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CHAPTER ONE

They targeted her because no one would miss her, Laken Stone concluded. She huddled in the large chair, her misery as heavy and cold as a wet shroud. “If anyone does realize I’m gone,” she muttered, her head throbbing with the worst hangover of her life, “they’ll do the happy dance.”

“Pay attention,” Karl Rankin admonished, “rather than talking to yourself.” Immobile, he sat behind the huge desk like a rectangle of obsidian, the edges knocked off by a surreal sculptor to leave the basic outline of a hard man. His smooth dark skin absorbed the illumination from the single light gleaming over his desk, a spotlight trained on an expensive statue and leaving the rest of the spacious, luxurious office in shadow.

When she didn’t answer, the casino owner scooped up paper from the otherwise bare desktop. He rattled the thick sheaf of bright white papers clutched in his hands, the dark knuckles oversized, swollen from either arthritis or punching gamblers who’d tried to welch on their debts.

If Laken hadn’t lost everything she’d owned at the blackjack table, she’d have bet on the violent option.

“You insisted on a line of credit to get yourself out of the hole. Out of the goodness of my heart,” Rankin said, his dark, square face gleaming with self-righteousness, “I kept extending your credit. You have a choice. You can turn over all of your future earnings, or you can agree to work for me.”

“I’ll have to give you every penny I earn until I’m two hundred freaking years old,” Laken retorted, angry at him, but even more disappointed in herself. It had been her first night of freedom after thirty days locked down in chemical dependency rehab. She’d been determined to prove to the hospital staff that their alcoholism diagnosis was wrong by hitting the nightclub adjacent to the casino and blocks from the hospital. She’d decided to dance until closing time under the swirling lights and drink only nonalcoholic beverages.

Laken winced. She didn’t remember anything after entering the nightclub and ordering a diet soft drink. Since she’d had many blackouts after her past drinking binges, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she’d dived into a flood of unending cocktails. With her pretty face, long curls, and slim body shown off in skirts with the hems inching toward indecency, low-cut blouses, and towering heels, she’d never had to pay for her own drinks.

“Given your tendency to party as if there were no tomorrow, you’ll be floating face down in a pool of your own vomit long before it’s paid.” His dark eyes shone. “If you reject the contract, then I could offer the date of your demise as a wager.” He sighed, the gleam replaced by hard practicality. “However, working off your debt in my special club is your best bet—”

Laken rolled her eyes when Rankin chuckled at his own pun.

“—for getting yourself out of debt. Just over a month ago, you were drinking and driving, and you crashed your car into a bridge. You went straight from the hospital to the loony bin for rehab,” he said, sneering as he formed angry air quotes with his thick fingers. “While you were finger painting and sharing your tales of woe with the other patients, you lost your driver’s license and your job.”

Laken stared down at her crushed, soiled magenta dress, the sequins muted in the shadows. She took a deep breath, and then she wrinkled her nose. The dirty dress and the smells of sweat and vomit were silent representatives of her party-girl lifestyle. She raised her eyes. Rankin fit a mobbed-up casino owner stereotype with his square, thick body encased in an expensive suit, his primitive face, and his luxurious office.

Her head spun. Was it real? Was it a dream? Was she on a reality television show? She gripped the leather armchair to keep from spinning off into oblivion.

“Your employer was sick of your constant absences and your drunkenness whenever you deigned to show up,” Rankin said. “They finally washed their hands of you and sent your notice of termination to the hospital.”

“How did you know that?” Laken asked. “That’s confidential information.”

“I make it my business to know everything before I offer anyone the opportunity to work in the special club. Your first night out of rehab, you hit my nightclub with a vengeance. When the manager threw you out for picking a fight with a woman over her boyfriend, you staggered into the casino.”

Laken fought against the dizziness and the fog in her mind. She shook her head. She immediately regretted it when the pain ratcheted up from harsh to excruciating, although it did help to clear the mists. She groped for what she hoped was the truth. “You’re lying. I didn’t drink last night.”

“I have your every movement on video. You drank. You bet. You lost. I approved your credit. You continued to lose and to drink.” Rankin smiled, his teeth gleaming like a predator ready to take down a shivering rabbit.

Laken blinked. A moment ago, Rankin had said my nightclub. Did he own both businesses, the nightclub and the casino? If yes, was it a significant fact? Could it help her? “Your minions drugged me and pointed me to the casino. I’ll drag your ass to court.”

Court, Laken thought. The wisp of an idea trailed misty tendrils through her foggy mind. She concentrated, trying to catch the swirling tail of the thought. Her sister Kirbie had written her master’s thesis on gambling and the enforceability of collecting debts. Laken had tuned out most of the blah-blah-blah, but her sister had mentioned off-track betting on horses. A case involving a cold check had gone to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which ruled the gambling debt was not enforceable—

Gotcha, Laken thought in triumph. I’ll write a check for the amount he claims that I owe. It’ll bounce to the moon. He won’t be able to collect the debt. Finding the solution to her problem felt so good that it hurt.

Rankin narrowed his eyes. He leaned forward, his chair squeaking, as he reached under the desktop.

Laken wondered if he’d hit a panic button. She debated pushing her own panic button. She pushed the thought away, determined to get herself out of her predicament without calling her protective, older sister. Thinking furiously, she straightened in her chair. She had to hit exactly the right tone with a combination of truth and lies.

“Mr. Rankin,” Laken said, “I cashed out my retirement account. I knew I’d need the money for legal bills as well as to live until I find another job. I’ll write you a check for the full amount of the casino debt. It will clean me out, but it will clear the debt.” She hoped she still had the blank check tucked in the back of her wallet. Kirbie had insisted she stash one in her purse, even though Laken had protested it was old school since she did all of her banking online. She scrabbled in her large purse, glad now that she’d given in to her fussy sister.

The double doors opened. A waitress clad in a filmy uniform of brightly colored scarves covering the bare minimum to prevent arrest for indecent exposure, glided into the office, hoisting a tray with two frosty glasses near her explosion of poufy blonde hair. Keeping her slim back to Laken, her long nails glittered as she placed the glasses on the desk in front of Rankin, along with a small object.

Keeping his eyes on Laken, Rankin curled a meaty arm around the woman’s neck and pulled her head down. Still watching Laken, he kissed the woman deeply, with plenty of slurping noises and groans. He broke eye contact and buried his huge, square head in her willowy neck.

Ew, Laken thought, get a freaking room. She smoothed the creases from the blank check.

She watched as the waitress glided from the room. The other woman kept her head turned away. Laken frowned, wondering if the server deliberately kept her face hidden.

“How about a drink, Laken?” He held up one of the glasses, the ice tinkling like a dinner bell calling in hungry workers and the sides wet with condensation. “Your favorite drink, Cuba Libra, also known as Rum and Coke. Or, as you tell your friends, a Yum and Coke.”

The rum would ease my headache, Laken thought. Her hands clenched into fists. No, she decided. She hadn’t lied when she said she hadn’t indulged in alcohol the previous night. She’d wanted to party and have fun, not get drunk.

The night of her car accident, she’d been drinking and partying. She’d gone to the restroom, and thought she saw her mother. When she’d realized it was her own reflection in the huge mirror, she’d been appalled. Ignoring the drunken women jostling for mirror space, she’d examined her face. The drinking was adding a jaded cast to her pretty features, and it was ruining her skin. She’d looked like she’d been rode hard and put up wet, just like her alcoholic mother. Birdie Stone, who’d gotten her nickname from her propensity to flip off anyone who annoyed her, including her common-law husband and children, had gazed back at her in the mirror.

She turned away from the dripping glass in Rankin’s hand. Like people who were scared straight, Laken had been shocked sober. Unfortunately, her little epiphany was too late to prevent her car accident. But she’d been sober for thirty days. She wanted to keep going, at least for today. In the short term, she was also afraid of losing what wits she had around the hardened casino boss. She needed a clear head to get herself the hell out of her trouble.

Rankin placed the drink on his desk. He straightened his tie, dislodged when he’d mauled the waitress, with one hand while he held up a slip of paper with the other one. His thick brows rose as he perused the sheet.

Laken unearthed a pen from the chaos of her purse. “I’ll write you a check now, and then I’ll be on my way.” She’d hit the nightclub on Saturday evening. Since it was Sunday—she didn’t think she’d lost more time—she hoped he didn’t have any way to check the banks. Of course, it was the digital age. Would the weekend even matter?

“How did you get access to your funds from lockdown?” Rankin waited.

“The mental hospital has what they call a Recovery Mall which offers aspects of everyday living, such as using computers,” Laken answered, careful to modulate her voice in a low, even tone. That statement was true. The challenge would be maintaining the same tone for lies. “I used one of the computers to access my retirement account.” Lie. “Since I was fired”—painful truth—“I transferred the money, minus taxes and fees, to my personal checking account.” Big, fat lie, especially since she’d never set up a retirement account. She hadn’t wanted payroll deductions cutting into her party money, had she? She almost shook her head to herself. In her mind, she replayed her statements. Her sharp ears had not detected any changes in tone, but had his?

“Go ahead, write the check. Don’t leave off any zeros.” He opened his slim laptop. “I’ll use the check verification service to see if it’s any good.” When her face fell and her shoulders sagged, he laughed. “I’ve learned the hard way not to take unverified checks from deadbeats like you.”

Laken wondered if he had been personally involved in the Kentucky Supreme Court case. If not, she thought, close to tears, he’d surely heard of it through his occupational contacts.

His hands, the size of raw, dark, country hams, moved over the laptop keyboard. On the wall in the far corner of the office, a huge, flat screen monitor flashed to life.

Laken started to rise from the chair. The monitor showed her standing in a parking structure, her form-fitting, magenta dress dreary in the black-and-white footage. She was waving a beer bottle around by its neck with extravagant gestures, nearly falling as she staggered. A dark car smoothly braked to a stop in front of her. A man in a valet uniform briskly circled the car and handed her the keys. Her slim legs flashed as she darted to the driver’s side. The car lurched erratically from side to side, and then sped away. The valet looked up at the camera. He smirked.

Rankin pushed his chair back from the desk. “You don’t have any money. You left the casino, driving without a license. You’ve had one DUI. With that footage, a judge will throw the book at you. You’re facing hard time.”

Laken fell back into the chair. “That’s not me,” she stated, “and that’s not my car. I wrecked it, remember?”

“Let’s add grand theft auto to your list of potential charges,” he said, reversing the action on screen. He stopped it as the on-screen image of Laken moved to the car, her dress frozen mid-flutter. He zoomed in on her leg. He used one finger on the screen to circle her calf. “That’s a unique tattoo, the image of a bird in flight with Laken below it in flowing script. How many women have that tattoo?”

“What do you want?” Laken asked drearily, resigned to her fate.

“You already know.” Rankin rose, the papers gripped in his hands. “You sign this contract, agreeing to abide by its terms, including confidentiality. You work in my special club for six months. During that time, you don’t have any contact with the outside world. If you break any of the rules, then your term is lengthened, depending on the severity of the infraction. If you do as you’re told, then I’ll forgive your debt and make the drunk driving charge disappear. Understood?”

“I have to text my sister.” Laken rummaged in her purse for her cell phone. “If I don’t, Kirbie will raise hell. When she gets a burr under her saddle, she tends to leave chaos in her wake until she knocks it loose.”

Rankin bent to a drawer in his desk. “Looking for this?” He waved her cell phone.

Laken started to rise, one hand extended. “Give me that.”

Rankin threw the phone in the drawer and slammed it shut. “No contact, beginning now.”

A bright, hard jolt caused Laken to straighten. It was her sense of self-preservation. It had almost been lost in her morass of misery. Almost. “If I do this, then I want enough cash at the end of the six months to start over, including enough to buy a new car.”

A corner of Rankin’s mouth turned up, giving his face a veneer of charm. With a flash of insight, Laken understood why the waitress had let him paw her. “What about your down-and-out parents?” Rankin asked. “Your mom got that hefty settlement from Wal-Mart after her fall in the adult beverage section. They used part of the money to buy the single-wide mobile home you managed to grow up in. They blew the rest of the money on drinking in the redneck honky tonks. Do you want money for them to ease their golden years?”

Laken remembered the hot-as-Hades-in-summer and cold-as-the-North-Pole-in-winter tin can where she’d spent her miserable childhood, her father and mother taking out their hate and frustration on their children with their fists, belts, and anything else they could lay their hands on. She didn’t need to think about Rankin’s question. “No.”

“Understandable,” Rankin said, “since your sister died in their tender care.” He placed a finger to his lips. “What was her odd name?” He waved a hand. “Spooky. Why did your parents call her that?”

“I don’t want to talk about Spooky.” Laken glared, closing the subject.

“What about money for your living sister?” Rankin asked. “Kirbie has staggering amounts of student loan debt, her own and the loans she co-signed for you that you never bothered to pay. She works full-time at the university as a business officer, monitoring the accounts to prevent embezzlement and fraud. She also works evenings and weekends as a freelance accountant, juggling the books for area businesses so she can whittle away at her school debt. Do you want to ease her burden?”

“Why should I?” Laken spoke without thinking. “Working that second job means Kirbie has a lot less time to stalk me and lecture me.”

“All for one, and one for all, as long as the one is Laken Stone. You’re a girl after my own heart.” He flipped through the papers, scribbled on one, and then placed the sheaf on the corner of his desk. “I added what you want, and I initialed it. You have a pen. Sign it.” He crossed his arms.

“And if I don’t sign it?”

Rankin shrugged, raising and lowering his massive shoulders, the movement surprisingly graceful. “I’ll turn the video over to the court by personally delivering it to the judge.”

She bent over the papers. The avid look on his face made her shudder. “You mean I don’t have to sign it in blood?”

“Do you think I’m the devil?” He threw his head back and laughed. He sobered as he glanced at the office door.

She followed his gaze. The door was ajar. She caught a flash of gauzy material and pale, pale skin. He shared the joke with the waitress, handmaiden to his type of casino devil. Ha ha.

“You called it the special club,” Laken said. “What’s the name of the place?”

He executed a little dance, grace in his monolithic body, and tipped his imaginary hat. “The Freak Show Below.”

Laken placed the pen to paper, sure she was signing over her soul.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“At least pretend you’re listening or Dean Haskins will stick you with managing the college’s United Way campaign,” Abby Dickens whispered, leaning over her expensive, state-of-the-art tablet. Her long, pretty blonde hair fell forward, hiding her even features.

“It’s a worthy charity that helps local people.” Kirbie Stone leaned closer to her best friend, Abby, who headed up the college’s student advising program. She glanced at her friend’s new computer on the conference table in front of her. She wondered how Abby afforded it, given her miserable salary. As the college business officer in charge of the budget, Kirbie knew everyone’s pay rate. For that matter, Abby drove a top-of-the-line foreign car, draped her athletic body in designer clothing, and took trips to exotic locations. Kirbie shrugged to herself. Not her business, she decided.

Kirbie checked that the dean, who was planted at the head of the long, polished conference table as usual, wasn’t watching her. “I just don’t have time to ride herd on the campaign and the volunteers,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Enough about the United Way. We still haven’t been able to hire a new person to run the fund-raising department,” Dean Walter Haskins announced, his red face a stark contrast to his gray suit jacket and white shirt. With his sleek, well-fed body, bald head, and shiny little eyes, he looked like a feverish pigeon. “I want to offer the person the maximum of the pay grade. Human Resources”—his tone made them dirty words—“won’t let me.”

Kirbie shrugged. “The applicant is fresh out of college and only has a few months’ experience in Harvard University’s fund-raising department,” she said, wondering if siding with HR was worth incurring the dean’s legendary wrath. “Plus, the cost of living is higher there than here in our Kentucky city.” Maybe he’ll be reasonable today, she thought.

“Kirbie, it’s worth it to pay any amount of money to get someone from an Ivy League university. It’ll be a feather in my—I mean, our—cap. The donors will love her, I guarantee it.”

Nope, Kirbie thought as the dean bounced up and down in his chair, he’s headed off the deep end. His hissy fits always followed the same predictable progression: red face, hopping up and down while seated in his chair, and then the vein popping out on his lined forehead.

“And since you pointed out the budget shortfall and low enrollment numbers, particularly in the Physics Department,” he said accusingly, as if Kirbie had personally turned away students, “we need donations.”

“We had great internal applicants from other colleges within our university,” Kirbie pointed out, ignoring the gasps and shocked faces around the rectangular table. “They have tons of university experience, and they would accept the job at much less money. If you hire the outsider at more money than the internals are earning, then you’re sending the message that a bit of Ivy League experience is worth a heck of a lot more than years of toiling at jobs in our own university.”

“It is more valuable,” the dean retorted, his eyebrows high in surprise. “The girl”—if he noticed his employees cringing, he didn’t show it—“also got her degree at Harvard. That education is better than a degree from here, which is what all of the internal applicants possess. That’s what happens when you willy nilly offer free tuition to employees,” he added, his face grim. “They all have a worthless degree they’ve attained on company time.”

Kirbie was so angry that she had to unclench her jaw. “You’re the head of the College of Arts and Sciences. You’re supposed to sell people on this university, not Harvard.”

“If I worked at Harvard or Yale, it would be so easy.” His eyes gleaming and his fingers curved into claws, the dean looked more like a falcon than a pigeon.

Or a pterodactyl, Kirbie thought. As he continued down his well-worn rant road, she tuned him out and amused herself by imagining him flying through a prehistoric world. She was a Tyrannosaurus rex, raising her huge head to watch him. He swooped low, screeching a taunt just for her. She opened her massive jaws. She hopped, wondering if a real T. rex could jump. She snapped her jaw closed, crunching bones—

“What do you think, Kirbie?” His face bright with anticipation, the dean waited.

Kirbie’s daydream disintegrated. Damn, he always knows when someone is not paying attention. It’s his superpower. She rallied. “I think an Ivy League university would be lucky to snap you up, Dean Haskell.” When people gasped, she wondered if she’d gone too far.

“You’re right.” He preened. “But I’m stuck here in the proverbial boondocks, for now.”

Kirbie remembered that the dean had been a department chair at a Southern university, also located in the so-called boonies. She realized he was using Kentucky University as a stepping stone.

“I want that girl.” The infamous vein popped out on his forehead. “Kirbie, since you’re so in tune with HR, you call them right now. You work it out so that I get what I want . . . or else.”

* * * * *

“When will I learn to keep quiet?” Kirbie asked, shaking her head in misery as she and Abby fought their way through the swelling crowds of young people.

“Ugh!” Kirbie grunted as she was shoved against the large window by a group of laughing students who insisted upon traversing the hall walking abreast. Through the glass, the campus was beautiful with its rolling hills, mature trees bursting with new leaves glistening in the spring sunshine, and dignified buildings surrounded by people hurrying to and from class.

“Kirbie, are you ok?” Abby grabbed her elbow and hauled her away from the window. “That same group of students clog the halls several times a day, mowing people down or slamming them out of the way,” she said, her voice rising in anger. “Since we’re both five-ten and taller than most of them, they had to have seen us.” People turned to look at her, except the group in question.

“I’m fine.” Kirbie waved her hand in an effort to calm Abby. She was afraid the dean would discover them both in the center of a brouhaha. All we need after that staff meeting, Kirbie thought, is for Dean Haskins to accuse us of brawling outside the dean’s suite.

“I’m going to tell them off, and then I’m going to report them.” Her face a thundercloud and holding her computer like a weapon, Abby pivoted.

“Abby, calm down.” Kirbie caught her friend’s arm, surprised at the intensity of her anger. Why was her friend so enraged?

“No, Kirbie, I won’t calm down,” Abby fumed, trying to shake off Kirbie’s hand. “We’ve fought our way around these same kids in this hallway since school started in January. I’m taking a stand against the bratty, entitled Generation Z.”

“You’re overreacting,” Kirbie said, striving for a low, soothing tone. “It’s a handful of kids, not an entire demographic. We see bratty and entitled people in every age group. Dean Haskins is a great example, and he’s at the opposite end of the age spectrum from these students.”

“Alright, I won’t confront them,” Abby said. “But I will report them.”

“You’re not thinking clearly,” Kirbie said, surprised that her friend was shaking with anger. “If you report them, you’ll just be wasting your time. These particular kids grew up at the center of their parents’ universes. They’ll whine to their mommies and daddies, who will immediately contact the dean.”

“You’re right.” Abby paused, her chest heaving. She visibly worked for control. “The parents will be outraged, and they’ll threaten the dean with an outlandish lawsuit. He’ll take their side, and we’ll get in trouble.”

Kirbie was taken aback. Abby had said, “We’ll get in trouble.” She wasn’t aware that there was a “we” in this case. She was trying to stop Abby, not hop on a metaphorical bus with her that would surely crash.

“No need in both of us getting fired.” Kirbie tried to laugh, but the sound was devoid of mirth.

“Dean Haskins won’t fire you,” Abby said. She was calmer, but her fair face was still flushed. “He needs you to get the budget ready. By the time it’s done, he’ll have forgotten all about his grievance.”

“Unfortunately, I’ve got the budget ready,” Kirbie said. “I’m ahead of the deadline for the new fiscal year, which begins in July. The end of the spring semester is almost here”—and tax season was over, she thought, which meant her evenings and weekends were now quiet—“so it would be a great time for him to fire me.”

“Overachiever,” Abby said, some strong emotion flashing in her blue eyes. “Don’t worry, he won’t let you go. With the budget shortfall, he needs you. If he can’t manage the problem, and trust me, he can’t, then Dean Haskins will end up on the front page of the Leader or the CJ,” she said, referring to the Lexington Herald-Leader, and the Louisville Courier-Journal.

When Kirbie didn’t answer, Abby continued. “Both newspapers love to run stories, especially negative ones, about the university. They prefer sensational exposés of athletics violations, especially basketball, over stories about boring college budgets. Kentucky is definitely a college basketball state,” she mused.

“You’re right, I can’t worry about losing my job right now,” Kirbie said, not caring if the dean ended up in the news. “I have a bigger problem.”

“You still haven’t heard from your sister?” Abby asked. She followed Kirbie into her small office.

“I called her friends. One of them told me that Laken had been released from rehab.” The constant pain she carried under her heart escalated to a sharp stab. Her sister hadn’t even bothered to call her to let her know.

“Have you checked online?” Abby hoisted a hip onto a corner of Kirbie’s desk.

“No,” Kirbie said shortly, not wanting to admit to her friend that she hated seeing pictures of her drunken sister and her antics plastered all over the Internet. She should have ignored the cost to her psyche and checked. “Do you mind looking now on your tablet? My laptop needs to charge.”

Abby hesitated. “Of course not,” she answered. She sat at the tiny table in the corner of Kirbie’s office. She tugged at the hem of her short dress and then flipped open her tablet, her fingers poised over the keys. “Let me see if I can find her. Laken Stone, right, lake with an n on the end of it? It’s an unusual name. How did your parents select it?”

“I don’t know,” Kirbie lied.

Abby shot her a sharp look, then bent over her computer. Her manicured fingers flew across the keys.

“How can you type with those talons?” Kirbie asked.

“It’s a skill honed by necessity,” Abby answered. “I’m not cutting my nails.”

Kirbie studied her own short nails as Abby searched online. She wondered idly what the dean would say if he knew they were using the college’s expensive Wi-Fi to search for her sister. He’d probably skip right to a popped vein.

“Here she is,” Abby announced. “Or at least Laken’s last location.” She turned the computer around.

“She posted a selfie on social media the same night she was released from inpatient rehab,” Kirbie said. She forced back her tears. She’d learned years ago that crying over her sister’s spilled milk didn’t help anyone, least of all Laken.

Abby tapped the screen with a long, bright pink nail. “Are you familiar with this location?”

“It’s the nightclub located just a few blocks from the hospital.” Kirbie straightened and clenched her fists. “I should have known she was lying when she swore before she entered rehab that she’d never drink again.”

“Maybe that’s nonalcoholic beer in that bottle she’s hefting,” Abby said soothingly. “She could have just wanted to blow off some steam.”

“Steam, yes. Nonalcoholic beer, no.” Kirbie sighed as she plopped into the chair behind her ruthlessly organized desk. She knew her sister was a chronic liar. Why had she allowed herself to get her hopes up this time? After years of disappointment, she knew better than to believe Laken’s promises.

“Are you going to contact the police?” Abby shot Kirbie a sideways glance, then rose to her feet. She closed her computer and scooped it up, holding it in her bent arm like a book. With her fresh face and long blonde hair, she looked more like a student than a manager.

“No. I don’t know.” Kirbie touched her light brown hair, pulled back from her face and fastened by a clip at the nape of her slim neck. Too antsy to sit, she rose and walked to her table.

“If you think she’s in trouble, you should go to the police,” Abby said.

“If she’s holed up somewhere with a guy she met at the club,” Kirbie said, “then she won’t thank me for siccing the law on her. She’s already lost her driver’s license, and she’ll have to go to court over the DUI.”

A noise at the doorway caused both women to swivel toward it.

“Have you called HR yet, Kirbie?” Dean Haskins asked in an offensive tone. “Or are you too busy socializing with Abby?” He had to crane his neck and tilt his head back to make eye contact with her and Abby. With the height differences and his distorted face, he could have been a grumpy referee confronting two basketball players arguing a controversial call on the court.

“Kirbie tried to call, but she had to leave a voice mail.” Abby’s lie was as smooth as her pretty blonde hair. Her innocent face was open and honest.

Kirbie had to suppress a start of surprise. She hadn’t had a chance to call yet, as Abby well knew. She kept her face expressionless as the dean darted away, probably on the trail of another hapless employee. With a wave of farewell, Abby followed him.

As Kirbie reached for the phone on her desk, she wondered how long the dean had been standing at the doorway. Had he overheard the conversation about her missing sister?

 

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Jada Ryker lives in central Kentucky with her wonderful husband and their cat, rescued from the animal shelter. The cat rules the household and also loves to collect shiny trinkets. Once, she stole a Bluetooth and hid it under the couch. It took her humans several days to locate her ill-gotten booty. Jada works in higher education. She is also a Kindle Scout winning author for her book Take the Body and Run, a “goofy thriller” about a hunted woman hiding behind a dead friend’s identity.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
In The Freak Show Below, Spooky was Kirbie’s other sister. She was the focus of her violent, alcoholic parents’ rage. My sibling bore the derisive nickname Spooky. I hoped to rewrite that lost soul’s tragic ending as well as offer some solace for the Spookys who survived their horrific childhoods.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
I learned to use my husband’s computer for researching “hot” or “explosive” topics that might get me on certain government watch lists. Thanks, Hub ;)
Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write because the characters in my head throw hissy fits until I give them voices. I also like to hear about other writers’ processes. I have a good friend who’s a poet. She said she can only write lines with both of her feet on the floor. I’ve found I can write with my feet in any position.

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