This is what happens when I don’t get my book fix…

I’m in between books right now, waiting impatiently for the book I ordered from the library to arrive. That makes me cranky and more than a little obsessed with reading. Hence, my post today.

I just finished reading “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” Ruth Ware’s debut novel, and enjoyed it quite a bit. You can see my thoughts here. But overall, reviews were mixed. One of the complaints I noticed on several reviews was that the characters, including the main character, were unlikable. That’s not the first time I’ve read that complaint about a popular book.

It made me wonder. Is it necessary for characters to be likable in order to tell a good story? Of course, it’s ideal when we love the quirky and fun characters on the page. Those are the best books to read. But will readers keep plugging along if the protagonist is a jerk? For me – here’s an ambiguous answer – it depends.

First, it depends on whether it’s a series or a standalone novel. For a series, then yes, the main character and most of the supporting characters need to have some redeeming qualities. I’m not going to keep tuning in if I don’t like hanging out with these folks. There is one series of books I’ve tried reading but I keep putting off finishing the series because the characters have become insufferable. I love the plots and the writing is perfect, but the main character is arrogant and has too many snobby quirks for my liking. Not that the protagonist has to be nice. I love Sherlock Holmes even though he’s severely lacking in the human interaction department. That’s why Watson is so important to the stories. But in this other series, all of the main characters are annoying. I’ll probably finish the series eventually but I keep finding other books to read first.

My biggest pet peeve with series characters is when they don’t evolve over the course of the series. That to me is a deal breaker because it’s just not real. People change and their experiences make them better or worse human beings. So if a formula works for Book One, I don’t want to see that formula repeated ad infinitum or I’ll quit reading. (Stephanie Plum books, I’m looking at you. But what do I know? These books are still bestsellers.)

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For standalone books, however, I am much more forgiving of horrible characters as long as you give me a good plot. I’m not talking about characters that kick puppies or abuse children being the hero of the story; that’s not going to work. But deeply flawed characters, especially when the flaws are born out of suffering, can be good protagonists as long as they move the story forward. In Ware’s second novel, “The Woman in Cabin 10,” her main character is a hot mess. But that’s the only way the story would work. The plot revolves around a travel reporter who thinks she witnesses a murder on a luxury cruise ship but no one believes her. Heck, I didn’t believe her. That’s why the story works. If Lo had been a Diane Sawyer clone then, of course, everyone would believe her. And if the crew didn’t take this Diane Sawyer clone seriously, the other guests would wonder why. Instead, we see evidence that Lo tends to drink too much, is not the world’s best reporter, and could be suffering from PTSD after a burglary in her home right before she left for the cruise. Would I want to take Lo for coffee? No. But her weaknesses work well with the story.

Books like “Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl” have also found success even though the cast of characters is largely unlikable in both books – but the plots still work to the point readers overlook the characters’ flaws. At least for most readers. If you look at the negative reviews on both books, “unlikable characters” is usually cited as a big reason why.

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It’s a fine line for authors. If they create a character that is too good and always makes the right decision, then readers will call that character a Mary Sue/Gary Stu or complain the protagonist is bland. But make the character too unlikable and readers may reject the book altogether. It’s subjective, really, at what point the character becomes too unlikable. I’m normally a John Grisham fan but quit reading “The Chamber” when I realized I gave not one iota about anyone in the book. Not caring whether someone is executed or not is kind of important to the momentum of the story so bailing out made sense for me.

So what do you think? How important is it that you like a book’s characters? Any favorite characters you love to hate?

And remember, my books are still on sale this month at Smashwords. Check it out here.

Happy Reading!

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It’s summer reading time! Sale at Smashwords and an excerpt from Book 7

Hey all,

Hope your summer is going well. Just wanted to let you know that my books will be on sale for the month of July at Smashwords as part of its annual summer promotion.

“Vengeance is Mine” and “Flesh and Blood” will both be FREE! all month, and the other four — “Buried Truth,” “Foul Play,” “In the Presence of My Enemies” and “Extreme Measures” — will be 50 percent off.

You can find my books here on the Smashwords site and the discounts are good all month.

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Bookbub Blog

And…. just because I’m finished with round one of editing, and I’m super excited to share, here’s another excerpt from the upcoming Book 7:

I started the Jeep and went back to work. Bill was in a meeting so I went to my desk and started cranking out other work, any work that didn’t involved murder. When I saw Bill go back to his office, I got up and poked my head in.

“Got a minute?”

“Sure.”

I closed the door. “It’s about the Potter case.”

“And the door is closed. That’s not good.”

I told him about my discussion with Potter. When I was done, he sighed. “This isn’t good.”

“I know.”

“I agree that we need to wait for the competency hearing to see what the finding is. This could all be a delusion.”

“I know.”

“You can still cover that. Then we’ll go from there. I’m not telling the publisher anything until we know where we stand. Maybe Potter will plead guilty on a deal and it will all go away.”

“He’s still talking about defending himself so I’m not sure how likely that is. But we can hope.”

He nodded and let out a deep breath. “Well, go home. Enjoy the weekend. When’s the hearing?”

“Not next week. The week after.”

“Let’s lay off this in the meantime. I don’t care if we get scooped by the Manaqua paper. I’d rather be careful and have Pence sitting in the witness stand or getting sued rather than you.”

“Me, too.”

I wished him a good weekend and left, going back to my desk to gather my things before heading home. I had my Saturday rotation duty tomorrow and planned to finish up a few things then. I was glad to not be thinking about Potter and his crazy world for the next few weeks. I had let some work slide, and it was time to catch up.

The Saturday shift was pretty easy. No odd ball stories that came in, just the usual obituaries and police blotter. I got home just after one, having stopped at the grocery store, gas station and car wash on the way. I threw in a load of laundry and was working on my bills when my cell phone rang. It was Brian.

“Hey.”

“Is this Emily?”

It was not a voice I recognized. My stomach dropped. “Who is this?”

“It’s David. Brian’s brother.” I could hear something in his voice, a wariness I didn’t like.

“Oh no. What’s wrong? Was he hurt? Is he okay?” My voice squeaked, and my hands were shaking.

“Physically, Brian is fine. But…”

“What’s wrong?”

More to come later. If you want to check out what I’ve been reading — and I read a lot — visit my author page on Goodreads for some suggestions. Happy summer reading!

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He did a bad thing; is redemption possible?

A few weeks ago, I checked out the movie “Passengers” from the library. I knew it had lousy reviews and had read some backlash against the movie’s premise but since it was free and I liked the actors, I figured what the heck.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want any spoilers, then better skip this blog post. If you’ve seen the movie or don’t care about spoilers, then read away. As a side note, the movie isn’t very good. Can’t really recommend it, but there is a question at the heart of the movie (hence the spoilers) that has nagged at me since watching the mostly forgettable film.

Can a character in a book or movie do a really bad thing but still be redeemed in the eyes of the audience? According to those generating the backlash to this film, the answer to that is no. But that’s what’s bothering me. I see this attitude a lot. Take, for instance, the child who fell into the gorilla pit in Ohio, forcing zookeepers to shoot the gorilla to save the child. The backlash against the parents was absolutely brutal. I don’t know these parents – they could just be the worst – but objectively, I know my kids have gotten away from me in the time it took me to compare prices on two items at Menard’s. (Hysterics ensued. It was a bad day). Most of my friends and family members would say I’m strict and responsible. But things happen to everyone. Can these people be good parents who made a mistake? A very public and horrible mistake to be sure, but should they be crucified for it? So many posters online seemed to think so.

Which brings me to the movie. Chris Pratt’s character Jim is awakened early from the 120-year hibernation that should take him to a colony on a new planet. He spends a year trying to wake the crew, contact Earth, fix his predicament, followed by acceptance and then depression. He is so low that at one point, he contemplates suicide. The premise is eerie. I’m a card-carrying member of the introvert club. I was home alone for Mother’s Day weekend and it was the BEST GIFT EVER. But as much as I love being alone – and I really do – the idea of being alone from now until the day I die is pretty darn depressing. I don’t think God created us to be alone. Even the Unabomber-types that hole up in the mountains have the option of going into town for supplies and having at least a little human contact if they want it.

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Sony Pictures

So Jim, at this low point, decides to wake up Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora. He comes across her archived footage about why she chose to make the trip. She’s fun and smart and pretty. Jim feels like he’s found a lifeline and he grabs it. He knows what he’s doing is wrong; he agonizes over the decision but ultimately, he makes the selfish choice, never telling her what he’s done. They fall in love, blah, blah, and eventually she does find out and she hates him. Like completely hates him. I was prepared for one of those plot points where characters do bad things and are forgiven immediately so the film can progress. Their sins are never addressed. I didn’t feel that here. She calls him a murderer and tells him she doesn’t care why he woke her. I think the story gets her reaction pretty spot on.

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Sony Pictures

But from an audience perspective, I can’t just dismiss Jim as a perverted stalker. It’s kind of like cannibalism. We’d all love to believe we’d never be like the Donner party, but survival and self- preservation are tricky things. We do what we have to do to survive even if those things are terrible. I think we’d all like to believe if we were in Jim’s shoes, we’d be noble and die alone, but I can’t say definitively that I would be that selfless. My experience with human nature hasn’t shown me oodles of selflessness from others, either. So when people say, “I would never…” I’m kind of skeptical. I mean people will run over an old lady to grab a $99 TV at Walmart on Black Friday so I’m not buying that these same people would die alone out of a sense of nobility.

At the movie’s third act, the two have to work together long enough to survive a long and kind of unbelievable ship malfunction and resurrection scenario. In the end, Jim receives access codes that will allow him to use the medical unit in the ship’s hospital to put Aurora back in hibernation. This time, his act is selfless. He never suggests they flip a coin to see who should go back to sleep, even though he risked his life to save the ship. He could have chosen not tell her about it. They are on speaking terms again and he doesn’t try to milk that. He just says he can put her back to sleep and he’s willing to be alone. He always knew what he did was wrong but he’s at a better place. He’s not willing to make that mistake again.

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Sony Pictures

Aurora chooses to stay with Jim, realizing she loves him. And the hate directed at this decision online was pretty bad, saying her love couldn’t be real. So back to my question: can a character find redemption? Literature and film are full of them but it seems to me our culture today is less tolerant of imperfections. The anonymity of the internet allows us to bask in our own self-righteousness and cast stones with impunity. After all, no one will know about the time your baby rolled off the changing table or you cheated on your significant other or stole a candy bar at the store. And it sure feels good to cast the blame on others to boost our own spirits. It’s sad, really. It’s like empathy is dying off faster than newspaper jobs.

Like I said, the film was pretty bad from a plotting and realism point of view, but the question at its core is still making me think. I’ve done some horribly selfish things in my life, and I wish I could say I never will again. But that’s not likely. We’re human and at times we’re horrible. But not usually in a vacuum, horrible for the sake of being horrible. We often behave badly because we are hurt or desperate or afraid. We have our faulty logic and emotions that sometimes kick in and lead us astray. Since we all contain these same shortcomings – and like it or not, we do – I wish we could also find more empathy when we see bad choices in others, rather than just spewing hate.

So what are your thoughts? Am I seeing this all wrong?

At last! An excerpt from Book 7!

I promised at the end of “Extreme Measures” to post a few excerpts of Book 7, “Hidden in Darkness.” I’m still editing but here’s my working summary:

Christopher Potter confesses to two grisly murders in the sleepy town of Clarkstown. Just days after pleading guilty in spectacular fashion, he demands an interview with Winston Chronicle reporter Emily O’Brien, who reluctantly agrees to meet with him. The tale he spins brings into question what actually happened that night and whether Potter acted alone – and whether he’s really guilty at all. As Emily tries to track down the truth, tragedy strikes close to home, forcing her to evaluate her relationships and her future. But not everyone wants the truth of what happened in Clarkstown to come to light. And someone is willing to kill to keep that secret.

And here’s a blurb. Please remember this is still a work in progress but I’m pretty happy with how it’s shaping up. Happy reading!

I didn’t like that I was going back to see Potter the next day without some more information about Patrick Billings. Somehow that seemed to give him the upper hand. This whole thing was already becoming more of a headache than I wanted. I imagined some journalists would be salivating over the opportunity to interview a confessed murderer, but all I could see were the pitfalls, all the places this could go wrong for me and the paper.

I was still thinking about that when I walked through the metal detectors at the jail the next day and let the guards search me and my stuff. Again, I’d left my purse in the Jeep and just brought in the bare minimum. We met in the same room, and Potter didn’t look much different than he had before, slicked hair and clean shaven.

I sat down and opened my notebook. He looked at me expectantly.

“This is your chance to tell the truth,” I said finally. “I’m not going to keep coming back indefinitely.”

“But you did come back,” he said smugly.

“Because my boss told me to. But, eventually, when he’s not getting any ink out of this, he’s going to tell me to do something more important, like interview a crossing guard.”

He frowned. “What about Patrick?”

“Patrick Billings? Yes, what about him?”

“You found him.”

“I found his name. I guess right now he’s keeping a low profile.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. He has to know the police will find out about him eventually.”

“Find out what about him?”

“That he was with me that night.”

“I thought you said you acted alone.”

“I told you. I was having an episode. It’s all coming back to me now. Patrick and me needed some cash. We used to hang around with Teddy Less, and he said his parents always kept money in the freezer. So we were going to check it out.”

“And you were both high?”

“Higher than a kite, baby.”

“Don’t call me baby.”

“So why go at dinner time? Why not wait until after the Lesses went to bed?”

He looked startled. “It was after they were in bed. That’s how we surprised them.”

“No, I saw the crime scene photos. They weren’t in their pajamas. The kitchen looked like someone had just finished dinner.”

“Maybe they were letting the cleanup go until morning.”

“The rest of the house was spotless. People who keep their houses like that don’t leave dishes all over the counter overnight. It draws bugs. In a pinch, they might rinse dishes and stack them in the sink, but they had a dishwasher so they’d at least load the glasses, silverware and plates.”

“Maybe we had the time wrong.”

“It would have been daylight. How could you have the time wrong?”

His lip curled back in a snarl. “You’re here to tell my side of the story.”

“No, I’m not. I’m not here to listen to your bull. If that’s all you have to say, then I’m leaving. I’ll get all the chance I need to hear your bull in court.”

I closed my notebook and started to get up. My stomach clenched with the hope he wasn’t going to stop me, that I could go back to work and write about fires and court cases and police investigations, not sit here in this room with this person who was off his rock.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t leave. You’re right.”

I sat back down tentatively.

He ran his hands through his hair. “I have a really hard time focusing sometimes. All these thoughts just flit through my head, and I can’t always tell what’s real and what isn’t. If you say it was dinner time, it probably was.”

“Why did you quit taking your meds? If you have trouble thinking, then why would you forego something that would help?”

“I hate those things. They make me feel even worse.”

“Your mom said they were helping. It takes some time to find the right combination. You should have talked to your doctor, not just quit them entirely.”

“My mom couldn’t afford a real doctor. We just had that quack that did pro bono work through the school. He wasn’t interested in adjusting my meds. And I don’t have insurance now.”

“Chris, you really need to think about helping your mom get a lawyer. Or work with the public defender’s office. You really shouldn’t be going this alone.”

“What the hell do you know?”

“I know that if someone can’t tell the difference between night and day he shouldn’t be representing himself.”

“Go screw yourself. I’m just as capable as anyone else.”

“Not from where I’m sitting.”

I thought – still hoped – he’d tell me to leave. We were treading on dangerous territory here and I didn’t want to get too involved with this case.

“Let’s talk some more about Patrick,” he said.

“Like what?”

“Like it was his idea to hit that house. He planned it and he picked the time. So he would have known it was daylight and they’d be awake.”

“Or maybe he thought they wouldn’t be home. Maybe they went out to dinner.”

“No way. Old Man Less was the biggest cheapskate around. Teddy said he took his mom out like once a year on her birthday. Why do you think she was still working?”

“So Patrick wanted them to be home? No offense but that sounds pretty stupid if the plan is to steal money.”

“Maybe that wasn’t his plan. It was my plan. I needed more cash to get high. But maybe he planned something else.”

“Why would he do that? By your own admission you didn’t hang around with Teddy anymore.”

“I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”

 “Why would I need to talk to Patrick at all? The police should be the ones talking to Patrick, but you already confessed to the murders by yourself. So the police aren’t going to do that. Not a very good plan.”

“Why can’t you go talk to him?”

“I can’t arrest him. Why don’t you want the police to talk to him?”

“Because it will be just like last time. He’ll get off with a light sentence because his mom and dad are rich. I’ll get the shaft because I come from nothing.”

“Well, right now Patrick doesn’t want to talk to me. He ditched work last night to avoid me. I can’t compel him to talk either. So this might be the end of the line.”

I glanced at the clock and our hour was winding down.

“I think he wanted to do it,” Potter said quietly.

“Wanted to do what?”

“Wanted to kill them. Wanted to beat them to death. It was like he just went crazy and he beat them and beat them and beat them. He brought the hammer, you know. It wasn’t mine and he didn’t find it there. He brought it with him. I just stood there and watched.”

The hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle.

The guard poked his head in. “Time.”

I got up, a little shaky. Potter couldn’t have planned it any better if he’d had the guard hooked up to a button. To say that right when I had to leave. He knew he’d set the hook and I’d be back.

All the more reason to order a burger

I’ve read about the bombings in Syria and a passenger dragged off a United Airlines flight, but I think the news story I read most recently that’s going to haunt me is this one about a decomposing bat inside a prepackaged salad.

Generally I like salads, but I have an almost irrational fear of bats so finding one in my salad would pretty much send me screaming like an imbecile to the bathroom to induce vomiting by whatever means necessary. Actually, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t need any help vomiting.

The thing that’s a little weird about the articles I’ve read about the incident seems to be the focus on rabies and not the dead bad. Like it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the rabies. Ummm….no. It’s bad regardless because there was a freakin’ dead bat in food that people were consuming at the time it was found.

(Shudder). Yeah, no more prepacked salads for me.

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When it comes to kids in restaurants, empathy should go both ways

I’d originally read this article a few months ago, then it popped up again last week in the “recommended stories” feature on another website. This is a first person account of a parent with small children out to eat at a busy restaurant. Another patron made a snarky remark about the children’s behavior and Mom escalated it with a snappy comeback.

While the account itself is not particularly unique, the comments that follow offer a window into a hugely polarizing issue: small children at dining establishments. I’m not talking about kids at fast food joints. No one expects much when dining there. I mean sit-down restaurants. Some higher end places have banned children because of bad behavior and that decision also has supporters and detractors.

I’ve been a food server, a parent and a restaurant patron trying to dine sans kids for a night so I can see points on each side. But these are the two questions I always come back to when I see child meltdowns during the dinner hour: are the parents actually doing anything about it? Are the parents trying to minimize the impact on other patrons while they deal with the situation?

Because I’ve been there. My two-year-old once decided he did not want to leave the ball pit at the play area at Burger King (that was when I was young and dumb and didn’t realize those things are absolute germ pits). He refused to come out and I had to go in after him — while I was pregnant and taking off my shoes was no guarantee I could get them back on. When I caught him, he howled. I had to wade out and get my shoes on. I tried to get his shoes on but gave up and decided to carry him. I was near tears and he certainly wasn’t happy. Another mom made a snarky remark to me and really, had I not been dealing with so much crap at that second I would have been tempted to punch her in the face. I mean kids are kids and I was clearly trying to get him out of this situation. Normally, I could tell him “five more minutes” and he’d leave the play area just fine. Today, well, he tested me. I could have caved and sat there another half hour but I had things to do and me being a pushover sent the wrong message. You’d think another mom would have my back, but sometimes we can be so judgmental about other people’s parenting.

So I get the mom’s defensiveness in the article. Kids aren’t robots who can be programmed to act exactly as we want.  But…

I’ve witnessed abysmal behavior under the guise of “kids will be kids.” I waited tables in college and I’ve seen kids allowed to pour syrup all over the table, play in a fire pit with an actual fire burning, race up and down the aisles while waiters are trying to carry their trays and have a tantrum while the parents ignore them. I’ve had my date night with my husband pretty much ruined when seated next to parents more interested in their smartphones than their kids. So I get the patron’s side, too. Was she rude? Yes, but while Mom didn’t think the kids were that bad, she may not have been the best judge of the situation given she was busy talking to their dinner guests.

Some of the comments targeted Mom for letting her kids play with an iPad as a distraction, but I disagree. As a mom who once carried a pad of paper and box of crayons in her purse at all times, I think having some distractions is a darn good idea. But I get the other side, too. At some point, kids do need to learn to sit and carry on a conversation, wait patiently for their food and generally function in society. That should be every parent’s goal. It’s easy to sanctimoniously judge another parents’ skills. But I’m willing to bet, if we’re honest, all of our kids at one time or another displayed not-so-great behavior. I’m willing to bet we ourselves have displayed some not-so-great behavior. My mom loves to tell those stories about me, by the way. Something involving me and a teddy bear when I was a toddler. So we should have each other’s back.

But don’t expect people to excuse bad behavior if you aren’t doing anything about it. I’m not speaking to this particular article because I wasn’t there — it’s just one side. But really, it’s not fair to expect other people to forgive your kids’ antics while you are playing Candy Crush on your iPhone. Courtesy goes both ways. If you want a little sympathy, you have to have some empathy for your fellow patrons who may have paid a babysitter to get their night of peace and quiet.

First draft down, so many revisions yet to go

Sorry I’ve been so bad about posting but I just finished my initial (and very rough) draft of Book 7, “Hidden in Darkness.” I didn’t expect to finish the draft so quickly because when I started I really didn’t know exactly where the plot was going. Usually I have a firm ending in mind and write to get there, but in this case, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Every time I thought about a blog post I wanted to write, I would get about two lines in and think “Oh, wait! I know what happens next!” and off I’d go with Book 7.

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So while I have serious editing to do, the fact that the story arc is coherent is a huge victory. Editing is not as fun as creating but it must be done (over and over) so that process starts in earnest next week. The good news from a blog perspective is that I can write posts as procrastination since, as I just said, creating is more fun than editing. 🙂

In the meantime, I realized I haven’t posted my playlists for “In the Presence of My Enemies” or “Extreme Measures.” So here they are:

“In the Presence of My Enemies”

“Hard Love” by Needtobreathe

“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash

“Reckless Forgiver” by Jars of Clay

“Money and Fame” by Needtobreathe

“What Faith Can Do” by Kutless

“Difference Maker” by Needtobreathe

“Extreme Measures”

“Nothing Left to Lose” by Needtobreathe

“Closer” by Jars of Clay

“Brother” by Needtobreathe

“Come Back Home” by Kutless

“The Heart” by Needtobreathe

“Hero” by Kutless

And, just because I’m in the mood, here’s my playlist for the upcoming “Hidden in Darkness.”

“Hard Times” by Needtobreathe

“The Valley Song” by Jars of Clay

“Shelter” by Jars of Clay

“Be Here Long” by Needtobreathe

“You and Me” by Lifehouse

“Second Chances” by Needtobreathe

As I’m sure you noticed, all of my playlists are really heavy with music from the band Needtobreathe. If you haven’t checked out this band, I would strongly encourage it. They are Christians but eschew that label, preferring to let their music speak for itself. And it does. Not every song is about God, but all the songs come from their perspective as Christians. Love that.  Their worship songs are some of my all-time favorites.

As I work on the draft for “Hidden in Darkness,” I’ll post some excerpts here so you can get a taste of the story. Here’s a working synopsis for now:

Just days after confessing to a double homicide, the jailed killer asks to speak to reporter Emily O’Brien, offering an exclusive to the Winston Chronicle. But his promise to tell her the truth about what happened instead thrusts her into a nightmare of lies, deceptions and double crosses. Meanwhile, her personal life faces challenges of its own, forcing her to confront her fears of commitment and what that means for her future. As she moves closer to the truth about the murders, she finds she’s now a pawn in someone’s game and she’ll have to prove who is pulling the strings in order to stay alive.

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Happy reading!