Authors: Kimberly Belle
A moving and evocative exploration of grief and guilt in the wake of one family’s devastating loss
When former DC journalist Abigail Wolff attempts to rehabilitate her career, she finds herself at the heart of a US army cover-up involving the death of a soldier in Afghanistan—with unspeakable emotional consequences for one family. As the story of what happened comes to light, Abigail will do anything to write it.
The more evidence she stumbles upon in the case, the fewer people it seems she can trust, including her own father, a retired army general. And she certainly never expected to fall in love with the slain soldier’s brother, Gabe, a bitter man struggling to hold his family together. The investigation eventually leads her to an impossible choice, one of unrelenting sacrifice to protect those she loves.
Beyond the buried truths and betrayals, questions of family loyalty and redemption, Abigail’s search is, most of all, a desperate grasp at carrying on and coping—and seeking hope in the impossible.
Praise for Kimberly Belle and
The Last Breath
“Painstakingly emotional…will surprise readers to the very end...it’s so worth it!”
RT Book Reviews
“Belle’s engaging debut brings the reader into [an] emotionally tangled world.”
“Belle’s a smooth writer whose characters are vibrant and truly reflect the area where the novel is set.”
The Last Breath
will leave you breathless. This edgy and emotional thriller will keep you guessing until the very end.”
New York Times
bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf
“Powerful and complex with an intensity drawn out through each page,
The Last Breath
is a story of forgiveness and betrayal and one I couldn’t put down!”
New York Times
bestselling author Steena Holmes
Also by Kimberly Belle
The Last Breath
To the women and men who risk their lives every day for our country,
and for the people who love them.
There’s a thin, fragile line that separates us all from misfortune. A place where life teeters on a razor’s edge, and everything boils down to one single, solitary second. Where either you will whiz past the Mack truck blissfully unaware, or you will slam into it head-on. Where there’s a before, and then, without warning or apology, there’s an after.
For the past three years, I’ve rewound to those last
moments, moments I was still blissfully unaware I was about to be blindsided. I’ve tried to pinpoint the very spot when tragedy struck. It wasn’t when Chelsea took her last breath, though that was certainly a tragedy. No, the tipping point was somewhere in the days leading up to her death, when her story was barreling like a deadly virus across the internet, snowballing and mutating and infecting everyone it touched. Infecting
with words I wrote and sent out into the world. I guess you could say I poisoned her with them.
To the rest of the world, Chelsea Vogel looked like any other white, American, middle-class mother in her early thirties. On the dowdy side of forgettable, one of those women you acknowledge with a bland smile as she pushes her cart by yours in the grocery store, or idles patiently in her car while you hang up the gas pump and climb back behind the wheel of yours. You see her but, for the life of you, couldn’t pick her out of a lineup five minutes later.
But underneath all that dull suburban facade burned a big, bright secret.
I had no idea of any of this, of course, that rainy Tuesday afternoon I walked into her slightly shabby offices south of Baltimore to interview her for iWoman.com, the online news magazine I was reporting for at the time. I only knew that as the founder and CEO of American Society for Truth, Chelsea was an outspoken opponent of gay rights, one who preached about God-ordained sexuality and the natural family to anyone who would listen. And people seemed to be listening, especially once she became a regular contributor on conservative news senders.
“I’m Abigail Wolff,” I told the receptionist, a slight woman by the name of Maria Duncan. “I have an interview with Mrs. Vogel.”
Maria offered me coffee and showed me to the conference room. I noticed her because she was pretty—short pixie hair, a fresh face, clothes that were fashionable but not flashy. But I remember her because two weeks later, she slid me the story that ended my career.
“Here,” she said to me that day, shoving a file across the table before I’d settled into the seat across from her. “This is for you.”
I’d known when she asked me to meet her at a Cracker Barrel in Linthicum Heights just south of Baltimore, it wasn’t to become friends over sweet teas and biscuits. But never in a million years would I have guessed what greeted me when I opened that file. Dozens and dozens of photographs, each one dated and timed, of a naked Maria and Chelsea. In bed, on the backseat of a minivan, atop both of their desks.
“Who took these?” I said, flipping through them. Judging by the low resolution and awkward angles, I was placing my money on a hidden camera, and an inexpensive one.
Maria shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. They’re real. There’s a DVD in there, too, with about twenty different videos.”
I pushed everything back into the file and closed the cover. Maria was well above legal age, probably somewhere in her mid to late twenties. That didn’t mean, however, that Chelsea Vogel wasn’t a predator, or that the affair wouldn’t be one hell of a story...and a byline.
But still. If this story hit, Maria needed to know what she was in for.
“What do you think your family will say when they open up their morning newspaper and see these?”
Her chin went up. “There’s no one to see it. The only family I had left died last year.”
“Your friends, then. Do any of them know you’re sleeping with your female boss?”
“I don’t...” She glanced down at the table, then lifted her gaze to mine, clinging to it like maple syrup, thick and sticky. “I just moved here from Detroit. The people here aren’t exactly friendly.”
I took this to mean she hadn’t made very many friends yet.
I gestured to the envelope between us. “So, what’s this about, then? Is it to get attention? To prove to people that you’re loved? Because I can guarantee you people are going to think a lot of things when they see these pictures, but not much of it’s going to be nice.”
“I don’t give a shit what people think. This isn’t about getting noticed. This is about Chelsea Vogel taking advantage of me. She was my
, and she used her position of authority to make me think she loved me.”
“So this story is about revenge.”
“No.” Maria’s answer was immediate and emphatic. “This story is about justice. What she did to me may not be a crime, officially, but it was still wrong. She should still be punished.”
“Take it to the HR department. They’ll make sure Chelsea Vogel is fired, and they’ll be inclined to keep things quiet.”
the HR department, don’t you get it? American Society for Truth is
project. And I don’t want to be quiet. I’m done being quiet. I’m the victim here, and I want Chelsea to pay.”
I told myself it was the righteousness in her tone, the resolve creasing her brow and fisting her hands that convinced me, and not the idea of my name attached to a story that I knew, I
would go viral.
“I’ll do what I can to protect your identity, but you need to be aware that there’s a very real probability it’ll get out, and when it does, every single second of your life will be altered. Not just now, but tomorrow and the next day and the next. This scandal—and make no mistake about it, this is a scandal for
just as much as it is for
—will follow you for the rest of your life. You’ll never be anonymous ever again.”
She swallowed, thought for a long moment. “I think I still want you to write the story.”
“You think? Or you know?” I leaned forward and watched her closely. Not just her answer but also her body language would determine my course of action.
“I know.” She straightened her back, squared her shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. “I want you to write the story.”
So that’s what I did. I wrote the story.
I did everything right, too. I checked facts and questioned witnesses, volunteers and employees at neighboring businesses and the building janitor. I made sure the evidence had not been digitally altered, compared the dates and times on the photographs to both women’s work and home schedules. I held back Maria’s name, blurred out faces, released only the least damning of the pictures, the ones where there was no way, no possible way Maria would be recognized. I did every goddamn thing right, but within twenty-four hours of my story breaking, Maria’s identity, along with every single one of the photographs and videos in clear, full-color focus, exploded across the internet anyway. Just as, if I’m being completely honest with myself, I knew they would.
Two weeks later, on a beautiful January morning, Chelsea Vogel hung herself in the shower. I wasn’t there when it happened, of course, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t responsible for her death. After all, those were
words that made her drive those five miles in her minivan to the Home Depot for a length of braided rope, then haul it home and knot it around her neck. I knew when I put them out there that
women’s lives would be changed. I just never dreamed one of them would also end.
Secrets are a sneaky little seed. You can hide them, you can bury them, you can disguise them and cover them up. But then, just when you think your secret has rotted away and decayed into nothing, it stirs back to life. It sprouts roots and stems, crawls its way through the mud and muck, growing and climbing and bursting through the surface, blooming for everyone to see. That’s the lesson here. The truth always comes out eventually.
But I can no longer be the one to write about it.
It’s the strangest thing, running into someone famous.
First, you get that initial rush of recognition, a fast flare of adrenaline that quickens your pulse and prickles your skin with awareness.
Oh, my God. Is that...? Holy shit, it
Your body gears up for a greeting—a friendly smile, a slightly giddy wave, a high-pitched and breathy hello—when you suddenly realize that though this person may be one of the most recognizable faces in greater DC and the nation, to him you are an unfamiliar face, a stranger. You are just any other woman pushing her cart through the aisles of Handyman Market.
And then you notice the red apron, the name tag that proclaims him Handyman, the light coating of sawdust on his jeans, and realize that to Gabe Armstrong, you’re not just any other woman.
You’re any other
“Need some help finding anything?” he asks.
I am not a person easily flustered by fame. I’ve interviewed heads of state and royalty, movie stars and music moguls, crime bosses and terrorists. Only one time—
—in all those years did I lose my shit, and that was when I interviewed Gabe’s older brother Zach.
’s Sexiest Man Alive, the Hollywood golden boy who chucked his big-screen career to die in a war that, on the day he enlisted, fifty-seven percent of Americans considered a mistake. But when Zach aimed his famous smile on me that afternoon, a mere eleven days before he shipped off to basic training, I forgot every single one of the questions I thought I had memorized, and I had to fire up my laptop on the hood of my car to retrieve them.
But not so with Gabe here, who is not so much famous as infamous. There’s not an American alive who doesn’t remember his drunken performance at his brother’s funeral, when he slurred his way through a nationally televised speech, then saluted the Honor Guards with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s clutched in a fist as furious as his expression.
And his image has only gone downhill since.
are some of the more colorful words the media uses to describe him in print, and their adjectives lean toward the obscene when they’re off the record. Part of their censure has to do with Gabe’s role as family gatekeeper, with his thus-far successful moves to thwart their attempts at an interview with his mother or brother Nick, crouched a few feet away when three bullets tore through Zach’s skull.
But the other part, and a not-so-small part, is that he answers their every single question, even “How are you today?” with a “No fucking comment.”
I clear my throat, consult my list. “Where do you keep your tile cutters?”
Gabe doesn’t miss a beat. “Snap and score or angle grinders?”
“Wet saw, actually. I hear they’re the best for minimizing dust.”
“True, as long as you don’t mind the hike in price.” When I shake my head, he continues. “How big’s your tile?”
“Twelve by twelve,” I say as if I’m reciting my social security number.
And that’s when the absurdity hits me. I’m discussing tile saws with Zach Armstrong’s younger brother. One who so closely resembles his big-screen brother that it’s almost eerie. If I didn’t know for a fact that Zach died on an Afghani battlefield last year, I might think I’d stumbled onto a movie set...one for
The Twilight Zone
Gabe motions for me to follow him. “I’ve got a table model with a diamond blade that’s good for both stone and ceramic. It’s sturdy, its cuts are clean and precise, and it’s fairly affordable. What are you tiling?”
He stops walking and asks to see my list, and I know what he’s doing. He’s checking it. Inspecting for mistakes. Looking for holes. If he had a red pen, he’d mark it up and tell me to revise and resubmit.
Gabe glances up through a lifted brow. “What’s the sledgehammer for?”
“To take out the built-in closet. It’ll give me another three feet of vanity space.”
My answer earns me an impressed nod. “Are you planning on moving any fixtures?”
They could almost be twins, really. Same towering height and swimmer’s build, same dark features and angular bone structure, same neat sideburns that trail down his cheeks like perfectly clipped tassels. I take all of it in and try not to let on that I know exactly who he is.
“Nope. Same floor plan, just a thorough update of pretty much every inch. I’m fairly certain I can do everything but the plumbing and electricity myself.”
“I can get you a few referrals, if you’d like.” He looks up for my nod, then returns to the list. I give him all the time he needs, leaning with my forearms onto the cart handle and waiting for his assessment.
Gabe may be Harvard educated, but I happen to know I’ve made no mistakes on that list. I approached this project as I do every other these days: by scouring the internet for relevant articles, handpicking the most important facts and condensing them into one organized document. My bathroom has been content curated to within an inch of its life, and that list is perfect down to the very last nut and bolt.
He passes me back the paper with an impressed grin. “You’ve really done your homework.”
“I’m excellent at research.”
“Almost excellent.” He taps the list with a long finger. “You forgot the silicone caulk.”
I straighten, shaking my head. “No, I didn’t. I already have three tubes at home from when you guys had your buy two, get two free special.”
“What happened to the fourth?”
“I used it last week to re-caulk the kitchen sink.”
Amusement half cocks his grin. He nudges me aside to take charge of my cart. “Come on. We’ll start on aisle twelve and work our way forward.”
And that’s just what we do. Gabe loops us through the aisles, loading up my cart as well as another he fetches from the front as we check off every item on my list, even the items Gabe assures me there’s no way, no possible way I will ever need. I tell him if it’s on the list, to throw it in anyway. The entire expedition takes us the better part of an hour, and by the time we make it to the register, both carts are bulging.
He waits patiently while I fork over half a month’s salary to the gray-haired cashier, then helps me cram all my goods into the back of my Prius.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything else?” He has to lean three times on the hatchback door to click it closed. “Because I think we might have a couple of rusty screws left in the back somewhere.”
“Old overachiever habits are hard to break, I guess.” I grin.
He grins back, the skin of his right cheek leaning into the hint of a dimple. “It was a pretty fierce list. Very thorough. One might even say overly so.”
“I told you I was—”
“Excellent at research,” he interrupts, still grinning. “I remember. But preparation is only half the battle.”
His tone and expression are teasing, and I imitate both. “Are you doubting my competence?”
“Hell, no. Anyone who can make a list like yours is fully capable of looking up instructions on the internet. All I’m saying is, if you happen to run into any problems with the execution and need an experienced handyman...” He cocks a brow and gestures with a thumb to his apron,
embroidered in big white letters across the front.
I laugh. “I’ll remember that.”
This is when he smiles again, big and wide, and it completely transforms his face. It’s a smile that’s just as fierce, just as sexy and magnetic as his look-alike brother’s, yet somehow, Gabe makes it his own. Maybe it’s the way his left cheek takes a second or two longer to catch up with his right, or the way his eyeteeth are swiveled just a tad inward. Maybe it’s the way his eyes crinkle into slits, and that dimple grows into a deep split. Whatever it is, Gabe’s smile is extraordinary in that it’s so
, lopsided and uneven and unpracticed for red carpets and film cameras, and in that moment, I forget all about his famous brother. In that moment, I see only Gabe.
But now we’ve milked the moment for all it’s worth, and it’s time to go.
“Thanks for everything,” I say, reaching for my door. “Really. You’ve been a huge help.”
Gabe waves off my thanks, but he doesn’t turn to go. He stands there while I get settled, watching as I start the engine and fiddle with the gearshift, and then he stops me with a knuckle to the glass.
I hit the button for the window. “Don’t tell me I forgot something.”
“Yes,” he says, that extraordinarily ordinary smile nudging at the edges of his expression. “You forgot to tell me your name.”
“Abigail.” I extend my hand through the window, and his face blooms into a smile I can’t help but return. “Abigail Wolff.”
“Nice to meet you, Abigail Wolff. Gabe Armstrong.”
He shakes my hand, and a surge of solidarity for this stranger-who’s-not-quite-a-stranger spreads over my skin. I want to tell him I get it. I understand how one person’s death can tilt your entire world into a tailspin, how it can make you reevaluate your life and send you scurrying for a dead-end job in a dusty hardware store, how that one choice, that one event, that one split second can change everything.
Instead, I tell him goodbye, shove the gear stick into Reverse and point my car toward home.