Here’s your final peek at my upcoming release! THE STALKER will be released next week, but here’s an exclusive look at Chapter 5!
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.
It was cold, and it was already close to dark as she approached her building, seeing the stairwell outside and her living room window, which faced the courtyard. The lamp in the living room was on, since there was just something about walking into a darkened house that had always bothered her, though she’d been unwilling to admit to herself that she was scared.
“Alison, is that you?”
She turned and took in the white Volvo, then realized it was Bennett stepping out. He closed the door and locked it, wearing a dark bomber jacket, and he ran his hand over his short dark hair as he walked over to her.
“Hi, what are you doing here?” she said.
“I live here,” he replied, gesturing at the building.
In that moment, it seemed the stars had suddenly aligned. As he strode up beside her, she admired the way he walked, the way he carried himself, and the way he smiled down at her again.
“Here at the Carlyle?” she said. Boy, she sounded like an idiot, and for a second she wished she could take it back. Maybe that was why his expression suddenly seemed filled with amusement. She thought he wanted to laugh.
“Yes, here at the Carlyle. Are you visiting someone?”
She shoved her hands in her pockets and then pulled them out. “No, I just moved in yesterday. So we’re neighbors, then?” she said, feeling the smile pulling at her lips.
His gaze… She couldn’t remember the last time a man had given her everything the way he was—not since Brady. Yet here she was, feeling as if everything was almost perfect.
“It appears so,” he said, then added teasingly. “I guess if I run out of sugar, I can knock on your door.”
She turned with him and took a step, walking side by side. She wondered where he lived. “Anytime. I’m up on the third floor.” She gestured up. “That’s my apartment there, with the light on.”
He had his hands in his pockets, and the way he looked over to her, that smile, seemed so genuine and warm. “Well, this really is a small world. Seems fate is aligning for us. Looks like I actually am your neighbor. Was wondering who had moved in there. Guess you’ll be really close when I need to borrow that cup of sugar.”
He gestured for her to go first up the stairs, and she started up, feeling him walking behind her. Maybe this was the time to ask if there was a missus or someone he was unofficially involved with, but she didn’t want to. With how suddenly quiet he was, he seemed distracted, and she couldn’t think of what else to say, considering small talk had never been her thing.
“Goodnight, Bennett,” she finally said as she pulled her keys from her pocket and stopped at her door.
He hesitated a second as he started to the neighboring door, then stepped back to her, pulling in a breath. She could see an edge tonight that she hadn’t seen in him before. He glanced to her door and then lowered his gaze to her.
“You know, I had an absolutely shitty day today, and all I wanted to do when I left the hospital was go home and forget, or try to. I was going to order a pizza and grab a beer, but now I’m thinking that staring at four walls alone after the day I’ve had is exactly what I don’t want. You want to grab a bite to eat, or maybe we could order something in? Unless you have plans.”
He let it linger, and it took her brain a moment to realize he was kind of asking her out, Bennett Warren, this good-looking guy she’d just met, who wasn’t looking at her as if she were some misfit.
“No plans for me,” she said. “Yeah, we could order something, or I could put some pasta on. Was planning on spaghetti tonight. You could come in, and I’ll cook…” She slid her key in her lock as he nodded and gestured to his door.
“Better your place than mine,” he said. “I haven’t picked up in a while, so mine is actually quite the disgusting mess. Spaghetti sounds perfect.”
She unlocked her door and stepped inside, seeing the orange sofa and coffee table, the small flatscreen TV, and the table in the dining area. Everything had come from someone in her family, a hand-me-down, and in that second, as she saw it all, she really did feel wanted.
Bennett stepped in behind her and closed the door as she shrugged out of her coat and pulled open the closet door. She reached for an empty hanger, feeling her heartbeat kick up as he took his coat off too. She handed him a hanger and took in the way he glanced around at her apartment.
“Wow, this is nice. You just moved in? Looks like you have nothing left to unpack.”
She walked into her kitchen, to the small island. She needed a second to settle her thoughts and pull it together. What was it about this guy? She realized Bennett really was interested in her. The attraction simmered, and she didn’t think it was one sided.
“Well, my family helped—my parents, my aunts and uncles. They made it relatively easy. It felt like everyone was here, unpacking and putting everything away, even though I wouldn’t have minded doing it myself. I have to pinch myself to remember this is mine, all mine. It’s kind of nice coming home to find everything done. I can’t believe you live right next door. This is, like, so cool.”
He went right to a photo of her family, her mom and dad on the day they were married. It had been a happy day, for a moment, until the rug had been yanked out right from under her. She wasn’t sure what to make of the way he was looking at it, as he said nothing.
“My mom and dad got married last year—well, a little over a year ago. That’s us in the photo.”
She pulled a pot out from beside the stove, a white older stove with coil burners, and filled it with water to boil, then opened the well-stocked cupboard, courtesy of her mom and Charlotte. All her favorites were there. She really did need to thank them, and she needed to tell her mom she was sorry for being such a bitch at times.
She reached for the jar of spaghetti sauce and pulled it out, then remembered the ground beef in the fridge.
“So your mom and dad were never married?” he said.
She had her back to Bennett as she pulled out a frypan, then opened the fridge and pulled out the beef. She turned to him. “No. It’s kind of a long story, actually. I grew up thinking another man was my father, but then I found out from him, during one of his drunken asshole moments, that he wasn’t. Anyway, we moved here, right next door to Ryan O’Connell, who turned out to be my biological father. Now my mom and Ryan are married and together, and I have an instant family I never had before—uncles, aunts, a grandmother…”
And a grandfather, but she couldn’t talk about that, and she wondered if she’d ever really know Raymond O’Connell.
“You want ground beef in your sauce,” she said, “or do you prefer meatless?”
He put the photo back on the table beside the sofa, exactly where her mom had set it up. “Yes to the ground beef. So what about your other father, the man who raised you? Do you still see him?”
She had her back to Bennett again as she dumped the meat in the frypan, and she hesitated a second as she thought of Wren Sweetgrass, a man who had doted on her. As she thought back now to him and the cruel, cutting remarks he’d made to her mom, she wondered if that was why she struggled, always self-sabotaging her happiness.
Then Bennett was right beside her as she reached for a wooden spoon from the utensil drawer. He took it from her and started breaking up the ground beef as if making himself at home. “I hope I didn’t ask something I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Just by your face, I see I hit a nerve.”
She pulled in a breath. “Sorry, it was just a rough time. He died. Actually, he was killed. That was why we moved here. I haven’t really thought about that in a while. My life went from dark and twisty, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, to something brighter, with an instant family. My father now is the opposite of Wren…”
He glanced over his shoulder to her, and she wasn’t sure what to make of the expression.
She felt awkward as she shrugged. “That was his name, Wren Sweetgrass. He was a complicated man. Ryan, my real dad, would never do the kinds of things Wren did. I don’t even know how to explain it, but it was almost normal for me, the way I grew up, so it makes real normality a struggle to handle. So how about you? Tell me about your family.”
He worked the ground beef, breaking it up into small pieces. For a moment, she wasn’t sure he’d answer, and she could feel the silence slipping into awkwardness. Then he tapped the wooden spoon on the side of the frypan, pulled in a breath, and turned to face her.
“I guess family is complicated. I wonder if normal really exists. Not in my world, it sure didn’t. My mother is dead, but it was just her and me when I was growing up. I became a doctor because of her. My father…I had met him only a few times. After my mother died, I went looking for him.”
He said nothing else, but there was just something about the way he was talking. The smiling, happy, warm, and charismatic Bennett had been replaced with this guy who seemed deep in thought, and she didn’t sense anything happy.
“Did you find him?” she said.
He turned back to the stove as if thinking, then dragged his gaze back to her. No smile, nothing. He made a face and shook his head, forcing a tight smile to his lips, one that didn’t meet his eyes. “No. That opportunity was taken from me.”
She wasn’t sure what he was saying. “Taken from you…in what way?”
He shrugged, reaching for the sauce. He opened it and smelled it before pouring it over the ground beef. “He’d been murdered. Guess you and I have that in common, too.”
He put the jar down and stirred the sauce, and she just stared at his back. He had said it so matter of factly.
The pot started rattling as the water boiled, and Bennett lifted the lid. Alison pulled open the cupboard and reached for the package of spaghetti, taking in this man. There was something about him that seemed comfortable and familiar—but something complicated, too.
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