Monday, May 19, 2014

Excerpt - Murderous Lies - Romantic Mystery

Hello, friends! I find myself with a rare empty week on my blog, and decided to go ahead and share with you all a bit of what I've been up to lately. In March, I had a dream that formed into a book idea so powerful, I had to go ahead and write it. That book just flew off my fingertips and is already with my proofreader, so will be coming out July 11th! It was a lot of fun writing it, and I decided to share the first of it here to tide you over until release day! 

Title: Murderous Lies
Author: Chantel Rhondeau
Release date: July 11, 2014
Genre: Romantic suspense/mystery

Cover by the fabulous EDH Graphics
Imprisoned for murders he didn’t commit, Max Kensington is exonerated after eight years when a new witness steps forward. He returns to his hometown and no one’s happy to see him, least of all his ex-fiancĂ©e, Rosemary Spelling.

Max’s return forces Rose to confront her feelings about the past. The day he killed her sister ruined Rose’s life, destroying her family and landing her mother in a mental institution.

When someone leaves a bloody threat on Rose’s porch, the police jump to conclusions, assuming Max is after revenge. Rose isn’t so sure. She begins questioning Max’s guilt, wondering if someone is trying to cover up what really happened to her sister.

All Max wants is his life back and a chance to regain Rose’s love. To get that, he has to catch the killer. His obsessive need for justice drives his actions, but the murderer seems a step ahead. When new bodies surface, evidence points to Max as the culprit. Now he could lose everything when the killer zeroes in on a new target…Rose.

Copyright Chantel Rhondeau 2014

Chapter One

Rosemary Spelling tossed the pack of cigarettes on the counter, trying not to sneer at her customer. “That’ll be five thirty-seven. Smoking, huh? You must’ve picked up a new vice in prison?”

Max Kensington didn’t answer, glancing over his shoulder. Rose became acutely aware that they were alone in the convenience store. The appeals court may have found Max innocent on a technicality, but that didn’t change the truth. She was alone with a murderer.

He pushed his too-long, brown hair off his forehead as he turned back around. Those clear blue eyes—the ones that used to fill her dreams—stared at her unwaveringly. There was hardness in his gaze that never used to be a part of Max’s visage.

“I know you think I’m guilty, Rose, but I was acquitted.” His voice was still the mellow tenor she remembered from long nights spent on the phone—clandestine calls made between lovesick high school seniors.

Well, she’d been lovesick. He was just sick.

“Why’d you come back to this town?” she asked, stooping slightly to grip the baseball bat beneath the counter. “Even though your lawyer lied his way up the appeals court chain and bribed a judge to say you’re innocent, the people here in Clarkston know the truth. You murdered my sister and those other four girls, too.”

“Damn it, Rose! That’s not what happened.” Max slapped the counter, the loud sound echoing around the small store.

Rose did her best not to flinch. This anger was a side to Max she hadn’t witnessed eight years ago, though it was obviously there all along. It took a lot of rage to beat someone to death. Rose had found Sage in the old boathouse the day after she went missing. Rose saw her baby sister’s face and the bloody mess it had become.

No doubt Max held a lot of anger inside. He’d successfully hid it from Rose for years during their courtship, but that could have been because he killed the other girls to assuage his anger. She couldn’t believe she’d once planned to marry him.

“Get out of here,” she said, keeping her tone as level as she could, “or I’ll call the cops.”

The anger in Max’s eyes seemed to soften. “Please don’t be that way. I need to talk to you.”

Rose pulled the bat out where he could see it, putting on a brave face. “I’ve taken defense classes since you were arrested. Leave or I’ll put that training to use.”

“I’m just going for my wallet so I can pay for the smokes,” he said, reaching behind his back. “Don’t smash my face in.”

Rose couldn’t stop the strangled gasp from leaving her throat, seeing Sage’s bloody face in her mind all over again.

Max winced. “Sorry. Horrible choice of words.” He pulled the wallet out and extracted two fives, setting them on the counter. “I promise I’m innocent. The real killer is still here somewhere. I worried about you every day I was gone, scared he’d come after you. Why didn’t you answer my letters?”

She shook her head, trying not to be swayed by the hurt in his eyes. “I didn’t open them. What made you think I’d correspond with my sister’s killer?”

“I told you. I didn’t—”

The bell above the door jingled, cutting off Max’s further protests.

Officer Calvin Black sauntered into the store, looking as though he owned the place—the same way he acted everywhere in the small town. “You okay there, Rosie? That ass ain’t bothering you, is he?”

Calvin knew Max’s history inside and out. In fact, he’d been the arresting officer once they found Max’s DNA beneath Sage’s fingernails. He knew what Max was capable of, and Rose was glad to have him around for protection.

She grabbed the fives from the counter and forced a smile, deciding it would be best to get Max out of the store quickly with his merchandise, and not involve the officer if possible. “Things are fine, Cal. I started a fresh pot of coffee a few minutes ago. Help yourself.”

“Sounds great.” Calvin stared at the back of Max’s head as though trying to bore holes into it, but Max didn’t turn around. “I’ll stand over here while you finish up with that...” His upper lip curled into a grimace. “...customer.”

Rose quickly counted out Max’s change and set it on the counter, not wanting to risk accidentally touch his hand when handing it to him. “Stay away from me,” she said in a low voice. “We don’t have anything to talk about. You’re the only person who poses any danger to me. Don’t pretend you want to protect me.”

“That’s not true, Rosemary. You must know that. I never did anything wrong. I was set up.” He kept his voice just as low as hers, likely not wanting Calvin to overhear. “Meet me somewhere when you’re done working. I need to talk to you. I can explain why Sage scratched me. I was never at that boathouse with her.”

“I don’t have time for this.” She shoved the money and cigarettes closer to his side of the counter. “Even if I wanted to meet you later, thanks to you destroying my family, I don’t have time for anything. Just go away and leave me alone.”

“Destroying your family? What do you mean? What happened to your folks?” He obviously wasn’t leaving.

Rose puffed out an exasperated breath, deciding he deserved to know what he caused. He apparently felt no regret for the lives he took, but he seemed to think about her a lot. He should know what his actions did to ruin her life.

“Thanks to your killing spree, Mom went out of her mind and Dad couldn’t handle it. He left us for a new family and a new town. I haven’t heard from him in years. Mom lives at the Brentwood Asylum now, has for the past five years. I couldn’t handle her increasingly dangerous delusions. She set our house on fire and almost burned us to death while I slept one night.”

Rose tried to ignore the sorrow reflected in his eyes. Max couldn’t really care. He did this...didn’t he?

She hated the doubt that crept in, but a judge did find him innocent. What if she’d hated him all these years and he didn’t do it? In the beginning, she’d argued with her parents, knowing deep in her heart that her sweet Max couldn’t have done something like that. They forced her to stay away from him, and then his guilt was proven in court.

“I’m sorry to hear about your mom,” Max said. “Ginger was always good to me.”

No. It wasn’t possible. He was the one. After all, no matter what she wished the truth to be, the murders stopped after his arrest.

“You don’t get to be sorry.” She shook her head. “Sage’s death ruined my life. I never made it to college. I had to drop out to take care of Mom. Now I work two jobs so she can get the help she needs, and I barely have enough left over to pay for my crappy little rental house. Not to mention, Sage is gone.” Her voice broke and Rose took some calming breaths before continuing softly, “So, you see, I don’t have time for anything but work, sleep, and visiting my mother on my one day off a week. Get out, Max, and don’t come back. I don’t care what explanations you have.”

He finally dropped his eyes to the counter and toyed with the edge of the cigarette pack. “Even if you don’t want to hear it, I am sorry about your mom. I’m even sorrier about Sage. She was a nice kid.”

“Your fake regret won’t bring Sage back or heal my mother. You killed her baby.”

“I can see you won’t believe my innocence, no matter what I say.” Max put the change in his wallet and pocketed the cigarettes. “I guess it was too much to hope for.”

He headed for the doorway.

“Wait a sec,” she said. “I do have one question.”

Max turned back. “I’m not sure I want to answer.”

Rose smoothed dark hair against her head, self-conscious now that she drew his attention. Still, she had to know. Wondering if she was to blame for Sage’s murder had plagued her over the years. “Sage always said if I didn’t marry you, she was going to. You knew that.”

“Of course.” He nodded. “Whenever I talked to her, I always told her to find a boy her own age, because as soon as I got my diploma, I was putting a ring on your finger, like we agreed when you said you’d marry me.”

She tried to ignore that, knowing that she had betrayed Max as far as their plans to get married. “Why did you lure her into that boathouse? It’s where you and I always went to be alone together. It was special for us.” Rose blinked back tears. “Was this my fault?”

Max took a step toward her, deep wrinkles marking his forehead as he narrowed his eyebrows. “Your fault? I didn’t do this, but why would it be your fault?”

“I told Sage that morning I couldn’t marry you. I always wondered if she told you. Did you kill her because you were angry with me?”

“You really weren’t going to marry me?” Max stared at the cracked linoleum flooring and his shoulders slumped inward. “I thought she was lying, trying to get me to be with her, like usual.”

After a few moments of silence, Rose couldn’t take it anymore. “Sage said she’d tell you, since I was too chicken to do it myself. I had a full ride scholarship and wanted to become a music teacher. If we got married, I’d have been stuck here forever instead of going to college.” Rose clutched the bat tighter, fearing his reaction to this news. “You should have killed me, not her. Sage was a fool, but a good girl.”

“I’ll only say this one more time.” Max lifted his head, the anger back in his eyes. “I didn’t kill anyone. I was too busy working, saving up money for an engagement ring that I apparently didn’t need.”

He turned suddenly, banging through the door and nearly knocking over a group of kids on their way inside.

Calvin approached the counter. “You okay, Rosie?”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “Just peachy. It’s not every day the love of my life turned murderer wants to talk.”

“Love of your life?” Calvin set a Styrofoam coffee cup on the counter. “I thought you just said you weren’t planning to marry him.”

Leave it to Officer Nosey to listen to every detail of the conversation.

“Just because I couldn’t marry him doesn’t mean I don’t—didn’t—love him.” She shrugged and placed the bat on its hook. “I didn’t want to be stuck barefoot and pregnant with no education while Max worked at his uncle’s garage. Trapped in this town forever, like my mom. Reality turned out to be a fate worse than that.”

Calvin tossed some change on the counter. “You should’ve married the psycho. Maybe your sister would still be alive.”

Thanks a lot. “You don’t know how many times that very thought has played through my mind.”


Max almost made it to his car when Jimmy Durant stepped around from the other side of the gas pump. The last time Max saw him outside of a courtroom had been the night Sage was murdered.

Walking quicker, Max hoped he’d make it to his vehicle without a confrontation. If something happened, it was clear who the police would side with. No one here was interested in evidence or the truth. They just wanted Max to be guilty.

“Well, well, well. Look who’s back in town.” Jimmy’s swaggering walk matched the sneer in his voice.

He’d always been somewhat of a punk, and Max never did understand why Sage dated him off and on. Maybe it was just to get Max’s attention, since Max always told her she deserved better than Jimmy.

“Look at your betters when they’re talking to you, you murdering bastard,” Jimmy sneered.

Max stopped walking, realizing avoiding Jimmy would be impossible. The younger man obviously wanted to hurl insults. He stared into Jimmy’s glowering hazel eyes. “I didn’t kill anyone, and you know it, since your lies put me in prison.”

“Watch yourself, scum.” Jimmy patted his pants pocket. “Knowing you were released, I decided to start carrying again. Someone has to protect the innocent girls in this town.”

A gun? Typical. Jimmy always did think he was a badass.

“My mom needed cigarettes. I’m not looking for trouble, so back off.” Max turned and opened his car door, hoping now that Jimmy had threatened with the gun, he’d feel content to let Max leave.

A heavy hand fell on Max’s shoulder.

“Not so fast, asshole. Let’s get something straight between us.”

Max shrugged the hand off and turned around, bending his fingers in a tight grip. “Even with your little gun, who do you think would be victorious in a close fight? I’m not the same mellow kid I used to be.” Max flexed the large muscles he’d acquired in prison, and Jimmy swallowed hard and took a step back. “Maybe once upon a time I allowed people to walk on me,” Max continued, “but that time is long gone. In prison, you either become the man people fear or someone’s bitch.” He held up his balled fist. “And I’m no bitch.”

Jimmy looked down, scuffing his foot in the dusty lot. “Just stay away from Rose. You killed her sister. She doesn’t want you anymore.”

The joke was on Jimmy. Apparently, Rose never did want him. Max grabbed the front of Jimmy’s shirt and pushed him against the car next to them. “You know the truth, you little prick. Sage scratched me at that burger joint, and that’s why they found my DNA under her nails. If you had just told the truth, I wouldn’t have rotted in prison for seven and a half years. I should kill you for lying.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened and he struggled against Max’s grip. “She got a note later telling her to meet you at that old boat house. You killed her. It doesn’t matter when she scratched you. I know you did it, and I stayed quiet to protect Rose. No one can prove I saw anything.”

Max pushed him again, then released his shirt. “If Sage really did get a note that night, I didn’t write it. I was too busy trying to find Rose to tell her what Sage said about our engagement.” He turned back to his car and hopped inside, glaring at the younger man through his open window. “Stay away from me, Jimmy. My reputation is already ruined so that doesn’t matter. If you push me, I will fight back.”

He started the engine, floored the accelerator, and squealed out of the lot, checking his rearview mirror. Jimmy still hadn’t moved from the other car, but Max had no doubt Rose would soon learn of the argument. And probably blame him.


Rose pulled her beat up Ford into the driveway. She missed the days when she could afford a house with an attached garage. Knowing Max had returned to town made her feel especially vulnerable as she jumped from her truck and raced for the front door.

Even at midnight, it was still warm outside. The summer had been a scorcher so far, and it was only early July. She might have to break down and buy a portable air conditioner if the heat kept up. That was one more expense she couldn’t afford.

Upon opening the front door, her cat jumped from the back of the couch to the floor. He stretched his large orange and white frame its full extent before sitting his backend on the floor and curling his tail around his side. He meowed in a plaintive tone, reminding Rose he didn’t like the heat any more than she did.

“I know, Gizmo. Sorry. I’ll open the windows and get your dinner.”

She locked the front door and walked through the small living room, heading for the kitchen. As she slid open the window and the breeze fanned her face, she had a horrible thought.

Next to her, Gizmo jumped on the counter. He meowed his approval at the fresh air and then bumped his head against her arm—a clear demand for dinner.

“What if he comes after me?” Rose scratched Gizmo’s chin absently, staring out the window. “He could climb inside if we leave this open.”

Although this house was a lot further from the upper scale homes on the lake than her childhood home had been, Rose had never worried about her safety before. The little one-bedroom place was rundown and old, but her neighbors were great people. She’d never had a second thought about flinging all her windows open at night to bring in the cooler air.

Rose sighed. “We don’t have a choice, Gizzie. Max could break the window anyway, if he really wanted to kill me. We’ll roast in here tomorrow if we don’t cool it off.”

Besides, he continued to claim innocence. Rose didn’t want to think about it too hard, but the gnawing doubt she’d always harbored was gaining traction. She wasn’t so sure that Max was guilty.

After pouring a bowl of gourmet cat food, Rose set it on the ground and popped a frozen meal into the microwave. Sometimes it annoyed her that the cat ate better than she did, but Gizmo had kidney problems and couldn’t survive on cheap store-brand food. He was her only companion the past five years since Mom went into the asylum. She rescued him from the pound and even if it was hard financially, he was family.

Rose gagged down her mystery meat dinner and then opened the other windows. Her feet ached from the long week, and she settled onto the couch to read a book before going to sleep.

Gizmo hopped into her lap and curled into a ball, purring his content.

She wished she could ignore the world and just stay like this, relaxing with her furry buddy, but tomorrow was Sunday. It was the only day she had off from both jobs, and the day she cleaned house and visited her mother.

Ginger Spelling might not always remember who Rose was, but Rose couldn’t skip making the drive around the lake to see her. Maybe if her mother was having a good day, they could take a trip to the town of Serenity and stop at Jim’s Fish House. Her mother used to love that place. A meal like that would mean no air conditioning unit this month, but it would be worth it to make Ginger happy.

With a sigh, Rose set her book on the end table next to the couch and scratched Gizmo between the ears. The words weren’t making an impression on her brain and she’d have to re-read the pages she’d turned. She knew why she couldn’t concentrate and why she tried to distract herself with thoughts of her mother.

Max’s baby blue eyes filled her vision as soon as she let her guard down. How could a murderer be so handsome and normal looking? He still looked like the boy she loved. Maybe he was a bit more muscular, and his boyish face had hardened into that of a man, but he still looked like her charming Max.

Even though she’d dated a few times over the years, it had been nothing serious. She should hate Max, and part of her did. Mostly, she wanted him to be as innocent as he claimed. If someone else had torn her family apart, she could start rebuilding her life and find some happiness—maybe even with him. But everyone said he was a killer. She’d even believed it herself for a long time. She couldn’t be swayed by his sexy smile and how much she still loved him. Max was a killer, and happiness would never be possible.

Chapter Two

The sound of screaming outside her bedroom window woke Rose from a deep sleep. Her heart thudded painfully as she dug her knuckles into her eyes to clear the sleep from them.

Gizmo jumped onto the window sill, meowing his displeasure at the people outside. They had at least gone from screaming to talking loudly, lowering her anxiety slightly.

“I called the cops,” a woman said.

“I want to see it.” A boy’s voice.

“Stop right there. Don’t touch anything.” The woman again.

Rose finally placed the voices as belonging to her neighbors. She rolled out of bed, her heart rate slowing to normal, and grabbed the robe off the chair in the corner of the room. After wrapping it around her, she approached the window.

Kelsey Tanning stood in Rose’s yard. Her twin eight-year-old boys jumped around her feet, seeming more excited than scared.

“What’s all the yelling about?” she asked.

Kelsey walked to the window, looking solemnly through the screen. “The boys wanted to bring you over some pancakes this morning, but found something on your porch already.” Kelsey pressed her lips together, looking a bit sick. “You have an enemy, Rose. I called the cops.”

Bryant, the older twin by ten minutes, ran to stand beside his mom, craning his head back to look through the window. “There’s a lot of blood, Aunt Rose. A note too, but Mom wouldn’t let me or Tray read it.”

“Blood?” Rose stepped back from the window slightly, bile rising in her throat. The first night Max comes back to town, someone leaves a threat on her doorstep?

Kelsey pressed her face against the screen. “I heard Max Kensington is out, and you two had a run in yesterday at the store.”

Rose nodded.

“If I were you, I’d stay inside. Don’t even look at what’s out here. Let the cops handle it.”

“What is it, Kel? I need to know.”

“It’s a dead rat, gutted, with a noose around its little neck.” She shuddered. “You don’t need to see this. I’m glad the boys found it, not you.”

Gizmo dropped to the ground and padded across the room, meowing at the door to remind Rose it was breakfast time.

None of this made sense. Why would Max leave a clear threat on her doorstep? Sure, he was angry that she didn’t want to talk to him, and seemed truly heartbroken to hear she hadn’t planned on marrying him. Still, a direct threat left for anyone to see?

“Why would he do that?” she murmured. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Doesn’t have to make sense. He’s obviously bat shit crazy.” Kelsey ran a hand through her messy blond hair. “Look, this is nothing against you, but I’m going to have the boys stay away from your house. Just until we’re sure it’s safe, not because we aren’t still friends.”

“No, it’s okay. I understand.”

She really did. She had often baby sat for Kelsey on weekends and sometimes took the boys to the park just to get out of the house on Sundays after visiting Mom. That wouldn’t be possible now. Rose wouldn’t put them at risk. She’d tough it out alone. No one would want to be around her now—not with Max on the loose and after her. If it actually was Max.

The twins were still talking about how cool the blood was. Kelsey seemed fine with it, but Rose wouldn’t want her children looking at something like that. “Get the kids home. I won’t come out of the house until the cops get here. Thanks for thinking of me with the pancakes, but I’m not hungry now.”

“Come on, boys, let’s go.” Kelsey put her hand against the screen. “If you need anything, I’m just next door.”

It was nice of her to say that, but Kelsey had her own problems. Her deadbeat drunkard of a husband sat on the couch every day doing nothing while Kelsey tried to hold down the fort. She didn’t have time to worry about Rose’s problems.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Rose slid the window shut and waved at them as they walked through the yard.

Gizmo scratched at the door. “Meow.”

“I know, I know. Dead rats aren’t your thing.” She opened the door and followed him to the kitchen. “You’d be useless as a mouser. Let’s get your breakfast.”


A knock sounded on her door just as she finished washing Gizmo’s bowl. Rose quickly dried her hands and hung the towel over the handle of the oven, taking in a deep breath before heading to the door.

Opening it up, she firmly avoided looking down for fear of seeing the rat, meeting Calvin Black’s eyes.

“Morning, Rosie.” He jerked his head at the man standing next to him. “It took me a while to get here because the Chief wanted me to bring in Officer Jet, here. He’s from the Oregon State Police Department and was in the area.”

Officer Jet stuck his hand out, and Rose shook it. “Sorry to hear about your trouble, ma’am. Officer Black told me about your run in yesterday with a man who was just released from prison.”

“Max Kensington,” Calvin supplied. “The first thing he did when he got out was harass our Rosie inside the gas station she works at.”

Rose narrowed her eyebrows, not sure she liked where this conversation headed. Sure, Max leaving the threat was her first assumption, but she’d had time to think things over while waiting for the officers. “Max would have to be a complete moron to do this after speaking to me,” she pointed out. “He knew you were in there listening to us.”

Cal shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t care. You broke his heart when you let it slip that you never planned to marry him. Plus, Jimmy Durant says Max assaulted him in the parking lot.”

Rose dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. Jimmy Durant persistently pestered her for dates and acted like he ran the town, possibly even more than Calvin did. “Jimmy probably asked for it. He’s always playing the tough guy and flashing that gun of his.”

“Why are you defending Max?” Calvin’s shock was obvious. “He killed your sister, and you’re defending him. That’s plain wrong, Rosie.”

Was it wrong? A court exonerated Max. No one in Clarkston wanted to give him a chance, all reacting like she did yesterday, but was he actually innocent? Rose had been so angry with him for so long, it was hard to adjust. She didn’t know what to think.

She shrugged at the officers. “I don’t want you going after him without looking at all the possibilities. A court did find Max innocent. If you focus on him, something could slip your notice. What if this is someone else’s doing?”

And that was not a happy thought. Could they possibly have two deranged people in her little town? Not that she was sure Max was deranged. Damn—she didn’t know what to think. It was too confusing.

Officer Jet glanced over his shoulder and down briefly, probably looking at the rat. “We take this stuff seriously, ma’am. Whether it’s Max Kensington or not, we don’t want another murder spree on our hands.”

So that’s why they brought in a state cop. Two of the girls murdered eight years ago had lived in nearby towns. One was from Serenity, a touristy place on the western side of the lake. The other murdered girl lived in Madras, which was about fifteen miles up highway 26.

When Oregon first learned they had a serial killer on their hands, there had been statewide panic. However, Rose could see a problem with blaming Max for all the murders. Sure, DNA evidence connected him to Sage’s death, but he hadn’t been convicted in the other killings. Not that the prosecuting attorney hadn’t tried. There just wasn’t any evidence.

Once Max was locked up, the murders stopped. It only made sense that the cops look at him as the culprit for them all, but Rose always had a nagging voice in her head that wondered when he would have had the time to kill those girls. He had kept busy working for his uncle, and when he wasn’t there, he was with her.

She heaved a sigh. Max was the only suspect they had for the rat, so that’s where they had to start the investigation. “Kelsey said whoever did this left a note. What does it say?”

Jet glanced at Calvin. “You know her pretty good, right? Think she can handle hearing it?”

“She’s got a good head on her shoulders,” Calvin answered.

“And ears that work, too,” Rose snapped. “Tell me. Obviously, it’s a threat of some kind. What does it say?”

Cal licked his lips and stuffed his hands into his pants pockets. “It says, ‘Watch your back. The cat’s next.’”


Max lazed in his bed, not wanting to face another day of persecution, but heard the knock on the front door. He sure hoped it wasn’t another concerned townsperson coming to berate his mother for letting him live here. It wasn’t like he had much choice but to come back. What could he put on a job application? No job experience, but prison taught me to clean toilets like no one’s business and stand up for myself. That should rush his application to the top of the pile.

He had applied for funding to start college after the summer, but he was mainly going through the motions to make his mother happy. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He’d always been good at fixing cars, but who would hire him? Truthfully, being free these past few days seemed like a dream. It was hard to make the transition.

“Max?” His mother tapped on his bedroom door. “The police are here to see you.”

Great. So much for freedom. Being home wasn’t all that different from having prison guards breathing down his neck all day.

Max hopped out of bed and pulled on some pants. He opened the door and nodded at his mother on the way to the bathroom. He was a free man, and there was no way he’d meet the cops with bed head and bad breath. They could wait. Despite his rebellious streak, Max did hurry through his morning ritual.

When he walked into the living room, Calvin Black and another officer waited for him.

“Take a seat, Max,” Calvin ordered. “We need to talk about last night.”

Max stuffed his hands into his pants. “I’d rather stand, thanks.” He wouldn’t let Super Cop reduce him to criminal status by telling him what to do.

The other officer with Calvin shrugged and took off his hat, holding it loosely in his hands. “Mind if I sit? It’s been a long day already.”

At least this officer was less hostile. Max nodded to the couch, walking over to the chair beside it to perch on the edge of its arm. There was only one reason he could think they would show up asking about his whereabouts. “Is Rose okay?”

“Funny you would ask about her.” Calvin plopped next to the other officer, not waiting for an invitation. “Did you pay her a visit last night?”

Shit. Something had happened to her. Max folded his arms, tightly gripping his elbows and breathing deeply. It wouldn’t do him any good to yell at Calvin and demand to know what happened. The officer was determined to find Max guilty of something. He turned to the other cop, looking at his name badge. “Officer Jet, please tell me Rose is okay.”

“She’s fine, just shook up a bit,” he confirmed, relieving Max’s anxiety. “We do need to know where you were between midnight and seven this morning.”

“Seriously?” Max stood back up. “Did Rose say I did something? The last time I saw her was at the store around five. I never saw her after that.”

“Where were you?” Calvin asked, a sneer on his face.

“Here, in bed.” Max paced the length of the coffee table a few laps and then stopped, wondering if that somehow made him look guilty. “After I left the gas station, I came straight home and stayed here all night. You can ask my mom.”

Calvin snorted. “Did she sleep in your bed?”

“Of course not, you damn pervert!”

“Calm down,” Officer Jet said. “All he meant is that your mom can’t entirely alibi you if she was in a different room. Did you sleep alone last night?”

Max closed his eyes. They were determined to see him as a criminal, no matter what. “Yes, I was alone. I went to sleep around eleven-thirty, after the news. I never left the house.”

“Thanks for the story.” Calvin stood and headed for the door, Officer Jet trailing behind him. “Stay away from Rose. We’ll be in touch.”

As soon as the door shut, Max’s mom came into the living room, puffing out a plume of smoke. “What did you do?”

Sally Kensington still wasn’t over the fact she had become the town pariah due to Max’s conviction. She never let him forget how hard her life had been because of him. To be fair, she was a good mom, but the last eight years had been hard on her.

“I didn’t do anything, Ma. I don’t even know what happened. Something to do with Rose, but they said she’s okay.”

Sally walked across the room to stub her cigarette out in the already overflowing ashtray. “You stay away from that girl, son. She’ll only bring you pain. If I realized she worked the late shift, I wouldn’t have sent you for my smokes.”

Max lay on the couch, stretching his legs out and staring at the ceiling. “All this time, Sage was right.” He could still see the hurt in Sage’s eyes that night before it turned to anger and she slapped him, scratching his cheek in the process. “I told her she was a stupid, jealous little girl, who I’d never love as more than a kid sister. I told her not to spread lies just because she couldn’t handle the fact I loved Rose, not her.” Max closed his eyes. “It’s the last thing I ever said to her.”

The couch dented in as Sally sat next to his legs. “I’m sorry, son. I know that eats you up inside.”

“The worst part is, Sage told the truth.” He looked at his mom to see her frowning.

“What do you mean?”

“Rose admitted yesterday that she had planned to break up with me. I guess she got a full scholarship to that fancy school she applied for.” Max ran his hands through his hair. “I really wanted her to get that scholarship, and thought we were going to have a long distance relationship while she went to college.” He sighed. “Look at her life now. No school, no sister, and her mom’s in the nut house.”

“Don’t talk like that. We don’t say nut house,” Sally scolded. “Ginger couldn’t handle the pressures. I heard she carries a doll around and thinks it’s Sage. It’s so sad”

It was even worse than Max imagined. Rose’s mom had always been so good to him, treating him like a part of the family for the three years he dated Rose. “Lots of stress, thinking her future son-in-law murdered her baby. It must’ve broken her. If I found the real killer, it might help her get better.”

Sally lit another cigarette, taking a long drag and blowing the smoke upward. “Stay away from this, Max, please. It isn’t your fault, and you’ve been in enough trouble because of that Spelling girl.”

“Ma, I have to find out who killed Sage and those other girls. No one is searching for the real killer. They all just blame me.”

“Tell me something, Max, and I want you to be honest with me.”

Great. She had her judgmental voice going. “What is it?”

“Are you starting to have feelings for Rose again? It’s not healthy and will lead to nothing good.”

Max pulled his legs from behind his mom’s back and stood up, heading for his bedroom. “Starting to have feelings? I never stopped.”

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