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The Last Breath

The Last Breath

4.5 6
by Kimberly Belle

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One woman will stop at nothing to discover the devastating truth about her family…

Chasing disasters around the globe keeps humanitarian aid worker Gia Andrews away from her own ground zero. Now, after sixteen years in jail for the murder of her stepmother in small-town Tennessee, Gia's father has come home to die of cancer. And she's responsible for


One woman will stop at nothing to discover the devastating truth about her family…

Chasing disasters around the globe keeps humanitarian aid worker Gia Andrews away from her own ground zero. Now, after sixteen years in jail for the murder of her stepmother in small-town Tennessee, Gia's father has come home to die of cancer. And she's responsible for his care.

Resuming the role of daughter to the town's most infamous murderer means confronting the past she's spent over a decade avoiding. But in the end, the truth about what really happened may have deadlier consequences than she could have ever anticipated…

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Last Breath will leave you breathless. This edgy and emotional thriller will keep you guessing until the very end." -New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf

"Powerful and complex with an intensity drawn out through each page, The Last Breath is a story of forgiveness and betrayal and one I couldn't put down!" -New York Times bestselling author Steena Holmes

Publishers Weekly
Belle's multi-layered page-turner explores justice, forgiveness, and guilt through the eyes of a convicted murderer's daughter. Sixteen years ago, Ray Andrews was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal murder of his wife, Ella Mae. Near the end of a battle with terminal cancer, Ray is granted compassionate leave to live out his last days under house arrest, sending the entire town of Rogersville, Tenn., into an uproar. Ray's youngest daughter, Gia, who has never been fully convinced of his guilt, has left her globe-trotting job as a disaster relief specialist and returned to care for him. Coming back to small-town Appalachia to care for a dying parent would be hard enough without protestors on the front lawn and a chilly reception from an older brother and sister who want nothing to do with the whole situation. As she starts to dig into her family's past, Gia uncovers a wealth of new facts about the night of Ella Mae's murder that further complicates her feelings on the incident. With a keen sense of setting and a cast of well-drawn characters, Belle delivers a fresh premise with a few novel twists. Flashbacks to Ella Mae's last days add an additional level of complexity. Unfortunately, some twists are more believable and organic than others, and the final scenes take a slightly hackneyed action-movie turn that feels at odds with the rest of the story. Nevertheless, Belle's debut is thoroughly satisfying. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Belle's debut has Gia Andrews returning home from a busy life abroad as a humanitarian aid worker to care for her terminally ill father, who has just been released from prison to die in the comfort of his own home. Reluctant to act as caregiver for her father—who murdered her stepmother in cold blood—Gia is forced into the role by familial obligation. When she returns to the small town she grew up in, she encounters protesters on her lawn and a chilly reception by her siblings. No one wants her father home, and Gia feels stuck. In order to cope, she spends time with the town's loved restaurateur, who, as Gia begins to find out more about what happened that fateful night, might have more of a connection with her past than anyone knows.
Verdict While the circumstances around the original murder go only surface deep, the unraveling of the lies and intrigue surrounding the town and family is an emotional roller-coaster ride. Belle has crafted a romantic, suspenseful women's fiction novel that will please fans of Mary Kubica and Diane Chamberlain.—Mara Dabrishus, Ursuline Coll. Lib., Pepper Pike, OH

(c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
A small Tennessee mountain town is awash in sex and scandal in Belle's first novel. Gia Andrews, a disaster relief worker, is also a convicted murderer's daughter. Her father, Ray, was convicted of killing his wife and Gia's stepmother, Ella Mae, and sentenced to life in prison. But Ray is dying, and prison officials are releasing him on compassionate grounds; Gia's uncle Cal, a prominent lawyer, has recruited her to return home from Kenya to care for her dad in his home in Rogersville. Despite the fact that she hasn't seen her father since she left many years ago, she returns, believing her brother, Bo, and sister, Lexi, will help her, but she finds that neither wants anything to do with their father. Her nearest allies turn out to be the home-care worker Uncle Cal has hired, Fannie, and the new man she meets, a bar-and-grill owner named Jake. When Gia meets a law professor planning to write a book about wrongful convictions, he tells her he believes Ray didn't kill Ella Mae and that Cal, who was Ray's attorney, didn't mount much of a defense. After looking into these allegations, Gia discovers her stepmother had an affair with another man and wonders whether her father could be innocent after all. While trying to unravel the mystery of who really killed Ella Mae, things heat up between Gia and Jake, and suddenly the mystery takes a whole new direction. Belle's a smooth writer whose characters are vibrant and truly reflect the area where the novel is set, but the plot—while clever—takes a back seat to Gia's and Ella Mae's separate, but equally steamy, sexual exploits. Thriller fans will find so much space devoted to Gia and Jake's sexual acrobatics that little time is left for the plot to develop.

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Read an Excerpt

FOR AID WORKERS, HOME CAN MEAN A LOT of things. A two-bedroom ranch with a picket fence. A fourth-story walk-up in the city. A mud hut under a banana tree. A country listed on a passport. It can be big or small or anything in between.

One thing all these homes share, though, is that aid workers miss them. They long to go there. They are homesick.

Not me. I've spent the past sixteen years running from my home, and what happened there. Could have lived the rest of my life never returning to the place where I will always be known as the murderer's daughter.

And yet here I sit in my old driveway, in a rental parked behind a shiny new Buick. More than thirty-six hours into this new disaster—my disaster—and I've accomplished exactly nothing more than a crusty coffee stain down the front of my jeans and a mean case of jet lag.

Embrace the chaos, Gia. Over the course of the past seven thousand miles, it has become my mantra.

Uncle Cal climbs out of his car, and he's wearing his usual outfit: gleaming reptile skin stretched across pointy cowboy boots, Brooks Brothers suit of smoky pin-striped wool, black leather jacket worn soft and supple. Here in the hills of Appalachia, it's a look perfectly suitable for church, a fancy restaurant or a courtroom. As one of the highest paid criminal lawyers in Tennessee, Cal's worn it in all three.

I follow his lead and step out of the rental. It's mid-February and Rogersville—a tiny blip on the Eastern Tennessee map—is in the death throes of winter. My ancient fleece is not equipped to handle the Appalachian Mountain cold, and I long for my winter coat, still in mothballs in a London suburb. Cal opens his arms and I step into their warmth, inhaling his familiar scent, a combination of leather, designer aftershave and Juicy Fruit gum.

"Welcome home, baby girl," he says into my hair.


I twist my neck to face the house I've not seen for sixteen years, and a shudder of something unpleasant hits me between the shoulder blades. Once a place that instilled in me a sense of refuge and comfort, this house now provokes the exact opposite. Grief. Fear. Dread. This house isn't home. Home shouldn't give you the creeps.

Cal's hands freeze on my protruding scapula and he steps back, his gaze traveling down my frame. Thanks to a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning last month, it's a good ten pounds lighter than the last time he hugged me, back when I was already high-school skinny. "I thought you were putting an end to the famine, not succumbing to it."

"If you're ever on the Horn of Africa, you should probably stay away from the street stalls in Dadaab. Just because they claim their meat is fresh doesn't mean it's true. Or for that matter, that it's even meat."

"Good tip." He pulls the toothpick from his molars and gives me his trademark squint, but there's a smile in his tone. "I'll try to remember that."

A lucky break Cal had called it when he finally tracked me down in Kenya. There was more, something about a perjury scandal and a diagnosis that required full-time, in-home hospice care, but by then I wasn't really listening. I was too busy wondering on what planet capping off sixteen years of high-security confinement by coming home to die would be considered lucky.

I swallow a sudden lump. "Is he in a lot of pain?"

Cal doesn't have to ask who I mean, and at the reminder of the cancer squeezing his only brother's pancreas, grief muddies his brow. "Not yet. But he will be very soon."

The lump returns and puts down roots.

"For an innocent man to end his prison term like this… " He sighs, and his breath makes puffy wisps in the February air. "I've got lots of choice words to say about it, none of them fit for your ears."

From the moment Cal arrived on the scene—before my father was a suspect, before he signed on as my father's attorney, even before Ella Mae's body had been photographed and bagged and carried away—his belief in my father's innocence has been unwavering.

For me, the situation was never that clear. If I thought my father was capable of murder, that he premeditated and carried out a plan to suffocate Ella Mae Andrews, his wife and my stepmother, I'm not certain I could forgive either him or his behavior. In fact, I'm not certain I would even be here, that I would have traveled all this way for a last goodbye.

But I came all this way because I'm not certain. In my father's case, the evidence is unclear, the testimony conflicted. The shadows of my doubt run in both directions.

I stuff my icy hands into my front jeans pockets and shiver, not merely from the cold.

Cal takes the gesture as his cue and reaches into his pocket, where a set of keys jingles. "Ready to get inside before you freeze to death?"

No. My heart races, and every tiny hair soldiers to attention on the back of my neck, commanding me to run. Never again. No.

"Ready as I'll ever be."

I follow Cal up the five steps to the wraparound porch, summoning the detached efficiency that's made me one of Earth Aid International's top disaster relief experts. I can't manage even an ounce of objectivity. This disaster is too close, its aftermath still too painful. I can't detach from its reality.

A reality that, according to the doctors, could last anywhere from three weeks to three months.

"The renters moved out about six months ago," Cal says without turning his head, searching through his key ring for the right one. The sisal mat under his feet mocks me with its cheery message: Welcome, Guests. As if anyone but me and Cal will be stepping on it, waiting to be invited in to pay their last respects. Not in a Million Years would be more like it.

"Good timing, I suppose."

"I've had the house painted. And all the furniture is new. Appliances, too."

"What happened to Dad's old stuff?"

"I donated most of the furniture and clothes to Goodwill after the trial. The rest is in a storage facility in Morristown. I'll get you the address and the access combination if you want to head over there."

"I doubt I'll have the time." Or the inclination. Digging through old memories sounds like torture to me.

Uncle Cal twists the key in the handle and the door swings open with a groan, a sound I find eerily appropriate. He steps inside like he owns the place, which I suppose by now he probably does, but I don't follow. I can't. Somebody switched out my sneakers for boots of lead. My knees wobble, and I grip the doorjamb to keep from falling down.

A strange thing happens when a home turns into a crime scene. Its contents are labeled, cataloged and photographed. Walls become scene boundaries, doors and windows, the perpetrator's entry and exit. Seemingly ordinary objects—dust bunnies behind the couch, scuff marks on the stairs, a tarnished nickel under the carpet—take on all sorts of new significance. And the people living there, in a place now roiling with bad memories and even worse juju, no longer think of it as home.

But what about that one spot where the victim took her last breath, where her heart gave its final, frantic beat? What do you do with that place? Build a shrine on top of it, wave a bouquet of smoking sage around it or pretend it's not there?

At the foot of the stairs, Cal stops and turns, studiously ignoring my distress. My gaze plummets to the fake Persian under his feet, and a wave of sick rises from the pit of my belly. Just because I can't see the spot doesn't mean I've forgotten what happened there.

Or for that matter, that I'm ever stepping on it.

"Shut the door, please, Gia."

I take a deep breath, square my shoulders and follow him into the house.

"My assistant Jennie did all the shopping," he says, gesturing with his keys toward the living room. Except for the unmade hospital bed in the corner, the decor—oversize furniture, silk ferns in dark pots, framed paintings of exotic landscapes on the walls—looks plucked from the pages of a Rooms To Go catalog. "I hope it'll do."

I finger a plastic pinecone in a wooden bowl on the dresser and peer down the hallway toward the kitchen. There's literally nothing here that I recognize. Probably better that way. "She did a great job."

"The bedrooms are ready upstairs. Thought we'd let the nurse take the master. You don't mind sharing the hall bath with me on the weekends, do you?"

I smile, hoping it doesn't come across as forced as it feels. "I've gone months with nothing but a bucket, a bar of soap and a muddy stream. I think I can handle sharing a bathroom."

One corner of Cal's mouth rises in what looks almost like pride. "You'd make someone a fine huntin' partner."

He motions for me to follow him into the kitchen at the back of the house, where he points to a credit card and iPhone on the Formica counter. "Jennie stocked the kitchen with the basics, but there's enough money on that account to buy anything else you need. You probably won't need it for a couple of days, though."

I peek into the refrigerator, check the cabinets above the coffee machine, peer around the corner into the open pantry. "There's enough food here to feed half of Hawkins County for weeks."

Cal smiles. "That's the great thing about Jennie. She always goes above and beyond." He plucks the iPhone from the counter and passes it to me. "She also programmed all the numbers you'll need into the phone. The lead officer assigned to the case will be calling to set up a meeting first thing tomorrow morning. The hospice nurse arrives tomorrow morning at eight, and the motorcade and ambulance with your father, sometime before noon. And the local doctors, hospitals and the funeral home have been notified."

"Sounds like everything's been taken care of."

He smiles, and his voice softens. "Just trying to make things as easy as possible for you, darlin'. I know you'd rather be anywhere but here."

I think of some of the worst places I've been sent. Overpopulated Dhaka, where if the water doesn't kill you, the air will. The slums of Abidjan after floods and mudslides have swept away too many of its children. The dusty streets of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, where malnutrition and cholera compete for leading cause of death.

Uncle Cal has a point.

"And don't think you're completely out here on your own," he says after a long stretch of silence. "I'm less than an hour down the road, and so are your brother and sister. Do me a favor and don't let either of them off the hook, okay? This concerns their father, too."

I half nod, half shrug. When it comes to our father, Bo would rather bury himself in his work than admit the situation affects him, while Lexi prefers to pretend he's already dead. How can I let my siblings off the hook when neither of them are willing to acknowledge there is one? It seems as if the only person not getting off the hook around here is me.

Cal pulls me in for a hug, dropping a kiss on the top of my head. "Call me anytime, okay? Day or night. I'll pick up, no matter where I am or what I'm doing."


"I promise." His tone is reassuring, but he's already backing away, already moving toward the door. "I'll see you Saturday morning."

He gives my shoulder one last squeeze and disappears into the hallway, and I'm slammed with a wave of panic. Disasters and destruction of global magnitude I can handle. Facing my father alone, not so much.

I rush down the hall in his wake. "Uncle Cal?"

The desperate note in my voice stops him at the door, and he turns to face me.

"Explain to me again why you can't stay. Why you won't be here tomorrow when Dad gets here."

He scrubs a hand through his hair, now salt-and-pepper but still thick and shiny as ever. "Because I'm busy stalling the retrial. God willing and the creek don't rise, your father won't spend another second of his life in either a courtroom or a prison cell."

A casket sure seems like the ultimate prison to me.

A few seconds later he's gone, leaving me to wonder how I ended up here. In a town I vowed never to return to. In a house filled with ghosts and memories I'll never outrun. In a life I have spent the past sixteen years trying to escape.

But most of all, I wonder how I ended up here alone.


BACK IN THE HOUSE, I PUT ON A KETTLE AND rummage through the cabinets for tea. Cal's assistant must be either misinformed or seriously delusional about the number of mourners we will be expecting because she bought us a 312-count, industrial-sized box of Lipton tea bags. If we get through even one row of them, it will be a miracle. I rip open the cellophane wrapping with my teeth, pull out a bag and drop it into a yellow ceramic mug.

The sharp, bitter scent reminds me of some of my British colleagues, who are convinced a spot of tea is the cure to all emotional ails. My boss, Elsie, a hard-nosed type, drinks enough of the stuff to poison her liver…thanks to the generous splash of bourbon she adds when things in the field get really hairy. If only life were that easy.

Unlike the satellite phone I carry in the field, Cal's iPhone has only a handful of contacts, most of them people I've never met and, after burying my father, will probably never think of again. It doesn't take me long to find Bo.

His cell goes straight to voice mail, so I leave what must be my fifth message in as many days, careful to keep my voice level. Five years older and light-years more serious, my brother has always preferred that people reserve their zeal for backyard fireworks and the Nature Channel, and he doesn't respond well to gushing.

I have better success with Lexi, who picks up on the second ring. I abandon my tea and squeal, "Lexi!"

Unlike Bo, my sister welcomes enthusiasm. Demands it, even.

"Is it true? Is it really true?" Lexi's familiar voice, the same gravelly one that used to give boys all over Hawkins County wet dreams. "Did my do-gooder little sister finally come home from Lord knows where?"

"It's true that I'm here, yes. But nowadays, home is in Kenya."

"Well, laa-tee-daa." She stretches out her words, loads them up with an extra serving of Tennessee twang. "Don't that sound fancy."

I snort at what I know to be a joke. Lexi is no dummy. She has a master's in finance from Stanford, runs a local chain of banks and could kick even Alex Trebek's ass at Jeopardy. Not only is she aware of my latest whereabouts, she knows Dadaab is pretty much the polar opposite of fancy. My chest seizes with a wave of sudden affection for my sister, who I haven't hugged in…six years? Has it really been that long?

"Where are you?" I say, switching gears. "Because I'm coming there right after I lock up the house."

"I'm going to need a little more time than that." Her tone takes a serious turn, matching mine, and her voice and vowels soften into the more generic timbre she perfected in college. Less country hick, more Southern belle. Unlike me, Lexi can turn her accent on and off like a faucet. "I'm about to head into a staff meeting, but I could meet you after for a late dinner. Say, seventhirty?"

I check my watch. Three and a half hours I can fill with a nap and a shower, in that order. "Perfect. So where's the place to be on a Wednesday night these days?"

"It's Thursday, actually, not that it matters. And there's only one place to be every night, and that's the Roadkill Bar and Grill in town."

Roadkill? I make a face. "Do I have to bring my own rodent, or do they run it down for me?"

She laughs, a throaty, musical sound that makes me wish I'd called more often. "Don't tell me you've forgotten your roots, young lady."

"I haven't forgotten. My palate has just evolved to more refined creatures, like stray animals. And last month in the Philippines I tried this thing called balut, a fertilized duck embryo that's boiled alive and eaten shell and all."

Lexi makes a retching sound. "I think I'd rather starve to death."

Now it's my turn to laugh. Though I've always been adventurous with food and my sister the pickiest eater in Appalachia, Lexi does have a point. Balut tastes just as bad the first time as it does the second, on its way back up.

Meet the Author

Kimberly Belle is the author of The Last Breath, The Ones We Trust, and The Marriage Lie. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Agnes Scott College and has worked in fundraising for nonprofits at home and abroad. She divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.

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The Last Breath 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Gia is the youngest sibling, but the one that left home and now is returning home to take care of her ailing father who is being released from prison.  She knows that her days at home are numbered, but she doesn't know that she will have to confront some demons while home. First, I love the going home books where a character has to return home and face the things they "ran" away from.  Usually those things they ran away from turn up and I love seeing characters confront a fear or situation head on.   I sometimes read into birth order and as a first born tend to enjoy books more from first born points of view.  It was interesting read from the third child, the baby in the family, but the child that actually has most of their stuff together compared to her two older siblings.  I had to remind myself often that she was the youngest in the family and I liked it.
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Sixteen years ago, Ray was convicted of brutally killing his wife Ella Mae. Since then, Gia and her brother and sister have had nothing to do with him. Gia is a humanitarian aid worker that chases after disasters to avoid the one back home. But it’s time for her to face the past. Ray has terminal cancer and is being placed under house arrest with hospice. Since Gia’s sister and brother refuse to talk to him or help her out, it is up to her to take care of Ray. But ask she spends more time with Ray and Uncle Cal, her father’s attorney, she starts learning that there is more to this story than what she knows. Everyone has secrets and all of them are going to open her eyes to the past and what really happened. Then there is Dean, the next door neighbor that still lives next door that had a relationship with Ella Mae. I liked this book. It was a great story, a bit heartbreaking. I really felt for Gia, it seemed like the more truth she learned the worse things got for her. I liked how the story starts you out with Ella Mae’s death but you learn there was so much more to the story. This is a great story. If you like mystery/thriller romances this would be the book for you. I received this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book with great characters
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a good read
bookbingerlady More than 1 year ago
Review In this gripping debut, Kimberly Belle toggles back and forth in time to show how a past murder and its secrets profoundly affect a young woman and her Tennessee family.  The Last Breathe opens with Ellie Mae confessing to her husband, Ray, that she had an affair and now wants a divorce. Later that night, a masked intruder comes into the house and kills Ellie Mae. The courts find Ray guilty and sentence him to prison, even though he claims he is innocent.  Ellie Mae’s murder and affair set in motion a chain of events that change the lives of her family forever.  Sixteen year later, prison officials allow Ray, now riddled with cancer, to come home to die. Summoned by her Uncle Cal, Gia, reluctantly returns from her world travels as a humanitarian aid worker to care for her dying father, whom she has not spoken to since his trial. Gia never wanted to return to the small Tennessee town that marked her as “the daughter of a murderer”. Her first day home, Gia meets a law professor writing a book about wrongful convictions that suggests her father may be innocent. Gia was never completely convinced of her father’s guilt and tries to convince her siblings of his innocence. But her siblings want nothing to do with their father, so they won’t be helping her with his care or the soon-to-be gathering protesters.  At the Roadkill, the local bar, Gia meets Jack, the handsome owner, and decides he would make a “mighty fine diversion” in her depressing life. Soon Jack becomes more to her than a diversion. He becomes her confidante and agrees to help her investigate. As she works with Jack, a secret comes to light that may tear the couple apart. Pros The Last Breath is the perfect blend of  mystery, interspersed with tender heart-felt moments of romance. In addition, through Gia, we see how a family’s tragedy and secrets profoundly affect those left in its aftermath. The main characters, Gia and Jack, are vibrant and feel real. Gia’s strong and resourceful during disasters but vulnerable when it comes to her family, so you sympathize with her. You admire her for coming home to a town she hates to take care of her father, who may be a murderer. She is loyal and supportive of her brother and sister and sympathetic to their own ways of coping with the tragedy. When women see ruggedly good looking Jack in his bar, they melt in a puddle of goo. Female readers will do the same when they learn about his support and love for Gia. Jack knows when Gia needs something and he’s always there to do it, for example after protesters write “Die, Murderer” on Gia’s home, Jack drives over without Gia’s prompting early in the morning and covers it with paint. He proves his generosity and agreement with Gia’s concerns, when he leaves a bag of fast food on the doorstep of skinny Otis, when Gia won’t eat it because she thinks we’re wasteful in America. As we read about Jack, we agree with Gia when she states, “This man is a blue ribbon prize, and I feel like I’m the winner.” Belle has created memorable supporting characters, as well. Fanny the flaming-haired hospice nurse. Ellie Mae, Gia’s lonely stepmother. And Ray, Gia’s bitter angry father. The blend of amazing characters, the riveting storyline, and lyrical writing make this book a must read. Cons I liked everything about this book! Conclusion This is a fantastic well-written novel that mixes a mystery with a poignant love story. I  definitely look forward to this author’s next book.
quaintinns More than 1 year ago
A special thank you to Harlequin MIRA and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. The Last Breath, the scandalous and edgy debut novel by southern writer, Kimberly Belle will blow your socks off, for a mix of tantalizing romance, an intriguing murder mystery, and an intense suspenseful thriller. It will leave you pondering, Wow! A southern powerhouse . . if this is a debut novel, cannot wait for what is to come! Gia Andrews, a wanderlust, a global world traveler and humanitarian in Kenya, is back in small town southern Rogersville, Eastern Tennessee in the middle of the hills of Appalachia, a place she never wanted to visit again—to a house filled with ghosts and memories, she cannot outrun. A life she has spent the past sixteen years trying to escape. A murderer’s daughter. The family is called home by her uncle, Cal (her dad’s brother and lawyer). Gia's father was imprisoned years ago after brutally killing her stepmother. Now he is dying of cancer and the three siblings (Gia, Lexi and Bo), are here to say their goodbyes. Her old home, once a place that instilled a sense of refuge and comfort, is now the opposite, full of grief, fear, and dread. An emotionally charged and searing drama, of one woman who risks her life to discover the devastating truth about her family. Belle did an outstanding job of keeping you guessing as to the identity of the real murderer, keeping you turning into the wee hours of the morning! Nice character development and set up, well-written with descriptive scenes and raw emotions, dynamic plot planning, with compelling twists and turns, delicious secrets, lies, and deceit . . . for an emotional roller coaster ride of betrayal, lust, tragedy, and ultimately finding forgiveness, love and home.