Stunning Page 35


’’You moved,’’ Emily pointed out.

Mrs. Baker nodded. ’’Yes. Shortly after well, you know. We thought people might ask questions. We decided it was better if we moved someplace where no one knew us.’’ When she raised her head and looked at Emily again, there were tears in her eyes, too. ’’We don\'t know why you changed your mind, but we can\'t thank you enough. We hope you know that.’’

It felt like she\'d injected Emily with sunlight. She wiped away a tear, looking again at Violet\'s goofy, gummy smile. ’’I can\'t thank you enough.’’

A double beep of a car unlocking sounded across the street, and Mrs. Baker turned and signaled to her husband, who was loading up a Honda SUV. ’’I\'m telling everyone about the baby,’’ Emily blurted. ’’But I\'ll never tell them about you.’’

Mrs. Baker nodded. ’’We\'ll keep your secret, too.’’

They gave each other a meaningful look. There were so many other things Emily wanted to ask about Violet, but maybe it wasn\'t her place to know. She\'d given up the right to be Violet\'s parent. All she could hope for was that the Bakers gave her baby the best life possible. All of the money in the world couldn\'t have made a better life for Violet than the one the Bakers were giving her.

Emily kissed the top of Violet\'s fuzzy head. ’’Keep her safe, okay? Keep her locked up every night. Never let her out of your sight.’’

’’Of course we will,’’ Lizzie said.

’’Good,’’ Emily said. And then she awkwardly turned and walked as quickly as she could back to the girls, afraid that if she didn\'t get away fast, she\'d never be able to leave Violet\'s side again. She looked back once, watching as Lizzie made Violet wave again. A sob rose in her throat. She thought about A looming somewhere close, just waiting to snatch Violet away. She couldn\'t bear the thought.

Swallowing hard, she stared at the traffic on the main road. If the next car that passes is blue, Violet will be okay, she thought. If it\'s red, A will do something horrible to her.

She heard a growl of an engine and shut her eyes, afraid to see what the future might hold. She\'d never cared so much about anything in her life. Just as the car was passing, she opened her eyes and saw a Mercedes hood ornament. She let out a long sigh, tears coming to her eyes once more.

The car was blue.

37

A STRANGER IN THE CROWD

The Rosewood Abbey was an old stone building in the middle of town with gorgeous stained-glass windows, a bell tower, and pristinely manicured gardens. Mourners in black crammed the lawn, giving Aria an eerie sense of déjàvu. The last time she\'d been there was for Ali\'s funeral a year and a half ago. And now, on this sunny Tuesday morning, she was there to mark another death: Gayle\'s.

Emily and Spencer, who\'d ridden with her, stared at the church silently as they pulled into the parking lot. They\'d all come as a favor to Hanna her dad was forcing her to go because Gayle had meant so much to his campaign, and she was too creeped out to go alone.

Hanna\'s Prius rolled up next to them. Hanna cut the engine, got out, and greeted the others. Then she looked around with a shiver, her gaze narrowing in on the weeping willow tree next to the front path. ’’That doesn\'t bring back good memories,’’ she said in a foreboding voice.

Aria knew exactly what she meant. It was under that willow that they\'d received a threatening note from the very first A. I\'m still here, bitches, and I know everything.

Now they were in the same position. New A was still here. New A knew everything. And none of them knew where or when A would strike next.

The Abbey\'s nave was even more crowded than the lawn, the air humid and stuffy with bodies and the noise level deafening. Hanna\'s father stood by the doors, talking to a reporter. A bunch of people from the Rosewood Rotary Club chatted near the holy water. Naomi Zeigler and her parents stood quietly in a corner, looking at the program. Aria wondered how Naomi\'s family knew Gayle.

The priest funneled everyone inside the hall. At the end of the long aisle was a closed mahogany casket covered with huge bouquets of flowers. Mr. Clark stood next to it, his hands folded and his head bowed. He looked like he hadn\'t slept since the night they\'d seen him at the police station there were purple circles under his eyes, his skin looked flaky and pale, and his hair badly needed combing. Every so often, he\'d flinch, as though startled. And as Aria squinted, she swore she saw his lips moving ever so slightly, as if he were talking to himself.

Hanna leaned into Aria. ’’My dad told me that the police think Gayle\'s killer is a guy who\'s been breaking into houses in Gayle\'s neighborhood. They have him in for questioning. What if they convict him?’’

Spencer shrugged. ’’Better that guy than us.’’

Emily\'s eyes popped. ’’How can you say that? It was awful when they thought we did it, but we can\'t just let someone else take the heat.’’

Spencer raised an eyebrow as she slid into the pew. ’’Who knows? Maybe the person who\'s breaking into houses is A.’’

’’Or maybe the person breaking into houses did murder Gayle maybe it\'s unrelated to A,’’ Aria suggested. But even as she said it, she looked unconvinced. Everyone else did, too.

Spencer crossed her legs, smoothed out her black skirt, and stared straight ahead. After a pause, Aria slid into the pew next to her, and the other girls followed.

The organ music stopped, and the heavy doors closed with a clonk. People shifted in their seats. Aria craned her neck over the heads in front of her. Mr. Clark was stepping to the podium and adjusting the microphone. When he cleared his throat, a screech of feedback rang out through the room, and he winced. Then, there was a horribly long pause. Mr. Clark stared out into the sea of people, his mouth trembling. There were a few polite coughs, then several concerned nudges. All the while, Mr. Clark didn\'t move.

Aria\'s stomach jumped. It was terrible seeing this man so wrecked, especially over something they might have caused. What if A had killed Gayle only because of them? That meant they\'d ruined his life not once, with Tabitha, but twice. And Aria was even more to blame it had been her hands that had pushed Tabitha off that roof. She stared at them now, horrified at what she\'d done all over again. Her fingers started to tremble.

Finally, Mr. Clark cleared his throat. ’’I never thought I\'d have to do this twice in one year,’’ he said, his voice cracking. He clutched a handkerchief tightly in his fist. ’’It\'s heartbreaking enough when your daughter is taken from you, but when you lose your wife, too, your world starts to crumble.’’ He sniffled and wiped his nose. ’’Many of you knew Gayle as an incredibly giving philanthropist. But I knew other parts of her, too. Sides of her so special and unique . . .’’

He went on to tell how Gayle rescued every dog she saw, took pity on a poor family they met while on a vacation in Curaçao and paid for them to build a new house, and volunteered at soup kitchens every Thanksgiving. Each of the anecdotes was rambling and often nonsensical, but they made Gayle seem utterly un-A-like. A had so expertly convinced them otherwise.

Mr. Clark continued with his eulogy, every so often pausing to stare off into space or to wipe away a barrage of tears. When Aria heard the words ’’murder,’’ she perked up, suddenly alert.

’’As much as I don\'t want to give my wife\'s murderer any attention on her day, I have to say something about it,’’ Mr. Clark went on in a grave voice. ’’Whoever you are, for whatever reason you did this, I will find you. Just like I\'m going to find the person who killed my daughter.’’

The crowd erupted into whispers. Aria blinked hard, the words taking a few seconds to sink in. She looked at her friends. What did he just say? she mouthed. Her head started to spin. This can\'t be happening.

Mr. Clark made a waving motion for everyone to calm down. ’’This is going to come out, so I might as well tell everyone here. I had an autopsy done on Tabitha\'s remains. Her cause of death wasn\'t alcohol-related. She was murdered.’’

Everyone started to talk even louder. The back of Aria\'s throat tightened so much that she could hardly breathe. Her friends were staring back at her, just as stunned.

A loud buzz sounded from Aria\'s phone. A half-second later, Emily\'s phone lit up, as did Hanna\'s and Spencer\'s. Aria looked at the others in puzzlement, then glanced down at her phone. Her throat closed and her stomach suddenly felt on fire. One new text message, the screen said.

Aria opened it. Her vision momentarily went white.

That\'s right, bitches Daddy\'s on to you. How long do you think it\'ll take the police to realize you were at both crime scenes? A

’’Oh my God,’’ Spencer whispered. She whipped her head up and looked around. ’’Guys, is A . . .’’

’’. . . here?’’ Hanna finished.

Aria stared out at the church full of people from school, from town, from her past. A high-pitched giggle spiraled through the air and at that very moment, a figure slipped out the back door, slamming it shut.


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