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You Don't Own Me by Mary Higgins Clark, Alafair Burke (1)

Prologue

Sixty-year-old Caroline Radcliffe nearly dropped one of the saucers she was carefully stacking in the overstuffed sideboard when she heard a bellow from the den. She immediately felt guilty for turning her eye from the children for even a moment. She had been looking out the window rejoicing at the fact that now, in late March, she would be able to spend more time outdoors with the children.

As she made her way toward the cry, four-year-old Bobby scampered by, an excited giggle escaping his open mouth. In the den, she found two-year-old Mindy wailing, her blue eyes focused on the tumble of building blocks scattered around her legs.

It wasn’t difficult for Caroline to see what was going on. Bobby was a sweet little boy, but he took pleasure in devising small ways to torment his baby sister. On occasion, she was tempted to warn him that girls have a way of balancing the scales eventually, but she figured they were typical siblings who would work it all out in the end.

“It’s okay, Mindy sweetheart,” she said soothingly. “I’ll help you put them back, just the way they were.”

Mindy’s pout only deepened, and she pushed a nearby stack of blocks away from her. “No more!” she cried. The next sounds out of the girl’s mouth were an unmistakable request for Mama.

Caroline sighed, bent down, and hoisted Mindy to her hip, wrapping her arms tight around the toddler until she quieted and her quick, upset breaths returned to normal.

“That’s better,” Caroline said. “That’s my Mindy.”

Mindy’s father, Dr. Martin Bell, had made it very clear that he wanted Caroline to stop “babying the kids.” In his view, even picking Mindy up when she cried was “babying.”

“It’s simple reward and punishment,” he liked to say. “Not to compare them to dogs, but—well, it’s how all animals learn. She wants you to hold her. If you do it every time she pitches a fit, we’ll have tears flowing day and night.”

Well, for starters, Caroline didn’t like comparing children with dogs. And she also knew a thing or two about raising them. She had two grown children of her own and had helped raise another six of them in her years as a nanny. The Bells were her fourth family, and, in her view, Bobby and Mindy deserved a little extra TLC. Their father worked all the time and had all his little rules for everyone in the house, including the babies. And their mother—well, their mother was clearly going through a rough patch. It was the whole reason why Caroline had a job in a house with a stay-at-home mom.

“Bobby.” She had heard his footsteps charging up the staircase. “Bobby!” she called out. She had learned by now that she and the children could make plenty of noise as long as Dr. Bell was gone. “I need to have a word with you. And you know why, young man!”

Even though Caroline had a soft spot for these little ones, she wasn’t a complete pushover.

Caroline placed Mindy down to greet her brother at the bottom of the stairs. With each step, Bobby’s pace slowed, trying to postpone the inevitable. Mindy’s gaze moved hesitantly between Caroline and Bobby, wondering what was going to happen next.

“Cut it out,” Caroline told Bobby sternly. Pointing at Mindy, she said, “You know better than that.”

“I’m sorry, Mindy,” he muttered.

“I’m not sure I can hear you,” Caroline said.

“I’m sorry I knocked your blocks down.”

Caroline kept waiting expectantly until Bobby gave his sister a reluctant hug. A still angry Mindy was having none of the apology. “You’re mean, Bobby,” she wailed.

The moment was interrupted by the rumble of the mechanical door rolling open beneath them. Of all the homes Caroline had worked in, this one was arguably the finest. It was a late-nineteenth-century carriage house. What once served as a horse stable had now been renovated with every modern amenity, including the ultimate Manhattan luxury—a ground-floor, private garage.

Daddy was home.

“Now maybe the two of you can pick all that mess up in the den before your father sees it.”

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Caroline’s scream scared the children, who both began to cry.

“Firecrackers,” she said calmly, even as her racing heart told her that her first instinct had been correct. Those were clearly the sounds of gunfire. “Go upstairs until I find out who’s making that racket.”

When they were halfway up the stairs, she hurried to the front door and then ran down the front steps to the driveway. The dome light inside Dr. Bell’s BMW was on, and the driver’s-side door was halfway open. Dr. Bell was slumped over the steering wheel.

Caroline continued moving until she stood outside the open car door. She saw the blood. She saw enough to know that Dr. Bell wouldn’t make it.

Terrified, she rushed inside and called 911. Somehow she managed to tell the dispatcher the address. It wasn’t until she hung up the phone that she thought about Kendra, upstairs in her usual groggy state.

Dear God, who is going to tell the children?

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