It’s One of Us by J.T. Ellison
ISBN: 9780778311768 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 9780369706560 (eBook)
ISBN: 9781488218095 (Digital audiobook)
ASIN: B0B3JSH47Y (Audible audiobook)
ASIN: B09ZLGLKH9 (Kindle edition)
Page Count: 400
Release Date: February 21, 2023
Publisher: MIRA Books
Genre: Fiction | Suspense | Psychological Thriller
Everybody lies. Even the ones you think you know best of all . . .
Olivia Bender designs exquisite home interiors that satisfy the most demanding clients. But her own deepest desire can’t be fulfilled by marble counters or the perfect rug. She desperately wants to be a mother. Fertility treatments and IVF keep failing. And just when she feels she’s at her lowest point, the police deliver shocking news to Olivia and her husband, Park.
DNA results show that the prime suspect in a murder investigation is Park’s son. Olivia is relieved, knowing this is a mistake. Despite their desire, the Benders don’t have any children. Then comes the confession. Many years ago, Park donated sperm to a clinic. He has no idea how many times it was sold—or how many children he has sired.
As the murder investigation goes deeper, more terrible truths come to light. With every revelation, Olivia must face the unthinkable. The man she married has fathered a killer. But can she hold that against him when she keeps such dark secrets of her own?
This twisting, emotionally layered thriller explores the lies we tell to keep a marriage together—or break each other apart . . .
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There is blood again.
Olivia forces away the threatening tears. She will not collapse. She will not cry. She will stand up, square her shoulders and flush the toilet, whispering small words of benediction toward the life that was, that wasn’t, that could have been.
She will not linger; she will not acknowledge the sudden sense of emptiness consuming her body. She will not give this moment more than it deserves. It’s happened before, too many times now. It will happen again, her mind unhelpfully provides.
There is relief in this pain, some sort of primitive biological response to help ease her heavy heart. Olivia has never lied to herself about her feelings about having a child. She wants this, she’s sure of it. Wants the experience, wants to be able to speak the same language as her sisters in the fertility arts, her friends who’ve already birthed their own. And she loves the idea of being pregnant. Loves the feelings of that early flush of success—the soreness and tingling in her breasts, the spotty nausea, the excitement, the fatigue. Loves remembering that moment when she realized she was pregnant the first time.
She’d known even before she took the test. She could feel the life growing inside her. Feel the quickening pulse. A secret she held in her heart, managing several hours with just the two of them, alone in their nascent lives. Every room of the house looked new, fresh, dangerous. Sharp corners and glass coffee tables, no, no, those would have to be tempered, replaced. The sun glancing off the breakfast table—too bright here, the spot on the opposite side would be best for a high chair. The cat, snoozing in the window seat—how was she going to take an interloper? The plans. The plans.
After a carefully arranged lunch, fresh fruit and no soft cheeses, she’d driven to the bookstore for a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, accepted the sweet congratulations of the bookseller—think, a complete stranger knew more than her family, her husband. She tied the plastic stick with its beautiful double pink lines inside two elaborate bows—one pink, one blue—and gave it to Park after an elegant dinner.
The look on his face—pride and fear and terror and joy, all mingled with desire—when he realized what she was saying. He’d been struck dumb, could only grin ear to ear and pat her leg for the first twenty minutes.
So much joy between them. So much possibility.
Olivia replayed that moment, over and over, every time she got pregnant. It helped chase away the furrowing, the angles and planes of Park’s forehead, cheek, chin, as they collapsed into sorrow when she’d miscarried the first time. And the next. And the next. Every time she lost their children, it was the same, all played out on Park’s handsome face: exaltation, fear, sorrow. Pity.
No, the being pregnant part was idyllic for her, albeit terribly brief. It’s only that she doesn’t know how she feels about what happens ten months hence, and the lifetime that follows. The stranger that comes into being. But that’s normal—at least, that’s what everyone tells her. All women feel nervous about what comes next. Her ambivalence isn’t what’s killing her babies. She can’t help but feel it’s her fault for not being certain to her marrow what she wants. That God is punishing her for being cavalier.
Of course, this internal conversation is moot. There is blood. Again.
She hastily makes her repairs—the materials are never far away. If she stashed the pads and tampons away in the hall cabinet, it would be bad luck. Too optimistic.
Not like they’re having any luck anyway. Six pregnancies. Six miscarriages. IUIs and IVF. Needles and hormones and pain, so much pain. More than anyone should have to bear.
With a momentary glance at the crime scene in the toilet, she depresses the handle.
“Goodbye,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry.”
Olivia brushes her teeth, then pulls a comb through her glossy, prenatal-enriched locks, rehearsing the breakfast conversation she must now have.
How does she tell Park she’s failed, yet again, to hold the tiny life inside her?
Downstairs, it is now just another morning, no different from any over the past several years. Just the two of them, getting ready for the day.
The television is on in the kitchen, tuned to the local morning show. Park whistles as he whisks eggs in a bright red bowl. Park’s breakfasts are legendary. Savory omelets, buckwheat blueberry pancakes, veggie frittatas, yogurts and homemade granola—you name it, he makes it. Olivia handles dinner. If she cooks three nights out of seven, she considers that a success. They eat like kings in the morning and paupers at night, and they love it.
She pauses at the door, watching him bustle around. He is already dressed for work, jeans and a button-down, black lace-up brogues. His “office” is in the backyard, in a shed Olivia converted for his use. A former—reformed—English professor on a semipermanent sabbatical, Park has launched a second career ghostwriting psychological thrillers. He claims to love the anonymity of it, that he can work so close to home, and the money is good. Enough. Not obscene, but enough. They’ve been able to afford four rounds of IUI and two in vitros so far. And as he says, writing is the perfect career for a man who wants to be a stay-at-home dad. There’s no reason for him to go back to teaching. Not now.
A pang in her heart, echoed by a sharp cramp in her stomach. They are throwing everything away. She is throwing everything away. This round of IVF, she only produced a few retrievable eggs, and this was their last embryo.
My God, she’s gotten clinical. She’s gotten cold. Babies. Not embryos. There are no more frozen babies. Which means she’ll have to do it all again, the weeks-long scientific process of creating a child: the suppression drugs, the early morning blood tests, the shots, the trigger, the surgery, the implantation. The rage and fear and pain. Again.
The money. It costs so, so much.
She has frozen at the edge of the kitchen, thoughts roiling, and Park senses her there, turns with a wide smile. The whisk clicks against the bowl in time with her heartbeat.
“How are my darlings feeling this morning? Mama and bebe hungry?”
She is saved from blurting out the truth—mama no more, bebe is dead—by the ringing of the doorbell.
Park frowns. “Who is here so early? Watch the eggs, will you?”
Even chickens can do what she cannot.
It’s infuriating. House cats escape into the woods and sixty days later purge themselves of tiny blind beings. Insects, birds, rats, rabbits, deer, reproduce without thought or hindrance.
Nearly four million women a year—a year!—manage to give birth.
But not her.
She’s not depressed, really, she’s not. She’s come to terms with this. It happens. Today will be a bad day, tomorrow will be better. They will try again. It will all be okay.
Mechanically, Olivia moves to the stove, accepts the wooden spatula. Park disappears toward the foyer, shoulders broad and waist nearly as trim as the day she met him. She will never get over his handsomeness, his winning personality. Everyone loves Park. How could you not? He is perfect. He is everything Olivia is not.
The television is blaring a breaking news alert, and she turns her attention to it, grateful for something, anything, to focus on beside the intransigent nature of her womb and the fear her husband will abandon her. The anchor is new, from Mississippi, with a voice soft as honey. Tupelo? No, Oxford, Olivia remembers; Park took her to a quaint bookstore there on the square one summer, long ago.
“Sad news this morning, as it has been confirmed the body found in Davidson County earlier this week belongs to young mother Beverly Cooke. Cooke has been missing for three months, after she was last seen going for a hike at Radnor Lake. Her car was found in the parking lot, with her purse and phone inside. Metro Nashville Police spokesperson Vanda Priory tells Channel Four Metro is working with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Forensic Medical to determine her cause of death. The Cooke family released a statement a few minutes ago. ‘Thank you to everyone who has helped bring Beverly home. We will have more information on her burial soon. We ask for privacy during this difficult time.’ Metro now turns their attention to identifying a suspect. In this morning’s briefing, Homicide Detective William Osley stated that Metro has a lead and will be pursuing it vigorously. Next up, time to break into the cedar closet, it’s finally sweater weather!”
Olivia sighs in regret. That poor woman. Like everyone in Nashville, Olivia has followed the case religiously. To have a young mother—the kind of woman she’s so desperate to mold herself into— disappear into thin air from a safe, regularly traveled, popular spot, one Olivia herself hikes on occasion, has been terrifying. She knows Beverly Cooke, too, albeit peripherally. They were in a book club together a few years ago. Beverly was fun. Loud. Drank white wine in the kitchen of the house and gossiped about the neighbors. Never read the book.
Olivia stopped going after a few meetings. It was right before she’d started her first official fertility treatments, had two miscarriages behind her, was hopped up on Clomid and aspirin, and all anyone could do was talk babies. Beverly had just weaned her first and was drunk for the first time in two years. She alternated between complaining and cooing about the trials and joys of motherhood. Olivia couldn’t take it, this flagrant flaunting of the woman’s success. She stood stock still in the clubhouse kitchen, fingers clenching a glass of Chardonnay, envisioning the myriad ways she could murder Beverly. Cracking the glass on the counter’s edge and swiping it across Beverly’s pale stalk of a neck seemed the most expedient.
Honestly, she wanted to murder them all, the sycophantic breeders who took their ability to procreate for granted. They had no idea what she was going through. How she was tearing apart inside, month after month. How she felt the embryos detach and knew it was over. How Park’s face went from joy to disdain every time.
Some people wear their scars on the outside.
Some hide them deep, and never let anyone in to see them.
Olivia is still staring at the screen, which is blaring a commercial for car insurance, processing, remembering, fists balled so tightly she can feel her nails cutting the skin, when she hears her husband calling her name.
“Olivia?” His voice is pitched higher than normal, as if he’s excited, or scared.
Park enters the kitchen from the hall between the dining room and the butler’s pantry.
“Honey, they found Beverly—” she starts. But her words die in her throat when she sees two strangers, a man and a woman, standing behind him, people she knows immediately are police officers just by their wary bearing and shifting eyes that take in the whole room in a moment, then settle on her appraisingly.
“I know,” Park says, coming to her side, shutting off the gas. She’s burned the eggs; a sulfurous stench emanates from the gold-encrusted pan. He takes the spatula from her carefully. “It’s been on the news all morning. Liv, these detectives need to talk to us.”
The man—stocky, slick smoky-lensed gold glasses, perfectly worn-in cowboy boots and a leather jacket over a button-down—takes a small step forward and removes his sunglasses. His eyes are the deepest espresso and hold something indefinable, between pity and accusation. It’s as if he knows what she is thinking, knows her uncharitable thoughts toward poor dead Beverly.
“Detective Osley, ma’am. My partner, Detective Moore. We’ve been working Beverly Cooke’s case. I understand you knew her? Our condolences for your loss.”
Olivia cuts her eyes at Park. What the hell has he been saying to them?
“I don’t know her. Didn’t. Not well. We were in a book club together, years ago. I don’t know what happened to her. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.”
“Oh, we understand. That’s not why we’re here.” Osley glances at his partner. The woman is taller than he is, graceful in the way of ex–ballet dancers even in her street clothes, with a long, supple neck, hooded green eyes devoid of makeup and blond hair twisted into a thick no-nonsense bun worn low, brushing the collar of her shirt.
“Why are you here, exactly?” Olivia asks.
Park frowns at her tone. She’s come across too sharp, but my God, what she’s already handled this morning would break a lesser woman.
“It’s about our suspect in the Cooke case. Can we sit down?”
Olivia reigns in her self-loathing fury and turns on the charm. The consummate hostess act always works. Park has taught her that. “Oh, of course. Can I get you some coffee? Tea? We were making breakfast. Can we offer you some eggs, or a muffin? I have a fresh pan here—”
“No, ma’am, we’re fine,” Moore demurs. “Let’s sit down and have a chat.”
Olivia has a moment of sheer freak-out. Was it Park? Had he killed Beverly Cooke? Was that why they wanted to talk, because he was a suspect? If he was a suspect, would the police sit down with them casually in the kitchen? Wouldn’t they want something more official? Take him to the station? Did they need to call a lawyer? Her mind was going fifty thousand miles an hour, and Park was already convicted and in prison, and she was so alone in the big house, so lonely, before she reached a hand to pull out the chair.
She needs to knock off the true crime podcasts. Her husband is not a murderer. He is incapable of that kind of deceit.
Sometimes she wonders.
“Nice kitchen,” Osley says.
Olivia loves her kitchen. It is the model for all her signature looks. Airy, open, white cabinets with iron pulls, leathered white marble counters. A black granite–topped island just the right size for chopping and serving, light spilling in from the big bay window. A white oak French country table with elegant cane-backed chairs. It was the heart of her home, the heart of her life with Park.
Now, though, it is simply the site of his greatest betrayal. Forevermore, from this morning—with the burned eggs and the somber police and Park’s face whiter than bone—until the end of her tenure here, and even then, in remembrance, she would look at this precious place with fury and sadness for what could have been. The ghosts of the life they were supposed to have clung to her, suckled her spirit like a babe at her breast never would. Everywhere she looked were echoes of the shadow existence she was supposed to be living. Here, a frazzled mother, smiling despite her fatigue at the children she’d created. There, a loving father, always ready to lend a hand tossing a ball or helping with homework. And look, a trio of towheaded boys and a soft blonde princess girl, the teasing and laughter of their mealtimes. How the table would seem to grow smaller as the boys got older and took up more space. The girlfriends came, the boyfriends. The emptiness when it was just the two of them again, the children grown with their own lives, the table bursting at holidays only. The grandchildren, happiness and racket, the noise and the joy creeping out from the woodwork again.
She is alone. She will always be alone. She will not have this life. She will not have this dream.
Park made it so.
As the detectives continue to speak, softly, without rancor, and her world splinters, Olivia hardens, compresses, shrinks. She watches her husband and holds on to one small thought.
I have the power to destroy you, too. Dear God, give me the chance.
Excerpt from It’s One of Us by J.T. Ellison.
Copyright © 2023 by J.T. Ellison.
Published with permission from MIRA Books.
All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
J.T. Ellison is the NYT and USA Today bestselling author of more than 20 novels, and the EMMY-award-winning co-host of A WORD ON WORDS, Nashville’s premier literary show. With millions of books in print, her work has won critical acclaim, prestigious awards, and has been published in 26 countries. Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.
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