Read an ExcerptFinal Justice
By Marta Perry Steeple Hill
Copyright © 2008 Marta Perry
All right reserved.
Magnolia College's ten-year reunion was in full swing on a warm southern evening. Jennifer Pappas stood alone near the French doors that opened to the terrace, wondering what on earth had made her agree to come.
The Mossy Oak Inn on the edge of the college campus prided itself on elegant service, and the staff had outdone itself tonight. Discreet waiters circulated with trays of hors d'oeuvres, while a string combo played a delicate counterpoint to the reliving of college memories. The scent of roses mingled with that of expensive perfume, almost dizzying in its impact.
She took an automatic step back from the exuberant greetings going on between two women who'd just, apparently, found each other after ten years and were determined to catch up on everything that had happened since.
That was what she feared the most tonightthat seemingly innocuous question: What have you been doing since graduation?
How do I answer that, Father? She sought refuge in prayer, as she always did, focusing inward and shutting out the clamor of insistent voices rising above the chamber music. How could I talk about the day-care center I ran in Syracuse without mentioning how it ended?
A shudder touched her heart, and she steeled herself against the memories, locking them away. She wouldn't dwell on the past. She'd started a new life. That was what this was allabout, wasn't it?
But she'd been back in Magnolia Falls for over a month now, and she still hadn't found her balance. She was beginning to wonder if she ever would.
Her gaze fell upon Steff Kessler, a fellow class member who was now the alumni director for Magnolia College. Steff had seemed eager to renew their college friendship, but even with Steff, she'd held back. How did you explain to anyone, let alone a friend, what it was like being arrested, charged, fingerprinted?
No one here knew the truth except for Pastor Rogers and her father. Dad kept insisting her life would be easier once she'd confided in a few friends, but she couldn't do that. She couldn't bear the possibility that they'd look at her with contempt.
The French door moved behind her, and someone stepped through. She turned, startled, and found herself face-to-face with Mason Grant.
"Mason." Her heart twisted. Once she'd considered Mason one of her closest friends. Then, quite suddenly in the middle of their senior year, he'd shut her out, along with everyone else he'd been close to.
According to Steff, that was still the case. Steff hadn't expected him to show up tonight, even though he still lived in Magnolia Falls. "Jennifer Pappas." He looked as startled as she felt.
"I haven't seen you sincewell, since graduation."
"Ten years." She managed a smile. "How many times do you suppose those words have been said tonight?"
That brought an answering smile to his face. "Too many, I suppose. And they're still at it." He glanced at the noisy crowd, seeming to search for familiar faces, giving her a moment to take a quick look at him.
Her first thought was that he hadn't changed. Tall, lean, he still had the sinewy build of a basketball player, evident even in the perfectly tailored tux he wore. He had regular features, dark blond hair that was always a little tousled despite his best efforts, hazel eyes
And there she saw the difference.
Guarded. Once they'd been dancing eyes, but now they hid secrets. Maybe others would be fooled by the cheerful facade, but she recognized the expression. It was one she saw daily in her mirror.
What is it, Mason? What's changed you? What's put those lines around your eyes and given that wary set to your mouth?
That was not a question she could ask, since it was one she wouldn't answer herself.
He brought his attention back to her, his lips easing in a smile. "Actually, I heard that you were back in town."
"Probably at church." Mason's family had been long-time members of Magnolia Christian Church, although she hadn't seen him at services there since she'd been back. "Pastor Rogers has hired me to run the church nursery school. I'll also be doing the after-school program starting in September."
His gaze evaded hers. "I must have heard somewhere else. I haven't been at church lately. The stores keep me too busy for much of anything but work."
That would be the chain of sporting-goods stores Mason had inherited when his father died during their senior year. Anyone might use that as an excuse. But Mason looked lost and alone somehow, just for an instant, before he veiled the emotion with a bland, cool mask.
Jennifer's heart twisted. She wanted to reach out to him, to soothe the hurt she sensed in him just as she'd automatically run to comfort a crying child.
"Too busy for your faith? For your friends? What happened, Mason?" The words were out before she could censor them.
He looked startled, as well he might. "What do you mean? Nothing's happened."
She touched his sleeve, feeling hard muscle tense at her touch beneath the fine fabric of his tux, knowing it was a mistake to push but unable to resist her engrained need to help.
"We were good friends, before you walked away from all of us. Why did you do that?" She still remembered the pain, even though it had been ten yearsthe grief she felt at losing her friend and not knowing why.
Mason's smile seemed frozen on his face. "Things happened, senior year, things none of us could control. Maybe you've forgotten I was the college pariah after losing the championship game for the team."
She made a small sound of distress. "None of your friends blamed you for that, and anyone who did was an idiot. We wanted to help you then, but you shut us out. Can't you let us make up for it now?"
"There's no changing what's done." He jerked a nod toward the chattering crowd. "You think any of them would really go back, even if they could? No matter how many fond memories they dredge up tonight, at some level they all know the reality. It's far better for all of us to leave the past alone."
She was too shocked by the bitterness in his voice to respond. Maybe he read that in her face, because for a moment she saw the old Mason.
He clasped her hand in his, squeezing it gently. "Your heart always was too tender for your own good, Jennifer. But I'm glad you're back, all the same." He let her hand go slowly, almost reluctantly. "We both ought to circulate. I'm sure plenty of old friends are eager to greet you."
And then he turned and slipped away into the crowd.
"I'm telling you the truth. We found Penny Brighton Kessler. She admitted she killed Josie, and the picture she had of the child she claims is her daughter looked exactly like Josie Skerritt."
Mason stared at Kate Brooks across the red-and-white checked tablecloth at Burt's Pizzeria, the food turning to ashes in his mouth. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't.
In the months since the reunion, he'd broken his habit of isolation to meet with a few old classmates occasionallyKate, Parker Buchanan, Steff Kessler and Trevor Whittaker. And Jennifer Pappas, of course, always Jennifer.
Despite their rocky beginning at the reunion, despite the fact that Jennifer's desire to reach out to him threatened the secrets that burdened him, he couldn't seem to stay away from her. It was friendship, he told himself. That was all he felt.
And he'd needed friendship, as long-hidden secrets began to emerge over the past few months. First came the discovery of the body, hidden near the library, when Trevor's construction company broke ground for the new library wing. Initially, he hadn't imagined that had anything to do with his class, his friends.
But gradually the circle tightened. The body had been there since the December after their graduation, making a tenuous link to his class. People had been drawn into the mystery, trying to locate any missing class members.
Then the body had been identified as that of Josie Skerritt, one of their close circle of friends from Campus Christian Fellowship. No one could remember having seen her since graduation. His nightmares had started then. It had grown worse with the revelation that Josie had had a baby.
Everyone from their small group of college friends had been questioned. Everyone had, he supposed, been suspected in some way. Each time they were together, no matter how they tried to ignore it, the conversation would go back to Josie. How did she die? Why? What happened to the child she'd apparently had not long before her death?
Jennifer moved slightly, her hands seeming to push something away. Her velvety brown eyes were troubled. "I don't understand. Are you saying that Penny stole Josie's child?"
The words echoed in his mind, mocking him, reminding him. Josie's child. Josie had a child. If Kate's suspicions were right, a daughter.
Whose child? His stomach churned. Not mine. It couldn't be mine.
Parker Buchanan, sitting next to Kate at the round table, put his hand over hers in a possessive movement. "You do remember that the police told us to keep quiet about this, don't you?"
Kate wrinkled her nose at him. "Listen, Jennifer's the one who figured out where Penny was. The police know she has to be warned about Penny. Anyway, she's one of my best friends."
A faint flush touched Jennifer's smooth olive skin, as if it pleased her to be called that. She looked cool and put together, even in jeans and a simple knit shirt, but he knew that outward appearance masked a sensitive spirit.
"We shouldn't ask," she said to Kate. "But if you want to tell us"
Kate leaned forward, pushing aside the remains of her mushroom pizza. The eager sparkle in her eyes said she was about to be indiscreet.
"Penny admitted she was trying to frame Parker for Josie's murder." Indignation filled Kate's voice. "She's off her rocker if you ask me. She showed me the photograph, and when I said the little girl looked like Josie, she flew into a rage. She was going to kill me and frame Parker." She touched the sling in which her arm rested. "If Parker hadn't gotten there in time, she'd have succeeded."
"I'm a real hero, I am." Parker, as always, was faintly self-mocking. "I let her get away."
"You were taking care of me." Kate gave him a look that would have shown a blind man how she felt about him.
Well, good for them. They both deserved a little happiness. Unlike him.
He shook his head, trying to get a grip on the situation. "Did Penny admit the child was Josie's?" Even articulating the words shook him.
"Not exactly." Kate frowned. "But honestly, if you'd seen the photo, you couldn't help but notice. Same heart-shaped face, same brown hair and brown eyes"
"Lots of people have brown hair and brown eyes." Steff Kessler's voice was sharp, a reminder to everyone that Penny had been married briefly to her brother,Adam.
"Same wistful expression," Kate finished. "You know how Josie would look sometimes. Like a little girl lost. That's how this child looks."
That shook him. He remembered that look all too well. "Penny claimed her daughter was Adam's child." Steff's voice tightened. Though it had been ten years, she still felt the loss of her brother, dead in an apparent boating accident soon after his elopement with Penny. "But she wouldn't agree to a DNA test, and my parents never believed it."
"You see?" Kate's voice was triumphant. "She could hardly agree to a DNA test on the child if the baby was really Josie's."
"That poor child." Jennifer's thoughts went straight to the child, of course. "If this is true, I can't imagine what it must be like for her. Where is she? Not with Penny, I hope."
"In a private boarding school in Charleston," Parker said. "I managed to hear one of the police officers say that, but then they clammed up. Anyway, officially the cops are after Penny for the attack on Kate, but I imagine they're looking hard at her for Josie's death."
Penny, suspected of murder. She'd been wild enough, bragging about having been kicked out of more schools than she could count, driving her elderly Charleston parents to declare Magnolia College her last chance. But murder
It seemed impossible, but hardly less so than any of the other things that had rocked Magnolia Falls and the college since the body was discovered.
Mason's cell phone vibrated. He was tempted to ignore it, but he didn't do that, ever. It could be some crisis at one of the branch stores. Worse, it could be his mother's assisted-living facility.
He checked the number, found it was one he didn't recognize and answered, turning slightly away from the table.
"Mason Grant." He kept his voice low.
For a moment there was nothing. Then a voice, whispering. A child's, he thought at first. Some kid making prank calls, happening upon his number by accident.
"You think no one knows, don't you? You think no one knows what you did."
"Who is this?" He snapped the words, more sharply than he intended, and realized the faces around the table were turning toward him.
He shrugged, mouthing the words. Wrong number. Then the whisperer spoke again. "You think no one knows about you and Josie. You think no one knows what you did. You're wrong. I know."
The connection was broken before he could say a word. He glanced up. Everyone watched him. For an instant he imagined they'd all heard, that they all knew the truth about him.
Excerpted from Final Justice by Marta Perry Copyright © 2008 by Marta Perry. Excerpted by permission.
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