by J.C. Valentine
Publication Date: November 29, 2016
Genres: Adult, New Adult, Mystery, Thriller, YA, Suspense
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Synopsis: How do you live with yourself when you don’t even know who you are?
On a chill October night, a girl goes missing setting the small town of Oakridge on edge. James has spent the last five years running from a past that still haunts him to this day. Now he finds himself thrust back into a life he thought he left behind. Finding out his new home may be haunted and reconnecting with an old friend while being thrust into a murder mystery, James finds himself trying to figure out which end is up while questioning his own sanity.
AUTHOR’S NOTE Buried Secrets is a New Adult, mystery thriller with very little romance but heavy on the suspense.
EXCERPT – PROLOGUE
Fall crept in like a burglar while the town slept. It brought with it a chill that felt refreshing after one of the hottest summers on Oakridge record. A slight, sticky fog hung in the air and evidence of Halloween was on nearly every doorstep in the form of carved jack-o-lanterns. Skeletons hung on doors, and festive orange lights draped roofs. Leaves coated the ground, wet and matted to the sidewalks and streets.
James breathed in the cool air that stung his nose just a bit. He loved when school let out at the end of the day. He never could wait to get out of the confines of the small, overcrowded classrooms. Even now he couldn’t fully escape it. Classmates of his walked and ran the same mile stretch he was, laughing and talking about anything and everything. Right now, he knew the junior high girl and her friend from his science class walking a few feet behind him were debating the hotness of Tommy Henderson, the varsity basketball player for Oakridge High. Everyone knew him, and everyone loved him. He was going to take the team to the championships. Probably would graduate and take some college to their championship, too. Something the whole town could be proud of.
They met a few years ago when James was playing in the woods. AJ found him digging for worms—he’d been on a mission, wanting to teach himself how to fish, to live off the land like the people from ancient times—and he’d offered to help. AJ had run off, leaving James to sit and wonder where he had come from—he hadn’t heard him approach in the first place. He returned cupping a handful of water in his palms. He’d dumped the liquid in the hole James had dug, and moments later, worms began squirming to the surface.
They became fast friends. James kept their friendship a secret. He wasn’t sure why exactly, except that AJ was his only friend, and he wanted to keep him all for himself. If he told someone, they might want to meet him, then the magic might go away. So they spent all that summer collecting worms and pretending to be hunters in the deep woods behind Oakridge Park. When summer break was over and school was back in session, James was disappointed to find that AJ wasn’t in any of his classes. In fact, he wasn’t in any classes in the school. No one heard of him.
He finally broke and told his mom and dad about him one evening over dinner, because he was worried about AJ and needed to share him with someone, so he could feel close to him again. Like if he kept him a secret, and didn’t see him, then he wouldn’t be real anymore. It was an odd way to look at it, he knew, but he hadn’t ever had a friend quite like AJ. He was fun and daring and super inventive, and he liked James, flaws and all.
So when he told his parents about AJ, they were happy for him. His mom said he probably just missed him in the halls. The schools weren’t huge, but they were big enough to lose someone in. His dad said that AJ probably just went to a different school. Maybe in the next town over, since no one knew him here. That settled it for a bit, and the next time James saw AJ, which was at the park just after sunset one evening when James was on his way home from skipping rocks in the small stream in the woods, he asked him about it. AJ had told him that both theories were wrong. He lived a few miles west through the woods and his mom homeschooled him. He said his dad did some sort of factory work in the next town, which was just enough to pay the bills and put food on the table, according to him. It was only then that James realized AJ didn’t wear the best of clothes, and he wasn’t as kempt as James was. But that didn’t make any difference to him. In fact, he felt closer to AJ than ever before. Finally, he had found someone who would never judge him. Someone who could truly understand him.
So when Mercy Worthington fell into step with him, James’s heart beat a rapid tempo and his stomach turned to knots.
“Hi,” she said in a very delicate, but cheerful voice.
James stared at the ground and muttered a hello, but he couldn’t get up the nerve to really look at her.
“I’m Mercy. You’re James, right? James Clearwater. I think my dad works with yours at old man Jenson’s. He does the proofs, doesn’t he?”
James nodded. His dad worked at Jenson Design Studio where he developed photographs in one of the two darkrooms. His dad had big dreams of one day owning his own studio and becoming a famous photographer. Mercy’s dad was a set designer. James knew everything there was to know about Mercy and her family, and not just because the whole town knew who her family was, but because he paid attention and took notes. James was in love with Mercy Worthington, and had been since the third grade when she’d taken a job behind the lunch counter for a day and handed him a carton of 2% with that big, white smile of hers trained squarely on him. She was a senior at the high school, which made her five years older than James, who was thirteen now and in the seventh grade.
Today, like every day, she was radiant. Her dull blond hair waved gently behind her as the breeze caught it and when he found the nerve to look up at her, he found her green eyes smiling on him.
He was going to marry her one day.
“I thought so,” she said, grinning. She took in their surroundings. “Do you take this route every day?” He nodded. “I’ve never seen you, and I walk this way every day. How come I’ve never seen you?”
He shrugged. “I dunno.” He felt awkward and short on words. He stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
He glanced at her and caught her teasing smile. He smiled back, feeling a little of the tension leave his shoulders. Why was she being so nice to him? A part of him felt like this must be a trick, but when he looked around, he only saw other kids from school walking silently or in small groups or pairs, chatting quietly. Could she really be interested in him? The only kids besides AJ that talked to him were the ones who poked fun of his clothes or his haircut, his slight lisp or the way he tripped over his own feet. She probably just felt sorry for him. He had heard of that before, girls who felt sorry for the underdog and took pity on them. Normally, he would get mad at being a charity case, but right now he couldn’t care less. Someone other than his family knew he existed. Mercy Worthington knew he existed. Suddenly, he didn’t feel like a shadow slinking around in the world unnoticed anymore.
“So how long have you lived in Oakridge, James?” Mercy asked, as they crossed the street.
“My whole life,” he replied.
She nodded. “Do you have any friends? I never see you with anyone.”
He shrugged. “Some.” He didn’t want to look like too much of a loser.
“What about a girlfriend, do you have one of those?”
He felt himself blush. “No.”
“I know what your dad does for a living. So what does your mom do?”
“She likes to garden, but no one pays her for it,” he said. His dad was old-fashioned and believed that the wife should be home with the kids while the husband went out and provided for the family.
“That’s cool,” she said. “My mom is a painter. Sometimes she sells her art to the museum or to some person with lots of money. She’s pretty successful. I was thinking of painting when I get out of college. What about you? Do you know what you want to do after college?”
Honestly, James wasn’t sure he even wanted to go to college. His dad never pushed the notion, insisting that he wouldn’t amount to much more than a gas-station attendant anyway. He wanted to be an astronaut when he was little, like most boys that age did, then he switched to a fireman after a class field trip to the fire station in fifth grade. Now, he just wasn’t sure what he wanted.
“I’m not sure,” he said honestly. “Maybe I’ll just travel across the world for a while and live off the land until I figure it out.” That had been a dream of his and AJ’s, to hitch rides all over the country with nothing but a backpack and a few dollars in their wallet.
Her face lit up with excitement. “That is so cool that you said that. I always dreamed of seeing the world, but my dad said that education comes first. I will have all the time in the world to do what I want after I get my ducks in a row.”
James wasn’t sure he believed that, but he kept his mouth shut.
Heavy footsteps approached from behind and moments later a big, strong arm wrapped around Mercy’s shoulder. Tommy Henderson had arrived.
“Hey, babe.” Tightening his grip on her neck, he pulled her in for a sloppy kiss.
“Hey,” she said when she came up for air. “Tommy, this is James. His dad works with my dad. He’s going to travel across the world one day.” She said this with a grin that made James’ stomach flutter a little.
Tommy sized James up, and James knew he was trying to figure out where he knew him from. James knew him from the many times he “accidentally” knocked his books from his hands, and “inadvertently” tore up his homework. James was afraid if he recognized him, he might have to endure another embarrassing moment involving colorful adjectives and descriptive threats, and he just didn’t want to be made a fool of in front of a girl like Mercy Worthington.
He hung his head, allowing a few scraggly scraps of hair to shield his eyes.
“Travel the world, huh? Like a hobo or something?” He laughed, his deep, belly rolling chortle that made all the girls weak in the knees. James thought it made him look and sound stupid. “What are you hanging out with this joker for? He’s like two feet tall. I could smash him with my pinkie.”
James felt his finger press down on the crown of his head in demonstration.
“Hey,” Tommy said, putting himself between James and Mercy. “You trying to steal my girlfriend?”
“Stop picking on him, Tommy,” Mercy snapped.
Tommy sneered at James, then his features smoothed, and he turned on a smile for Mercy. “Whatever you say, babe. Just making sure the boy understands there’s no competition. You’re my girl, aren’t you, babe?”
Mercy rolled her eyes. “Of course, Tommy.”
They had come to a fork in the road where James’ house was to the left and Mercy’s to the right. “I’ll see you around, James,” Mercy told him, smiling apologetically.
“Yeah, see ya,” Tommy said, then ruffled James’ hair like he was some little kid.
James watched after them as they turned and walked off. After a few feet, Tommy turned to face James. “And, James.” James raised a questioning brow. “Stay away from my girl.”
Mercy punched Tommy in the side playfully, and he laughed, tugging her closer as they resumed walking. James felt his body begin to shake. He was angry. At that moment, he wanted to beat Tommy Henderson until his arms were too weak to continue. For the first time in his miserable existence, James thought he felt angry enough to kill.
As the sun set, the day turned bitter cold, and the rain had moved in. It was sheeting down now, and Mercy’s shoes were soaking wet as her feet beat through every puddle. She was running, the rain pouring down her face in rivers, filling her eyes and blinding her to her path. Someone was chasing her.
She’d decided to walk home after an evening at her boyfriend, Tommy’s, house, and almost as soon as she rounded the first street corner, she felt someone following her. The shadowy figure kept pace for a couple of blocks, then steadily picked up pace, until Mercy broke out running…and so did they.
She was crossing the park playground now, and she could just make out the hill ahead. Her house was just over that hill, and if she could make it, she could get help. As her feet slipped, trying to find purchase on the soft, mud covered ground, Mercy could feel her muscles begin to cramp and burn with exhaustion. Against her will, she was slowing. When her feet hit the loose bark covering the playground, Mercy did slip. She caught herself with her hands and scrambled to her feet, pushing herself harder until she finally reached the bottom of the hill. There she used her hands, her fingers digging into the grass, and pulled herself up until she could look over and beyond to her house. The lights inside were a warm beacon, and she felt a sudden urgency come over her.
As she came to her feet, Mercy heard a muffled thud, and glanced over her shoulder. It was a mistake that she wouldn’t live to regret.
The shadow stood before her, and to her surprise, she recognized the dark figure.
“What do you want from me!”
A visual sweep revealed something big and heavy looking in their hand, and with quick precision, the shadow raised its arm high in the air and brought it down hard. A slow trickle of blood broke through her hairline and ran down her forehead, then her face and dripped off her chin. A second blow caused it to grow thicker and run faster and Mercy fell to her knees, then finally her face, where her eyes focused and glazed over and her breaths faded away to nothing. And still the shadow hit her, until all the fury, all the anger subsided.
Her last vision was that of the warm yellow glow coming from the living room window where her mother and father, sister and brother sat watching the evening news and waiting for her to come walking in the door any moment.
Stooping down, the figure wrapped its cold, wet fingers around Mercy’s ankles and pulled, slipping frequently under the girl’s slight weight as it dragged her lifeless body into the copse of oak trees beyond the playground. Come morning, when the sun broke through the clouds, children would run and play, never knowing the horrors of what happened just a short distance away.
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ABOUT J.C. VALENTINE
J.C. Valentine is the USA Today and International bestselling author of the Night Calls and Wayward Fighters Series and the Forbidden Series. Her vivid imagination and love of words and romance had her penning her own romance stories from an early age, which, despite being poorly edited and written longhand, she forced friends and family members to read. No, she isn’t sorry.
J.C. earned her own happily ever after when she married her high school sweetheart. Living in the Northwest, they have three amazing children and far too many pets and spend much of their free time together enjoying movies or the outdoors. Among the many hats she wears, J.C. is an entrepreneur. Having graduated with honors, she holds a Bachelor’s in English and when she isn’t writing, you can find her editing for fellow authors.
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