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Authors: Carey Baldwin

Confession

 

CONFESSION

CAREY BALDWIN

 

DEDICATION

For Shannon.

First little light of my life.

 

PROLOGUE

Saint Catherine's School for Boys

Near Santa Fe, New Mexico

Ten years ago—­Friday, August 15, 11:00
P.M.

I
'm not afraid of going to hell. Not one damn bit.

We're deep in the woods, miles from the boys' dormitory, and my thighs are burning because I walked all this way with Sister Bernadette on my back. Now I've got her laid out on the soggy ground underneath a hulking ponderosa pine. A bright rim of moonlight encircles her face. Black robes flow around her, engulfing her small body and blending with the night. Her face, floating on top of all that darkness, reminds me of a ghost head in a haunted house—­but she's not dead.

Not yet.

My cheek stings where Sister scratched me. I wipe the spot with my sleeve and sniff the air soaked with rotting moss, sickly-­sweet pinesap, and fresh piss. I pissed myself when I clubbed her on the head with that croquet mallet. Ironic, since my pissing problem is why I picked Sister Bernadette in the first place. She ought to have left that alone.

I hear a gurgling noise.

Good.

Sister Bernadette is starting to come around.

This is what I've been waiting for.

With her rosary wound tightly around my forearm, the grooves of the carved sandalwood beads cutting deep into the flesh of my wrist, I squat on rubber legs, shove my hands under her armpits, and drag her into a sitting position against the fat tree trunk. Her head slumps forward, but I yank her by the hair until her face tilts up, and her cloudy eyes open to meet mine. Her lips are moving. Syllables form within the bubbles coming out of her mouth. I press my stinging cheek against her cold, sticky one.

Like a lover, she whispers in my ear, “God is merciful.”

The nuns have got one fucked-­up idea of mercy.

“Repent.” She's gasping. “Heaven  . . .”

“I'm too far gone for heaven.”

The God I know is just and fierce and is never going to let a creep like me through the pearly gates because I say a few Hail Marys. “God metes out justice, and that's how I know
I
will not be going to heaven.”

To prove my point, I draw back, pull out my pocketknife, and press the silver blade against her throat. Tonight, I am more than a shadow. A shadow can't feel the weight of the knife in his palm. A shadow can't shiver in anticipation. A shadow is not to be feared, but I am not a shadow. Not in this moment.

She moves her lips some more, but this time, no sound comes out. I can see in her eyes what she wants to say to me.
Don't do it.
You'll go to hell.

I twist the knife so that the tip bites into the sweet hollow of her throat. “I'm not afraid of going to hell.”

It's the idea of
purgatory
that makes my teeth hurt and my stomach cramp and my shit go to water. I mean, what if my heart isn't black enough to guarantee me a passage straight to hell? What if God slams down his gavel, and says,
Son, you're a sinner, but I have to take your family situation into account. That's a mitigating circumstance.

A single drop of blood drips off my blade like a tear.

“What if God sends me to purgatory?” My words taste like puke on my tongue. “I'd rather dangle over a fiery pit for eternity than spend a single day of the afterlife in a place like this one.”

I watch a spider crawl across her face.

My thoughts crawl around my brain like that spider.

You could make a pretty good case, I think, that St. Catherine's School for Boys is earth's version of purgatory. I mean, it's a place where you don't exist. A place where no one curses you, but no one loves you, either. Sure, back home, your father hits you and calls you a bastard, but you
are
a bastard, so it's okay he calls you one. Behind me, I hear the sound of rustling leaves and cast a glance over my shoulder.

Do it! You want to get into hell, don't you?

I turn back to Sister and flick the spider off her cheek.

The spider disappears, but I'm still here.

At St. Catherine's, no one notices you enough to knock you around. Every day is the same as the one that came before it, and the one that's coming after. At St. Catherine's, you wait and wait for your turn to leave, only guess what, you dumb-­ass bastard, your turn is
never
going to come, because you, my friend, are in purgatory, and you can't get out until you repent.

Sister Bernadette lets out another gurgle.

I spit right in her face.

I won't repent, and I can't bear to spend eternity in purgatory, which is I why I came up with a plan. A plan that'll rocket me straight past purgatory, directly to hell.

Sister Bernadette is the first page of my blueprint. I have the book to guide me the rest of the way. For her sake, not mine, I make the sign of the cross.

She's not moving, but her eyes are open, and I hear her breathing. I want her to know she is going to die. “You are going to help me get into hell. In return, I will help you get into heaven.”

I shake my arm and loosen the rosary. The strand slithers down my wrist. One bead after another drops into my open palm, electrifying my skin at the point of contact. My blood zings through me, like a high-­voltage current. I am not a shadow.

A branch snaps, making my hands shake with the need to hurry.

What are you waiting for, my friend?

Is Sister Bernadette afraid?

She has to be. Hungry for her fear, I squeeze my thighs together, then I push my face close and look deep in her eyes.

“The blood of the lamb will wash away your sins.” She gasps, and her eyes roll back. “Repent.”

My heart slams shut.

I begin the prayers.

 

ONE

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Present Day—­Saturday, July 20, 1:00
P.M.

M
an, she's something.

Luke Jericho halted midstride, and the sophisticated chatter around him dimmed to an indistinct buzz. Customers jamming the art gallery had turned the air hot, and the aromas of perfume and perspiration clashed. His gaze sketched the cut muscles of the woman's shoulders before swerving to the tantalizing V of her low-­back dress. There, slick fabric met soft skin just in time to hide the thong she must be wearing. His fingers found the cold silk knot of his tie and worked it loose. He let his glance dot down the line of her spine, then swoop over the arc of her ass. It was the shimmer of Mediterranean blue satin, illuminated beneath art lights, that had first drawn his eye, her seductive shape that had pulled him up short, but it was her stance—­her pose—­that had his blood expanding like hot mercury under glass.

Head tilted, front foot cocked back on its stiletto, the woman studied one of Luke's favorite pieces—­his brother Dante's mixed-­media. A piece Luke had hand-­selected and quietly inserted into this show of local artists in the hopes a positive response might bolster his brother's beleaguered self-­esteem.

The woman couldn't take her eyes off the piece, and he couldn't take his eyes off the woman. Her right arm floated, as if she were battling the urge to reach out and touch the multitextured painting. Though her back was to him, he could picture her face, pensive, enraptured. Her lips would be parted and sensual. He savored the swell of her bottom beneath the blue dress. Given the way the fabric clung to her curves, he'd obviously guessed right about the thong. She smoothed the satin with her hand, and he rubbed the back of his neck with his palm.
Ha.
Any minute now, she'd turn and ruin his fantasy with what was sure to turn out to be the most ordinary mug in the room.

And then she did turn, and damned if her mug wasn't ordinary at all, but she didn't appear enraptured. Inquisitive eyes, with a distinct undercurrent of melancholy, searched the room and found him. Then, delicate brows raised high, her mouth firmed into a hard line—­even thinned, her bloodred lips were temptation itself—­she jerked to a rigid posture and marched, yeah, marched, straight at him.

Hot ass. Great mouth. Damn lot of nerve.

“I could feel your stare,” she said.

“Kind of full of yourself, honey.”

A flush of scarlet flared across her chest, leading his attention to her lovely, natural breasts, mostly, but not entirely, concealed by a classic neckline. With effort, he raised his eyes to meet hers. Green. Skin, porcelain. Hair, fiery—­like her cheeks—­and flowing. She looked like a mermaid. Not the soft kind, the kind with teeth.

“I don't like to be ogled.” Apparently, she intended to stand her ground.

He decided to stand his as well. That low-­back number she had on might be considered relatively tame in a room with more breasts on display than a Picasso exhibit, but there was something about
the way she wore it.
“Then you shouldn't have worn that dress, darlin'.”

Her brow arched higher in challenge. “Which is it? Honey or darlin'?”

“Let's go with honey. You look sweet.” Not at the moment she didn't, but he'd sure like to try to draw the sugar out of her. This woman was easily as interesting and no less beautiful than his best gallery piece, and she didn't seem to be reacting to him per the usual script. He noticed his hand floating up, reaching out, just as her hand had reached for the painting. Like his mesmerizing customer, he knew better than to touch the display, but it was hard to resist the urge.

Her body drew back, and her shoulders hunched. “You're aware there's a serial killer on the loose?”

Luke, you incredible ass.

No wonder she didn't appreciate his lingering looks. Every woman he knew was on full alert. The Jericho charm might or might not be able to get him out of this one, but he figured she was worth a shot. “Here, in this gallery? In broad daylight?” He searched the room with his gaze and made his tone light. “Or are you saying you don't like being sized up for the kill?” He patted his suit pockets, made a big show of it, then stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I seem to have misplaced my rosary somewhere; I don't suppose you've seen it?”

Her shoulders eased back to a natural position.

“Seriously, do I look like someone who'd be called
the Saint
?”

If the glove doesn't fit. . .

Her lips threatened to curve up at the corners. “No. I don't suppose you do.” Another beat, then her smile bloomed in earnest. “Looking a little is one thing, maybe it's even flattering . . . but you seem to have exceeded your credit line.”

He turned his palms up. “Then I'd like to apply for an increase.”

At that, her pretty head tipped back, and she laughed, a big genuine laugh. It was the kind of laugh that was a touch too hearty for a polished society girl, which perhaps she wasn't after all. It was also the kind of laugh he'd like to hear again. Of its own accord, his hand found his heart. “Listen, I'm honest-­to-­God sorry if I spooked you. That wasn't my intention.”

Her expression was all softness now.

“Do you like the painting?” he asked, realizing that he cared more than he should about the answer.

“It's quite . . . dark.” Her bottom lip shivered with the last word, and he could sense she found Dante's painting disturbing.

Always on the defensive where his brother was concerned, his back stiffened. He tugged at his already loosened tie. “Artists are like that. I don't judge them.”

“Of course. I-­I wasn't judging the artist. I was merely making an observation about the painting. It's expressive, beautiful.”

Relaxing his stance, he pushed a hand through his hair.

She pushed a hand through her hair, then her glance found her fancy-­toed shoes. “Maybe I overreacted, maybe you weren't even staring.”

Giving in to the urge to touch, he reached out and tilted her chin up until their eyes met. “I'm Luke Jericho, and you had it right the first time. I
was
staring. I was staring at—­” He barely had time to register a startled flash of her green eyes before she turned on her heel and disappeared into the throng of gallery patrons.

He shrugged and said to the space where her scent still sweetened the air, “I was staring at your fascination. Your fascination fascinates me.”

Saturday, July 20, 1:30
P.M.

F
aith Clancy strode across her nearly naked office and tossed her favorite firelight macaron clutch onto her desk. After rushing out of the gallery, she'd come to her office to regroup, mainly because it was nearby.

She could hear Ma's voice now, see her wagging finger. “
Luke Jericho?
Sure'an
you've gone and put your wee Irish foot in the stewpot now, Faith.

Well, it was only a tiny misstep—­what harm could possibly come of it? She braced her palms against the windowsill. Teeth clenched, she heaved with all her might until wood screeched against wood, and the window lurched open.

A full inch.

Swell.

Summers in Santa Fe were supposed to be temperate, and she hadn't invested in an air conditioner for her new office. She sucked in a deep breath, but the currentless summer air brought little relief from the heat. Lifting her hair off the back of her damp neck with one hand, she reached over and dialed on the big standing fan next to the desk with the other. The dinosaur whirred to life without a hiccup.

That made
one
thing gone right today.

The relaxing Saturday afternoon she'd been looking forward to all week had been derailed, thanks to Luke Jericho. Okay, that wasn't even half-­fair. In reality, the wheels of her day had never touched down on the track to begin with. She'd awakened this morning with a knot in her stomach and an ache in her heart—­missing Danny and Katie.

Walk it off,
she'd thought. Dress up. Take in the sights. Act like you're part of the Santa Fe scene, and soon enough you will be. Determined to forget the homesick rumbling in her chest, Faith had plucked a confidence-­boosting little number from her closet, slipped on a pair of heels, and headed out to mingle with polite society. Even if she didn't feel like she fit in, at least she would look the part. But the first gallery she'd entered, she'd dunked her foot in the stewpot—­crossing swords with, and then, even worse,
flirting
with the brother of a patient.

Rather bad luck considering she had just one patient.

Her toe started to tap.

Her gaze swept the office and landed on the only adornment of the freshly painted walls—­her diplomas and certificates, arranged in an impressive display with her psychiatric board certification center stage. A Yale-­educated doctor. Ma and Da would've been proud even if they might've clucked their tongues at the psychiatrist part. She blinked until her vision cleared. It wasn't only Danny and Katie she was missing today.

She kicked off her blasted shoes and shook off her homesick blues . . . only to find her mind returning to the gallery and her encounter with a man who was strictly off-­limits.

There was no point chastising herself for walking into the art gallery in the first place, or for refusing to pretend she didn't notice the man who was eyeing her like she was high tea in a whorehouse and he a starving sailor.

Care for a macaron, sir?

Had she realized her admirer was Luke Jericho, she would've walked away without confronting him, but how was she to know him by sight? It wasn't as if she spent her spare time flipping through photos of town royalty in the society pages.

She'd recognized his name instantly, however, and not only because she was treating his half brother, Dante. The Jericho family had a sprawling ranch outside town and an interest in a number of local businesses. But most of their wealth, she'd heard, came from oil. The Jerichos, at least the legitimate ones, had money. Barrels and barrels of it.

Luke's name was on the lips of every unattached female in town—­from the clerk at the local Shop and Save to the debutant docent at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum:

Single.

Handsome.

Criminally rich.

Luke Jericho,
they whispered.

When she'd turned to find him watching her, his heated gaze had caused her very bones to sizzle. Luke had stood formidably tall, dressed in an Armani suit that couldn't hide his rancher's physique. The gallery lights seemed to spin his straw-­colored hair into gold and ignite blue fire in his eyes. She could still feel his gaze raking over her in that casual way, as if he didn't wish to conceal his appetites. It was easy to see how
some
women might come undone in his presence. She eased closer to the fan.

“Dr. Clancy.”

That low male voice gave her a fizzy, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, like she'd just downed an Alka-­Seltzer on top of the flu. When you're all alone in a room, and someone else speaks, it's just plain creepy.

Icy tendrils of fear wrapped themselves around her chest, squeezing until it hurt her heart to go on beating. The cold certainty that things were not as they should be made the backs of her knees quiver. Then recognition kicked in, and her breath released in a
whoosh.
It had only taken a millisecond to recognize the voice, but at a time when someone dubbed
the Santa Fe Saint
was on a killing spree, that was one millisecond too long.

It's only Dante.

She pasted on a neutral expression and turned to face him. How'd he gotten in? The entrance was locked; she was certain of it.

“Did I frighten you?”

She inclined her head toward the front door to her office, which was indeed locked, and said, “Next time, Dante, I'd prefer you use the main entrance . . . and knock.”

“I came in the back.”

That much was obvious now that she'd regained her wits. “That's my private entrance. It's not intended for use by patients.” Stupid of her to leave it unlocked, but it was midday, and she hadn't expected an ambush.

To buy another moment to compose herself, she went to her bookcase and inspected its contents. Toward the middle, Freud's
Introductory
Lectures on Psychoanalysis
leaned haphazardly in the direction of its opponent, Skinner's
Behavior Therapy
. A paperback version of
A Systems Approach to Family Therapy
had fallen flat, not quite bridging the gap between the warring classics.

Dante crossed the distance between them, finishing directly in front of her, invading her personal space. “Quite right. I didn't mean to startle you.”

She caught a blast of breath, pungent and wrong—­a Listerine candle floating in a jar of whiskey. In self-­defense, she took a step back before looking up at her patient's face. Dante possessed his brother's intimidating height, but unlike Luke, his hair was jet-­black, and his coal-­colored eyes were so dark it was hard to distinguish the pupil from the iris. Despite Dante's dark complexion and the roughness of his features—­he had a previously broken nose and a shiny pink scar that gashed across his cheekbone into his upper lip—­there was a distinct family resemblance between the Jericho brothers. Luke was the fair-­haired son to Dante's black sheep, and even their respective phenotypes fit the cliché.

Dante took a step forward.

She took another deep step back, bumping her rear end against wood. With one hand, she reached behind her and felt for the smooth rim of her desktop. With the other hand, she put up a stop sign. “Stay right where you are.”

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