Her Father's Secret


By Sara Blaedel

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A woman’s murder is only the beginning as a daughter races to unravel the maze of secrets her father left behind–before she becomes the next victim–in the latest gripping novel from Sara Blaedel, #1 internationally bestselling author with over 4 million copies sold worldwide.

After suddenly inheriting a funeral home from her father–who she hadn’t heard from in decades–Ilka Jensen has impulsively abandoned her quiet life in Denmark to visit the small town in rural Wisconsin where her father lived. There, she’s devastated to discover her father’s second family: a stepmother and two half sisters she never knew existed. And who aren’t the least bit welcoming, despite Ilka’s efforts to reach out.

Then a local woman is killed, seemingly the unfortunate victim of a home invasion turned violent. But when Ilka learns that the woman knew her father, it becomes increasingly clear that she may not have been a completely random victim after all.

The more Ilka digs into her father’s past, the more deeply entangled she becomes in a family drama that has spanned decades and claimed more than one life–and she may be the next victim…

“Sara Blaedel knows how to reel in her readers and keep them utterly transfixed.” –Tess Gerritsen

“One of the best I’ve come across.” –Michael Connelly

“Crime-writer superstar Sara Blaedel’s great skill is in weaving a heartbreaking social history into an edge-of-your-chair thriller.” –Oprah.com


If she'd known what was about to happen, she probably would have just leaned back and enjoyed the show. Instead, Ilka stared anxiously over at the house, steeling herself to walk up and knock on the door. The coffee in the paper cup was cold, but she drank it anyway, hoping it would help. She clutched the five letters in her lap. It was hard to see the most recent one as anything other than a threat.

"You have a week to pay, otherwise, the truth will come out. Maggie."

It had been lying on the reception desk yesterday, inside an envelope at the bottom of a stack of mail. Immediately Ilka had recognized the feminine handwriting. Several days after arriving in Racine she'd discovered the first four letters in an upstairs room at her father's funeral home, bound together by a brittle rubber band, all from 1997–98, with Maggie's signature on them. The envelopes had no stamps or return addresses. Nothing in the letters hinted at what her father could have been trying to conceal. But honestly, Ilka had plenty on her plate without having to deal with this mystery. She'd recently inherited his Wisconsin funeral home, despite the fact that she and her mother hadn't heard from him, not a single peep, since he'd abandoned them thirty-three years ago.

The first letter was dated June 1997.

Dear Paul,

Your wife is having an affair with my husband.


Ilka read the short message again. Her fingers were frozen, and the car's windows were fogged up, further blurring the hazy residential street. The sun was trying to peek through, but the gray morning mist still covered Racine.

She had no idea who this Maggie was, but if anyone were being blackmailed, surely it must be the two people accused in the letter. After a few cups of morning coffee, she'd driven her father's silver-gray Chevrolet over to give the letters to his second wife, Mary Ann. On the way, though, she'd begun to consider her motives. To throw some light on her father's life since he left Denmark? That's what she wanted to think. But more likely it was to pay Mary Ann back for how she'd treated Ilka when they first met.

She glanced up at the house again. Mary Ann and her daughters had practically thrown her off their porch. All she'd done was bring them some drawings her two half sisters had made when they were kids. Ilka had found the drawings while cleaning her father's room, along with a clay figure and some photos she'd also taken along. They'd given her an excuse to meet the family her father had started after leaving Denmark. And to be shunned, as it turned out. Later that evening, when she'd returned to the funeral home, the younger sister had been waiting for her in the dark in her father's room.

"Don't come by the house again," Amber had said. "It's not good for Mom. It's not good for anything."

Amber's mother had been in a car accident years ago and was confined to a wheelchair, but Ilka couldn't understand why getting to know her half sisters could harm Mary Ann.

She turned back to the letters. The next one was from March 1998.

Dear Paul,

I came home this morning and found your wife and my husband in our bedroom! He says he wants to leave me. You have to make them end it.


And two months later:

Dear Paul,

Finally! My husband is heartbroken, but I'm sure we can find what we once had together.


These first letters had troubled Ilka when she found them, but the fourth, from June 1998, was the one most difficult for her to give Mary Ann.

Dear Paul,

I hear your wife is paralyzed from the waist down. And that it's a miracle you walked away from the accident without a scratch.


Ilka emptied the paper cup. As she was about to crush it down in the cup holder, her phone pinged—she had a match on Tinder. Shortly after arriving in Racine, she'd created a profile, to have something that could distract her from the funeral home, which already had become her responsibility. She grabbed the phone. The photo of the smiling blond man interested in her showed him holding hands with two young children. Ilka deleted him at once and looked up. Two black four-wheel-drive vehicles were parked in front of the house—how could she have missed them driving up?

She laid down her phone and watched six men in dark suits climb out and gather on the sidewalk. Moments later a monster of a moving van drove in and blocked the driveway. The quiet street where her father had lived was suddenly a traffic jam.

She leaned forward to get a better look at the man approaching the front door. He knocked and rang the doorbell several times, but no one answered, though Ilka noticed a curtain moving to the left of the door. He knocked one last time and waited before rejoining the others.

The door finally opened when the rear cargo door of the moving van began folding down. It took Ilka a while to spot Mary Ann's wheelchair behind a long wicker sofa on the porch. Her blond hair was pinned up, and a thin shawl covered her bare shoulders. Then Ilka shot up in her seat: The woman was holding a rifle on her blanket-covered lap. Slowly she rolled toward the steps, picked up the rifle, pointed it at the dark-suited men, and yelled something at them. Ilka nearly jumped out of her skin when the woman pointed the rifle in the air and pulled the trigger. All six men immediately pulled out handguns, which startled her even more.

Mary Ann's older daughter, Leslie, hurried out onto the porch. She wore a short-sleeved flowered dress, and her hair was wet. Insignificant details, given the situation, yet they caught Ilka's eye before the next shot rang out. This time a bullet smacked into the side of the moving van.

Mary Ann planted her elbow on her wheelchair's armrest and kept the rifle aimed at the van, where the men had taken cover, though they still held their guns. Ilka opened the car door and froze; she was scared, but she couldn't just sit there and do nothing either. A deep voice ordered Mary Ann to put the rifle down.

The sun had briefly broken through the clouds, and its rays in the side mirror blinded Ilka when she finally worked up the courage to get out. Mary Ann concentrated on reloading as Leslie dragged her back to the door, and when she started shooting again Ilka hit the asphalt behind the car. The sight of the small, frail woman handling a lethal weapon was simply too surreal; it made no sense at all. None of this did.

Mary Ann managed to fire one more shot before disappearing inside the door. Immediately the six men started shooting back, then they spread out and surrounded the large wooden house. One of them ran up on the porch and pointed his gun at the front door, yelling for Mary Ann and Leslie to come out with their hands up. The others ducked around back.

Desperate now, Ilka peered over the low hedges of the neighbors' houses, but she saw no sign of anyone calling the police or doing anything to help the two women.

The door opened slowly, and Leslie walked out with one hand over her head, the other pushing the wheelchair. Mary Ann held her thin arms straight in the air. The man ordered them over to the far end of the porch, then signaled to the moving van. Ilka stared in bewilderment as a small army of broad-shouldered, muscular men poured out of the van and entered the house. A few moments later they began carrying furniture out. While they quickly filled the van, another man changed the front door lock, then picked up his tools and walked around back.

A car turned onto the street, and the driver honked in irritation at the blockade of vehicles in front of the house. Before he could get out, one of the black-suited men trotted over to him. Ilka was back in her car and out of earshot, but she got the drift of the conversation. A moment later the driver whipped his car around and drove off.

The whole episode seemed utterly insane to Ilka. For a split second she wondered if it was some sort of hidden camera show, or a scene in an action film. Then she noticed her half sister covering her mouth with both hands, fighting to hold back her tears.

Suddenly it was over. They shut and locked the front door, and the furniture movers climbed into the van. When it began backing up, the two black SUVs made U-turns on the street, and before she knew it they were gone. Once again, the street was quiet and deserted. Neighbors cautiously ventured out on their porches, though none of them dared walk over to Mary Ann's house. Ilka sat for a moment, wondering how long it had lasted, but she'd lost all sense of time.

Leslie stepped down off the porch, as if she were thinking of chasing the men who had taken everything from them. She was crying now, her head bowed as she wiped the tears from her cheeks. Then she noticed Ilka. Or maybe it was her father's car she recognized, because she looked startled when she met Ilka's eyes. She rushed back up the steps to her mother.

Ilka had just turned forty, and she guessed that Leslie was about ten years younger. Maybe in her late twenties. It was hard to tell. Her cardigan sweater and wavy blond permanent made her look like a middle-aged woman in an ad for a floor cleaner, but earlier Ilka had noticed her smooth, silky skin. It was hard to imagine her half sister had ever been young. After nursing school, she'd taken over the care of her mother.

Ilka sat for a few moments before getting out of the car and walking to the house. She left the letters from Maggie on the front seat.

She stopped at the front steps. "What on earth happened? I hope neither of you were hurt?" She tried to sound calm, though she wasn't. At all.

Leslie didn't react when Ilka stepped onto the porch, but Mary Ann abruptly turned to her. "What do you want?" she snarled. It began raining; heavy drops pounded the porch roof. "Leave us alone."

"But somebody just emptied your house! And it doesn't exactly look like you hired them to. You both could have been killed, have you called the police?" She gestured toward the neighbors. "Surely somebody has!"

"We don't want the police out here, and anyway it's all over."

Mary Ann's thin shawl was already soaked from the rain, and Ilka started to pull her farther under the roof, but the woman waved her away and rolled her wheelchair back herself.

Leslie didn't budge an inch.

Ilka had to lean in close to hear Mary Ann. "Leave us alone. This is none of your business, keep out of it."

Ilka seldom cried, but now she could barely hold back the tears. She'd been about to offer them her phone to call for help or suggest they all go to the funeral home and talk about what to do.

Without a word she turned and walked to the car.


She was still quivering with rage when she stopped at a filling station for ten dollars of gas. She slammed the car door shut, counted the coins in her small coin purse, and decided to buy a pack of cigarettes. She longed to fill her lungs with smoke, hold it in until she felt dizzy. Something was stirring in her chest, a vague emotion, an uneasiness she couldn't put her finger on, though she was certain it had nothing to do with the humiliating rejection her father's second family had put her through again.

You never really know someone you live with before you're seven, she thought. You're not old enough to see him as he really is. You're just with him, and you feel safe. Until one day he suddenly disappears, and you're panic-stricken when you understand you've been abandoned.

She still remembered that feeling of being around her father, how much she loved him, counted on him. But she didn't know him. And why should she suddenly spend time getting to know his idiotic second family? They meant nothing to her.

Ilka glanced around when she realized she was talking to herself. Her pack of cigarettes was open, and she was about to light one when she noticed the gas pump close by. It reminded her of something embarrassing back when she'd just gotten her driver's license. She'd been smoking a cigarette while filling up. An older man yelled at her, but several days passed before it came to her why. Luckily nothing had happened, but that was the moment she gave up cigarettes. At least until now, after moving to Racine had interrupted her stable Copenhagen life.

She stuffed the cigarettes into her pocket and got in the car.


It had stopped raining, and now patches of blue sky began peeping out from behind white clouds. A glossy sheen covered the asphalt. Ilka let a pickup pass before pulling out and heading for the main drag. She drove by several empty stores on the way back to the funeral home; few businesses were left in West Racine, where her father had lived. Many of the neglected facades looked as if they'd been closed for years. She stopped for a red light at one five-way intersection and noticed firewood and bottled gas stacked up outside a convenience store on one corner.

When the light turned green she took off, but in the middle of the intersection she flashed on what had been nagging at her earlier. An image of herself popped up: a little girl with much-too-long front bangs, standing in the living room in her pajamas. She must have been three or four years old. The doorbell had rung, and several people stood outside. A bailiff, a policeman, a locksmith, and a woman from their district, her mother had explained to her later.

Ilka hit the emergency lights and managed to pull over to the corner, where she scraped against the high curb. She'd forgotten the incident, but now the memories of the small apartment overwhelmed her. The sweet aromas from the bakery; her bed by the living room window. The black-and-white checkerboard linoleum in the kitchen. They'd had to take the back stairs down to pee.

The memories were only flashes, fragments from deep in her subconscious, repressed but now brought up to the surface by what she had witnessed earlier. It had happened. She remembered being thrown out, losing all their possessions. Ilka had hidden behind the sofa, but the woman from the district had grabbed her and dragged her away.

Now she saw herself as a little girl crying down in the courtyard, alone with the woman holding a few bags filled with Ilka's clothes. But none of her toys. After they left the apartment, her father argued with the strange men.

When her mother finally came down and joined them in the courtyard, she was crying too, though in a different way. And later her father left. Back then Ilka thought he was gone for a long, long time, but now she wasn't so sure. She'd been so young and had missed him so much.

She lit a cigarette, and slowly the car filled up with smoke. How could the memory of something so dramatic vanish, only to pop up again so many years later? And where had they lived after that? She couldn't remember. Up until now, her only memories had been from the house in Brønshøj she'd thought of as her childhood home.

She rolled the window down to get rid of the smoke, and after crushing out her third cigarette in the tiny ashtray she felt clearheaded enough to drive again. She wanted to call her mother, but instead she slowly pulled away from the curb.

She turned into the parking lot behind the funeral home and parked beside Artie's black pickup. He sat on the back steps with a cup in his hand and a cigarette hanging from his mouth, watching her. His weird longish hair was knotted up in a bun, and he wore a Hawaiian shirt. All in all he looked a bit quirky, yet for a moment she was tempted to sit down and cuddle up to him, hold him, let him cheer her up. Though not just because of all the forgotten childhood memories suddenly returning; as she began loosening up after the wild episode at her father's house, a sort of delayed shock set in.

Artie Sorvino had worked for her father for eighteen years. He was the closest thing she had in Racine to a friend she could confide in, though that wasn't saying much, because she still couldn't figure him out. Most of the time he backed her up, but occasionally he acted like he wanted nothing to do with her. At least their relationship at work hadn't suffered after the night she'd seduced him; he seemed to be okay with it as just a one-night stand.

Without a word she sat beside him and fished out her pack of cigarettes. He watched her reach for the lighter lying on the steps.

Finally she said, "She could have mowed them all down." She took a drag and blew the smoke out. "Okay, she shot above their heads first, but then she aimed right at them. It's a miracle nobody was hit."

"Who are we talking about here?" He turned to her and leaned closer to the doorway.

"Mary Ann, that's who! She and Leslie were thrown out of their house, I was there when it happened. A bunch of men came and emptied the place. They took everything away in a big moving van. But before that she shot at them with a rifle. The woman's crazy!"

"Sounds like she was trying to defend her property," Artie said.

"But they hadn't done anything to her! She rolls out onto the porch with a gun on her lap, nobody says a word, and she starts shooting. It was absolutely insane! She shot right out into the street! Somebody could have been walking by! Then one of the men started shooting back, and nobody did anything to help, not even call the police. What's wrong with everybody?"

"Maybe you should just be happy you Danes don't have to defend yourselves that way over there. People don't buy guns here just for fun. In Wisconsin, nobody needs a special license to keep a gun in their home, as long as it's for defending yourself, for hunting, or for anything else legal."

He ticked that off as if it was something every single person in the state knew by heart.

"Listen," she said. "The men weren't even close to the house when she started shooting. You can't say you're defending yourself before someone threatens you or does something."

"They were on her property. I understand it's different in Denmark. You're so busy having fun, or whatever that hygge of yours means, that no one has time to shoot at people. Your father told me about the Danish police, all the time they spend helping mother ducks and their little ducklings across the street. Well, guess what, the cops over here have other things to do. We're prepared to defend ourselves. We have to be."

She ignored his attempt at humor. "That's not true. It's just that in Denmark it's not legal to have a gun on the table beside your bed."

He shook his head at her, but he added that there must have been a reason why Mary Ann felt threatened. "I mean, we don't just start shooting at people who happen to stop by."

She stared at him for a moment, then he shook his head again and smiled. "No, I don't own a gun. But I do have a fishing knife, if it came down to that. Why don't I get you a cup of coffee, then you can tell me exactly what happened out there."

Before he could stand up, Ilka said, "No thanks, I've already had three cups. Another thing, in Denmark the person who takes over someone's property doesn't show up carrying a gun."

He looked at her in surprise. "The bailiff?"

"If that's what he's called, yes. Six men in fact, plus the ones who emptied the house. Mary Ann and Leslie didn't hire them, that's for sure."

"It couldn't have been the bailiff."

"Well, they were put out on the street, anyway. I saw the man changing the locks."

"That sounds strange." Artie swung his legs to the side so Sister Eileen could get out the door. Her gray habit grazed Ilka's shoulder. She was associated with a parish outside town, and for the past twelve years she had worked as an unpaid volunteer for Ilka's father, though she did accept donations for her church. Yet she was often the first to show up for work in the mornings, and she knew the most about managing the funeral home. Her small apartment was next to the coffin storage room, and it seemed that Ilka had inherited her along with the business.

She stepped past them and turned around. "Who's been put out on the street?"

"Mary Ann and Leslie were thrown out of their house," Artie said. "But the law didn't do it, I'm sure of that. It's got to be somebody else."

"It was so humiliating for them, standing out on the porch, watching them drive away with everything they owned," Ilka said. "They didn't even get to keep their coats and bags."

"You don't need to feel sorry for them," Sister Eileen said without blinking an eye. "They probably went right out to Mary Ann's father. He lives very comfortably, and his daughter and granddaughters will too."

Ilka raised her eyebrows.

"Raymond Fletcher is one of the richest men in Wisconsin," Artie said. "And one of the most powerful. He owns a stable and breeds these insanely expensive trotters on his ranch."

Ilka's heart skipped a beat when he mentioned trotters. And a stable. Now it made more sense why her father's financial situation had collapsed, why he'd left everything in a big mess. Not that it changed anything. She hadn't forgiven him for dragging her into it. Just thinking about it made her angry, and suddenly she felt no sympathy at all for the two women. Apparently, they had no money worries, yet obviously they weren't going to help her, even though legally they were Paul Jensen's nearest family.

She pulled Maggie's letters out of her bag and handed them to the nun. "Do you know anything about these? The reason I drove over to Mary Ann's house was to give them to her. Honestly, I don't care anymore about anything that comes out."

The nun skimmed the five letters, then folded them up again and handed them back.

"Who's Maggie?" Ilka said. She looked at Sister Eileen, then at Artie, who stood up and shrugged. He held out his hand when Ilka started to rise. "The name doesn't ring any bells." He dumped the rest of his coffee on the ground.

Sister Eileen shook her head and turned to go to her apartment, but Ilka stopped her and asked them to come into the office to discuss the future of the funeral home.

"I've been going over the books," she began after they sat down around her father's desk. "We have an agreed overdraft in our bank account of almost two hundred thousand dollars. Besides that, we haven't paid several suppliers; that adds up to over forty thousand of debt. The two hundred thousand comes from withdrawals this spring. If I close the funeral home and go home now, I'll be paying off this debt the rest of my life. So I have to talk to my bank before I make any decision."

Ilka had thought about how to say this so it didn't sound as if she was abandoning them, yet that's what it came down to. Her father had been broke, and when he died he left the business deeply in debt. The past several days she'd gone through all the books for the past five years. She had no choice: She had to shut down.

"If they even let you leave the States with a debt like this," Artie said. She knew he might be right. Her mother had warned her about that before Ilka flew over to Wisconsin. Her ears began ringing.

"Right now we don't have the money for the funeral tomorrow. It's not prepaid; we'll have to wait for the family to pay the bill. Luckily, it's not one of the more expensive funerals. We just have to deliver the body to the church. But we're still responsible for the flowers and decorations."

"I'll take care of the flowers," Artie said.

Ilka knew he had stolen flowers from the common grave for an earlier funeral, but decided not to say anything. She saw no alternative. "What about embalming supplies?"

"I think we have enough for five or six more jobs."

"The biggest problem is the coffins," Sister Eileen said. "The suppliers have shut us down because of what we owe them. There's only one white coffin left, and then there's the light-blue used one out back, waiting to be hauled away."

"When we need more coffins, I'll order them online from Costco. We'll just have to say we can't trust our regular suppliers. I don't feel bad at all for blaming them, it's their fault for not giving me a chance to get the business back on its feet."

Artie and Sister Eileen stared at her.

"Really, though, we don't need to tell anybody where the coffins come from," she added.

Most people wouldn't even notice if the white coffin in the catalog was different from the one they got, she thought.

Sister Eileen spoke sharply. "But will you charge them the catalog prices?"

"We'll see." Ilka asked if they'd eaten lunch, if she should bring them something when she went out to shop.


  • "This well-crafted dive into family secrets will appeal to fans of Lisa Scottoline."—Booklist
  • "Denmark's Queen of Crime, Sara Blaedel, is back...If Scandinavian noir is your cup of tea, you'll want to check out Blaedel's newest venture. Blending Scandinavian sensibility with an American mystery...Blaedel uses her sharp storytelling and endearing character development to craft a compelling mystery that will keep readers turning the pages."—Criminal Element
  • "Blaedel does a fine job hooking the reader early, delivering another page-turner that packs a wicked cliff-hanger ending that'll have her readers begging for the next book. Expertly written and deftly plotted, Her Father's Secret is a wild, fun mystery that shows once again why Sara Blaedel is fast becoming one of the premier mystery writers in the game."—CrimeReads
  • "Blaedel does a fine job of fleshing out each of these characters, and readers will enjoy watching Ilka transform from frustrated and confused to utterly confident in her sleuthing as she discovers some of her father's painful secrets . . . the book's cliffhanger ending will make readers look forward to the next set of secrets for Ilka to unravel."—Publisher's Weekly
  • "Blaedel is one of the best I've come across."—Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author
  • "Sara Blaedel is a force to be reckoned with. She's a remarkable crime writer who time and again delivers a solid, engaging story that any reader in the world can enjoy."—Karin Slaughter, New York Times bestselling author
  • "Crime-writer superstar Sara Blaedel's great skill is in weaving a heartbreaking social history into an edge-of-your-chair thriller while at the same time creating a detective who's as emotionally rich and real as a close friend."—Oprah.com
  • "One can count on emotional engagement, spine-tingling suspense, and taut storytelling from Sara Blaedel."—Sandra Brown, #1 New York Timesbestselling author
  • "Compelling and unique, The Daughter delves into a dark and fascinating world rarely explored in suspense fiction. Sara Blaedel knows how to reel in her readers and keep them utterly transfixed."—Tess Gerritsen on The Daughter
  • "Sara Blaedel is at the top of her game."—Camilla Läckberg, #1 international bestselling author

On Sale
Nov 19, 2019
Page Count
336 pages

Sara Blaedel

About the Author

Sara Blaedel is the author of the #1 international bestselling series featuring Detective Louise Rick. Her books are published in thirty-eight countries. In 2014 Sara was voted Denmark’s most popular novelist for the fourth time. She is also a recipient of the Golden Laurel, Denmark’s most prestigious literary award. She lives in New York City.

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