THE STALKER will be released next week, but you can read Chapter 4 now!
Dark secrets are resurrected in this new O’Connell novel.
Alison Sweetgrass-O’Connell believes she’s forever a misfit and will never fit in.
After struggling to recover from a teenage crush that dealt her a crippling blow, Alison watches from the sidelines in the small town of Livingston, Montana, which hasn’t been friendly to her. Silently, she believes everyone’s seemingly perfect lives have a dark side. And soon her beliefs prove true.
Alison meets young, attractive med student Bennett Warren, new to Livingston. Suddenly, Bennett is showing up everywhere she is—and then, in her good fortune, he turns out to have rented the apartment right next door.
At first, she’s convinced it’s fate, and maybe there is hope for her, but a suspicious turn of events has her fearing she’s being stalked by someone who knows one of her secrets, something no one should know.
She tries telling herself she’s imagining things, but she soon realizes someone has been inside her apartment, going through her very personal belongings. She finds herself looking over her shoulder, not knowing who she can trust. When she confides in Bennett, she’s convinced he thinks she’s crazy, too.
Then Alison comes across evidence that has her questioning not only her sanity but also the real reason Bennett showed up in Livingston—and even more disturbing is the possibility that him moving right next door to her wasn’t entirely coincidental.
“Man, this is so cute! You scored big here,” Suzanne said. She was wearing a red hat with white stripes and a pompom as she leaned against the counter beside Alison.
Alison could hear her uncles lugging up what she thought was an old sofa that had belonged to Suzanne, and she opened a box of dishes labeled Karen, taking in the dated old carpet that had been freshly steam cleaned, the door to the open bedroom, and the bathroom across from it. The kitchen, although dated too, was open to the living room, and seeing it now, she was counting the minutes until everyone was gone and she could bask in something that was just hers.
“So tell me, is there a hot guy that goes with this place?” Suzanne asked.
Alison watched her dad and Owen struggle in with a lot of grunting before flipping over the orange sofa and setting it down in the small living room.
“No hot guy, sorry, but you’re right that it’s nice, and I can’t tell you how frickin’ awesome this is, having my own place. And, in case I didn’t say it, thanks for all the stuff. I didn’t expect you all to furnish it and supply me with dishes, too. I don’t think I’ll have to buy anything.”
Suzanne only shrugged. “You have any idea how great this is for us? We can finally get rid of so much we’ve been hanging on to. That’s the great thing about you and Brady: We can pass on all the old things we haven’t figured out how to get rid of.”
Alison opened the box and saw the pretty flowered dishes.
Suzanne’s hand slid over hers. “Karen wanted you to have those. She knows how much you loved them. The towels are from your grandma, too. By the way, I talked to her this morning. She’s going to call you later. I think she misses you, and Eva and Cameron, too, more than any of us.”
“Hey, you two! There’re still more boxes downstairs to bring up,” Ryan said, walking over. As he ruffled her hair, she thought she heard Marcus swearing outside somewhere on the stairs. “Marcus and Harold are bringing up the bed. I don’t think you’ll hear the end of it, renting a third-floor apartment with no elevators.”
She didn’t miss the smile Suzanne tried to hide. Alison knew she would fall into bed tonight from all the exercise she hadn’t planned on having.
“Sorry, but I appreciate the help just the same,” she said.
Her dad’s gaze lingered for a second as he looked around at the dark brown cupboards, saying nothing. She felt a tap on her arm from Suzanne.
“You know what? Why don’t we go get refreshments for everyone?” her aunt said, maybe to save her from having to listen to her dad telling her again that he didn’t want her to move out, that she could come home anytime, or something along those lines that could suddenly turn the moment awkward.
“Jenny is picking up some groceries,” he added. “She and Charlotte wanted to surprise you.”
She felt the pull on her arm from Suzanne, who said, “Then we’ll pick up some beer,” before pulling her along.
Just then, there was a tap on the open door, and there was Cassie, holding a plant, her dark hair a curly mess, and Brady behind her, all smiles, carrying a box.
“Hey there! Wow, this is so nice,” Cassie said as she stepped in.
Brady walked past his wife and said, “Where do you want the boxes?”
Alison gestured to the wall. “Anywhere is fine,” she said.
Cassie kept walking toward her, holding out the plant. “This is from me and Brady, a little housewarming gift. It’s just a plant, but we wanted to get you something.”
For a second, she stood there, knowing she needed to say thank you. She felt a nudge from Suzanne, who reached for the plant for her.
“Yeah, thanks, that’s really nice,” was all she could get out. “We’re just going to make a beer run for everyone. Sodas?”
Cassie shrugged. “Sure, whatever you pick up would be great. Can I give you a hand unpacking anything while you’re gone?”
She was so nice, and Alison felt like absolute shit for letting the awkwardness linger. She felt a nudge again from her aunt.
“Sure. The boxes on the counter are dishes and stuff. If you want to unpack some, that would be great.”
Then Marcus and Harold made their way in, both in winter bomber jackets, carrying her mattress. She didn’t miss the pointed look.
“You’re going to owe us big time for this, kid,” Marcus said. “Third floor, all stairs, and we still have your dresser, the table and chairs from Karen, and how many more boxes?”
She knew he was all bark, but she said, “You know I’ll pay up. Free babysitting, my time, my blood… Thanks for hauling everything up. We’ll pick up the beer for you.”
Suzanne said something to Harold, and he put his end of the bed down and pulled his wallet from his pocket.
“Great, but don’t be long,” Marcus said. “Brady, we could use you downstairs to bring up the chairs. You can help Ryan and Owen with the table.”
Suzanne had her moving out the open door, and she could hear the voices behind her as they hurried down the stairs, Suzanne shoving money from Harold into her jacket pocket. Behind were her dad and Brady, and ahead were Owen and Tessa at the truck, reaching for a box.
“Hey, where are you two slipping off to?” Tessa called, wearing a white hat with a pompom and a dark blue winter coat. Her blond hair was long and tied back.
“Beer and food,” Suzanne called out. “We expect everything unloaded by the time we get back!”
She maneuvered Alison toward Harold’s new Kia, where Alison slid in the passenger side, and Suzanne started the car and backed out. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Suzanne had something on her mind.
“You really think they’ll have everything unloaded by then?”
Suzanne pulled out of the parking lot. “Oh, I guarantee it—but I wanted to have a talk with you without everyone listening in. You know Ryan is worried about you, and Jenny is still reeling a bit over the other day. She told me about what you said, how you blame her about Wren. I have to tell you, kiddo, that wasn’t cool. Your mom was really hurt.”
She knew she’d hurt her mom. That was something she’d seen Wren do time and again, too: the words, the cutting remarks, the slaps. Her mom had just taken it. There were times Alison thought she was too much like a man she wasn’t even related to.
“I didn’t mean to hurt her, but she’s constantly coming at me. I just said it.”
Alison had learned to swallow a lot before snapping, lashing out with words she wished she could take back. She was strong, with a thick skin that was pretty beaten up, but she was tired of being seen as a freak.
“No one’s coming at you, Alison. Ryan and Jenny, just like all of us, want to see you happy. We’re in your corner, so how about not tossing out any more remarks about Wren? Your mom,
everything she’s done is for you. I heard only some of the things that happened, but I’m sure there’s more. I can tell you from experience that parents aren’t perfect, but family is family. We’ve all screwed up, you included, and me too, but we don’t go around using the ones we love as a punching bag.”
Alison took in the supermarket, Donnelly’s, as they pulled in, seeing the beer and wine store next door. “I get it,” she said. “Consider me reprimanded. I’ll apologize to my mom. Is there anything else?”
Suzanne turned off the vehicle and reached over. “Yeah. Try harder with Cassie. I think if you let yourself get past all that hurt and anger—and no one is saying you’re not justified in feeling that way—you’ll see that Cassie isn’t the bad guy. We’ve all had shit tossed at us. Going around being angry is allowed for a bit, but not forever.” She leaned on her door and gave Alison a look, followed by a smile only Suzanne could toss out.
“So is this when I need to start inviting her over for tea?” Alison said.
Suzanne made a face. “No, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to try to get to know her. She’s family now.” She stepped out of the vehicle, and Alison did too. “I’ll get the beer. You go and pick out some sodas.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out some bills, then handed her twenty dollars. “From Harold’s stash,” she said, holding it out.
Alison took the money. “You ever feel like a kept woman, Suzanne?”
Her aunt’s eyes sparkled with mischief, and her lips twitched in amusement. “All the time, but it works.” She shrugged. “Didn’t say I was perfect.”
As Suzanne walked off and pulled open the door of the beer and wine shop, Alison wondered about her quirky aunt, who seemed to be settling into living with Harold, not working. Maybe someone needed to give her some advice, some action items she could address to fix her life, find a job, and get past the fact that she was no longer a firefighter and never would be again.
Alison started over to Donnelly’s Market.
“Hey, Alison, is that you?”
She turned and saw Bennett, flashing that same charming smile, in the same wool coat but with dark jeans now, walking her way.
“Bennett, what are you doing here?”
He stopped right in front of her. “Just got off a two-day shift and thought of picking up some groceries. So how’s your boss treating you? Need me to stop on by and add some muscle?”
The way he said it with a smile, she couldn’t stop the laugh that seemed to come from nowhere. “No need to step in yet, but I’ll let you know. He’s pretty much demoted me, but hey, it could be worse. He could’ve fired me. So, a two-day shift. What do you do?”
She wondered how tall he was. Her dad’s height, she thought, with a nice build. There was something about the way he held himself. Looking at him, she realized she hadn’t felt this good in a long time.
“I’m a med student. Just got away from the hospital. You’re in good company with the scut work. I’m the helper and do all the shit jobs, so I commiserate and understand completely. But yes, being employed is a very good thing. You’re absolutely right.”
“Wow, I’m impressed. A med student…so you’re studying to be a doctor?”
He just shrugged. There was something about the way he was looking at her, as if he really wanted to talk to her. “Yeah, well, med student is a long way from doctor, a lot of years as a bottom-feeder, working my way up.”
Then he said nothing and just smiled at her. Neither moved for a second. There was tension and chemistry. He pulled in a breath and glanced past her. “Well, I guess I should get some
groceries before I fall over from exhaustion. It was great to see you again, Alison. Maybe I’ll drop in to your restaurant again soon.”
He started walking, but then he turned back to her, still stepping backwards. “And the offer stands: If you need some muscle or just a friendly face to show up and let your boss know that he can’t treat you like shit, then I’m ready, willing, and happy to oblige.”
She just lifted her hand. “Thanks, Bennett. When you stop by the restaurant, your coffee’s on me.”
He gestured to her, and something about his smile warmed her in ways no one’s ever had before. “It’s a date, Alison O’Connell,” he called out, then lifted his hand and turned to walk to the grocery store.
“Who was that?” Suzanne whispered beside her.
Alison jumped as she took in her aunt, who was right there, looking dorky in that red and white hat, holding a case of beer, staring at Bennett as he walked away.
“Just someone I met at work, a customer, a nice guy. He’s a med student.”
Suzanne raised a brow and dragged her gaze over to where Bennett was now walking into the grocery store. “He said the word ‘date,’ and I can see by the way you’re watching him that you like him.”
Alison pressed her lips together but couldn’t keep from smiling as she shook her head. Then she started laughing.
Suzanne gasped. “Oh, you really do like him! I was so kidding about the hot guy, but now I see you’ve been holding out. Is he single? Come on, he’s cute. Tell me everything. You’ve been holding out on me, my sweet little niece.”
Alison just shook her head. “No, I just met him a few days ago, but you know what? You’re right. I like him. I have no idea if he’s single, but he sees me, he talks to me. Anyway, I’m going to go in and get the soda. I’m not talking about this anymore with you.”
“Get his number if you see him in the store,” Suzanne called out as Alison started walking.
She just shook her head. There was something about seeing Bennett Warren again. Things really were looking up. She had her very first place, her own apartment that was all hers, and then there was this guy she kept running into, as if fate was conspiring in a good way.
Bennett distracted her. He didn’t see her the same way other people did, as if she were wearing a “Kick me” sign, as if she would never really fit in.
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