The Widow’s Watcher

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From Eliza Maxwell, the bestselling author of The Unremembered Girl, comes a gripping novel about the mysteries that haunt us and the twists of fate that can unravel them…

Living in the shadow of a decades-old crime that stole his children from him, reclusive Lars Jorgensen is an unlikely savior. But when a stranger walks onto the ice of a frozen Minnesota lake, her intentions are brutally clear, and the old man isn’t about to let her follow through.

Jenna Shaw didn’t ask for Lars’s help, nor does she want it. After he pulls her from the brink, however, Jenna finds her desire to give up challenged by their unlikely friendship. In Jenna, Lars recognizes his last chance for redemption. And in her quest to solve the mysteries of Lars’s past and bring him closure, Jenna may find the way out of her own darkness.

But the truth that waits threatens to shatter it all. When secrets are surrendered and lies are laid bare, Jenna and Lars may find that accepting the past isn’t their greatest challenge. Can they afford the heartbreaking price of forgiveness?

Published by Lake Union Publishing on May 29, 2018.

Available for Pre-order NOW from Amazon.

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The Widow’s Watcher

1

 

“You didn’t have to leave the dog behind.”

Jenna kept her eyes on the road, wheels between the lines.

“I did, Cassie. You know I did.” An undertow of weariness dragged at her limbs.

“The first rule of writing: make your protagonist relatable. Likable, even. Abandoning the dog with strangers? Not so much.”

Jenna sighed.

“I’m not a protagonist, Cass. This isn’t a novel, and the Davises aren’t strangers.”

“They’re strange all right. Especially their creeper son.”

Each word dripped with teenage derision. It wore on Jenna like sand against stone. It was always there, rubbing. Given enough time, it could take down mountains.

“He’s not a creeper.”

“Beckett doesn’t like him,” Cassie said, as if that were the final judgment of the universe. “Beck likes everybody.”

“I don’t want to talk about this. Beckett’s fine. You know I couldn’t bring him.”

In the span of silence that followed, Jenna hoped her eldest daughter had let it go. The relief was short-lived. Cassie merely changed her tactic.

“Opening a book with the main character driving a car is a cliché, by the way.”

Jenna clenched her jaw and bit back a retort. Breathe, she thought. Just like the nurses told you during childbirth. Breathe.

Who knew that was intended as a life lesson?

When the nurse had laid Cassie in her arms, Jenna had laughed, wide and openmouthed. Warriors in battle the two of them were, she and her brave, howling daughter. They’d fought valiantly, shedding blood and coming up victorious on the other side. Her laughter blended with Cassie’s cries, their voices rising together.

“I know, love,” she’d whispered to the little life in her arms. “This is new for me too. We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out together.”

Such confidence. Such naivety.

“Where are we going anyway? Do you have the faintest idea?”

“Cassie, lay off. Please.”

“A scene should have a point, Mom. Cause and effect, a drive toward a goal. Wandering aimlessly with no apparent destination isn’t going to cut it.”

“Enough!” Jenna said. Her breath quickened, her anxiety cranking up at the badgering. “Enough now, Cass.”

I have a goal, Jenna thought. Just not one I intend to discuss with you, thank you very much.

As Cassie had grown, Jenna had slowly but inevitably discovered that this child, her child, wasn’t an extension of herself.

“They spend their whole lives walking away from you,” the kindergarten teacher had said on her little girl’s first day. “Your job now is to be there when they look back.”

Jenna’s eyes had searched her daughter out as she introduced herself to a little boy, the two of them launching into an animated discussion about whatever pressing matters five-year-olds discuss.

But Cassie never looks back, Jenna thought as she stood in the doorway waiting to wave goodbye to a child who’d forgotten she was there.

Oh, but the stories. The stories were the flickering light of a lone star in an inky-blue sky. The fantastical, sweeping stories that had begun before Cassie could even write them.

This, Jenna had thought. This is it. Tangible evidence my DNA runs somewhere through this kid.

There’d been times she’d wondered. Was it possible the child had been switched in the hospital? Had some sly nurse slid into her room while she dozed and slipped a changeling into her arms, then snuck away into the night with her real daughter?

What had become of the daughter Jenna always thought she’d have? The shy, studious girl who would hide when visitors came? The child who would pull the bottom drawer out of her dresser, dump out the contents, and snuggle into her self-made nest with a pillow and a picture book?

That daughter came later. They named her Sarah, their second born.

But Cassie wasn’t her sister, or her mother, and never would be.

Accepting that made it easier for Jenna to appreciate and celebrate the daughter she did have. The wild, willful, wonderful daughter.

“Unless your goal is to end up stranded on the interstate in the middle of nowhere—which is fine if you’re going for horror, but not really your style—you need to put gas in the car, Mom.”

“Thank you, Cassie, for that astute observation. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Neither do I.”

If the stories were a star in the sky, Jenna had been tracking that star her entire life. From a practical distance. She’d majored in journalism. Journalism was a marketable skill.

A springboard, she’d told herself. I’ll write that novel one day. When the time is right.

When Matt had encouraged Jenna to take a hiatus from her job and write the book she’d always planned, she’d hesitated.

“If not now, then when?” His optimism confounded her.

Cassie had other plans.

“I’ve decided to self-publish my book,” her daughter had declared at dinner a few months later.

“Wait . . . what?” Jenna’s fork stalled midair.

“Have you considered how to do it?” Matt asked. Cassie launched into a surprisingly well-researched discussion about platform and distribution, marketing and cover design.

The glob of pasta on Jenna’s fork lost its balance and plopped onto her plate. Her insides felt similarly flattened.

“It’s crazy,” she whispered to Matt that night while she massaged lotion onto her face. Her skin had started to show wear and tear approximately the day Cassie was born.

“I don’t know if crazy is the word I’d use.”

“What would you call it, then?”

Matt shrugged, his back turned as he pulled off his T-shirt. “Proactive? Enterprising?” He walked toward her and put his hands on her shoulders. He pulled her into a hug. “I’d call it brave.”

His chin rested on the top of her head. She listened to his strong, steady heartbeat.

“You don’t understand. You’re supposed to toil and shed blood and paper your walls with rejections. You learn from that, and they’re hard lessons. That’s how you become a writer.”

Matt again. “I guess Cass decided to do it her own way, Jen.”

“But what if the book’s not ready? What if she’s not ready? What if it’s not good enough and she’s buried under the failure?”

Jenna backed up to look her husband in the eyes as she shared her real fear.

“She’s so talented, Matt. And so young. What if she gives up?”

Matt managed to hide the smile lurking beneath the surface, but Jenna knew it was there.

“Then she’ll deal with that. And we’ll be there to help her. But, honey . . . our daughter? She’s not the kind of girl that gives up. She’s not that fragile.”

He didn’t say it, didn’t mean it, didn’t even consider what Jenna would hear in those words. Despite his intentions, not like her mother rang clearly in her head.

Jenna’s fears were unfounded. They often were. Cassie’s book was good. Could she see her daughter’s youth in places? Sure. But there were also glimpses of the woman Cassie would become—strong, decisive, and confident in herself and her words.

Cassie was destined to become the woman Jenna aspired to be.

And every vestige of that was gone now.

Jenna’s eyes were drawn to the passenger seat of the van, to the old wooden box that had been her grandmother’s.

It was all gone.

Jenna jerked the wheel and drove the minivan she no longer had any use for onto an exit ramp.

Everything was gone.

She was left with nothing. Nothing but her eldest daughter’s voice in her head and a carved wooden box that cradled the ashes of the family she used to have.

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The Widow’s Watcher, available for pre-order now.