfully my rescuer seems oblivious to my train of thought. He fiddles with the thick twine bracelet on his wrist, his eyes sweeping the woods around us before settling back on me. “It’s going to take a while to get out of here, so we better get moving. Where are we headed?”

“The Glen Ellis condo complex in Jackson. You know it?”

He nods, turning and striding away without a word, which is odd considering how chatty he was a second ago.

Heat creeps over my cheeks again as I hurry to catch up. I give him a friendly smile. “I’m Mel.”

“Hi Mel. I’m Tommy.”

Tommy doesn’t smile back. Doesn’t even look my way.

I glance down at my laces, then back at his expressionless face. Did I do something to tick him off?

Or… oh no. Did he catch me checking him out?

My face burns. He’s probably used to being hit on, but I didn’t mean anything by that look. I don’t want a relationship whether he’s interested or not. I don’t know him at all!

Even so, it’s… nice to talk to someone my own age who isn’t aware of my history. No awkward, half-sincere pity, no empty words of comfort, no sidelong glances, wondering whether I’m still sane, still me. I could use a friend, especially one who has no idea I’m an orphan. As long as he doesn’t work at Levett Tech.

I cast around for something to say, to smooth the situation over. My eyes fall once more on his scruffy running shoes. They make my old banged up Nikes look practically new.

“So, you run?”

“Almost every day.” The corner of Tommy’s mouth twitches up, but his eyes are cool. Distant. He keeps them fixed ahead.

“You know, I run too. That’s how I got so far out here.”

He nods once. “I guessed, but I don’t want to tire you out trying to run us all the way to Jackson. It’s not close.”

I bite my tongue against the snarky response that springs to my lips. Why won’t he drop the frigid attitude? It’s not like my faux pas was a big deal. If anything, he should be flattered.

Fine. I’ll show him.

“I bet I can make it,” I say with a cheeky grin.

Tommy huffs a reluctant laugh. “I like your confidence, but I don’t want to end up carrying you.”

I roll my eyes. If only he knew Mom and I always placed first and second in Oceanside’s annual Turkey Trot marathon. Every year she let me pull ahead right at the end to claim the gold.

A heavy weight settles in my chest.

Stop. Focus. Breathe.

“You know what? I bet I can make it more easily than you. Want to race?”

I hop from foot to foot, hoping he’ll say yes. Okay, so he looks like someone in peak physical condition. Be that as it may, most people can’t run as far as I can. It’s a talent I’ve worked ceaselessly at for years, and I’m proud of it.

Tommy snorts. “You don’t want to challenge me. Trust me.”

“That sounds like an excuse to say no. Worried you’ll be beat by a girl?” My grin turns angelic.

He flashes a real smile then, finally looking my way. His eyes dance. “Yeah, you wish. Okay. You’re on.”

Without warning, he takes off down the trail. His every movement appears weightless, graceful even as he flies over the bumpy ground. A beat late, I launch myself after him.

I’m forced to stay half a step behind as we dash through the trees, needing him to show me the way. Tommy doesn’t falter in his pace, but I don’t lose an inch on him either. We run like this for an immeasurable length of time. Maybe an hour, maybe two. Even though we don’t speak much, the company is nice.

Eventually, clear yellow light shines through the trees ahead—the woods’ edge. I pour on the speed, passing Tommy just before we slip through the last of the branches. Somehow we’re back at my condo.

“I win!”

Tommy chuckles, slowing to a walk and taking a long swig from his water bottle. The way he’s looking at me… he’s impressed. “You weren’t lying. Wow.”

“That was nothing.”

His eyes light up. “How far do you usually run?”

“It depends on the day. On weekends, I log at least fifteen miles, sometimes up to twenty. Weekdays, it’s more like five. Whatever I can squeeze in before work.”

“Good for you.”

“Do you live nearby?” I’d love to have a running partner for a neighbor.

Tommy fidgets, his face falling. Perhaps I’m not the only one with misgivings about handing out my address. Or is he still being weird about before? Does he think I’m coming onto him again?

After a moment, he says, “Uh, yeah. I live in that old manor house. The stone one, down on Route 16. But I’m not home often. I… I work a lot.”

“Workaholic huh? Where do you work?”

Please don’t say Levett Tech.

“Um. I’m in… uh, sales.”

Does a weapons manufacturer have a sales department? I have no idea.

“Sounds riveting. What do you sell?”

“Parts. Auto. Car parts.”


We stand awkwardly facing each other, neither of us speaking. He doesn’t work at Levett Tech, but it’s clear I made him uncomfortable. How embarrassing.

Even so, I don’t want to let him walk away. Today has been… fun. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself like this.

I need friends. What do I have to lose?

Wringing my hands, I blurt, “Do you want to run with me tomorrow? I usually go before work, as I said.”

He hesitates again, probably trying to figure out how to tell me no.

Mortified, I add, “It’s not a problem if you don’t. Thanks for helping me find my way home.”

I turn to escape before I can stuff my foot even further into my mouth.

“No, no, I do. Sure. I’ll meet you here. What time?”

I slowly spin back. Tommy gives me a small smile, twisting his bracelet around his wrist.

Does he want to run with me, or does he just feel guilty? It takes less than a second to
decide I don’t care.

“Six? It was great to meet you.” I hold out my hand.

Tommy takes it, smiling widely now. Sparks skitter over my skin at the casual contact, zapping up my arm and through my chest. The sensation is shocking, and I drop his hand quickly.

“Six. It’s nice to meet you, too, Mel.” His green-and-gold eyes shine.

He waves as he bounds back toward the woods, every motion graceful as a dancer. I watch him go, my hand tingling where he held it.