Get an exclusive first look at Emily Paige Skeen's newest novel as it's being written!

Do you love reading Christian Fiction books full of suspense, mystery, excitement, a little romance, and a splash of southern charm? Then enjoy this sneak peek into the first chapter of Skeen's latest novel - before it's even finished.

*DISCLAIMER: This novel is a work-in-progress draft that has not yet been professionally edited or formatted for publication. Please be aware that there may be small errors or typos even though each chapter goes through rigorous edits before being sent to subscribers. Also note that the final, published version of this novel may have minor plot or character changes. 

Free Mystery/Suspense Novel

CHAPTER ONE

October 15, 2016

“You swore on your Mama’s grave you quit seeing her, Jackson.” Annabelle Montgomery glared at her cheating husband, knots forming in her stomach. The thought of him being with his former mistress again ripped a brand-new hole in her barely healed heart. “I can’t believe after everything we’ve been through...”

Jackson readjusted his hunting vest and ran a hand through his short, wavy blonde hair. “For the millionth time, I haven’t seen Melanie since before you and I started marriage counseling.”

“Then where were you till two o’clock this mornin’?” she spat, her blood boiling. How dare he lie to her face! Did he really think she was that naive?

Jackson’s voice rose a notch as he grabbed his rifle from the gun cabinet. “I already told you. Besides, I shouldn’t have to explain myself to you. I’m a grown man, for God’s sake!”

“Lower your voice before you wake Sophie up.” She glanced toward the stairs to make sure their five-year-old daughter hadn’t overheard. Once certain all was well on the second floor of their newly renovated farmhouse, she took a step toward the man who’d betrayed her one too many times. “You honestly expect me to believe you were still over at Randy’s at that time of night? And that you couldn’t somehow find a way to call?” she hissed, her Southern drawl getting more pronounced with each word, the way it always did when she was angry.

Jackson and his former coworker Randy had become friends during their time together at Springly & Associates, a wildly successful Buckhead-based corporate law firm. The two still got together occasionally, but Annabelle knew Randy’s uptight wife, Julie, pretty well. She certainly would’ve had an issue with her husband’s company lingering so late. Besides that, it was a two-hour drive, and Jackson normally called home as soon as he left so Annabelle would know when to expect him.

Just then, her husband’s lean, six-foot-tall figure stalked passed her. He flung open the front door. “I don’t have time for this. Randy'll be here any minute.”

“Don’t you dare walk away from me!” Annabelle followed him onto the wraparound porch, the wood planks cold on her bare feet as the screen door slammed shut behind her. She pulled her cashmere robe tighter to block the chilly, early morning wind that ruffled her hair. “Where’re you going?”

“Where do you think?”

“Are you kiddin’ me? You can’t go hunting now!”

His expression stone-cold, Jackson spun toward her at the bottom of the porch steps. “And why not?”

She gaped at him. “Because, Jackson, you promised our daughter we’d take her to the zoo today.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Growing more furious by the minute, she clenched her fists so tightly that her nails dug into her skin. This was not the same man she’d married eight years ago. What happened to him?

What happened to us?

“Yes, you did. Yesterday,” she accused. “Guess you don’t care about hurtin’ her, either.”

“I guess not.” His words dripped with disdain. He then turned his back on her and strode to his shiny, jacked-up truck. Even though he hunted on their property surrounding the farm, he always drove down the road about a quarter-mile and parked at the entrance to a trail in the woods some other hunters before him had made. Annabelle never understood why he did that instead of just walking straight into the woods from the house.

Jackson slung the rifle and backpack he’d been holding into the back of the truck before opening the driver’s-side door. As he slid onto his seat, Annabelle flew down the porch steps to the truck, grabbing the door before he could close it. “What’re you doin’? You’re actually leaving?”

“I’m going hunting. Just like I planned.”

“You are not gonna make me go in that house and break your little girl’s heart. Get out of this truck right now and go talk to her!”

Jackson flinched, and Annabelle knew she’d hit a nerve. No matter what was going on between the two of them, he loved his daughter something fierce.

But he only hesitated a moment. “She’s five—she’ll get over it,” he muttered. “I can’t deal with this right now.”

“You are a selfish, cold-hearted jerk,” Annabelle sputtered. On the verge of tears, she dropped her arms and took a few steps back. “Just leave, then!”

“Fine!” he yelled, slamming the truck door.

Annabelle watched, rage and despair simultaneously filling her chest, as his tires squealed and he peeled out of the driveway.

Back in the house, she collapsed onto the sofa and dropped her head in her hands. Her world was shattered—again. Shaky breaths escaped her lungs and turned into sobs. She allowed herself to succumb to the sadness for a while, drowning in the sting of betrayal.

Where had they gone wrong? When she and Jackson met in college ten years ago, they fell in love almost instantly. Their romance had been picture-perfect, the envy of all their friends. The first few years of their marriage were pure bliss.

Until Jackson met Melanie.

The young intern at Jackson’s corporate law office was stereotypically pretty: long blonde hair, huge breasts, slim waist, perfectly made-up skin, manicured nails. The very picture of lust. From the first moment Annabelle laid eyes on her at the company Christmas party two years ago, she knew the woman was trouble. Wearing a body-hugging red dress cut dangerously low in the front, Melanie had shamelessly flirted with all the men—right in front of their wives.

Annabelle had thought moving to her hometown and running the farm she and Jackson purchased together would put a stop to her husband’s infatuation with Melanie. Apparently, she was wrong.

The coffee maker gurgled, signaling the start of the automatic brew Annabelle had set up the previous night. That meant it was seven o’clock. Sophie’d be up soon. Annabelle wiped her tears, took a deep breath, and prepared to face the day. Devastated or not, she was a mother with responsibilities.

But before she could tackle those responsibilities, she needed a heap of encouragement. Annabelle pushed herself off the couch and retrieved her cell phone from the kitchen counter. Then she sat at the breakfast table and scrolled through her recent calls until she found the number of the one person she knew she could count on.

“It’s really early, Annie,” her best friend whined. Maggie was one of the few people who ever called Annabelle by the childhood nickname anymore. And only because they’d been inseparable since they were both knee-high to a grasshopper.

Ignoring Maggie’s complaint, Annabelle cut straight to the chase. “I think Jackson’s seeing Melanie again.”

“What!”

Annabelle drew in a deep breath and exhaled, urging herself not to cry. “He didn’t come home till two this morning. He says he was over at Randy’s, but I doubt Randy’s wife would’ve been okay with that.”

“Well, maybe he was... I mean, it’s possible, right?”

“Is that what you really think?” Annabelle asked, and then she heard a sigh on the other end of the line.

“No,” Maggie replied. “I’m so sorry, Annie. What can I do? Want me to come over? Or I can watch Sophie if you need some alone time.”

Squeezing her eyes shut, Annabelle swallowed the lump forming in her throat. “It’s okay, Maggs. I’m fine. Just dreadin’ telling Sophie Daddy’s not coming to the zoo with us today. He left to go hunting when I confronted him a minute ago. Even though he’s the one who promised her a trip to the zoo.”

“So he just took off and left you to give her the news? That no good, lyin’...” Maggie’s anger surged through the phone as she spouted all kinds of harsh names for Jackson. Finally, she asked, “Are you planning on taking her alone? I could come with you.”

Annabelle groaned. The thought of driving two hours to the zoo and then fighting the crowds just so Sophie could sneak a peek at a few animals made her stomach churn. “Honestly, I’m not really up for the zoo right now. But what am I supposed to tell her?”

Silence reigned for a moment, the coffee maker the only noise cutting through the painful stillness in her house. Just as Annabelle was about to say her goodbyes, Maggie piped up.

“Why don’t y’all come over here for the day? It’ll get you out of the house and give Sophie something to look forward to. We could do manicures, drink hot chocolate, watch movies...”

“That sounds perfect, but I don’t wanna put you out...”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I love hangin’ out with you and Soph!”

Annabelle blinked back tears. “Thanks, Maggie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Pssh, it’s what besties are for, right? You’d do the same for me. So I’ll see you in a little while?”

“Yeah, just give me about an hour to get dressed and head over there.”

“Okay. See ya soon.”

“Bye.” Annabelle set her phone on the table and rubbed her temples. The sound of little footsteps pitter-pattering down the stairs rendered her breathless. She stood and braced herself for the inevitable tears.

Sophie bounded into the kitchen with wide eyes and a huge grin. “Mama, Mama! Look what I picked out to wear to the zoo!”

Annabelle mustered a smile for her daughter. “It looks great, sweetie. But I have some bad news.” She took Sophie’s hands in hers and squatted down to her level. “Daddy can’t make it to the zoo today, so we’re gonna have to wait till next weekend to go.”

Sophie’s face fell, tears glistening in her eyes. “But that’s what you said last time.”

“I know, honey,” Annabelle replied, the wrench that was twisting her heart getting stronger by the second. There was nothing worse than having to disappoint her only child. “I’m so sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to this. But I promise you we’ll go next weekend for sure...with or without Daddy.”

On the verge of a tantrum, Sophie stomped her foot. “I don’t wanna go without Daddy!” She turned and ran back through the living room and up the stairs. When Annabelle heard a door slam, she sighed and collapsed onto her chair again.

At thirty-one, she’d been through a lot in her life—losing her beloved grandfather to cancer when she was just thirteen years old; struggling through college while working full-time; and eventually landing her dream job in fashion buying only to quit soon after as a result of her unplanned pregnancy with Sophie.

Of everything she’d endured, parenting was one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do. She constantly felt like a failure. Brushing a stray tear with her fingertip, Annabelle took a cautious sip of hot coffee. She needed a moment to compose herself before attempting to comfort Sophie.

As she sat recalling her precious daughter’s devastation, she couldn’t help but become furious with Jackson all over again. She couldn’t believe he just left like that! Heaving a sigh, Annabelle forced herself to stand and trudge toward Sophie’s room.

When she reached the door, the sobs she heard ripped her heart wide open. “Knock, knock?”

Sophie lay on her bed clutching her favorite teddy bear, her eyes red from crying. “Is it time for breakfast? ’Cuz I’m not hungry.”

“That’s okay.” Annabelle perched on the edge of the twin-sized canopy bed and stroked her daughter’s hair. “You don’t have to eat right now. I haven’t even made breakfast yet.”

Sophie sniffed. “Then why are you in here?”

“Just to check on you. See if there’s anything I can do to make you feel better.”

“Take me to the zoo?” Sophie asked, glancing up at Annabelle with renewed hope.

Shaking her head, Annabelle lifted Sophie onto her lap. “Now hold your horses, Soph. I already told you we can’t do that today. But how ’bout we go over to Ms. Maggie’s house for a girls’ day, huh? We could do our nails, drink hot chocolate, all sorts of fun stuff.”

Sophie tilted her head and rubbed her eyes. “I guess that’d be okay.”

Ever since she was a baby, Sophie’d had a natural connection with Maggie. She loved spending time with her “Aunt Mag,” as she liked to call her. Annabelle was grateful for the relationship the two shared. It made up for the fact that Sophie didn’t have any real aunts; Annabelle was an only child, and Jackson had two brothers but no sisters.

“Good. She’ll be glad to hear it. Now let’s go eat some breakfast before we get ready. I’ll make my special blueberry pancakes...”

Sophie’s face brightened as she hopped off Annabelle’s lap and hurried toward the stairs. “Yay! Can I help?”

“’Course,” she replied with a forced smile. If only I had her resilience.

An hour and a half later, Annabelle maneuvered her SUV through the town square, which wasn’t a difficult feat considering the small population of Jacobton. Even during rush hour, traffic in the tiny Georgia town was a breeze compared to that of neighboring areas.

“Are we there yet?” Sophie’s voice interrupted Annabelle’s train of thought.

She stifled a sigh. Even though it was a mere fifteen-minute drive from their farm on the outskirts of town to Maggie’s condo off the square, Sophie’d been asking the same question since before they pulled out of their driveway. “Getting close. We’re fixin’ to turn onto Ms. Maggie’s road.”

“Yay! I can’t wait to see if Aunt Mag got me somethin’!”

Annabelle glanced in the rear-view mirror with a frown. “Now, Sophie, don’t you go in there expectin’ a present. Ms. Maggie can’t get you something every time she sees you. Besides, that’s not why we spend time with the people we love, right? We do it because we enjoy their company.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sophie mumbled.

After a few more minutes, Annabelle and her daughter were greeted by an overly excited Maggie. “Come in, come in! I’m so glad y’all are here! I’ve got so much for us to do...” She continued to gush as she led them into her sleek, modern kitchen complete with clean lines, dark gray cabinets, and white slate counters.

Annabelle could clearly see that Maggie was trying her best to act as if everything was perfectly normal, as if they weren’t there simply to distract from the fact that Annabelle and Jackson’s marriage was falling apart. She just didn’t know if the show was for her sake or Sophie’s. Either way, she appreciated the effort.

The three of them spent the day doing all the things Maggie had promised‒–and more. Their hostess certainly didn’t disappoint. The hot chocolate was the best Annabelle had ever tasted; the snacks were gourmet; the iced tea was extra sweet; the facial masks were luxurious; and the manicures were salon quality. Maggie had even prepared a “treat bag” for Sophie that held brand-new bottles of fingernail polish and lip gloss in her favorite colors, a soft pink teddy bear, and tons of candy. Annabelle had no idea how her friend had pulled it all off at the last minute. Leave it to Maggie to be over-the-top at exactly the right time.

But later that evening, after the festivities were finally over and Sophie had crashed on Maggie’s couch, Annabelle drove home with her sleeping daughter to find the farmhouse dark, cold...and empty.

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