Albert Camus

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Small secrets... big secrets... Hidden Pieces by Paula Stokes

"Hidden Pieces is the dark, twisted, amped up, I Know What You Did Last Summer-esque YA suspense of my dreams! Paula Stokes delivers a modern classic."
-Gretchen McNeil, author of Ten and #MurderTrending


Published: August 28th, 2018

Embry Woods has secrets. Small ones about her past. Bigger ones about her relationship with town hero Luke and her feelings for someone new. But the biggest secret she carries with her is about what happened that night at the Sea Cliff Inn. The fire. The homeless guy. Everyone thinks Embry is a hero, too, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Embry thinks she’ll have to take the secret to her grave, until she receives an anonymous note—someone else knows the truth. Next comes a series of threatening messages, asking Embry to make impossible choices, forcing her to put her loved ones at risk. Someone is playing a high stakes game where no one in Embry’s life is safe. And their last move...is murder.

Stokes makes the landscape an integral part of the story. Characters, even minor ones, are well developed, as are the subplots. With overtones of Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), this has the OMG quality that makes you afraid to wonder what will happen next.” ―Booklist (starred review)

A character-driven mystery perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti.” ―School Library Journal


    Chapter Two
I push open the back door to the hotel and step into the darkness, frowning at the vaguely musty smell. Betsy and I have been here so many times that we can navigate around the furniture in the faint light provided by the moon and stars. We know where the stairs are. We know where the hallway that leads into the lobby is. We know where the sofa is. Most of all, we know where Holden is—on the floor in the corner, his back up against the wall next to the stone fireplace, a sketch pad splayed on his lap.
“Hey,” he says. He has the thick and throaty voice of a habitual smoker, even though he’s never done more than try marijuana a couple of times.
“Hey. Sorry I’m late.”

“No worries.” There’s the flick of a lighter and then a soft yellow glow appears in front of Holden. He sets a candle on one of the wooden end tables. He’s wearing dark jeans and a hunter-green thermal shirt with a heavy flannel open over it. His black pea coat is tossed over one edge of the loveseat.

He shakes his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes as he lights a second candle. He sets it on the coffee table in front of the sofa. Betsy follows him from place to place.

“Thanks,” I say.

Holden likes the dark, says he feels more protected there. I’m the opposite. Darkness terrifies me—just the not knowing of what might be lurking. Holden likes not knowing. He returns to where he was sitting and kneels down to tuck his sketch pad into his backpack.

“I still don’t see how you can draw without light.”

“I can see enough.” He shrugs. “Plus, it frees me up, you know? Sketching isn’t about getting it perfect. It’s about putting your feelings on paper.”

I wish I could do that, turn all the fear and uncertainty I have into a drawing. I imagine a blank paper turned completely black—black sky, black sea, black sand, one girl standing in the foreground wearing all black.

“Were you drawing another tree?” I ask.

Holden chuckles. “Maybe.”

Here in Three Rocks, the trees tend to grow in thick, feathery clusters. Ponderosa pines blanket the areas between houses on Puffin Hill, and Western larches line the road leading out to Cape Azure. But Holden has a thing for lone trees growing in unusual spots—a single sapling sprouting from a crack in a city sidewalk, a solitary pine standing tall at the edge of a cliff.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s how he sees himself—alone, out of place.

I go to him and wrap my arms around his waist, press my cheek against his chest. I catch the woodsy scent of his deodorant layered on top of something softer—laundry detergent probably. There’s a speck of paint on his shirt. I’m pretty sure everything Holden owns ends up with paint on it.

“What’s all this about?” He twines one arm around my back, his free hand gently stroking the ends of my hair.

“I just needed a hug.”

“Sure.” He squeezes me tightly, lifting me a couple of inches off the floor for a few seconds. “Is everything okay?”

He means is my mom okay. As far as I know, her post-op PET scans have all come back clear, but I’ve read enough about cancer to know that if it made it into the lymph nodes, it could pop up in another area of her body months later. I’m so terrified of her relapsing that she’s stopped telling me when she’s going to the doctor so I won’t make myself sick worrying about it.

“Yeah. Everything is fine. It’s just been a weird day.”

“Well, you’re with me now, so I promise it’ll only get weirder.” Holden brushes his lips against my cheek. He slips his hands up under the bottom of my jacket and rubs my back for a few seconds.

I cling to him, fighting a strange urge to cry.

“I can feel your ribs, girl,” he says. “When’s the last time you ate?”

I pull back to look him in the eye. “I had lunch at school. Mexican pizza.”

“Yeah, no. You should sue for false advertising. That slop was neither Mexican nor pizza.” He tucks a wayward strand of hair behind my ear. “Why didn’t you eat at work?”

I shrug. “I overheard my mom lecturing the cooks about food cost the other day, so I’m not going to make myself stuff if they can’t do the same.”

Betsy bumps her head into Holden’s knee and makes a soft whining sound. She puts her paws up on his leg.

“Oh, hello.” Holden looks down at Betsy’s hopeful face. “Do I know you?”

Her pink tongue falls out of the corner of her mouth as she pants with excitement. Holden spends a few minutes lavishing affection on her—scratching her behind the ears and patting her all over. She rolls over on her back so he can rub her belly.

“You spoil her,” I say.

“She deserves it.” Holden pauses in his scratching for a second, and Betsy waves her front paws in the air as if to say, “More, please.” He laughs lightly and gives her a second rubdown. Satisfied, she rolls over onto her belly, stretching her long legs out in front of her.

Holden turns his attention back to me. “So. Weird day, huh? You want to talk about it?”

“No, not really,” I say. And then after a few seconds, “My father sent me a Christmas card.”

“Oh?” Holden waits for me to say more.

I flop down on the sofa and unzip the front of my jacket. “The first one he ever sent. It had five hundred dollars in it. In cash. Who does that? Who sends that much cash?” I don’t tell Holden that when my mom gave it to me she suggested maybe I write him a letter in return, that it might be time for the two of us to get to know each other. Sorry, Mom. That time was seventeen years ago.

Holden whistles under his breath. “Who cares? What are you gonna buy?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. I don’t want his . . . charity.”

“People can change, you know?” Holden sits next to me.

“Yeah, for the worse.”

“At least he’s trying.”

“Please.” I scoff. “With money?”

“It’s not like you’d give him the time of day if he showed up in person, right?” Holden nudges me with his elbow. “He probably figures money is a safer bet. You should blow it all on something you’ve been wanting. Maybe a real camera?”

I’ve been interested in photography since Mom gave me her old cell phone a few years ago. It’s the only camera I have, and it’s not very good—five megapixels, which is nothing—but I still manage to get some amazing shots with it. I want a real camera, though, so I can make the most of the photography class I signed up for next semester.

“I don’t want to buy a camera with his money. If I did, every time I used it I would think of him,” I say. “I wish I could just send the money back, but I know my mom could use it.”

It sucks to take handouts from someone who’s hurt me so badly, but it would suck worse to punish Mom by turning away money that we need. Sometimes being poor means choosing between your principles and your survival.

“Our heat has been messed up forever,” I continue. “Maybe it’s enough to fix the furnace.”

Holden nods. “Heat is good too.”

“Actually, that was only the second-weirdest thing that happened today,” I say. “Luke called me when I was walking up the hill.”

“How’s Captain America?” Holden stretches his arms over his head. He swallows back a yawn.

“He’s fine,” I say, ignoring the hint of sarcasm. “He asked me to marry him.”

“Whoa. Seriously?”

“Right? Thank you. I didn’t understand it either, but apparently the government pays good benefits to military spouses, and Luke thought Mom and I could use the extra cash.”

“Ah, I get it.” Holden kicks his feet up onto the wooden coffee table. “So then are congratulations in order?”

“Holden,” I say sharply. “I didn’t say yes.”

He coughs. “Did you say no?”

“He wouldn’t let me. He told me just to think about it.” I look down at my hands. “Plus, I didn’t want to say anything that might upset him while he’s overseas.”

“Right.” Holden nods slowly. “So kind of like with Julia.”

I wince. Holden is my best friend Julia’s ex-boyfriend. She wants to be a political strategist someday, so she spent all summer in Washington, DC, interning for a think tank. Holden and I gravitated toward each other in her absence, especially after my mom got sick. We kept things friendly at first, but then one night we both realized our feelings were mutual. It’s not an excuse for what we did, but it is a reason.

Holden called Julia in DC the day after we first slept together. He apologized for cheating on her, and they decided to break up. She seemed okay with it at the time, and she and Holden are still friends, but she doesn’t know I’m the girl he was with that night. And she definitely doesn’t know Holden and I are still hooking up.

“You know I’m going to tell her,” I say. “I just don’t want to do it right before Christmas.”

“Like you didn’t want to do it right before Thanksgiving, and you didn’t want to do it right before she had to retake the SATs, and you didn’t want to do it while she was out of town.” He clears his throat. “We both know she was never really that into me, Embry. I wish you had just told her back when I did.”

“Me too, but I didn’t. So unless you have a time machine . . .”

It’s not that I want to keep Holden and me a secret. Somewhere along the way it just became one of those pieces I hold back. I never even told Julia I was having second thoughts about Luke until recently, mostly because I knew she wouldn’t get it. She probably thinks Luke is too good for me too.

But I am going to tell her everything after the holidays, I swear. I’m not expecting her to forgive me for stealing away her boyfriend, but hopefully Holden is right about her not liking him that much. She never seemed that upset about the breakup, but Julia believes strongly in “projecting a powerful persona,” to quote one of her dad’s corporate success self-help books. Even if she was devastated, she might have felt the need to hide her pain from everyone, including me.

I’m not the only one who hides my inner pieces.

Holden bumps his knee against mine. “So are you gonna say yes?”

“What?” It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking about Luke’s proposal. I rest my head in my hands. “No. But I have no idea how I’m going to say no.”

Holden bends the fingers of his right hand backward until his knuckles crack. “If you tell him you’re screwing the ‘salad-eating pansy guy,’ that’ll probably take care of it.”

I cringe. Luke graduated before Holden moved here, and then he left for basic training a few months later, so they don’t know each other very well. The four of us have hung out only a couple of times when Luke was home on leave—the last time was for my junior prom. We all went to Fintastic, where Luke teased Holden about being vegan and Holden responded with some sharp words about the way the US military thinks it runs the whole world. A heated argument about politics ensued, with Julia chiming in. I chugged a half a goblet of water and cut my scallops into smaller and smaller pieces, trying not to notice how the whole restaurant was looking at us. Luke’s mom had to come out of the back and tell us all to shush.

I narrow my eyes at Holden. “A. He was just joking around and you tried to start World War Three at dinner. And B. You’re supposed to make me feel better, not remind me that I’m a terrible person.”

Holden smirks. “You always take his side.”

“No I don’t. I just . . .” My words fall away as Holden reaches up to brush a lock of hair back from my face, his fingertips lingering on my jawbone. I suddenly remember why I came here, and it wasn’t to think about Luke. In the dim light, Holden’s blue eyes are as dark as storm clouds. I imagine pouring rain, crashing waves, whitecaps. I want to drown in you, I think.

But Holden has other ideas. “A. I’m just messing with you,” he says. “And B. You’re not a terrible person, Embry. You’re just a person, like everyone else. And you know that.”

I do, sort of. But guilt is basically one of my superpowers. It’s been programmed into me from the moment I was old enough to know what it was.

Holden bends down and pulls a half-empty bottle of Absolut vodka out of his backpack. “Now as far as feeling better goes . . .” He unscrews the bottle and hands it over to me.

“Fancy.” I run my thumb across the raised lettering. “I think you might be a bad influence. I only drink when I’m with you.”

“That’s because I’m the only one providing you with free booze.”

“Where’d you get this?”

“Oh, you know. Friend-of-a-friend type thing.”

“Right. So you stole it from your mom then?” I elbow him in the ribs.

Holden laughs. “I don’t steal. I reallocate resources to needier parties.”

I snort. “You’re just a regular alcohol Robin Hood, huh?”

He pulls out a small silver flask. “Well, I know you don’t like the shit I drink.”

“That’s because the shit you drink tastes like lighter fluid.” I take a long swig from the vodka bottle. The bitter alcohol burns my throat and makes my sinuses tingle.

“And the shit you drink tastes like cleaning fluid. What’s your point?”

“That maybe we need better hobbies?” I suggest.

Holden actually has a lot of interests. He draws, he paints, he tinkers around with the motorcycle he fixed up with his grandfather, and he reads for fun the kind of thick, boring books our teachers assign us in English class. I’m the one who needs better hobbies. I used to be on the swim team, but I quit junior year so that I could pick up more shifts at the coffee shop. Now when I’m not working, I mostly take Betsy to the beach or hang out with Julia. Oh, and I worry about my mom. I’m kind of a professional when it comes to that.

Holden reaches out and traces a fraying thread on my jeans. “I can think of more fun things we could do right about now.” He arches his eyebrows playfully.

Just the pressure of his hand on my thigh is enough to cause a rush of heat to move through me. It’s always like this with him—we start out just talking, but the instant he says or does something remotely sexual, it’s all I can think about.

But then I hear Luke’s voice in my ear—sweet, loyal Luke offering to marry me so that the army would give my mom and me money. Part of me feels like I should take him up on his offer, just for her. It would have been so much easier for her not to have me. It’s one thing to grow up knowing you were an accident, but something altogether different to grow up knowing you’re living proof of your mom’s biggest mistake.

I turn and press my lips to Holden’s cheek. “Is it okay if we just hang out tonight?”

“It’s okay if we just hang out every night. You know that.” He pats me on the leg.

I lean my head against his shoulder. Across the room, Betsy has fallen into a deep sleep. Her body twitches as she dreams. I wonder what dogs dream about, if she thinks she’s chasing cats or eating a big steak right now. Her mouth is curled into what I like to think of as her doggie smile.

“Will I ever be happy?” I blurt out.

“Yes,” Holden says, without hesitation.

Betsy twitches again and makes a soft snoring noise. Her tail wags slightly.

“Will I ever be as happy as Betsy?”

He turns to the dog and watches her for a few seconds. “I hope not.”

I slug him in the arm. “Ass. Why would you say that?”

“You don’t want to be that happy. It’s just a longer, harder fall.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

“Nah. My parents were really happy when I was a kid.”

“Ah.” Holden doesn’t talk much about his childhood. His parents split up a couple of years ago, and his mom moved back here to be close to his grandparents, just in time for the start of junior year. I know he spends every other weekend with his dad in Portland, but he doesn’t talk much about that either.

Betsy’s eyes flick open. She lifts up from the spot in front of the registration desk and pads across the carpeted floor to the sofa. She gives me a hopeful look, and I shake my head at her. “You can’t come up here,” I say. Ever the obedient dog, she puts her paws up on my leg and makes an attempt to clamber up onto my lap. “No,” I tell her again. She wags her tail, knocking over the open bottle of vodka. It rolls off the table and onto the floor before I can grab it.

“Shit.” I reach down and grab the bottle, standing it upright and capping it, but not before half of what’s left has leaked out onto the lobby’s threadbare carpet.

“It’s no big deal. It’ll dry,” Holden says. “At least vodka is clear.”

“Yeah, but your mom is going to wonder why half the bottle is missing.”

“I’ll water it down a little. She only drinks a few times a year. She probably won’t notice.”

“Bad dog,” I say to Betsy, who is now attempting to clamber up onto Holden’s lap.

He strokes her soft fur. “You’re not a bad dog,” he says. “You’re a good dog.”

She leans her neck on Holden’s thigh and looks up at him with her big brown eyes. He pulls her up from the floor so she’s sitting on his lap, her tail hanging over the edge of the sofa.

“You two make a cute couple,” I say.

“As do you and Luke.”

I frown. “Very funny. You know we’re not together.”

Holden snickers. “And yet he just proposed.”

“It wasn’t, like, an official proposal or anything. He was just asking me what I thought.”

“Which is totally what someone would do with a girl he’s not together with.” Holden lifts the flap of Betsy’s ear and pretends to whisper something to her.

“You jealous?” I ask.

“Would you like it if I was?” That low, throaty voice again.

My insides go tight, and I have to squeeze out my one-word response. “Maybe.”

Honestly, I’m not sure how I would feel. Holden is not my boyfriend, and I’m fine with that. We’re both here because we want to be here. No one is obligated. No one owes anyone anything. My life belongs to me and Holden’s belongs to him. Still, when I think about the future, Holden is always there.

The corners of his lips turn up ever so slightly. “Come here.” He lifts Betsy from the sofa and helps her back onto the floor. She lumbers across the room and lies down in front of the registration counter. He pulls me into his lap, adjusting my body so my head is against his chest. “Your turn to keep me warm.”

I laugh at the idea of my spindly body keeping anyone warm, but I rest my head against Holden’s chest, comforted by his heat, his calm breathing, by the steady thudding of his heart in my ear. For a while we just sit there, and it’s everything that I need.

Then he reaches for one of my hands, twining our fingers together. We’re both pale, but he’s got a bit more color than I do, probably left over from his summer job doing landscaping. He lifts my hand to his lips and kisses my wrist gently. Another rush of heat courses through my body, causing me to shudder visibly.

“What was that?” he asks, his blue eyes dancing with amusement.

“Just what you do to me.”

“I make you convulse? That seems bad.”

“It’s a good kind of convulsing,” I say, unable to keep a smile from creeping onto my face.

I don’t know if it’s the alcohol, or Holden, or the fact that I talked to him about both Luke and my dad, but I’ve finally achieved the closest feeling I ever get to peace anymore. I turn and adjust my body so I’m straddling Holden’s lap. I’m falling for you, I think, as we kiss. But I don’t say it, because those are words that change things, and I like the way things are.

I guess there are some pieces I don’t even show Holden.

I curl my hands around the back of his neck. Our noses bump gently as I lean in to kiss him again. He tastes my bottom lip with his tongue and then uses it to coax open my mouth. I slide my hands up under his shirt, amazed by how his slender frame can manage to be so warm when it’s so cold in here. I trace my fingertips down the curves of his ribs and then reach higher to gently rake my nails across his chest. His turn to convulse.

“I want you,” I whisper.

“You sure?” he asks.

Instead of answering, I slide off Holden and kneel in the narrow space between the coffee table and the sofa. I undo the button of his jeans and tug them down over his hips. Moonlight reflects off his pale legs. He shivers in the thin fabric of his boxers. Leaning forward, I massage his thighs while I press my lips to his flat stomach.

“Embry,” Holden whispers.

“Shh.” My hand slips beneath the fabric of his boxers.

He groans softly. His eyelids fall shut as he relaxes back into the cushions. His shoulders drop. I can feel the tension leaving his body as my mouth trails lower. He supports my head with one hand, stroking my hair with the other. I like the effect I have on him. I like that I can help him escape the same way he does for me.

“Come here,” Holden says after a couple of minutes. He lifts me back to the sofa. I unbutton my jeans and slide them and my underwear down over my hips.

Holden pulls a condom out of his coat pocket. I watch him put it on and then position myself on top of him, letting out a deep breath I didn’t even know I was holding. I cradle his face in both of my hands and close the gap between our mouths again.

He wraps one hand around my lower back for support while the other gets lost in my hair.

“You feel so good,” I tell him.

He laughs under his breath. “I know.”

I slap him playfully on the arm. “You’re such an ass.”

“I know,” he says again, pulling my smile toward his.

Our grins meet and our lips relax. I focus on the feel of him, the way our bodies connect, the way every single touch lights up dark parts inside me.

The first few times Holden and I were together, it was sweaty and fumbling and we both rushed through it. Now we’re getting more comfortable with each other and learning to slow things down.

I lean back just far enough to watch the series of expressions flit across his face—concentration, followed by pleasure, followed by restraint, followed by more concentration. His long eyelashes are feathered closed, his mouth open just wide enough to expel little gasps of air. I trace one of his high cheekbones with my fingertips.

His eyes flick open. “What?”

I shake my head, a smile playing at my lips. “I just like watching you.”

“Oh yeah?” He locks his gaze onto mine. It’s a struggle not to look away from his blue, blue eyes.

His hands caress my back. Part of me wants to speed things up and part of me wants this moment to never end. Eventually speed wins. As all the heat and tension inside me start to coalesce, my knee slips on the sofa cushion and my foot hits the edge of the coffee table. Vaguely I see a flicker of light in my peripheral vision.
“Shit,” Holden says.

Betsy barks, but I’m in no position to be distracted. Whatever is bothering her can wait a few more seconds.

“Hold on,” Holden says. “Embry, stop.”

“What? Why?” I blink rapidly. Is that smoke I smell? I lift my body off his and turn around. Apparently when I kicked the table, I knocked a candle onto the floor. The carpet of the Sea Cliff Inn is burning.

About the author:
Paula Stokes is the author of several novels, most recently Vicarious and Girl Against the Universe. Her writing has been translated into eleven foreign languages. Paula loves kayaking, hiking, reading, and seeking out new adventures in faraway lands. She also loves interacting with readers. Find her online at:

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