Can't wait till release day? Book 6 in my romantic suspense series The O'Connells is coming soon, but you can grab a sneak peek of the first two chapters today!
In this shocking O’Connell family novel, a brother’s secret is exposed, opening up old wounds and creating a scandal that could rock the community.
Big brother Owen O’Connell was only sixteen when his father mysteriously disappeared, forcing him to become a father figure to his five younger siblings. If you were to ask them, they’d say Owen is the perfect older brother with the perfect life: He’s single, a plumber, working his own hours in a close-knit community. Owen, though, knows that appearances are often deceiving.
When he is called to a plumbing emergency at the local high school after a grad prank goes wrong, he finds his old rival Tessa Brooks, now a teacher, holding a broken pipe in the middle of the flood, thinking she can fix the problem. However, the two soon make a horrifying discovery: the body of a student tucked away in a closet.
The event brings authorities flocking in, and in the ensuing chaos, Owen realizes that someone knows too much about his family. Having carefully held the family together since his father disappeared, he is determined to keep their secrets right where they are, dead and buried. But sometimes, secrets get revealed in the most scandalous of ways.
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Owen O’Connell, eldest of six, couldn’t remember what it was like not to have responsibility resting upon his now broad shoulders. He couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t have an eye on his younger siblings, worried about something they’d done or could do, or something that could come after any one of them. Even though everyone was grown now, with their own lives, he still felt that kind of responsibility. Though it hadn’t been his choice, he couldn’t shake the incessant need to know what was going on with his three brothers and two sisters, considering they all found their way into their own brands of trouble. The biggest lesson of all, which he’d learned long ago, was not to share anything with anyone about his life or his family’s.
He took in his home workshop, a shed at the back of his two-bedroom bungalow at the edge of town. The cottage to his right was owned by an old woman in her nineties, now in a nursing home, whose grandson had been considerate enough to move in and share his love of hip-hop with the entire neighborhood every night after midnight. The place on the left was a rundown rental with three feet of perpetually overgrown grass, but at least they were quiet.
In the back of his van, he took in the box of elbow PVC pipes he’d just bought to replenish his supply. The van was faded, older. It was missing his company name, O’Connell’s Plumbing, but considering he didn’t need to drum up business, as most everyone knew who he was, a company decal would’ve been wasted dollars. If anything, Owen was the one O’Connell who couldn’t and wouldn’t part with one dime unnecessarily.
He spotted the ancient rusty Datsun as it pulled up and parked behind his van. The engine purred before it shut off, and the squeal of the car door revealed Lori Kramer, slender and five foot five, with sandy blond hair that stopped at her shoulders. Her pretty face still bore the pissed-off expression that had been there since their fight outside the diner where she worked as a waitress. Their on again, off again relationship, which was non-committal and, as far as he was concerned, had no strings attached, no longer worked for her. So what had she done but demand he figure his shit out, as if he were the one who had issues? He didn’t, he told himself, but those had pretty much been her exact words: his issues, his lack of commitment.
Finally, because he could feel her drawing closer and hear her flip-flops on the pavement, he was forced to lift his gaze, taking in the godawful mustard dress uniform from the diner and the small box she was carrying. He put down a pipe, wiped his hands on a damp cloth, and gave her everything, seeing the spark in her brown eyes, the light freckles over the bridge of her nose. She dumped the small box on the workbench beside him, and he took in some things of his: a shirt, a toothbrush, some old tools he’d used while fixing her sink, and a watch he hadn’t missed. He wasn’t sure what else was in there. When he lifted his gaze to her, she didn’t say anything for another second.
“Your things.” She gestured rather forcefully.
He lifted the old shirt, which he’d forgotten about, and said nothing, taking in everything in the box. He wasn’t too inclined to respond.
“You know, I asked you to pick up your things,” she said. “Since I didn’t hear from you, here I am, driving them out to you. This is just one more reason we’re not together, Owen. I can’t get you to actually be part of a relationship, to show up, to follow through on anything. You want me only when you want me…”
He let out a rough sigh, knowing she was about to go on and on to fill the silence, something she always did. There was a point he stopped listening and a point at which he was just done, like now.
“I get it,” he said. “Apologies. Sorry you had to make the trip over. Anything else?” He rested his hand on the box and took in her face, her lips, which he’d kissed so many times. He liked her, but even now, this situation seemed to be heading fast to confrontation, all because of her need to argue, to push, to get him to…what? Be serious about her when his focus was everywhere else.
As she’d so explicitly put it, she wanted the kind of commitment he could never see in their relationship.
“That’s it? That’s all I get?’ She gestured between them quite dramatically. What the hell did she want from him?
He laughed. “Jesus Christ, Lori, what the fuck is this? We’re over. You’ve said your piece already—repeatedly. I get it. You don’t need to hammer it to death, if that’s what this is. This isn’t working. Sometimes things don’t. That’s life. Again, thanks for bringing my stuff, but I’ve got nothing else for you. Not sure what you want me to say.”
He knew he sounded like an asshole, but he just rested his forearm on the box and flicked his hand. This was something else she did, push and push when things didn’t quite go the way she wanted. He could see she just didn’t want to let it go, and her anger seemed to hold her where she was.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “Is that what you want to hear from me? I can’t feel something just because you want me to. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve made your feelings clear, as I’ve made mine. I’m not in the same space you are, because of…”
“Yes, because of your family, I know,” she snapped. “You’re all about the O’Connells. Your nose is in all of their lives. All I wanted was to be included. You spend almost every night with them, but I thought maybe I would get tossed a crumb of what’s left of you. You never took me once to meet your family. We weren’t there yet. You never came out and said those exact words, but getting you to talk and express any kind of reasonable emotion is beyond me. I started to realize we were never going to get ‘there,’” she said, complete with air quotes.
He sighed. “Okay, this has been fun, but I’ve got work to do, and I’m not rehashing this same old conversation about how you don’t understand me. I don’t understand you, either, or your need to share everything…” His phone rang, and for a second, he thought the gods were smiling down on him with the interruption. He reached for it, taking in the fact that Lori was still standing there. “I have to take this,” he said.
She inclined her head, but she didn’t move. Great, so she wanted to take another chunk out of his ass.
He answered and pressed his phone to his ear, giving Lori his back as he took in the rest of his shop. “Yeah? Owen here.”
“Owen, this is Rita Mae, down at the high school. We’ve got ourselves kind of a problem down here, a plumbing emergency. There’s water everywhere. It’s coming from the second-floor girls’ bathroom. We’re not sure what happened, but…”
“Okay, on my way. Has anyone shut the main water valve off yet?” He turned around and took in Lori still standing there, her arms crossed, taking in everything he was saying.
“No, custodial is gone for the day. I have a call in to them.”
Owen shook his head. “No, look, I’m on my way. I’ll be there in less than ten.”
He’d shut the main off himself, find out what the problem was, and fix it. At least this was his get-away-from-Lori card, he thought as he hung up and pocketed his phone. He could sense that she just didn’t want to let go of this fight. He reached for his keys, giving his shop one last look, but everything he’d need—all the tools and supplies—was already in his van for exactly this reason.
“I have to go, Lori, an emergency call,” he said and started walking out of his shop. When she didn’t move for a second, he reached up to pull the garage door down, waiting until she finally did. She had realized this was it, and she walked past him and out of the shop.
He pulled down the door and slipped on the lock that would keep out no one who really wanted to get in. Her Datsun was still parked behind his van, and she stopped at her door and took him in. For a minute, he thought she was going to start in on him again. That was just something she did—another reason, he realized, why not seeing her had actually lifted a weight off him. Lori, although fun at times, could be a lot to handle.
“Lori, I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know how many ways I can say it, but it’s over. I’m not where you are. I hope you find someone who can give you what you’re looking for, but it’s not me. You said it, and you were right, so let’s just leave it at that.”
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but she let out a sigh instead. Evidently, she’d changed her mind. She shook her head, slipped into her vehicle, started the old heap, and pulled away.
And instead of feeling sad at the ending of their relationship, he felt relieved.
Owen took in the local high school and the few teens in the parking lot, because school was now out for the day. He remembered the concrete institution fondly, but he thought that was mostly nostalgia, because it was also a reminder that for him and his siblings, school hadn’t been a happy social time. Today, if you asked him, he wouldn’t be able to recall any of the fundamental knowledge that had been crammed into them back then.
He pulled his tool kit from the van, looping the strap over his shoulder. In just his faded blue T-shirt, he felt the chill in the air as he pulled out his phone and saw Karen’s text: Can you pick up some wine on your way over? Jack and I have to meet with a client and are running late.
Right, everyone was going to Marcus and Charlotte’s new house, which they’d just signed the papers on, across from Ryan and Jenny’s. At least Marcus was now married, with a baby on the way, and then there was his adoption of Eva. Marcus, out of all of them, was the one who had really pulled his shit together.
Owen strode up the sidewalk, seeing the cracks in the cement and remembering the spot where he’d dropped his history teacher’s keys into the freshly poured concrete. Helga Adams had made every day in that class a living hell for him. To this day, he’d never shared with anyone the fact that he was the one who had taken her keys from her desk. Even though she’d accused him, she’d never been able to prove it.
He pulled open the front door and spotted Rita Mae, redheaded and slender, about ten years his senior, coming from the office. Evidently, she’d been waiting for him, as she hurried his way. His sneakers squeaked on the industrial concrete floor, looking right and left to see if anything out there was coming his way—just a habit he couldn’t shake.
“Owen, thank goodness you’re here,” Rita Mae said. “It’s quite a mess. There’s water everywhere, and I don’t know what to make of what happened. You know, every year about this time, I expect those seniors to pull something. When I heard there was water coming down the stairs from the girls’ bathroom, I just knew it was them. I hope it’s not going to be too bad! It seems the kids are getting more creative every year with their so-called pranks, which are destructive to school property. From the toilet paper decorating the entire hall to Mr. Goodman’s motorcycle on the roof of the school last year—though how they got it up there, I have no idea—and now this, something just has to be done with those kids…”
He was following Rita Mae down the hall, and he took in how quiet the place was. “So, speaking of misfits, where’re all the kids?” he added as he started up the stairs. “Seems rather quiet, considering.”
“You’re right,” she said. “School’s out for the day, and we don’t see many sticking around, maybe a few here and there. It’s amazing, though. Today it’s absolutely deserted, which tells me every kid in the school likely knew this was going to happen and skedaddled instead of having to answer questions and face the music. What is it with teenagers?”
He wondered whether she expected him to answer. He took in the water on the stairs, a thin stream. As his feet splashed through the puddles, he realized Rita Mae was still talking, carrying on about the seniors. He knew well those kinds of pranks, that kind of trouble. The O’Connells had been neck deep in it at one time.
Marcus had been the worst. Any time trouble happened at school, nine times out of ten, Marcus had been behind it, had known about it, or had been a part of it. Then there was Ryan. Owen had lost count of the number of times he’d pulled his younger brothers out of something: doing graffiti, keying the principal’s car, letting air out of the science teacher’s tires… His other younger brother, Luke, had pretty much taken care of himself. Karen was one he’d had to watch extra closely, and then there was Suzanne, who had always given the impression that everything was fine even when it wasn’t. Now look at them. He wondered if he’d ever be able to shake his need to herd them all, to keep tabs on all of them.
As he topped the stairs, he spotted the sheen of water coming from the bathroom just ahead, where the door was open. He found himself looking at the concrete block walls, the girls’ sign on the open door.
Rita Mae went in first and peered around the corner. “Owen is here now. OMG, look at you, girl! This mess…”
He wasn’t sure whom she was talking to at first, but as he stepped into the bathroom, he saw her: her blond hair pulled back into a neat bun, her slender curves in navy slacks and a white tank top, her flat shoes in the water on the floor. The paneling had been pulled off the wall that led to the plumbing, and he could see the wrench in her hand. She was reaching as high as she could on tiptoes to bang the red valve, which he knew was the water shut-off.
She turned her head. All the while, water was still spraying out from what he could now see was a busted pipe. For a second, he felt shocked, looking into her face, oval perfection. Her white tank left nothing to the imagination, soaked. She could’ve won a wet T-shirt contest, as it was practically sheer over her perfect breasts. He had to remind himself this was Tessa Brooks, his first crush, though that had crashed and burned, and she was now just an old rival.
Right. Someone had mentioned long ago that she was now a teacher.
“Well, are you going to do something, or are you going to just stand there and keep staring at my breasts?” she said, then made a rude noise. He thought she’d dropped the F-bomb under her breath. Right, she also had a smart mouth. He’d forgotten about that.
She turned back around and gripped the wrench, about to swing it and pound away at the red lever again, so he reached out and grabbed her wrist, holding it just as she went to swing again. It was that damn competitive drive, as if she thought she could do everything better than him.
“Whoa, what the hell, Tessa? Stop before you break something.” He went to take the wrench, but she seemed to grip it harder, giving him everything in that one look. He was still holding her wrist, but he didn’t let go, just stepped in right beside her. She was tall and slender, with perfect curves, about five inches shorter than him. Pull it together, Owen. Her eyes were blue, vivid, and flashing with hellfire—and then there were those lips.
“Take your hands off me,” she said, enunciating each word carefully through gritted teeth so there was no chance he’d misunderstand.
Water was still spraying out, soaking his shirt now too, and what did he do but put his other hand on the wrench to pry it from her? He tossed it onto the floor in the water, then somehow maneuvered her back and reached up to shut off the water. The spray stopped, and the water slowly drizzled and then dripped.
“It was one hand, Tessa,” he said. “Now that I’m here, you can let a professional fix this before you break something and turn what’ll likely be a simple fix into something far more costly and time-consuming.”
She didn’t pull those magnificent blue eyes from him. She could tell him to fuck off with just a look, and he could see she was likely thinking of a way to tell him how she could and would do things better than he would.
“I was trying to turn the water off and almost had it, Owen.”
He knew she hated him. At the same time, everything about her brought up unsettling and frustrating feelings inside him. He took in the counter, seeing the gray duct tape, and he reached for it and lifted it. Rita Mae had evidently realized she was in the middle of something personal and had quietly stepped out.
“You planning on doing something with this?” Owen said, tossing the duct tape back on the wet counter and setting his tool case beside one of the sinks. He took a better look at the busted pipe, wondering what had caused this. He doubted this was a prank. More than likely, from the looks of it, the pipe was just old and had been about to give for some time.
“I was planning on fixing the pipe,” she snapped. “I was going to turn the water off and then duct tape it until it could be fixed. You know, I’m not completely useless, Owen. I have two hands and the ability to problem-solve, which was exactly what I was doing. Then here you are, showing up and thinking I’m out of my depth. I’ll have you know I had a handle on the situation, and—”
“Are you finished?” He cut her off, facing her.
She was standing there, holding her ground. The woman was infuriating, and he quickly remembered how she never had gone quietly into the night. No, scratch that. She had never sat back and counted on him for anything. As if she had realized how indecent her shirt was, she simply crossed her arms under those amazing breasts and gave him everything.
Confidence. Two can play this game.
“Evidently,” she said, then gestured to the tools and the sink. “I’ll leave you to this, then.”
He had expected something else from her. No, he had wanted something else. Her walking away that easily should’ve been a relief, but there was something about her attitude that he craved. What was it about Tessa? He had anticipated fighting with her, sparring with her, because their arguments had been on another level. No other woman could compete.
“So how did this happen?” he added, taking in her confusion as she stepped back. “Rita Mae said it was a school prank, seniors, but these pipes are old, no longer up to code. Corrosion and wear is what this looks like.”
He took in the pipes intently only because he was finding it damn difficult to keep his gaze from her. When he reached up for the red shut-off lever, he felt how corroded that was, as well.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I was in my classroom, finishing up for the day, and was just about ready to pack it up and leave when something caught my eye. I stepped out of my classroom to investigate and saw water everywhere. I followed it into the bathroom here and found all this…”
As she gestured, someone screamed. In the second that followed, Tessa gave him everything before darting out the door ahead of him. Around the corner, he spotted Rita Mae standing outside a room labeled Janitor, staring down at something in shock.
As he stepped behind both women and took in the closet, he realized what the problem was. He was staring at the body of a young man, curled up, unmoving. On pure instinct, he moved both Rita Mae and Tessa aside and crouched down, seeing the lifeless eyes of what looked like a student. He reached in and checked for a pulse, but just looking at him, he already knew he was dead.
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