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Lila Nash counted her steps as she walked from the kitchen to the bathroom of her apartment. Ten, nine, eight—the numbers falling silently in her head, a remnant from those days when she paced the corridors of the hospital. Seven, six, five—turn into the bathroom—four, three—close the door—two—turn—face the mirror—one.
Her last step had been little more than a shuffle, but it allowed her to stop on one, which somehow eased the clockwork that ticked inside her chest.
Lila never told Joe about the counting; she saw no reason to. It wasn’t a secret so much as a private comfort—a blanket she had learned to wrap around herself eight years ago. Then, a head full of silence had the power to coax demons out of the shadows. Now, it’d become more of a habit, an echo that refused to die away. Dr. Roberts had always assured her that the counting was a good thing, a coping mechanism to distract her from harmful thoughts.
She ran a face cloth across her eyes, wiping away what little makeup she used: mascara, eyeliner, and just a touch of shadow. A once-over with soap and water, and she was ready for bed—almost.
She locked the bathroom door, the tiny click far too anemic to reach the bedroom where Joe lay reading. In a cupboard beneath the sink, in a makeup bag where Lila stored a collection of old compacts, and lipsticks, Lila fished out a small tube of cream. Another little secret she kept from Joe.
Lifting the sleeve of her tee-shirt to expose the top of her left arm, she moved a finger across her scars, seven thin lines that ran parallel to one another, the brail that told the story of that summer when she was eighteen. The summer of her attack. Each scar was as straight as a toothpick except for the one in the middle, the first one. She had been crying when she made that cut, her hand trembling enough to give the scar a slight dip. When she confessed to Dr. Roberts that the flaw upset her more than the cut itself, he had seemed to understand.
Lila pressed a smidgen of scar-reduction cream onto her finger and began rubbing it on her arm, counting down the strokes. Ten, nine, eight . . . . The advertisement promised dramatic results, but after a week Lila had seen very little change. Then again, her scars had had years to dig in, so she saw no reason to expect them to disappear overnight.
Lila wanted to believe that she’d come a long way in the eight years since she stopped seeing Dr. Roberts, but she worried her progress was more a matter of time and distance than actual healing. The trauma to her flesh had mended easily enough, her scars the only reminder of who she had once been. But the other wounds, the ones that she could only see when she closed her eyes, they refused to heal. She hoped to have driven them inward far enough that they’d never escape. But escape they sometimes did.
Four, three, two, one. She finished working the cream across her arm and put the tube back into the old makeup bag, returning the kit to its hiding place. She had become adept at hiding things from Joe, and she felt a tinge of dishonesty for trying to get rid of her scars. How many times had she told herself—told Joe—that she was okay with them? The cutting had helped her survive, had given voice to the emotion that roiled through her veins.
Back in that terrible summer, it felt as though her anger lay trapped beneath her skin, a caged animal, its scream growing so loud in her ears that the only way to find peace was to touch a razor to her flesh. But those seven scars, souvenirs brought back from a walk through hell, were now no more meaningful than cracks in a dried lakebed. Apply a little skin cream and soon they would be gone.
When she worked the cream over her arm the first time, a week earlier, she contemplated telling Joe about it. Why not? He knew about her past, about the men, the cutting, and the two weeks she spent in the psych ward, so why not tell him about her little experiment in scar reduction? He had stayed with her through every new revelation as she eased him into the nightmare of her past, which sometimes made her question his judgement.
That poor judgement came into even sharper focus just after Thanksgiving the previous year when he started hinting about marriage. First, he slipped a comment about her dainty hands into an otherwise casual conversation, guessing that she probably wore a size-five ring. Then, as Christmas approached, he struck up a conversation about diamonds, as if she might not notice his clumsy attempt to ascertain her preferences.
He was stumbling toward a proposal, and Lila reacted like a woman standing in the path of an avalanche. She responded to his diamond inquiry by blathering for half an hour about the evils of blood diamonds. Then she made up a story about a law-school friend who argued that the notion of marriage proposals, as a tradition, should go the way of hoop skirts.
That Christmas, instead of an engagement ring, Joe gave her a spa-day gift certificate.
By Valentine’s Day, he had completely given up, his surrender signaled one night in bed as they watched a news story about a woman who organized a flash mob to propose to her boyfriend. At the end of the piece, Joe rolled over to Lila and said that it was good that women also took the lead in such things.
As Lila often did when their discussions touched upon marriage, she unconsciously reached a hand up the sleeve of her tee shirt and rubbed her biceps. That’s when Joe reached his hand up to her arm as well, resting his palm on the back of her hand, his index finger gently touching one of her scars, pressing a fret on a guitar eight years out of tune. When he spoke again, it was as if to apologize.
“I just think that the girl—the woman—should have just as much right to say when the time is right as the man. And if that time ever came . . . .” Joe didn’t finish his thought, and although Lila wanted desperately to say something hopeful, no words came out. In the silence, Joe rolled back over and fixed his eyes on the TV.
Lila may as well have yelled in his face that she didn’t want to marry him. But that wasn’t true. She loved Joe, loved him more than she thought she would ever love a man. In those moments when she allowed herself to dream about the future, she always saw Joe at her side. She wanted to tell that it wasn’t him—it was her—but those words sounded hurtful and trite, so she said nothing.
Over their six years together, Lila had done her best to convince Joe—to convince herself—that she had moved past what had happened to her that night, but that wasn’t true. She had survived, but she had not healed, and deep down she knew it. Keeping that truth from Joe meant that he really didn’t know her. How could he? He didn’t know about the sharp fragments of doubt that floated loose in Lila’s blood. The woman Joe knew, the strong, fierce Lila Nash, had been constructed out of spare parts. How could she marry Joe when she still kept so much from him?
Eight years ago, Dr. Roberts told Lila that, “Healing requires patience. It requires forgiveness.”
Lila wanted to scream the first time he said that. He had no idea what it was like. He was a man. How could he understand? Forgive her attackers? Hell no! Kill them, maybe. Put them in prison at the very least. But never forgive them.
“Don’t confuse hatred for strength.” Roberts had said. “The forgiveness isn’t for them. It’s for you.”
How many times had she fantasized about finding those who had attacked her, those faces with no features, men with no names? In her dreams, she saw them as shadows, faced them with rage as her only weapon. Never once did it end in forgiveness.
Who gets married on a Sunday? Gavin Spencer pondered that question as he stood at the edge of the dance floor, squinting through the viewfinder of his Canon Mark IV. People with any money at all got married on Saturday, which was why wedding venues offered Sunday discounts—for people like the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Halloway.
“Peasants,” he whispered to himself.
Gavin aimed his camera at the bride and one of her bridesmaids, hopping up and down in one of those half-hug-half-dance embraces, the kind of thing that finds its way into events where alcohol is served. The bride’s dress, though not a hand-me-down, was definitely off the rack, and the bridesmaid wore a purple gown with a high-slit up the side, slinky and simple, a dress that could be repurposed for a date night or New Year’s Eve party. They were bedecked beyond the stretch of their meager budgets—yet try as they might, the two women were incapable of living up to those dresses.
When they saw Gavin and his camera, they raised their beer glasses in yet another drunken toast—the bridesmaid screeching, “Hey, Picture Boy! Whoo!” He aimed the camera at the two women as they squeezed in tight, their beers held high, the inebriant sloshing down, splashing to the dance floor and speckling their knockoff-Dior shoes.
This was the tenth time that the bridesmaid had demanded that a picture be taken and the tenth time she had called Gavin Picture Boy. With any luck, he had snapped the photo in time to catch her spilling her beer. Maybe she would see it later and be embarrassed, even sorry for being vulgar, but then Gavin shook his head, disappointed that he gave voice to such a laughable notion. Women like her were never sorry, not to guys like him.
Gavin had already taken hundreds of pictures of the bride and groom. He had taken pictures of the relatives and the ceremony, all of it staged like a grand tableau. As far as Gavin was concerned, wedding photography was the art of deception, creating phony memories to set the bar of their happiness so high that every day to follow would be a disappointment. It pleased Gavin to think that his pictures might one day be thrown around as the couple fought over things like custody and alimony and child support.
The sun had disappeared hours ago, as had the older guests, cutting the pups free from the restraint that had kept the affair even remotely dignified. This was the part of the night that Gavin liked best, the time when his expert eye could capture those tiny fissures that would one day bring about the end of the marriage. Harbingers of the ruination to come.
His bet: Mrs. Halloway would cheat on her husband. Earlier, he’d taken a picture of the bride dancing with one of the male guests, a man with features ordered from a catalogue. The sadness in her eyes in that brief moment exposed a shared past, and Gavin quickly snapped a close-up—the bride’s face raised in apology to her former lover. Gavin imagined Mr. and Mrs. Halloway sitting on a couch, flipping through the wedding album, and coming upon that picture. The thought made him smile.
Another whoop came from the dance floor, and again the bridesmaid pointed her beer at Gavin. “Hey, Picture Boy.”
Gavin held his lens on the two women, but he didn’t click the shutter. Instead, he used the moment to focus on the bridesmaid, a woman with bleached teeth that seemed to glow against her fake tan. And Gavin was pretty sure she’d taped her breasts up, because she filled her dress in a way none of the other bridesmaids had managed.
Gavin knew about such things because he had watched his own mother employ those tricks, back when he was a little boy and she was hunting a new stepfather for him. A memory came to Gavin as he watched the bridesmaid, of a summer evening when he was seven years old. A man had come to visit, and Gavin’s mother, Amy, had given Gavin a talking-to, pointing her boney finger sharply at his face. “Stay in your room! Don’t make a sound. It’s important that you behave tonight.”
Gavin had promised to be quiet, yet when he heard the mix of music and Amy’s laughter coming from the living room below, he couldn’t help sneaking to the steps to spy.
They were dancing, but at the same time, they weren’t. The man moved his hands up and down his mother’s body, squeezing and kneading her as though trying to mold her from Play Dough, touching her in places that people weren’t supposed to touch. His mother’s chin rested on the man’s shoulder, and she twitched and pinched her eyes shut as he moved his hand under her dress, doing something that brought her up on the tips of her toes.
Gavin was on the verge of charging down the steps to save his mother when she opened her eyes and saw him. He expected her to call to him for help. Together they could push the man out of their house. Instead, Amy twisted her face in anger, her snarled white teeth standing out in Gavin’s memory. She lifted her hand from the man’s back, pointed at Gavin, and then at the top of the stairs, her finger a dagger. She wasn’t in trouble at all. She wanted the man to be doing what he was doing. And for his disobedience, Gavin spent part of the next morning on his knees, his hands taped behind him, his nose pressed against the back of his bedroom closet.
The throng of dancers and spectators grew uncomfortably thick around Gavin, so he lowered his camera and backed away from the dance floor, taking a seat near the bar. He spent a few minutes rearranging lenses in his bag before noticing the groom’s teenaged brother wobbling drunkenly into a chair at the end of the table. He’ll puke before the night’s over, Gavin thought to himself. He aimed the camera at the boy, zoomed in tight, and snapped a picture. The kid sweated from his eyes and had a dead-carp expression on his pale face. Hell, he’s not going to make it another five minutes.
Then it came again, “Picture Boy!”
Gavin flinched as the voice, loud and close, came from behind him. He turned in his seat to see her leaning against the bar. She was no beauty-queen, but she had the kind of teasing vibe that had surely made her popular on the beaches of spring break.
“Whoo!” She lifted a fresh cup into the air.
It was as if she couldn’t stop herself from poking him, certain that a dog like him would have no bite—but Gavin did have a bite. It had been two years since an ill moon brought that side of him out to play. Two years of waiting, his hunger building, his appetite once again aching to be satisfied.
Gavin started to raise his camera, but then he lowered it. He shouldn’t engage her. Look at them from afar was the rule. Study them, but remain invisible—forgettable. To attract attention meant to attract suspicion. But this one had been pushing it all night, tacky and impolite. Her condescension demanded a response—so he went off script.
“I have a name,” he said.
“Of course you have a name.” She spoke as though bothered that this extra in the movie of her life dared to address her at all. “All God’s creatures have a name.”
Now he was a creature. She was failing a test that she didn’t even know she was taking.
“So what is it, this name of yours?”
He smiled at the benevolence he felt in that moment. He would give her a chance he hadn’t given the others, a chance to save herself. If she would treat him with decency, he would let her be. All she had to do was be nice.
“My name is Gavin.”
He studied her face as he said the word is because that word exposed his speech impediment, thick and damp like air seeping from a wet tire. A squishy lisp from a squishy man. She would hear it: “my name isch Gavin.”
She giggled, of course, and covered her mouth with her free hand. He could feel the heat of judgement as her eyes moved from his uncombed hair down to his doughy midriff. He found himself sucking in his gut as if he cared what she thought. But why should he care? She was just like the others, ready to dismiss him.
“Kevin?” she said.
“Gavin,” he repeated.
A grin spread across her cheeks. “You look more like a Kevin to me—Kevin the picture boy. That’s your name.” Then she laughed hard, as though she had just told the funniest joke.
Gavin felt assured that the world would neither mourn nor miss this woman. He lifted his camera and snapped a picture, which made her smile. But this picture wouldn’t be included in the package of photographs that he would give to the bride. This one was for him, a memorial of the exact second that Gavin chose her, a memento to keep in his secret hiding place—with the others.
A groomsman bumped into the bridesmaid, causing her to spill her drink. She turned and slapped the man’s broad shoulder in mock anger. He smiled at her in a way that caused her to lick her lips. And just like that, Kevin the picture boy no longer existed.
Gavin lifted his camera bag and walked calmly to the head table, to where the bridesmaid had been sitting earlier in the evening.
Leaning down, as though inspecting his camera, he carefully palmed the place card with her name on it. When he stood back up, he looked around the room to see if anyone was watching. They weren’t. He was invisible again—just the way he liked it.
He glanced at the name—Sadie Vauk—and slipped the card into his pocket.
—Karin Slaughter, New York Times bestselling author of The Silent Wife
—Craig Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of the Longmire Mysteries
"The Stolen Hours is as good as it gets; a heart-pounding and utterly engaging thriller that had me turning the pages at warp speed. At the core of this magnificent and beautifully told story is Lila, a strong yet vulnerable woman in search of the truth. But Eskens cleverly lets her share the spotlight with two other women whose strengths and weaknesses play off of and enhance each other. Alone, each is a character that readers will identify with and root for. Together, they're unstoppable. I loved this book!"—Karen Dionne, New York Times bestselling author of The Marsh King’s Daughter and The Wicked Sister