A secret from the past torments a group of former sorority sisters as they face a mysterious killer in this “taut and unpredictable” suspense novel (Publishers Weekly).
In a remote, heavily wooded area near the Berkshires of Massachusetts, Rachel Lorant died on her birthday. But she didn't die alone. That night, her four sorority sisters make a solemn, trembling pledge. They will never reveal what has just happened in those woods. Instead, they will take their terrible secret to their graves . . .
Now, ten years later, their secret is coming back to haunt them as each receives a card in the mail from Rachel: "Happy Birthday to Me. xoxo R." It's clear that someone knows what happened that night. Someone is stalking them and sending mysterious, chilling gifts that only they can understand—deadly warnings of what is to come. For the sins of the past have come back with a vengeance, and a killer will see that they all pay in blood . . .Brynn Costello has never felt such pure fear. She didn't want any part in what happened so long ago, but now, the mother of two will do anything to stay alive and protect her family—even if it means matching wits with a killer she can't see . . .</
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By Wendy Corsi Staub
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Wendy Corsi Staub
All rights reserved.
September, present day Cedar Crest, Massachusetts
It happened ten years ago this week, just after Labor Day, and just a few miles from here.
In fact, if one knows where to look, one can pinpoint up in the greenish-golden Berkshires backdrop, beyond the row of nineteenth-century rooftops, precisely the spot where it happened.
And I know where to look ... because I was there. I know exactly what really happened that night, and it's time that —
"Oh, excuse me!" The elderly woman is apologetic, having just rounded the corner from Second Street. "I didn't mean to bump into you ... I'm so sorry."
She looks so familiar ...
It takes just a split second for the memory to surface. Right, she used to be a cashier at the little deli down the block. The place that always had hazelnut decaf. Yes, and she was always so chatty.
What was her name? Mary? Molly?
What is she doing out at this hour? The sky is still dark in the west, and none of the businesses along Main Street are open yet.
Don't panic. She probably doesn't even recognize you. Just smile and say something casual ...
"Oh, that's all right, ma'am."
Good. Now turn your back. Slowly, so that you don't draw any more attention to yourself.
Good. Now get the heck out of here, before —
Dammit! The old lady again.
What can she possibly want now?
"You must have dropped this when I bumped you." With a gnarled, blue-veined hand, she proffers a white envelope.
"Oh ... thank you."
Could she have glanced at the address on the front before she handed it over? If she did, could she have recognized the recipient's name?
"It's going to be a nice day today." She gestures at the glow in the eastern sky, above the mountain peaks. "We needed that rain, though, at this time of year."
"Mmm-hmm." Just nod. Be polite.
"Well ... Enjoy the day."
"I will." But not as much as I'll enjoy tomorrow. "You, too."
With a cheerful wave, the woman turns and makes her way down the block.
The post office is just a few doors in the opposite direction. These last two envelopes — the ones to be delivered right here in town — must go out in this morning's mail.
It's important that they be mailed from here, so that the recipients will realize that the sender is nearby.
The timing is just as crucial. All four cards need to arrive at their destination tomorrow, on the anniversary.
The others went out first thing yesterday morning — one to Boston, one to Connecticut. That excursion was uneventful. It was raining, and there were no witnesses ...
Now isn't the time to start taking chances. Not after months of painstakingly laying the groundwork. Not when it's finally about to begin at last.
That's her name.
The post office can wait. The first pickup won't be for at least another hour.
What a shame, Millie.
What a shame you weren't more careful.
"Whoa, hang on there, kiddo!" Brynn Saddler swoops toward her barefoot toddler as he dashes across the front lawn toward the street.
"Hey, good catch, Mom!" Arnie, the mail carrier, calls from the sidewalk a few doors down leafy Tamarack Lane as Brynn lifts her squirming son into her arms.
"I'm getting enough practice ... third time he's made a run for it in the last five minutes!" Laughing, Brynn carries Jeremy back to the steps of their Craftsman bungalow, where they've been waiting for the school bus in the late summer sunshine.
This is Caleb's first day of kindergarten at Cedar Crest Elementary; she's been holding her breath and checking her watch for almost seven hours. She won't relax until the moment he's safely home again. But the whole process is bound to kick in again tomorrow morning ...
And, she supposes, every morning until high school graduation. She can't imagine ever getting used to sending her child off each morning with a wave, a kiss, and a fervent prayer that he'll be safe until he's home again.
Never mind her friend Fiona swearing that by next August, Brynn will be counting down the days until school begins — and maybe even looking for a job.
Fee isn't exactly a doting mother. Not that she doesn't love her only daughter. But given the option of spending her time with Ashley or at work, Fee would undoubtedly choose the latter, and always has. Her marriage ended because she couldn't give her husband the second child he wanted.
No, not "couldn't," Brynn amends. Wouldn't.
It isn't that she believes Fee should have had another baby she didn't want.
Well, lately, Brynn can identify with Fee's ex, Patrick.
She wants another baby. Garth does not.
But it's not going to destroy our marriage.
"Mommy," Jeremy croons, and plants a wet kiss on her lips before she can stop him.
"Oh, no, sweetie ... Mommy's been sick." She does her best to wipe off his mouth with the sleeve of her T-shirt.
Chances are, he'll come down with strep throat anyway. It's surprising he didn't catch it when Caleb first became ill last week, as Brynn did. Thanks to antibiotics, they're both on the mend; she's been hoping to spare Jeremy.
"I love you." Jeremy reaches up around her neck to yank her high brown ponytail with playful, and painful, affection.
"I love you too, baby." She laughs even as she winces, knowing there will come a day when she'll once again be able to wear her naturally wavy chestnut-colored hair loose around her shoulders. She'll be able to wear earrings without worrying about tugs, or white shorts free of smudges from chubby, sticky little fingers.
But will she even want to?
She's never been prone to fussing with hair, jewelry, and clothes. Her mother, Marie, used to say it was a good thing Brynn was naturally pretty, since she refused to primp. She always had her share of boyfriends, drawn to her wide-set brown eyes, long-waisted, willowy-looking athletic figure, and a generous length of wavy brown hair becomingly streaked lighter from the sun.
When she got to college, her sorority sister Tildy dubbed her W2, shorthand for Wash and Wear, because that was invariably the case with Brynn's hair, face, clothes.
It still is — though on rare occasions, it might be nice not to look like a domestic refugee.
Sometimes she wonders if Garth is thinking the same thing when he walks in the door to find her in tattered jeans and sweatshirts, covered in flour or glitter glue.
But Brynn is having so much fun with her boys that she isn't particularly anxious to reclaim her former unmaternal self, or the career she never got off the ground, or the hours of "me" time she sacrificed along this path.
Healthy children, a loving husband, a cozy antique house in a charming New England town ...
She has everything she ever hoped for, everything her own mother had.
Did Brynn Costello Saddler ever really want anything more out of life?
She went to college, after all. But not necessarily with the single-minded goal of earning a degree and becoming something specific that she'd always yearned to be: a businesswoman, an artist, a doctor ...
No, unlike her more ambitious friends, she was mainly at Stonebridge College because she couldn't bear to be at home anymore.
After four years there, on the verge of being sprung into the world to either return home or start fresh somewhere else and make something of herself, she fell in love.
Dr. Garth Saddler was older, someone with whom she could recreate the domestic stability she'd had growing up, before her mother died and that world dissolved.
And here I am.
Me, living my life ...
My mother's life, too ...
And it's fulfilling.
And maybe I need to see it through for both of us.
"Hi! Hi!" Jeremy calls out, clambering off Brynn's lap and waving frantically as the postal carrier arrives at the steps.
Brynn sees old Mr. Chase look up disapprovingly from the chrysanthemums he's planting over by the driveway of his meticulous yard next door. He isn't particularly fond of kids.
"Hi, buddy. Where's your partner in crime today?" Arnie asks, sorting through a cluster of envelopes and catalogues in his hand.
"Caleb started kindergarten this morning, Arnie, can you believe it?" Brynn watches Jeremy bend over to study a big black ant parading along the sidewalk.
"Bug!" Jeremy shrieks. "Bug!"
"Jeremy, no." Brynn reaches down to stop him before he can crush the ant with his bare foot. "The outdoors is the bug's house, remember? We don't hurt him when we're visiting his house. That isn't nice."
"But if the bug visits your house, it's a different story, eh, Mrs. Saddler?" Arnie asks with a wink as he hands her a stack of mail. He smashes a fist into his palm to mimic some hapless insect's demise.
Brynn laughs. "Exactly."
"So kindergarten already, huh?" Arnie asks. "Time sure flies, doesn't it? Next thing you know, your kids will be all grown up and gone, like my girls are."
"By then, I'll probably be grateful for the peace and quiet."
"No," Arnie says with a sad smile, "you'll wish these years back."
And Brynn is wistful once again.
I want another baby.
Not necessarily a daughter, no matter what countless random strangers say.
"Going to try again for a girl?" people like to ask when they spot Brynn with her two boys in the supermarket, the library, the park. The worst offenders are mothers of pretty little blue-eyed blondes wearing frilly dresses and ribbons and bows — women who assume that any mother of two brown-haired, brown-eyed boys with perpetual juice mustaches and skinned knees must be secretly envious.
She grew up a tomboy with older brothers. As a ten-year-old she almost drowned trying to out-swim them in rough surf off the Cape. By high school she was a champion swimmer and beach lifeguard. She was also the only varsity cheerleader who implicitly understood football and basketball and would have preferred playing to bouncing around on the sidelines.
She's perfectly comfortable living in an all-male household. In fact, having survived the overflowing Zeta Delta Kappa house back in her college days, she won't complain if she never again shares a roof with another female.
So a third son would be just fine with her. Gender doesn't matter, she just wants — no, longs for — another child.
She tried to convince Garth over the summer. Her husband's initial response: If memory serves, you were the one who begged me to convince the doctor to tie your tubes after you delivered Jeremy.
She pointed out that she came up with that idea — which, thank God, the doctor refused to accommodate — mere moments after enduring a fourteen-hour labor, but before she cradled her second son in her arms.
"Bye! Bye!" Jeremy calls as Arnie heads back down the walk to continue his daily rounds.
"See you later, buddy. And don't run toward the street again, okay? People drive like maniacs around here lately. You never know when someone is going to come barreling around a corner and ..." Arnie once again slams his fist into his palm, shakes his head sadly, and asks Brynn, "Did you hear what happened to Millie Dubinski yesterday?"
"Millie Dubinski ... Oh, you mean the lady who used to work at the deli?"
Arnie nods. "She was out for her early-morning walk, and some crazy driver ran her down. Poor thing had just stepped into the crosswalk on Fourth Street. Died on the spot."
"Oh, yes. Hit and run. No witnesses. Probably some college kid."
Brynn says nothing to that.
Arnie, like many Cedar Crest old-timers, has little patience for the five thousand Stonebridge College students who invade the town every September.
"So you stay away from the street, buddy," Arnie warns Jeremy again with a grandfatherly pat on his head. "You hear?"
Jeremy replies, "Street! Bus!"
Arnie chuckles. "Your big brother should be along any second now."
Yes, he should ... But there's still no sign of the bus.
Brynn waves to Arnie as he retreats down the walk toward the Chases' house.
Then, keeping one eye on Jeremy as he plucks a fuzzy white dandelion from the grass, she flips through the stack of mail in her hand. Bill, bill, something from Cedar Crest Travel ...?
Oh, right, that would be Garth's plane ticket to Arizona for the sociology symposium next month.
What else? Bill, credit card offer, bill ...
Coming to a larger white envelope that looks like it must contain a greeting card, Brynn sees that it's for her.
But her name and address aren't handwritten in ink. The envelope bears a printed label. It's probably one of those time-share invitations, she decides, slipping her finger under the flap. Perpetually homesick for the sea, she was tempted to accept the one that came the other day — four inexpensive days at a beautiful oceanfront resort in Florida, and all they'd have had to do was listen to a sales pitch.
Garth said no way. A nervous flier, he dreads the academic conferences he has to attend, other than the nearby Boston one last June, to which he drove.
Of course he vetoed the Florida resort. But maybe —
Brynn's thought is interrupted by the unmistakable rumble of a large vehicle making the turn onto Tamarack Lane.
"The bus, Jeremy! Caleb's home!" she announces with relief, the mail tossed aside onto the step, forgotten as she hurries toward the curb to greet her son at last.
"Here's your mail, Ms. Fitzgerald."
"Thanks, Emily." Fiona doesn't look up from her computer screen or miss a beat as her manicured fingers fly along the keyboard. "Just put it down. I'll get to it in a second. And be ready to go FedEx this cover letter and the contract to James Bingham's office in Boston in about five minutes."
"Hello? The new client? The one with the multimillion-dollar telecommunications company?"
The one who travels in the same Boston circles as Fiona's friend Tildy, who introduced them in June ...
The one who happens to be New England's most eligible bachelor.
"Oh, right. The new client." But Emily sounds as vacant as she probably looks.
Fiona opts not to glance up, knowing the visual evidence of Emily's cluelessness will just irritate her further.
She sighs inwardly, wishing the damned building weren't nonsmoking, because she desperately needs a cigarette.
Stress. This is what she gets for hiring a college sophomore as the new part-time office assistant at her public relations firm. Emily is a pale wisp of a girl whose personality leaves much to be desired. Still, she showed up for the interview ten minutes early and appropriately dressed — neither of which she has done since she started the job.
Fiona should have gone with someone more savvy, more professional ... and older. At least, beyond school-age.
Right ... like whom?
There's not a large pool of applicants to choose from; Cedar Crest isn't exactly crawling with upwardly mobile types. This is a college town — a tourist town as well during the summer, foliage, and ski seasons. The year-round population — mostly upper-middle-class families and a smattering of well-off retirees — provides precious few candidates willing to consider part-time clerical employment. And those who are willing prefer to work for Stonebridge College, with its benefits, higher pay, and college calendar.
Fiona thinks wistfully of the lone exception: her former office manager, the folksy-yet-efficient Sharon. She moved to Albany at the end of August to be near her grandchildren and her newly divorced daughter, a choice Fiona quite vocally discouraged — and privately derided. The way Sharon went on and on about the tribulations facing her poor, poor daughter, you'd think raising a child and running a household without a man was a challenge equivalent to heading FEMA.
Expertly juggling single motherhood and a household plus a full-time career, Fiona has little sympathy or patience for anyone who can't seem to independently accomplish a fraction as much as she does in twice the time.
Which is precisely why the future isn't looking particularly bright for halting, clueless Emily of the granola-crunchy wardrobe and limp, flyaway hair.
But I'll worry about her later. Right now, there's too much to do.
Fiona rereads the letter she just composed, hits SAVE, then PRINT, and closes the document. There. Done.
She notes the angle of the sun falling through the tall window beside her desk and realizes that it's probably too late to eat lunch. Which is a shame, because she's hungry. Breakfast was, as usual, black coffee chased by a sugar-free breath mint.
Oh, well, just a few more hours until dinner.
Maybe more than a few, she amends, remembering that Ashley has an after-school playdate with a friend whose mother is keeping her for dinner and bringing the girls to their gymnastics class afterward. So Fiona doesn't have to be home until eight.
"Emily!" she calls, and swivels her leather desk chair toward the adjacent antique console. "Come here, please."
Plucking the paper from the printer, she scans it briefly, signs it with a flourish, and clips it to the prepared contract.
"Emily!" she calls again, frustrated.
The girl appears, looking flustered, in the graceful doorway that once divided the pair of formal Victorian parlors that now are the reception area and Fiona's office.
"Sorry ... I was, uh, wiping up something I spilled."
Excerpted from Don't Scream by Wendy Corsi Staub. Copyright © 2007 Wendy Corsi Staub. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR RACHEL,
PART II HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR TILDY,
PART III HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR CASSIE,
PART IV HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR FIONA,
PART V HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR BRYNN,