The Woman Who Lied
Jess Fox breaks the rules. She’s a self-published author of wildly popular erotica, writing exactly what she knows. Her frank words make rough men blush. She sleeps with any person she desires. She’s been powerless before, and she’ll do anything not to feel that way again.
Now she longs to be accepted as a legitimate author. And when she meets Rachel Hanley, an international bestselling novelist, she recognizes her meal ticket. Rachel’s tense thrillers are popular enough to support her entire hometown, but she’s recovering from a traumatic brain injury and she needs help.
Jess sees a chance for control. She becomes Rachel’s intern, caregiver, and writing partner. Both women go on a writing retreat at a remote forest cabin. Soon, one of them is dead, floating at the foot of a waterfall.
But which woman died?
And which woman lied?
If you can’t get enough of psychological thrillers by Gillian Flynn, A.J. Finn, or Ruth Ware, then step inside Jess’s mind and get ready to bargain for your life.
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CHAPTERS ONE AND TWO
* * *
The woman is dead.
She’s trapped in a pool at the foot of a waterfall. She’s a mermaid, sorrel hair spread across the surface. She’s a naiad, whispering the name of her holy spring. She’s a sorceress, drawing power from the sacred marks inscribed upon her body.
Her eyes, chestnut-brown in life, show only the narrowest rim of color. Her pupils are wide, black pits that spin down, down, down into nothingness—no awareness, no consciousness, no hint of why she’s here. The sclerae of her eyes are crimson.
Her lips are the color of glistening intestines, bleached purple in the freezing November air. A mottled chain of eggplant-colored bruises rings her neck, darker at the base of her throat, at the delicate V where her pulse once beat.
Her breasts dip beneath the surface of the water, rising and falling with the never-ending cascade that fills the pool. She wears no bra, no satin or lace to cover the erect points of her nipples. The pearl buttons on her white cotton shirt slip open and the fabric billows, covering her corpse, then drifting beneath her like a magic carpet, only to rise again.
Her right hand is wedged between two stones, bright scarlet polish scraped off her thumbnail and two of her fingers. Her left hand—five fingers still tipped with lacquer—is rigid in the pool.
She wears jeans, waterlogged denim so dark it looks black beneath the pink-brushed winter sky. Her feet are bare, as if she kicked off her shoes trying to swim to safety. Or maybe her shoes filled with water from the cascade, filled and overfilled and plunged to the bottom of the pool.
Her toes stretch toward the shoreline like tiny branches. They’re frozen, more white than gray, which makes the tattoo above her right ankle stand out like a battle standard: two marks stacked one above the other, a perfect circle above a flawless curve. A semi-colon.
She didn’t die from the tattoo. Not the tattoo, not the bare feet, not the waterlogged jeans or the scraped-off nail polish or the bare breasts. Not even from the fingers that closed around her throat, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.
She died from a blow to the side of the head, a single, sharp crash of a blunt object that shattered the shield of her skull.
The sun clears the line of pine trees around the pool, transforming the waterfall into a torrent of fire. The top of the cascade glows, framed by a gleaming oaken bridge that arches from one bank of the river to the other. Newborn ice slicks the structure, unbroken by scrabbling fingers or desperate, kicking feet.
A squirrel chatters. A cardinal darts onto a pine branch. Far away, a hawk screams bloody victory.
The woman sees nothing.
The woman hears nothing.
The woman is dead.
Eleven months earlier
* * *
Jess Fox fiddled with the pendant on her thin silver chain. She pressed against the petrified shark tooth until her thumb ached.
She’d made the decision to walk into this room. She’d chosen to sit in the plastic chair directly beneath the fluorescent light. She’d pressed her own damn knees against the back of the stackable chair in front of her.
Put up or shut up, buttercup.
This was her worst idea yet. She must be completely desperate. She would never fit in at the Novelists Union of America.
Oh, she’d taken a name tag like everybody else. She’d written her name in extra-large letters. Like all the other sheep in the room, she’d added the title of her most recent book. She’d printed carefully: Sex Slave to Three Masters.
Now she raised her plastic tumbler to her lips. She gulped instead of sipped. Chardonnay. Out of a box. Warm.
She was tilting her head to catch the last drop when the woman next to her offered a manicured hand. “Hope Sinclair,” the woman said.
Jess automatically committed details to memory. Perfume, like bourbon over vanilla ice cream. Long fingernails, painted deep crimson. Black cashmere sweater, crisp cotton blouse, black gabardine pants with a skinny narrow belt. The printing on her name tag was perfect. Her book title was Never Say Die.
Jess forced her lips around a toothy smile. She offered her own paw, complete with ragged fingernails and raw cuticles. Her grin became real when Hope Sinclair registered Jess’s book title.
One of these things is not like the other…
The Sesame Street jingle roped through Jess’s skull. The instant Hope released her hand, Jess’s fingers returned to her shark’s tooth.
“Have you belonged to NU for long?” Hope asked. She sounded like a kid whistling past a graveyard.
“I joined last week,” Jess lied.
She’d joined three years ago. After she published her first novel, Banged by the Boss. She just hadn’t attended any of the monthly meetings. There’d never been a good reason to drive all the way to Philadelphia. Until tonight.
“Well, you’re in for a treat,” Hope said. She took a neat sip of red wine, precisely matching the lipstick print on the rim of her glass. “RJ Hanley is an amazing speaker.”
“You’ve heard her before?” Jess caught the eagerness beneath her words. She clamped her teeth on her tongue. Hard. Don’t want this too much.
“Loads of times,” Hope said. She jutted her chin toward the front of the room. A trio of women gathered around the lectern. “We were writing partners, ages ago. Before she ever came up with the idea for Steele Salvation.”
Jess was supposed to be impressed. She asked, “You write thrillers too?”
Hope’s smile framed another sip of wine. A full swallow this time. More of a gulp. Like Jess’s. “Mysteries,” she said tersely.
“Are you published by Dunham?” Like RJ Hanley.
Hope’s teeth glinted white against her lips. “Moonlight Murder Press.”
Jess remembered not to snort. Moonlight Murder was a tiny publisher. No advance payments to their authors. Few chances to get print books in real stores.
Jess would gouge out her left eye before she signed a contract with Moonlight Murder. Better to keep self-publishing forever. She was in control of her own career. She could write the books she wanted to write. Tell whatever story rammed a white-hot wire through her brain.
She’d never give that up for Moonlight Murder.
But for Dunham? A New York publisher that could pay a seven-figure advance? That was worth handing over some control. For the right contract, she’d let Dunham and Sons fuck her up the ass. Bareback.
Hope’s smile had thinned. Jess realized she hadn’t responded quickly enough to the Moonlight Murder name. Hadn’t pretended to be impressed.
Hope nodded toward RJ Hanley at the front of the room. “She’s so brave,” Hope said.
“Brave?” What the hell did a New York Times bestselling author have to be brave about?
“This is the first time she’s spoken in public since the…you know.”
“No,” Jess said. “I don’t know.”
She’d read every article published about RJ Hanley in the past three years. She’d researched every business the woman owned in her hometown of West Riding, Pennsylvania. Studied her website. Memorized her social media.
Jess’s belly tightened. Those sites had been silent for the past two months. Jess had assumed RJ Hanley was busy with the holidays. With family. With her goddamn perfect life.
Hope glanced to either side, like an incompetent spy. “The traumatic brain injury,” she whispered.
Jess’s gaze jerked to the front of the room. “I— I didn’t know.”
Hope leaned close. Her blonde hair brushed Jess’s shoulder. Jess barely resisted the urge to pull away. “She fell at home, just before Thanksgiving. She hit her head on the kitchen counter. Everyone thought she was fine until two days later, when she couldn’t remember her own name. They rushed her in for emergency surgery. She had a massive subdural hematoma—like the one that killed that actress. You know. Liam Neeson’s wife.”
Jess didn’t watch movies. Enough stories played on the screen inside her own head.
“She would’ve died,” Hope confided. “But her husband realized something was wrong. Adam Hanley was a hero. He saved her life.”
Hope twisted in her chair. She raised her glass to a man lurking at the edge of the room. The motion drew the guy’s attention.
He wore a cop’s uniform, deep blue shirt tucked into black pants. His belt hung low on his waist. Radio. Gun. Handcuffs glinted in the overhead light.
Jess felt his laser gaze across the rows of plastic chairs. His jaw twitched. He swallowed. Hard.
She realized she was clutching her shark’s tooth again. She consciously ordered her fingers to let go. She raised her chin and lifted her glass, mimicking Hope’s toast.
After a moment, Adam Hanley lifted his own drink, a blood-red can of Coke. His eyebrows arched before he gave her a single nod.
Jess blushed. She dug her fingernails into her palm. She had to keep her mind in the game.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” The voice from the lectern made her jump. “We’re ready to begin.”
Jess turned away from Adam. She wasn’t here for heroes. She wasn’t here for any man.
She was here to meet RJ Hanley. She was here to take the next step in her perfectly plotted career.