The Stepchild

The Stepchild

by Joanne Fluke

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Haunted by her dreams . . .
Kathi Ellison is an English literature major at the University of California in Berkeley, living with her boyfriend off-campus. She is also the daughter of a candidate for the U.S. Senate and his wife, a role that could affect her life should her father win the election.   
But before she can consider her future, Kathi must first come to terms with her past. A car accident when she was four-years-old killed her mother and left her in a coma for several days. The migraines and nightmares that plagued her as a child have recently returned with a vengeance, leaving her mind full of visions that feel more like memories.
Memories that are not her own. Memories of a frightened and traumatized child named Sheri Walker. Memories linked to her mother’s death that her stepmother doesn’t want her to remember . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780758289834
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 07/25/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 148,815
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

JOANNE FLUKE is the New York Times bestselling author of the Hannah Swensen mysteries, which include Banana Cream Pie Murder, Wedding Cake Murder, Double Fudge Brownie Murder, and the book that started it all, Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. That first installment in the series premiered as Murder, She Baked:  A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel. Like Hannah Swensen, Joanne Fluke was born and raised in a small town in rural Minnesota, but now lives in Southern California. Please visit her online at

Read an Excerpt


Kathi Ellison shivered a little as she pushed the shopping cart into the meat section and examined the steaks. It was always so cold in this part of the store, and her feet were wet from the rain. Usually David went shopping with her, but she hadn't asked him today because she wanted to pick out something very special for dinner tonight. It was their first anniversary. She had moved in with David Carter exactly a month ago, and tonight they were going to celebrate.

The tall, blond coed made a wry face as she mentally added up the price of the items in her shopping cart: fresh mushrooms, broccoli, a loaf of San Francisco's renowned sourdough bread, and two steaks. Even though Vivian and her father were always cautioning her to eat right, Kathi was sure they wouldn't approve of the way her allowance was being spent this month. And they would certainly disapprove if they knew what occasion was going to be celebrated in Kathi and David's small, off-campus apartment. The Ellisons had no idea that their daughter was living with David, and Kathi wasn't about to tell them now. It wouldn't be right to make her father worry when the senatorial election was less than a month away. No one would find out that Doug Ellison's daughter was living in sin. She was still listed in the college register as being a resident of the girls' dorm, and her former roommate collected all of Kathi's mail and messages. Kathi knew that she'd eventually have to tell her parents — but after the election, not before.

Carrying her purchases in a large sack, Kathi skipped over puddles as she hurried back to the apartment. She wanted to beat David home today and have their anniversary dinner ready to eat by the time he came home from the library. She hadn't even mentioned the fact that it was their anniversary. David would be surprised. She hurried a little faster as she thought of how pleased he would be.

Even though Kathi's yellow rain slicker covered her long legs, and her hair was tucked carefully under the matching rain hat, she was still soaked by the time she got to the apartment building. The lobby door shut behind her, and Kathi fumbled in her purse for her keys, wiping her feet carefully on the welcome mat outside the apartment door. She didn't want to track up her freshly cleaned floor, which she'd done an excellent job of waxing, even though she wasn't used to housework. Even Sally, the Ellisons' maid, would have to admit that Kathi was turning into a good housekeeper.

Kathi had just located her key when the door swung inward, and strong arms pulled her into the apartment.

"Oh, David!" Kathi gasped. "You scared me. I didn't think you'd be home for at least another hour."

"I got through a little early," David explained, taking the bag from her and setting it on the table. "Hey, you're soaked to the skin. Let me help you out of those wet things."

Kathi gave a pleased giggle as David helped her out of her raincoat, and then proceeded to tug off her college sweatshirt as well.

"That's not wet!" she protested. "What are you doing?"

"My mother always said to take a hot shower after you've been out in a cold rain," David advised, trying to look solemn. "I just got home a few minutes ago myself, and I haven't had time to take mine. We could save on water if we took a shower together."

"Always practical, aren't you?" Kathi teased, ducking under David's arm and running toward the bathroom. She didn't have to look to know that David was following her. As far as Kathi was concerned, the shower was a perfect place to start celebrating their anniversary.

"Oh, David! We're going to drown!" Kathi laughed and gasped at the same time. Their wet bodies were slipping together under the heated spray, and she gave another shriek as David fondled her playfully. "You're a sex maniac, that's what you are! Nothing but a —"

Her protest unfinished, David's strong arms were lifting her, carrying her dripping wet from the bathroom to a towel spread out on the bed. So he had planned it! The towel was ready and waiting for them on their big double bed.

As David's body covered hers, there was a singing in her veins, and the breath escaped from her lungs in an explosion of soft, loving sounds. His hands touched her moist skin, and a burst of heat shimmered through her body.

"How's this?" David asked, his voice husky as his head lowered and his lips found the secret places to kiss. "And this? And then this?"

"Yes —" Kathi heard her own voice joining his as he caressed her. She raised her arms and put them around his neck, pulling him down to her. "Now, David ... please," she whispered.

He raised up, spreading her legs gently. Filled with an aching tenderness for her, he leaned forward again, kissing with lips that trembled.

"I love you, Kathi. ... I love you."

She could feel it start to happen. Her body seemed to melt, and her heart was pounding in her throat — or was it his heart? Their lips were open, their mouths joined, breathing in the same air, together so tightly that they seemed to be one person. Then they were moving together, pulling back and joining again, over and over. Her hands were grasping him now, pulling him deeper, deeper, deeper, until the sweetness began to seep into her, and at last they fell back onto the pillows, exhausted, still holding hands.

A long time later, Kathi heard the rattle of drops against the windowpane, and she gave a fleeting thought to the sodden bag of groceries sitting on the table. It was early, still plenty of time for their celebration later, or had this been the real celebration? She smiled and snuggled closer, drifting off to sleep entwined in his arms as she listened to the rustle of the branches outside, and felt the warmth of his body protecting her.

It seemed as if she had always felt the pain, throbbing and stabbing behind her closed eyelids. She opened her eyes tentatively, and then winced as the dim, dusky light coming in through the window told her it was long past time to start dinner. David was still sleeping, and she rose from the bed, hoping not to wake him until she could take some aspirin and get rid of her pounding headache. It felt like a migraine. Vivian had described them often enough for Kathi to recognize the symptoms.

"Hot water," Vivian had claimed. "Always take aspirins with hot water. They work faster that way."

But the sound of the water rushing from the tap seemed to be roaring in Kathi's ears. This was no ordinary headache; it was a bone-crushing, blinding, stabbing pain that made her want to scream in agony. Strange images were running through her mind, and for a moment she wondered if she were still asleep and dreaming. The visions were blurred, but she could see them clearly enough to realize that she didn't know the faces.

A short, plump woman with curly gray hair was standing at an old-fashioned stove, stirring something. Then he was home, her uncle, lifting her up and hugging her tightly. He set her down in a rocking chair, and she realized she was not alone in the big chair. Her little baby brother was with her, swinging sneakered feet that didn't even touch the floor.

Kathi whimpered and held her head tightly between her palms, one hand over each temple as if she could imprison the images with her fingers. What in the world —? She didn't have a baby brother, or an uncle, or an aunt. She must still be dreaming. If only the headache would stop, she could shake her head and make the confusing images disappear.

With shaking fingers, Kathi snapped on the kitchen light. There ... that was better. She was beginning to really wake up now, and her headache was going away. Her head was clearing, and the faces fading, until she saw only the red Rubbermaid dish drainer and the dishes she had left from breakfast. There was a lingering feeling of uneasiness that made her turn and look quickly behind her, but, of course, there was nothing there. She must remember not to get up so suddenly again. There was something very frightening about the half-awake, half-asleep state she had experienced.

"You've been studying too hard," Kathi chided herself aloud. "David's going to write his master's thesis about you if you flip out on him!"

She laughed as she dumped the mushrooms into the sink and began cleaning them. David probably wouldn't mind at all if she went crazy and volunteered to be the subject of his thesis. Then he wouldn't have to run all the way out to the state hospital to interview patients. And she wouldn't have to pay for expensive psychotherapy either. She had her own handsome shrink right in the apartment.

"No way!" Kathi sighed, laughing at herself. She wasn't flipping out, and she wouldn't be the subject for David's thesis. He was always bugging her to tell him her dreams. She really would have cooperated but she couldn't remember them. Of course, she remembered this one, but for some reason Kathi didn't think she'd mention it. She couldn't really think of a good reason for not telling David, but some things were better off forgotten, and Kathi had the distinct feeling that her experience today fell into that category.


Kathi let the book slip down to her lap, no longer seeing the words printed on the page. There was something wrong, and she knew it. She had never been this preoccupied and absentminded before. Just last week, when she had got the first headache on their anniversary, she had joked about it, but now it was no longer a joking matter. The headaches were coming more frequently, and aspirins didn't seem to help. They were strange headaches, coming on suddenly and disappearing abruptly, leaving her disoriented and shaking. There was definitely something wrong, and she had to figure out what to do about it.

With an impatient sigh, Kathi slipped off her reading glasses and closed the book. She simply couldn't study anymore tonight. The best thing to do was to get a good night's sleep and hope she didn't have any more bad dreams. That was probably the source of her whole problem — not enough sleep and too much worrying about her upcoming exams.

A smile turned up the corners of Kathi's full lips as she turned and looked at him. David was asleep, lying there with his hair tousled like a small boy. A wave of tenderness rushed through her, and she reached out to brush his hair back from his forehead. At times like this, she felt almost maternal toward David.

"Hm?" David questioned, sitting up with a jerk. For the space of a second, he looked angry, ready to attack whatever threatened his peaceful sleep. Then recognition came, and with it, an apologetic smile.

"Hey," David mumbled, grinning. "You scared me, honey. Don't tell me you're finally through studying?"

Kathi nodded, almost wishing that she had let him sleep now, but she had promised to wake him when she was through. She reached up to flick off the light, and before her hand had lowered again, David was reaching for her, his body sleepy-warm. Kathi felt a knot of fear in her stomach.

She shook her long, honey-colored hair and made a deliberate effort to force the invading chill from her mind. "And just what is it that you think you want?" she asked, trying to make her voice light and teasing. The frightened look in her eyes belied her light voice, but the room was too dark for David to see that.

"You know what I want." David's voice was deep and husky. He was fully awake now, and he felt her body shiver against his.

For one fleeting second, Kathi thought of resisting. Over the past few days, when David reached for her, she had felt a growing fear. The fear was almost worse than the headaches because it was so unfounded. There was no reason to be afraid of David. She loved him!

Kathi knew that she could have pulled back, and David wouldn't have pressed her, but it wasn't her nature to deny a need from the man she loved. She pushed back the fear, and met his warm lips with her own. It was going to be fine this time, just like it had been before the headaches started. Nothing bad was going to happen.

"Mmmmmmm." She sighed, kissing him a little harder. This was better. The panic was firmly pushed aside now, and she knew she'd been studying too hard, worrying about her midterms. It was Sunday night, the fifteenth of October, and by Wednesday her midterms would be over. Then she had until the thirtieth, when classes resumed, to relax and vacation. But how could she relax when the election was only a little over three weeks away? Kathi knew how important the election was to her father. Being a United States senator had always been Doug Ellison's dream.

Kathi could feel the tension build in her slender body as she thought of all the things that could happen to keep her father from winning. How could she think of the election at a time like this, when David was kissing her and stroking her? Somehow her doubts and fears were all tied up with the coming election, and David, and what would happen if the voters found out that she was living with David without being married. Was that what was making her anxious and tense? But she couldn't think about that now. She had to think of David and forget about everything else, and maybe then everything would be all right.

The night sounds were heavy in Kathi's ears, but soon the swooshing of the cars on the street outside was erased by the sound of her own quickened breathing. David's lips were on her breasts, warm and familiar, teasing her nipples until they felt as if they'd burst with heat. There was a pounding in her head, and it drove out all thoughts. His hands were sliding down her body, touching her, making her gasp with awakening desire. Then he was over her, and in her, pushing her back and forth in the familiar rocking motion that reminded her of something else ... something not quite as pleasant that hovered on the fuzzy edge of her awareness.

She moved more quickly, stepping up the rhythm as she tried to concentrate on David. But suddenly, she was cold. Her passion evaporated in a chill wind, leaving her caught in the middle of something she could not finish. The warm, wonderful embrace of David's arms was like a vise now, holding her down, making her feel as if she were smothering under his heavy weight. And that awful rocking rhythm went on and on, until she wanted to strike out at him and scream in terror.

Still, Kathi forced herself to pretend. She opened her eyes, made out David's face in the dim light from the street, and smiled, a tightening of her facial muscles that felt false. Her hips moved automatically, accepting the lie, denying the fact that something was keeping her from being his completely. Why was this happening?

It seemed as if it would never end, the jiggling, bouncing motion. Even though there was a pleasant smile on her face, her teeth ground together in anguish. The barrier was still there, the fear that remained nameless. And there was nothing she could do about it. She hated him for bringing her to this sharply honed edge of fright, and she loved him desperately at the same time. It was getting worse, more terrifying by the minute.

The dream started slowly, with a feeling of foreboding that invaded Kathi's exhausted sleep. It was a feeling of something she had lost or forgotten, surfacing in the dark, heavy curtains of her slumber. At first, it was not terrifying, just a vague uneasiness that made her roll over and snuggle a little closer to David's warm back. But that only seemed to make the uneasy feeling grow, as if he were part of the nightmare. With a sharp indrawn breath, she rolled back to the far corner of the bed, huddling on the edge of the mattress with her legs and arms curled inward for protection.

Now there was a heavy sound, gathering in momentum like a harsh panting. Louder and louder it grew, until Kathi felt her body tremble, and she hugged herself into a ball, tighter and tighter, to keep it away.

"It's gonna be fine, Miss Kathi ... see? There's nothing gonna get my baby. Sally's gonna chase all those bad dreams away if I sit right here. Now you go back to sleep, lamb, and I'll watch over you."

But Sally was gone, and she knew it. Sally wasn't here; there was only David in the big, comfortable double bed. Only David to ward off the nightmares, but his presence seemed to invite the terror.

The dread crept over her in numbing, icy waves. She tried to open her eyes and stop the dream, halting it before it went too far. If she could just open her eyes, she would see the mahogany dresser at the foot of the bed, her doll collection sitting there, real and tangible. Of course it was only a dream ...


Excerpted from "The Stepchild"
by .
Copyright © 1980 Joanne Fluke.
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.
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