Kimberly Belle The Last Breath

ISBN 13: 9781491585498

The Last Breath

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9781491585498: The Last Breath
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From a remarkable new voice in suspenseful women's fiction comes an emotionally searing drama about a woman who risks her life to discover the devastating truth about her family....

Humanitarian aid worker Gia Andrews chases disasters around the globe for a living. It's the perfect lifestyle to keep her far away from her own personal ground zero. Sixteen years ago, Gia's father was imprisoned for brutally killing her stepmother. Now he's come home to die of cancer, and she's responsible for his care—and coming to terms with his guilt.

Gia reluctantly resumes the role of daughter to the town's most infamous murderer, a part complete with protesters on the lawn and death threats that are turning tragedy into front-page news. Returning to life in small-town Tennessee involves rebuilding relationships that distance and turmoil have strained, though finding an emotional anchor in the attractive hometown bartender is certainly helping Gia cope.

As the past unravels before her, Gia will find herself torn between the stories that her family, their friends and neighbors, and even her long-departed stepmother have believed to be real all these years. But in the end, the truth—and all the lies that came before—may have deadlier consequences than she could have ever anticipated....

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About the Author:

Kimberly S. Belle grew up in Eastern Tennessee, in a small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. Her four years at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta were a quick pit stop on her quest to see the world. After a bit of wandering she landed in the Netherlands, where she lived among the windmills and tulips for more than a decade. But the draw of Dixie was too strong. Kimberly returned and put down roots - permanent ones - in Atlanta, though she always keeps her passport current.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FOR AID WORKERS, HOME CAN MEAN A LOT of things. A two-bedroom ranch with a picket fence. A fourth-story walk-up in the city. A mud hut under a banana tree. A country listed on a passport. It can be big or small or anything in between.

One thing all these homes share, though, is that aid workers miss them. They long to go there. They are homesick.

Not me. I've spent the past sixteen years running from my home, and what happened there. Could have lived the rest of my life never returning to the place where I will always be known as the murderer's daughter.

And yet here I sit in my old driveway, in a rental parked behind a shiny new Buick. More than thirty-six hours into this new disaster—my disaster—and I've accomplished exactly nothing more than a crusty coffee stain down the front of my jeans and a mean case of jet lag.

Embrace the chaos, Gia. Over the course of the past seven thousand miles, it has become my mantra.

Uncle Cal climbs out of his car, and he's wearing his usual outfit: gleaming reptile skin stretched across pointy cowboy boots, Brooks Brothers suit of smoky pin-striped wool, black leather jacket worn soft and supple. Here in the hills of Appalachia, it's a look perfectly suitable for church, a fancy restaurant or a courtroom. As one of the highest paid criminal lawyers in Tennessee, Cal's worn it in all three.

I follow his lead and step out of the rental. It's mid-February and Rogersville—a tiny blip on the Eastern Tennessee map—is in the death throes of winter. My ancient fleece is not equipped to handle the Appalachian Mountain cold, and I long for my winter coat, still in mothballs in a London suburb. Cal opens his arms and I step into their warmth, inhaling his familiar scent, a combination of leather, designer aftershave and Juicy Fruit gum.

"Welcome home, baby girl," he says into my hair.

Home.

I twist my neck to face the house I've not seen for sixteen years, and a shudder of something unpleasant hits me between the shoulder blades. Once a place that instilled in me a sense of refuge and comfort, this house now provokes the exact opposite. Grief. Fear. Dread. This house isn't home. Home shouldn't give you the creeps.

Cal's hands freeze on my protruding scapula and he steps back, his gaze traveling down my frame. Thanks to a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning last month, it's a good ten pounds lighter than the last time he hugged me, back when I was already high-school skinny. "I thought you were putting an end to the famine, not succumbing to it."

"If you're ever on the Horn of Africa, you should probably stay away from the street stalls in Dadaab. Just because they claim their meat is fresh doesn't mean it's true. Or for that matter, that it's even meat."

"Good tip." He pulls the toothpick from his molars and gives me his trademark squint, but there's a smile in his tone. "I'll try to remember that."

A lucky break Cal had called it when he finally tracked me down in Kenya. There was more, something about a perjury scandal and a diagnosis that required full-time, in-home hospice care, but by then I wasn't really listening. I was too busy wondering on what planet capping off sixteen years of high-security confinement by coming home to die would be considered lucky.

I swallow a sudden lump. "Is he in a lot of pain?"

Cal doesn't have to ask who I mean, and at the reminder of the cancer squeezing his only brother's pancreas, grief muddies his brow. "Not yet. But he will be very soon."

The lump returns and puts down roots.

"For an innocent man to end his prison term like this... " He sighs, and his breath makes puffy wisps in the February air. "I've got lots of choice words to say about it, none of them fit for your ears."

From the moment Cal arrived on the scene—before my father was a suspect, before he signed on as my father's attorney, even before Ella Mae's body had been photographed and bagged and carried away—his belief in my father's innocence has been unwavering.

For me, the situation was never that clear. If I thought my father was capable of murder, that he premeditated and carried out a plan to suffocate Ella Mae Andrews, his wife and my stepmother, I'm not certain I could forgive either him or his behavior. In fact, I'm not certain I would even be here, that I would have traveled all this way for a last goodbye.

But I came all this way because I'm not certain. In my father's case, the evidence is unclear, the testimony conflicted. The shadows of my doubt run in both directions.

I stuff my icy hands into my front jeans pockets and shiver, not merely from the cold.

Cal takes the gesture as his cue and reaches into his pocket, where a set of keys jingles. "Ready to get inside before you freeze to death?"

No. My heart races, and every tiny hair soldiers to attention on the back of my neck, commanding me to run. Never again. No.

"Ready as I'll ever be."

I follow Cal up the five steps to the wraparound porch, summoning the detached efficiency that's made me one of Earth Aid International's top disaster relief experts. I can't manage even an ounce of objectivity. This disaster is too close, its aftermath still too painful. I can't detach from its reality.

A reality that, according to the doctors, could last anywhere from three weeks to three months.

"The renters moved out about six months ago," Cal says without turning his head, searching through his key ring for the right one. The sisal mat under his feet mocks me with its cheery message: Welcome, Guests. As if anyone but me and Cal will be stepping on it, waiting to be invited in to pay their last respects. Not in a Million Years would be more like it.

"Good timing, I suppose."

"I've had the house painted. And all the furniture is new. Appliances, too."

"What happened to Dad's old stuff?"

"I donated most of the furniture and clothes to Goodwill after the trial. The rest is in a storage facility in Morristown. I'll get you the address and the access combination if you want to head over there."

"I doubt I'll have the time." Or the inclination. Digging through old memories sounds like torture to me.

Uncle Cal twists the key in the handle and the door swings open with a groan, a sound I find eerily appropriate. He steps inside like he owns the place, which I suppose by now he probably does, but I don't follow. I can't. Somebody switched out my sneakers for boots of lead. My knees wobble, and I grip the doorjamb to keep from falling down.

A strange thing happens when a home turns into a crime scene. Its contents are labeled, cataloged and photographed. Walls become scene boundaries, doors and windows, the perpetrator's entry and exit. Seemingly ordinary objects—dust bunnies behind the couch, scuff marks on the stairs, a tarnished nickel under the carpet—take on all sorts of new significance. And the people living there, in a place now roiling with bad memories and even worse juju, no longer think of it as home.

But what about that one spot where the victim took her last breath, where her heart gave its final, frantic beat? What do you do with that place? Build a shrine on top of it, wave a bouquet of smoking sage around it or pretend it's not there?

At the foot of the stairs, Cal stops and turns, studiously ignoring my distress. My gaze plummets to the fake Persian under his feet, and a wave of sick rises from the pit of my belly. Just because I can't see the spot doesn't mean I've forgotten what happened there.

Or for that matter, that I'm ever stepping on it.

"Shut the door, please, Gia."

I take a deep breath, square my shoulders and follow him into the house.

"My assistant Jennie did all the shopping," he says, gesturing with his keys toward the living room. Except for the unmade hospital bed in the corner, the decor—oversize furniture, silk ferns in dark pots, framed paintings of exotic landscapes on the walls—looks plucked from the pages of a Rooms To Go catalog. "I hope it'll do."

I finger a plastic pinecone in a wooden bowl on the dresser and peer down the hallway toward the kitchen. There's literally nothing here that I recognize. Probably better that way. "She did a great job."

"The bedrooms are ready upstairs. Thought we'd let the nurse take the master. You don't mind sharing the hall bath with me on the weekends, do you?"

I smile, hoping it doesn't come across as forced as it feels. "I've gone months with nothing but a bucket, a bar of soap and a muddy stream. I think I can handle sharing a bathroom."

One corner of Cal's mouth rises in what looks almost like pride. "You'd make someone a fine huntin' partner."

He motions for me to follow him into the kitchen at the back of the house, where he points to a credit card and iPhone on the Formica counter. "Jennie stocked the kitchen with the basics, but there's enough money on that account to buy anything else you need. You probably won't need it for a couple of days, though."

I peek into the refrigerator, check the cabinets above the coffee machine, peer around the corner into the open pantry. "There's enough food here to feed half of Hawkins County for weeks."

Cal smiles. "That's the great thing about Jennie. She always goes above and beyond." He plucks the iPhone from the counter and passes it to me. "She also programmed all the numbers you'll need into the phone. The lead officer assigned to the case will be calling to set up a meeting first thing tomorrow morning. The hospice nurse arrives tomorrow morning at eight, and the motorcade and ambulance with your father, sometime before noon. And the local doctors, hospitals and the funeral home have been notified."

"Sounds like everything's been taken care of."

He smiles, and his voice softens. "Just trying to make things as easy as possible for you, darlin'. I know you'd rather be anywhere but here."

I think of some of the worst places I've been sent. Overpopulated Dhaka, where if the water doesn't kill you, the air will. The slums of Abidjan after floods and mudslides have swept away too many of its children. The dusty streets of Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, where malnutrition and cholera compete for leading cause of death.

Uncle Cal has a point.

"And don't think you're completely out here on your own," he says after a long stretch of silence. "I'm less than an hour down the road, and so are your brother and sister. Do me a favor and don't let either of them off the hook, okay? This concerns their father, too."

I half nod, half shrug. When it comes to our father, Bo would rather bury himself in his work than admit the situation affects him, while Lexi prefers to pretend he's already dead. How can I let my siblings off the hook when neither of them are willing to acknowledge there is one? It seems as if the only person not getting off the hook around here is me.

Cal pulls me in for a hug, dropping a kiss on the top of my head. "Call me anytime, okay? Day or night. I'll pick up, no matter where I am or what I'm doing."

"Promise?"

"I promise." His tone is reassuring, but he's already backing away, already moving toward the door. "I'll see you Saturday morning."

He gives my shoulder one last squeeze and disappears into the hallway, and I'm slammed with a wave of panic. Disasters and destruction of global magnitude I can handle. Facing my father alone, not so much.

I rush down the hall in his wake. "Uncle Cal?"

The desperate note in my voice stops him at the door, and he turns to face me.

"Explain to me again why you can't stay. Why you won't be here tomorrow when Dad gets here."

He scrubs a hand through his hair, now salt-and-pepper but still thick and shiny as ever. "Because I'm busy stalling the retrial. God willing and the creek don't rise, your father won't spend another second of his life in either a courtroom or a prison cell."

A casket sure seems like the ultimate prison to me.

A few seconds later he's gone, leaving me to wonder how I ended up here. In a town I vowed never to return to. In a house filled with ghosts and memories I'll never outrun. In a life I have spent the past sixteen years trying to escape.

But most of all, I wonder how I ended up here alone.

2

BACK IN THE HOUSE, I PUT ON A KETTLE AND rummage through the cabinets for tea. Cal's assistant must be either misinformed or seriously delusional about the number of mourners we will be expecting because she bought us a 312-count, industrial-sized box of Lipton tea bags. If we get through even one row of them, it will be a miracle. I rip open the cellophane wrapping with my teeth, pull out a bag and drop it into a yellow ceramic mug.

The sharp, bitter scent reminds me of some of my British colleagues, who are convinced a spot of tea is the cure to all emotional ails. My boss, Elsie, a hard-nosed type, drinks enough of the stuff to poison her liver...thanks to the generous splash of bourbon she adds when things in the field get really hairy. If only life were that easy.

Unlike the satellite phone I carry in the field, Cal's iPhone has only a handful of contacts, most of them people I've never met and, after burying my father, will probably never think of again. It doesn't take me long to find Bo.

His cell goes straight to voice mail, so I leave what must be my fifth message in as many days, careful to keep my voice level. Five years older and light-years more serious, my brother has always preferred that people reserve their zeal for backyard fireworks and the Nature Channel, and he doesn't respond well to gushing.

I have better success with Lexi, who picks up on the second ring. I abandon my tea and squeal, "Lexi!"

Unlike Bo, my sister welcomes enthusiasm. Demands it, even.

"Is it true? Is it really true?" Lexi's familiar voice, the same gravelly one that used to give boys all over Hawkins County wet dreams. "Did my do-gooder little sister finally come home from Lord knows where?"

"It's true that I'm here, yes. But nowadays, home is in Kenya."

"Well, laa-tee-daa." She stretches out her words, loads them up with an extra serving of Tennessee twang. "Don't that sound fancy."

I snort at what I know to be a joke. Lexi is no dummy. She has a master's in finance from Stanford, runs a local chain of banks and could kick even Alex Trebek's ass at Jeopardy. Not only is she aware of my latest whereabouts, she knows Dadaab is pretty much the polar opposite of fancy. My chest seizes with a wave of sudden affection for my sister, who I haven't hugged in...six years? Has it really been that long?

"Where are you?" I say, switching gears. "Because I'm coming there right after I lock up the house."

"I'm going to need a little more time than that." Her tone takes a serious turn, matching mine, and her voice and vowels soften into the more generic timbre she perfected in college. Less country hick, more Southern belle. Unlike me, Lexi can turn her accent on and off like a faucet. "I'm about to head into a staff meeting, but I could meet you after for a late dinner. Say, seventhirty?"

I check my watch. Three and a half hours I...

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9780778317838: The Last Breath: A Novel

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ISBN 10:  0778317838 ISBN 13:  9780778317838
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Kimberly Belle
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ISBN 10: 1491585498 ISBN 13: 9781491585498
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