Owen Foster has never wanted for anything. Then his mother shows up at his elite New Orleans boarding school cradling a bombshell: his privileged life has been funded by stolen money. After using the family business, the single largest employer in his small Louisiana town, to embezzle millions and drain the employees' retirement accounts, Owen's father vanished without a trace, leaving Owen and his mother to deal with the fallout.
Owen returns to Lake Cane to finish his senior year, where people he hardly remembers despise him for his father's crimes. It's bad enough dealing with muttered insults and glares, but when Owen and his mother receive increasingly frightening threats from someone out for revenge, he knows he must get to the bottom of what really happened at Louisiana Frac...and the cryptic note his father sent him at his boarding school days before disappearing.
Owen's only refuge is the sprawling, isolated pecan orchard he works at after school, owned by a man named Gus who has his own secrets--and in some ways seems to know Owen better than he knows himself. As Owen uncovers a terrible injustice that looms over the same Preacher Woods he's claimed as his own, he must face a shocking truth about his past--and write a better future.
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About the Author
Ashley Elston is the author of several novels including: The Rules for Disappearing (a finalist in the Best Young Adult Novel category of the International Thriller Writers Thriller Awards) and This Is Our Story. She has a liberal arts degree from Louisiana State University in Shreveport and worked for many years as a wedding photographer before turning her hand to writing. Ashley lives in Shreveport with her husband and three sons. For more information about Ashley and her books, please visit www.ashleyelston.com.
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I wake to a Post-it note stuck to my forehead. Yanking it off, it takes a few seconds before I'm alert enough to focus on the words.
Payback's a bitch
Lunging out of the bed, my legs get twisted up in my blanket and I end up on the floor. Face-first.
What did he do?
In the never-ending prank war with Jack Cooper, I struck last when I replaced the photograph he took for Fine Art Appreciation with one from last month's Playboy. Mr. Wheeler gave him five Penance Halls and I've been looking over my shoulder ever since.
Jack's side of the room is empty. The drapes are pulled back and his bed is made but his MacBook is gone as well as his lacrosse gear.
What did he do?
Crossing the room, I stand on the chair against the wall and lean forward so I can open the door without being in front of it. The residence building is the newest on the grounds, but it's still old by most standards. The heavy wooden door looks like it could withstand any assault, but all you need is a wire coat hanger and the antique lock springs open. Every night, we wedge this chair under the handle so we can sleep without fear of what the other guys will do to us, but it won't protect me from Jack, who sleeps five feet away.
I push the door open but nothing swings down and hits me ... no water comes pouring in ... nothing.
No way I'm going to the showers; that's what he expects me to do. I throw on my uniform, do a quick search through my backpack to make sure he didn't stick anything in there, and then head toward the main building, grabbing my phone on the way out. I overslept so no time for breakfast. But that's okay. Maybe he was planning on getting me back there.
I find my friends just as I'm heading into Hunter Hall, but Jack isn't with them.
"What's up, O?" Ray asks, while he finishes off a croissant. Ray is a giant guy who's a genius on the lacrosse field but also made baking cool here at Sutton's, and most mornings his creations are the first to go. The way he feels about breakfast pastries is what he's most known for. Well, that and the ever-changing designs cut into the fade of his black hair. Right now it's a wave pattern in support of Tulane and the upcoming football game against Southern Mississippi. He even dyed the tips of his twists green. "What's on your face?" he asks.
My hand flies to my cheek. I didn't look in a mirror — did Jack draw something on me? A dick or a set of boobs? Turning, I catch my reflection in the glass case that holds all the athletic and academic trophies our school has won.
It's only a smear of toothpaste.
I rub my cheek until it feels raw. "Have y'all seen Jack?" I ask.
They all start mumbling as they look around and are surprised he's not with the group.
"He was just here," Sai adds.
Shit, this is going to be bad.
First hour is Trig on the second floor of the main building. I only have a few classes with Jack and this isn't one of them, so I'm going to have to wait him out and pray it's nothing too humiliating.
My first thought when I see the headmaster motion for me to join him in the hall a few minutes after class starts is ... this is it.
"Owen Foster, a word, please."
I take a deep breath and prepare myself for the worst. I'm halfway across the room when he holds up a hand, stopping me. "You may want to grab your things."
It's bad if I'm not coming back to class. I'm going to kill Jack.
I pass my friends on the way back to my desk and try to ignore their quiet jabs.
"Porn or pot?" Ray asks.
Sai leans back. "Or maybe they know you had that girl in your room the other night ... what was her name?"
With my back to my teacher and the headmaster, I flip them off and whisper, "Tell Jack I'm going to kick his ass."
The walk down the main hallway to Dr. Winston's office is quiet except for the soft echo from our shoes when we hit the small sections of polished dark wood floors that peek between the islands of thick rugs. This building that houses the classrooms looks more like the interior of someone's home than a high school, and it was the main selling point for my parents when they dropped me off here at the beginning of middle school.
My mind runs through all of the things Jack could have done to get me back while I follow Dr. Winston into his office. But of all the things I'm prepared for, seeing my mother is not one of them.
I quickly scan the room for my dad, but it's empty except for her.
Jack's dead if he set me up for something so bad they called my parents. Dr. Winston motions for me to have a seat next to Mom in one of the empty chairs in front of his desk, but I can't move.
One look at Mom stops me cold. We both have the same out of control curly brown hair; normally hers is pulled back and tamed, but today it looks as wild as mine does. Her skin is pale even though we also share the perpetually tanned look and the dark circles under her eyes are new. And even though she's always been petite, it looks like she's lost weight. It's only been a few weeks during since I've seen her, but she looks rough.
This isn't about something Jack did.
"What's wrong?" I ask still rooted in my spot just inside the office.
Is something wrong with Dad? Why is she here alone on a Tuesday morning looking like she's about to fall apart?
Dr. Winston puts a hand on my shoulder, nudging me toward the empty chair. I shake him off. "Just tell me. I can see it's bad. What is it?"
Mom sits up straighter and squares her shoulders as if she needs to physically prepare for this conversation. "Owen, please sit down."
I drop down in the seat hoping the second I do she'll spill it.
"What is wrong?" I ask, spitting out each word.
"This is about your dad," Mom starts but I interrupt her.
"Is he dead? Sick?" I hate this. I hate the sadness radiating off her. I hate how Dr. Winston won't look me in the eye. "Just say it. I can't stand this."
"He's not dead or sick," Dr. Winston answers. "But it is serious."
Mom takes a deep breath and then slowly exhales, stalling for every second.
"Your dad ... has done something terrible. I got wind of it several weeks ago but just recently found out how bad it is. And he left. He left us to deal with what he's done."
My mind races. "What did he do?"
Mom gnaws on her bottom lip, not answering me or looking at me anymore. Seconds tick by and still nothing from her.
"What did he do?" I ask again.
"It's complicated. Very complicated. I don't even know where to start...." Mom looks at Dr. Winston, her eyes pleading for help. Mom is always rock-solid, so it freaks me out to see her struggling with whatever it is she's trying to tell me.
"Owen, let me see if I can help your mother explain." Dr. Winston perches on the edge of his desk, arms crossed over his chest. He looks at Mom and asks quietly, "May I?"
She nods then stares at him, emotionless.
Yeah. This is bad.
But instead of telling me what's going on, he asks me a question. "What do you know about your father's company?"
I lean back in my chair, frustrated. This is a stupid question. "They frack wells for oil and gas drilling."
"And business has been good over the last ten years," he adds. There's something about his tone that doesn't sit right. It makes me feel defensive although I have no idea where this is going.
"Yeah, you could say that," I answer.
Dad's business, Louisiana Frac, has done well over the last several years. A new natural gas shale was discovered and that discovery changed everything. Changed our town, changed the people in it. Changed Dad's company.
"You understand that stock options were offered to employees in exchange for the cash your dad needed so he could buy more equipment and hire more people?" Dr. Winston moves around his desk and sits in his chair, steepling his fingers in front of him.
I'm nodding along, trying to anticipate where he's going, but it's like my mind is stuck and I can't think past his next word.
Louisiana Frac went from being a small business to one of the biggest employers of our town. The men and women who have worked there for years, who worked there under my grandfather, now own a small part of the company. Everyone knows this. It's what brought our town back to life.
Mom won't look at me. She won't join the conversation. And I can't help but feel irritated that Dr. Winston is drawing this out.
"I know all of this. I just need you to tell me what Dad did," I say.
Dr. Winston's hands drop to his lap and he sits up a little straighter. "I'm trying to put this in context so you understand just how badly your father devastated your town. There are over two hundred people employed by Louisiana Frac ... who own stock with Louisiana Frac."
Devastated my town? I'm out of the chair and pacing in a tight circle in front of his desk, silently begging for him to get to the point.
Dr. Winston rubs a hand across his mouth. "But your father has deceived the employees who worked so hard and invested so much to help build that company."
I'm shaking my head.
"Even though the company was making more money than it ever had, your father didn't manage it well. Not at all. In fact, it's more than that. There are accusations of embezzlement, hiding debt, nonpayment to suppliers, and environmental complaints."
I stop in front of his desk and say, "I don't believe my dad would do that."
Dr. Winston tilts his head to the side. "Well, there are several government agencies that believe he did. Your dad has disappeared and so has all of the money — the money from the bank accounts, the money from the employees' pensions, every last cent. It's estimated your dad ran off with millions. And not only have the employees lost their retirement money and are out of a job, they're also left holding stock in a company that is completely worthless. As of right now, Louisiana Frac is closed for business."
I wait for the rest of it. The part where all of this makes sense. "You're telling me that millions of dollars are gone and no one knows where it is and you think my dad did something wrong."
Dr. Winston leans forward in his chair and looks at me like I'm stupid. Or deaf. "Have you not been paying attention to what I've been saying?"
"Someone does know where it is," Mom says in a quiet voice, finally joining the conversation. "Your father. But he's gone, too."
"There has to be a mistake."
Her eyes find mine. "There's no mistake. I promise you, Owen, it's bad. It's worse than bad."
No. This is wrong. They have it wrong. "Maybe it was someone else. Maybe he was set up," I say.
"The authorities do believe there was someone else involved. No one believes he pulled this off without help, but they don't know who was helping him," Dr. Winston says, then throws a glance at Mom.
And Mom flinches like his comment actually hit her.
I can't hear this. I can't listen to this anymore. I have to get out of here. "Okay. Okay. Well, I'll go back to class now."
Mom puts her hand out, stopping me. A sliver of her usual confidence slipping into place. Something I haven't seen since I walked into the room. "I don't think you understand. You can't stay here."
Shaking my head, I say, "Of course I can. I haven't done anything wrong. Whatever is going on with him ... is on him. Not me." If I can't stay here, I have to go home. No ... not home. I'll have to go back to Lake Cane. But that isn't my home anymore. This school is. Sutton's has been my home since I was eleven years old.
I can't leave.
She stands and moves toward me but every step forward, I take one away from her. I can't look at her.
"You have to come home. There's no money for your tuition. There's no money for anything. Everything we had has been seized."
"No. This isn't right. There has to be some mistake." I take a step back and let out an unexpected laugh. "Did Jack do this? Oh, man. I've got to hand it to him. This is beyond any prank we've ever pulled. That has to be what this is."
Mom shakes her head slowly, back and forth. "This is no prank. And Jack has nothing to do with this. This is real. The things your father has done are real."
I want nothing more than to scream at her to stop lying. Dad wouldn't do this.
Turning to Dr. Winston, I say, "You have to let me stay. Surely, we've given you enough money over the years that you can let me stay."
Dr. Winston gives this bullshit expression like he feels bad for me. "It's not that simple, Owen."
"You can't stay here," Mom interrupts. "Your father used other people's money to send you to this school. And he used it to pay for all of the vacations and our home and our cars and jewelry. Everything we have was stolen from someone else. You can't stay here. I won't let you."
There's a knock on the door just before it opens. An older man pops his head inside and says, "Everything is loaded so I'm ready when you are."
Mom nods and thanks him just before he shuts the door.
"Who was that?" I ask. "And what does he mean 'Everything is loaded'?"
"Dr. Winston? Can you give us a minute, please?" she asks. Dr. Winston nods, then leaves us alone in his office. She drops back down in the seat I just vacated. "That was Detective Hill. He's handling your dad's case. I don't think you understand how bad this is. Your father has disappeared but there are many people looking for him, including the local police, FBI, EPA, and IRS. And they are looking at me, wondering if I knew what he was doing since I worked there with him. They think I was in on it or I know where he is...."
I lean against the wall, trying to absorb what she's saying.
"Detective Hill is along to make sure I come back. And to make sure your dad wasn't planning on meeting us here," she finishes quietly, then stands up and seems to be all business now. "They've already packed your room and apparently everything is loaded in the car. News of what he did is going public today. I thought it would be best for you to leave school before that happens so you wouldn't have to suffer any embarrassment in front of your friends."
"Just because I'm not here doesn't mean this won't be embarrassing."
Her hand rests on my shoulder. "This is going to be horrible for us both, but we have to remember, we didn't do anything wrong."
"I can't believe this is happening. Why did he do this?" I ask.
"I wish I knew. I'd like to think the first thing I do is ask him that but I'm afraid I would probably punch him instead."
She laughs quietly but it doesn't seem real. Nothing seems real.
"Do you know where he is? Have you talked to him?" Shaking her head, she says, "No."
"When did he disappear?" I still don't believe he left willingly. There has to be an explanation for this. Something that makes this make sense.
"A couple of weeks ago," she whispers.
I push my chair, almost flipping it all the way over. "And you're just now telling me? You didn't think I should know about this sooner?"
"I didn't know what to do!" she yells. "I still don't. And I was hoping he would show up with some sort of explanation. I was hoping you would never have to find out what a coward and crook he is!"
Dr. Winston's head appears in the small window on his door. As much as I hate her screaming at me it's better than her blank expression earlier. She gives him a small wave, letting him know it's fine, but we're anything but fine.
"Owen, your dad was really stressed out but he wouldn't talk about it. He wouldn't talk to me no matter how many times I asked him what was wrong. The last time I saw him he was working late at the office. I haven't seen or heard from him since."
I nod but don't ask anything else.
Her eyes flash to the door again. "It's time to go."
"Give me a minute, please."
Mom nods and leaves the office but I don't move. While my mind races through everything she just told me, my hand slides into the front pocket of my backpack and pulls out a folded piece of paper I received in yesterday's mail on Dad's letterhead:
Hope things are going well at school. Just checking in on you. Thanksgiving break is coming up so you'll be home soon. Found a new place right outside of town called Frank's. Best burger around. They run a special on Wednesday nights. Maybe when you're in town during your break, we can check it out. It would be a great place to have dinner with your dad.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lying Woods"
Copyright © 2018 Ashley Elston.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
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