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Authors: Kathryn Kelly

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BOOK: Incendiary
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What the fuck do I have to do all day but recover from a long-distance swim? Right. One-upping Dad is worth extreme exhaustion. Fuck this. I don’t have the patience for Dad’s games today. I need to turn my ass around and go the fuck back to the beach house. He doesn’t want my fucking company.

My gut feeling is Steffie needs me with her, however. Unsure why I sense that, I rub the back of my neck.

Swallowing and trying to pretend I’m not freaked by Dad’s behavior and Steffie’s attitude, I look for whoever might’ve been on the beach. Maybe, I can hang out with him or her until Dad decides he wants my ass onboard. Then, I can drag Steffie somewhere and get the story of what the fuck is her problem with Dad.

Maybe—

Steffie screams and my unconcerned thoughts evaporate. I shield my eyes from the sun, using my hands as a visor.

“Help me!”

The terror in her voice drills into me and I run into the gulf, the cold water and wet sand sucking at my feet. I catch sight of her and my heart almost stops.

Steffie’s bobbing up and down, struggling to stay afloat.

Jesus. What’s going on? Is she caught in a riptide?

“Steffie!” I yell.

Can she hear me? I doubt it with the way her arms are flailing.

She’s panicking. She’s fucking panicking, which will get her killed.

Just before I dive into deeper water, I glimpse Dad. He gazes at me, at Steffie, and then jumps in.

Let him save her
. He’s right there. He’ll get her out…or get caught as well.

Fuck. I have to get to them.

Don’t let anything happen to Dad and Steffie. Don’t.
Don’t. Don’t.

I come up to the surface for air, and doggy paddle, circling three hundred sixty degrees, finding nothing. No one. Both Dad and Steffie are gone.

Fear and adrenaline surge through me, and I propel myself through the water. It’s taking me forever to reach them. They’ll be lost. Along with my three friends, my father, mother, and sister, are everything to me.

I have to save them, find them, help them
. Or…Jesus…
recover them
.

My eyes sting and, after a few more yards, my lungs tingle. Air. I need air, so I come up again. I’ve been timed at staying under water one hundred fifty seconds. They were further out than I’d initially thought. I’ve been swimming for a total of five minutes now, including coming up for air twice and…

Dad. Resurfaced and breathing, not far from me. He’s trying to drag Steffie up…I think…Holy God, he’s…he’s not helping her
up,
he’s holding her
under
. His hand is on the back of her head, keeping it in place. The upper half of her body bobs in the water.

Steffie’s gone. I know it, but I can’t wrap my head around what I’m witnessing.

Dad killed Steffie
.

I propel my body into him, surprising him, and he releases her. She’s sinking. My sister will be lost if I don’t get her…

Steffie, please, don’t leave me. Come back. You have to.

I fold my arms around her body and find...
nothing.
She’s still. She’s gone.

Dad seizes me, and I panic, afraid he’ll drown me, too. I fight off his hold, by jabbing him with my elbow. But he’s strong and I’m devastated. Dad tightens his grip and I stop caring.

Let him kill me. I will the water to overcome me and take me away from this nightmare. If I survive, I’ll live without my sister and
with
the knowledge that my Dad, the man I once worshiped,
her father too
, is her murderer.

What‘s going to happen to Mom
?

One arm holding me, Dad grabs Steffie’s hair. Despising him, I shove him away and yank my sister from him, determined to keep her head above water, though she’s limp. I struggle with her onto the boat, where I lay her on a brown tarp that flaps in the wind and is weighted on each side by ice coolers.

Dad clamors onto the deck. I stare at the stranger who was once my father, the force of my sobs shaking my shoulders. Disbelief and grief thicken the air. Each second feels like hours, days, years. The only way to soothe my agony is my sister opening her eyes, standing up, and hugging me.

Kneeling next to her, I sob against her body, touching her hair, her nose, her cheeks. “Stefanie!” I shout, kissing her forehead. Refusal to accept
this
rings in my head.

Fuck, no, Sloane. Do CPR. You can get her back
.

Yes. Right. My Steffie can come back to me. I put to use the knowledge of the CPR classes Mom insisted I take. For five minutes, I work on Steffie, but she’s uncooperative. She won’t breathe again.

Roaring in helplessness, I shake her.

Without warning, I’m shoved backward. Dad again. No, not Dad. The man who
was
my dad. Now, he’s Steffie’s killer.

“Motherfucker.” I shoot to my feet and tackle him, determined to fucking kill him
. Then and only then
will I put myself out of this misery. He doesn’t fucking deserve to live.

Somehow, Dad gets the upper hand, whaling on my chest and stomach.

I maneuver away from him, stagger up, and lunge, but Steffie’s body is in the way and I stumble over it. She’s dead at my feet.

My sister’s gone.

A flash hurts my eyes. One, two, three. It continues. The short bursts of light adds to my grief. I swear it’s a camera. But I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. I hold out my hands, hovering over her, but I stop just short of touching her.

Unable to bear my grief, I finally fall to my knees and press my hands on her chest.

“Come back to me!” I cry, thrusting my fingers through her hair.

She’s gray.

Hands falling to her neck, I search for signs of life. The water made her cold. She might still have a pulse. A faint one will work.

“Stefanie,” I repeat her name, in another pitiful attempt to waken her. Desperate, I shake her. She doesn’t change. She remains limp. Wrapping her in my arms again, I place another kiss on her cheek, crying against her neck. All the things I never said to her drum through my head. Emotions I never thought to express. How much I love her and the depth of my admiration. In the six years since we met, I don’t remember ever thanking her for seeing
me
and my love of music.

Something presses against the back of my head. Lost in my devastation, I still feel the barrel. Dad has a gun trained on me.

“Do it,” I order. Hatred is most powerful when formed from love. I. Despise. Him. “Kill me, like you killed her.”

“I should,” he says hoarsely. “For being such an
obedient
son. Why didn’t you stay away?”

I don’t know what he means. The way he sneers ‘obedient’ makes a mockery of how I’ve always followed my parents’ instructions. When have I ever been truly disobedient? I don’t bother asking. It isn’t important. My once perfect family is gone.

In reality, it never was.

He jiggles the gun against my skull. “You killed your sister. Jealousy leads to ugly souls.”

“What? Killed—”

Horrified, I release Steffie’s body and crawl away from her. From Dad. The sun almost blinds me, but light will never again shine in my world. From this day forward, it will be muted in gray and painted with death.

“You killed Stefanie,” he hollers.

Rendered mute, I shake my head in denial, my tears falling fast and furious. Stuck in a wild hallucination, I’ve lost my mind. Maybe, it’s the pot. Supposedly, only grass, but something else could’ve laced it.

He shoves the gun against my temple and my entire body shakes. “You killed her.”

No. No. “No.” As the horrible truth dawns on me…as I
accept
the facts, I understand. He’s about to ruin my entire life, pin my sister’s murder on me. “You can’t…No! I didn’t kill my sister, fucker. You did.”

He kicks me in the stomach and I double over. But then I’m staring right down the gun’s barrel, pointed in my face. “You killed her, didn’t you, Sloane?” Dad cocks the gun. “You do this my way. Or you die. Murder-suicide.”

I revert to the nightmare theory. Yes,
I’m living a motherfucking epic fantasy.
No fucking way is this happening. I’m asleep after drinking too much shit, and smoking that blunt. When I awaken, I’ll still be in my bed. Late in getting to the dock. Maybe, left behind.

Breathing hard, I squeeze my eyes shut, ignoring the tears leaking from them.
God, please, please. This is a dream. Please.
I pop my eyes open again.

It’s still the same. My sister is still dead at my feet. My father still has a gun on me.

And I’m still shattered, never piecing myself back together.

 

The air-conditioning cools me, as I sip fresh lemonade and listen for the front door opening, heralding Grandma’s return. She prefers me to stay in my apartment, as she calls it. In reality, it’s just a bunch of rooms in her house, converted into my space. Or my prison, depending on how I choose to see it. Apartment, prison, a bunch of rooms, or living quarters, it’s confining. Period. End of story. I have a maid assigned to me, and Grandma sees me every day, usually once. Whenever Josh is in town, we have dinner at my six-seated table, where I go to great lengths to show him everything is fine. In so many regards, it is.

I don’t have an allowance anymore, so that’s different. Still, I want for nothing.

Except the same as always. Someone to love me.

Grandma’s house is gorgeous, with all types of antique furnishings, one-of-a-kind works of art, and imported collectibles. If I’m honest, I’m glad she keeps me stuck in my quarters. Amongst Grandma’s possessions, I’m nervous. They represent everything I’m not. Her stuff is valued and valuable. I’m neither.

If something in her house goes missing or is stolen, if anything is broken, nicked, chipped, scratched…
whatever
…a big stink will arise.

Again, that wouldn’t happen on my behalf. When I’m outside of the rooms I’ve been allotted, I often think of the repercussions if I accidentally damage her belongings.

I risk discovery roaming about the house. This time, a wild, trapped feeling and overwhelming thoughts of Sloane runs me out of my rooms. My vivid dreams of him last night and my morning where I waited and prayed he’d call are too much for me.

Did Kiln even tell him I was having a little girl?

Before I traipsed about in Grandma’s space, I walked outside, hoping to quell my loneliness and the pain at the continued silence of my phone. The sun on my face and the sweet scent of flowers helped slightly. Over and over, I reminded myself that I’m an adult now. I must act my age for the child I’m bringing into the world.

I strengthen my resolve to keep her, too. Grandma wants me to put her up for adoption. I’m just as determined never to allow it.

Several times, I’ve thought of running away. If only I had somewhere to go, someone who wanted me, I would. Calling a social service agency has crossed my mind, then I push the idea away. I’m not battered or in danger, so a women’s shelter is out. I’m not poor—not really—or homeless. I am penniless, however.

My life is freakily fucked. Not a dollar to my name. No credit cards or checkbooks. Nevertheless, my maternity clothes are spectacular, and the baby’s clothes are from the best shops in the world. With wardrobes, Grandma exceeds Mom. Where my mother purchases designer clothes through a stylist, my grandmother brings in the
designer,
so our clothes are custom made. The amount of money spent on my outfits could pay for a decent sized house for a middle-class family.

In essence, I’m still getting
things
. Meanwhile, Grandma happily goes about committing Guerilla warfare on my peace of mind.

“Georgiana?”

Panic rises in me when I hear my name until it registers one of the maids is calling me.

Swallowing, I lumber to my feet. Time’s running out before Grandma returns. In all fairness, she hasn’t told me
not
to contaminate her house with my presence. However, whenever I’ve come downstairs uninvited, her look and attitude are so rigid and cold, words are pointless.

Once I failed all my lessons and remained just a junior in high school, I became unworthy to walk her hallways. She’s ashamed of me. The idea crushes me and—

The servant clears her throat and I flush, balling my fists at my sides so I won’t touch my stomach. It just reminds every one of my baby. Yes, my belly is huge, but it’s easier to pretend I’m overweight rather than a Mom-to-be.

“Georgiana!” she calls in exasperation.

“Sorry,” I mutter, biting down on my lip.

“There’s a detective who needs to talk to you.”

My brows draw together. “Me?” There’s no reason a cop should want to see me. I’ve done nothing. I haven’t gone many places
to
do anything. “A detective?”

Is this a coincidence or does it have something to do with the phone call?

Since hearing from Kiln yesterday, I’ve thought of little else. Though stupid on my part, I expected a response from Sloane to the news I’m carrying his daughter.

The unshakeable faith I once had in him is disintegrating. Doubtful anything will ever fully extinguish it. Besides, emotional attachments aren’t easy to overcome and, now we’ll always share a connection because of the baby. Right now, she’s inside of me, but I don’t think my feelings will change much toward him when she’s in my arms. They may even grow stronger. Because of Sloane, I’ll never be alone again.

I’ll have my little girl.

“The detective, Georgiana,” the maid inserts briskly.

The cop’s arrival interrupted her wood polishing duties, evidenced by the wool cloth flung over her shoulder. She’s standing five feet away, but lemon oil wafts from her and turns my stomach. At the beginning of my pregnancy, morning sickness kicked my ass. Once Sloane sent me away, food wouldn’t stay down. It eased up a couple of weeks into my second trimester. Lately, though, my stomach has returned to its fragile state, and I’ve been nauseated a lot.

Even if the maid knew this, she wouldn’t do much to step away and remove the scent invading my nostrils. Around here, I’m inconsequential.

“He said it won’t take long.” She lifts a brow in expectation, almost as snooty as Grandma.

All of her servants act as if they’re better than me. My parents ignored me at home, but at least the household staff didn’t disdain me.
Then
. What they’d subject me to now, I can’t imagine.

Dejection threatens to overwhelm me. Ruthlessly, I shove it away. My baby is what
I
am as long as she’s inside of me. If I’m healthy and happy, she will be, too.

“Georgiana!”

The maid glares at me, and I sigh. “Show him in.”

I debate on whether I should sit or remain standing, to best hide my nervousness.

Striving for a calm demeanor, I return to the
settee
and pull my cell phone from my pocket. Grandma insists I call furniture resembling a plain, old loveseat, something quite old-fashioned.

A chill sweeps through me, but I attempt to convince myself the cold, marble floors are affecting me. It doesn’t work. My goosebumps stem from a detective wanting to see me.

There’s no avoiding this visit. No one here will cover for me. If Grandma were home, she would. Without a doubt, she’d talk to the man, with her need to be in control at all times. Grandma only allows me in-depth contact with her, my maid, Lindsey, and Josh. Unless she arranges an appointment for me, such as OB check-ups, it isn’t happening.

Five minutes later, a voice clears and I focus my wandering mind. The original servant who came to me with the announcement of my unwanted visitor has been replaced by another one, still in black and white. Required attire for Grandma’s staff is black pants and vest with a white shirt for men and a black dress with a white apron for women. The uniforms are the reason I try my best to
never
wear black and white.

“Sorry it took so long to show him in,” the maid says. “He needed the lavatory.”

I lower my lashes to prevent my grimace at the word
lavatory
. One day, I’m scoping out the staff’s quarters. I bet I’ll find the Helen Sanderson Dictionary on Annoying and Outdated Words, as well as an etiquette book on proper behavior. One rule would be texting is classless communication.

Grandma
hates
texts, but I fire off a quick one to her. I don’t know the protocol of a detective overhearing me ratting out his presence to my grandmother via a phone call.

“This is Detective Stu Jackson.” This maid is a tad friendlier and nods to me. I wish I remembered her name. Grandma just has too many people attending to her every need, for me to know who’s who. Maybe, if I hung around them more, I’d better identify everyone. “Detective, this is Georgiana McCall.”

Detective Jackson’s gaze falls on my stomach and he lifts a brow, shifting a thick folder he’s holding from one hand to the other. Not liking the way he’s staring at my belly and already on edge, I feel my tension heighten with his suspicious attitude. I can’t pinpoint his age, but he has a rugged, outdoorsy look. He isn’t handsome, but neither can he be called ugly, even though his top lip is thin. With a better look, I decide he has a chicken lip. It’s not only thin but nonexistent.

I hold back a giggle and deepen my study to have something to concentrate on, other than how freaked I am by his visit.

Despite that top lip, the detective somehow reminds me of Sam, the doomed tutor Sloane hired for me. Detective Jackson has on a suit and tie while Sam wore trousers, a button-down shirt, and a bowtie. Sam’s face was also more classically handsome, though the shape of the two men’s brows match.

Why do I find that so weird or relevant?

Laying the folder on the coffee table, Detective Jackson digs into his jacket and comes out with a small recorder, pen, and notepad. After he sets the items on top of the folder, he puts his hands on his hips and studies me. The placement of his hands pushes his jacket back. I glimpse the badge clipped to his belt, along with a holstered gun.

I lick my lips and place my cell phone next to me, within easy reach if Grandma responds to my message, then I brush bits of hair behind my ear. Without invitation, he sits on the sofa that I’m allowed to
call
a sofa, directly across from me.

“What’s this about?” Doing my best not to fidget, I cross my fingers, hoping Grandma responds. Judging by the size of the folder, this is a serious matter. “Why are you here?”

“I need to ask you a few questions.” His voice is kinder than expected. My tension isn’t eased.

“About what?” I squeak out, wincing internally. To stay in control of this situation, I have to keep calm.

He doesn’t draw out his answer, saying simply, “Sloane Mason.”

Sloane. Of course, this is about Sloane. After Kiln’s call, I’ve been expecting contact all day. I’ve gotten it, just not the communication I wanted.

My hands clench and unclench, and one descends toward my stomach. I’d like to freely cradle my belly or rest my hands on it or do the things I’ve seen other pregnant women do, but I don’t have that luxury. Even alone, I’m hesitant. If I get too comfortable touching my belly in private, I’d unconsciously do it around Grandma. Detective Jackson’s gaze hones in on my stomach, strengthening my theory that acknowledging my pregnancy in the smallest way isn’t wise. I shove my hands under my thighs to keep them out of trouble.

Afraid to speak, I press my lips together. If a detective is here asking about Sloane…What does that mean? Someone found out about our affair and now he’s in trouble? I’m still four, whole months away from being legal. If Sloane married me, he’d be a little more insulated against prosecution. I think. The law confuses me, so I’m not one hundred percent certain.

“What can you tell me about him?”

“Nothing,” I respond as if I have a button set to automatic. Does this jackass expect me to announce my affair with Sloane?

BOOK: Incendiary
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