Coming December 26, 2023
From the New York Times bestselling author comes a tale of dark secrets and revenge centered around an exclusive boarding school in historic Salzburg, Austria.
Rayne Taylor found unexpected happiness at St. Cecilia’s. But all that came to a tragic end when her roommate, Natalie, committed suicide…
Only when Rayne finds a box of mementoes from that time does she realize how wrong she may have been about Natalie’s death—and how far someone will go to keep the truth from surfacing…
Note: Previously published in the collection Afraid.
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Read an Excerpt
The mansion on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago wasn’t the biggest or the fanciest home in the elegant neighborhood, but it was one of the most admired. Over a hundred years old, it was built out of iconic red-bricks with a large turret and stunning views of Lake Michigan from the wide balconies on each of the three-stories.
Shelton Taylor purchased the house in the early eighties, more as an investment than as a place to raise a family. The savvy businessman never made a decision that wasn’t calculated to improve his portfolio. Still, he’d allowed his ex-wife and daughter to live there even after he’d left Chicago to expand his business in Singapore.
Parking her van next to the curb, Rayne Taylor climbed out and studied the impressive structure. This had been her childhood home, but she always felt like a stranger when she came here. Maybe because her parents had divorced when she was eight. Or because her mother had remarried a man who had no interest in children, and she’d been packed off to St. Cecilia’s School For Girls in Salzburg Austria by the time she was ten. Or because when she’d graduated from St. Cecilia’s she’d returned to the states to go to art school in New York City, and from there had spent the past ten years travelling around the country, painting the landscapes that captured her attention.
Her van was more a home to her than this sturdy structure.
With a shrug, Rayne climbed the steps to ring the bell. Several minutes passed and Rayne briefly wondered if her mother was still in bed. It was just past eight a.m. and the older woman never liked mornings. At last, there was the impatient click of stiletto heels on a marble floor and the door was yanked open to reveal a tall, painfully slender woman with bleached blond hair pulled into a smooth knot at the base of her neck and an oval face that was carefully coated with layers of cosmetics.
Tami Taylor Jefferson might be fifty-five years old, but she was rabidly determined to appear thirty no matter how much stretching, filling, and numbing she had to do to keep her skin smooth.
“Rayne.” The older woman’s green gaze narrowed as it roamed over Rayne’s black curls that tumbled carelessly down her back and the pale face with big, misty gray eyes that had never been touched with makeup.
“Hello, mother,” Rayne murmured.
“I…” Tami cleared her throat. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
Rayne held up the box that was wrapped in bright red foil. “I was passing through Chicago and I thought I would deliver my Christmas present.” She shrugged. “A couple weeks late, but better than never.”
“Oh. Thank you.” The older woman stepped back, waving her hand toward the narrow foyer. “Come in.”
Rayne stepped over the threshold and paused to set the present on a side table before removing her heavy parka and tossing it on a chair. Her mother wouldn’t bother to open the gift. And even if she did, the delicate crystal ornament that Rayne had found in a charming art shop in Mexico would be shoved into a closet. The two women couldn’t be more different.
As if to emphasize the point, Rayne glanced down at her soft, handknit sweater and faded jeans. They were a direct contrast to Tami’s designer pantsuit and silk top. A wry smile touched her lips.
“Are you hungry?” her mother asked as a middle-aged woman in a gray dress and white apron appeared from the back of the foyer.
Rayne emphatically shook her head. She never ate in front of her mother. Rayne considered herself a normal size, but Tami was obsessed with weight and over the years she’d hounded her daughter for being too ‘solid’ or too ‘stout’. Thankfully, Rayne had never paid much attention to her mother’s chiding. She’d accepted she was a disappointment to Tami by the time she’d entered pre-school to see other daughters with their mothers. They were never going to have a normal relationship.
“Tea or coffee?” Her mother continued her role as hostess.
“Not for me,” Rayne insisted. She didn’t intend to stay longer than necessary.
“That will be all for now,” Tami said to the housekeeper.
“Yes, ma’am.” The woman turned to disappear toward the back of the house.
“We’ll go into the sitting room.”
Tami didn’t wait for Rayne to agree as she headed through an arched opening into the long room that was dominated by the wall of windows that offered a view of the lake. Rayne arched her brows as she glanced around, her gaze skimming over the low white sofas and matching chairs that were arranged on a white carpet with walls painted white. Even the brick fireplace had been whitewashed. It was as if someone had come through and sucked away all the color.
“You’ve redecorated,” she muttered.
“Yes.” Tami paced toward a glass coffee table to grab her pack of cigarettes. “I used LeChez. They’re supposed to be the best in the city.”
Rayne silently translated the best to the most expensive.
A brittle smile touched Tami’s lips. “Mark says it’s a perfect backdrop for me.”
Mark Jefferson was Tami’s husband. The washed-up actor had a few minor roles in the late 80s, but his true talent was conning women into giving him money, gifts, and a bed to sleep in. He’d hit the jackpot with Tami. She’d not only been willing to share her bed, but she’d agreed to marry him so he could get his hands on the generous alimony that Rayne’s dad sent every month.
“How is he?”
“Fine.” Tami lit her cigarette, her motions jerky as if she was hiding some inner emotion. “He’s flying home from Los Angeles today.”
“Was he working?”
“Soaking up the sun. He claims that Chicago is colder than the artic during the winter.”
Rayne grimaced. She’d forgotten how bitterly cold the city could be in January. “He’s not wrong.”
Tami took a deep drag, blowing the smoke out of the corner of her mouth. There was a tension around the older woman that made Rayne wonder if all was well between her mother and her younger, overly handsome husband.
“So why are you here?” Tami abruptly demanded.
Or maybe the tension was because her daughter had landed on her doorstep, she wryly acknowledged.
“I have a show next month. I brought my paintings so the gallery can frame and mount them.”
“Ah yes.” A genuine smile touched Tami’s lips. She might not have motherly feelings for Rayne, but she was willing to take pride in the fact her daughter had become a world-famous artist. “I read the article about your exhibition in the Tribune. Do you want me to hold a reception here?”
Rayne shrugged. The reception was always the worse part of an exhibition. If it was up to her, she’d give it a miss. Unfortunately, the gallery owner insisted that she spend at least a few hours mingling with the guests.
“I think the gallery has already arranged something.”
“Of course.” The smile faded. “How long are you staying in town? I can have a room prepared.”
“Thanks, but I’m just passing through.”
An awkward silence settled between the two women. Rayne squashed a sigh. It was painfully familiar.
“If you don’t mind, I have something in the attic I’d like to get.”
Tami blinked. “The attic?”
“No one’s been up there in years. I’ll send Mary to clean—”
“There’s no need,” Rayne interrupted. “I don’t mind a little dust.”
Tami wrinkled her slender nose, but she managed to avoid glancing down at Rayne’s jeans that were clean but speckled with flecks of paint.
“What do you want up there?”
Rayne hesitated. She didn’t really want to answer. The past was something she firmly believed should be left where it belonged. Locked in a dusty attic. But over the past couple of weeks, she’d been plagued with a need she couldn’t shake. At last, she’d crawled into her van and driven from Nevada to Chicago, determined to clear her mind. She had to come to the city anyway. Two birds, one stone.
“Did you see the news about Tina Champagne?” she grudgingly asked.
“I know her daughter was involved in some scandal.” Tami clicked her tongue. “I never did approve of your connection to that family.”
Rayne didn’t point out that her only connection with the famous actress was attending school at St. Cecilia’s School For Girls along with Tina’s daughter, Lucy. Or that she hadn’t disapproved until Mark Jefferson had mentioned that he’d met Tina Champagne when he first arrived in L.A. He’d all but implied they’d been lovers, but Rayne had serious doubts the beautiful Tina had any interest in yet another pretty boy hoping to make it big in Hollywood.
“Seeing the story reminded me that I never unpacked my belongings after I returned from Austria. There are a couple things that I’d like to dig out.”
She didn’t mention that the item she wanted was a gift that Lucy had sent to her for graduation. After the terrifying events of that day, she’d completely forgotten about it. Now she was curious to see what her friend had gotten for her.
Tami shrugged. “If you don’t mind grubbing through the cobwebs then be my guest.”
Rayne headed back across the white carpet, pausing at the door to glance over her shoulder. “I’ll say goodbye before I leave.”
“Don’t bother. I have a pedicure appointment.” Tami lifted a slender arm to glance at the Rolex strapped around her wrist. “I’ll see you next month.”
Rayne hauled the last of her suitcases into the cramped dorm room. It was a sparse space with two single beds and two matching desks. There were no posters on the barren gray walls, and no television or stereo system. The only beauty to be seen was out the window where the snow-capped Alps towered over the landscape.
Rayne jumped at the sound of a voice coming from the open doorway. She whirled to study the tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl who managed to make the school uniform look as if it should be on a runway.
Natalie Scantlin. Like Raye she was fourteen years old, but that’s where the similarities ended. Natalie was the most popular girl in school. And not just because she was pretty, or smart, or because her parents were rich. It was her vivacious personality that made her the constant center of attention.
Rayne on the other hand preferred to fade into the background. From the moment she’d arrived in Austria she’d tried her best to avoid attracting attention. It was a habit she’d learned after her mother had started dating Mark Jefferson. It had been painfully obvious the man didn’t want Rayne underfoot and she’d made a conscious effort to disappear.
It hadn’t worked, of course. Two days after the wedding, Rayne had been packed up and sent off to St. Cecilia’s.
Surprisingly, Rayne was happy at the school. Although she didn’t mix easily with the other students, she loved her classes and even the nuns. Especially Sister Gemma who’d recognized Rayne’s talent in art and encouraged her to spend her free hours painting. It wasn’t until the school counselor Sister Rosa had pulled her aside two days ago that she realized that the teachers were worried about the amount of time she spent alone. They insisted that she swap rooms and move in with Natalie in the hopes the gregarious girl could pull her out of her shell.
Now she scowled at the girl who strolled into the room with a confidence that Rayne would never possess.
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “I’m not a mouse.”
“A mouse with teeth.” Natalie abruptly laughed, her blue eyes twinkling with a humor that took the sting out of her words. “Good. Let’s go.”
Rayne frowned. “Natalie—”
“Nat.” The girl interrupted. “Only my parents call me Natalie. And the nuns.” She lifted her hand to motion toward Rayne. “Come on.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the stables. Lucy said that there’s a new colt.” She touched the camera hung around her neck. It was heavy and black and looked as if it belonged to a professional. “I want to get some pictures.”
Lucy was Lucy Champagne. She was a year older than Rayne and the daughter of a famous actress, but she’d always been kind. In fact, she’d been one of the few girls to go out of her way to spend time with Rayne after she’d seen the way Mark Jefferson had treated her when her mother had come for a visit. She’d understood the trauma of unwelcomed men forcing their way into a young girl’s life.
“I have to unpack,” she informed her new roommate.
“You can do that later. The light is starting to fade.” Marching across the wood planked floor, Nat threaded her arm through Rayne’s and steered her out of the room. “Come on.”
They headed through the narrow hallway and down the stairs to leave the castle-like structure through a side entrance.
“Maybe I don’t like horses,” Rayne protested even as she was urged across the manicured lawn.
Nat angled past the looming cathedral, heading for the L shaped stables and paddocks at the edge of the property.
“What are you talking about? Everyone loves horses.”
Rayne snorted. “Are you always this bossy?”
“Yes. You’ll get used to it.”
“Doubtful,” Rayne groused, although she wasn’t as annoyed as she was trying to pretend. There was something irresistible about Natalie Scantlin. A charm that not even Rayne could ignore.
Without warning, Nat came to a halt, pulling Rayne to face her. “You’re an artist, right?”
Rayne blushed. The only thing that mattered to her was her painting. Just talking about her tentative efforts made her feel oddly vulnerable.
“I hope so.” Her blush deepened. “One day.”
“Me too. Only I use my camera not a paintbrush to create my masterpieces.”
Rayne arched her brow. Masterpieces? Nat obviously had no trouble believing in her own talents. “If you say so.”
“My point is, that my pictures would be tragically boring if I stayed in my room all day just taking pictures of the same stupid stuff over and over.”
“Painting isn’t the same as taking pictures.”
“The medium maybe different, but art is always the same.” Nat spread her arms in a dramatic gesture. “Passion. Agony. The soaring highs and brutal valleys of love.”
Rayne rolled her eyes. “And you’re going to find all that in the stables?”
“What could be more exciting than new life?”
Rayne stubbornly refused to be convinced. She didn’t want to accept that Nat’s words resonated deep inside her. Or to consider the fact that she might be using her art as a means to retreat from the world, not to explore it.
“I don’t paint animals.”
“I’ve seen what you paint.” Nat glanced toward the nearby Alps. “Mountains.”
Rayne flinched, hurt by the girl’s dismissive tone. “There’s nothing wrong with mountains.”
“No. They’re very fine mountains.” Nat grabbed her hands, giving them a squeeze. “But they only reveal your talent. If you want to be a great artist, you have to share your soul.”