Book 4 of The Last Stand series
A mother faces her greatest fear.
Zoe Duncan’s thirteen-year-old daughter goes missing from her own backyard while she’s home sick from school. The police suspect Samantha’s a runaway—she’s not happy about her mother’s upcoming marriage—but Zoe knows Sam would never do that.
Terrified of losing the person she loves most, Zoe is willing to do anything to bring Sam home, even if it means giving up her job, her nice home and her relationship with the man she thought she wanted….
A detective faces his hardest case.
Jonathan Stivers is a private investigator who donates his time to The Last Stand, a victims’ charity in Sacramento. He’s good at what he does, the best. Which is why he’s called on to help Zoe Duncan find her missing daughter. But never has he had fewer leads to work with—or been more attracted to a client. He’s sure of only one thing: Sam was taken by someone close to the family. He doesn’t realize how close until he realizes that the “perfect” couple next door is anything but…
View Trailer | :: Readers’ Group Questions below
Love is a devil. There is no evil angel but Love.
The bump that came from the trunk of her car surprised Tiffany so much it nearly sent her careening off the road and into one of the houses along the right side. What was going on? The fourteen-year-old boy she and her husband had called “Rover” was supposed to be dead. She couldn’t dump his body if he wasn’t!
What should she do? She gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles showed beneath her skin as she tried to decide. She needed to stop and see what was going on. How had someone who’d been killed come back to life? And was Rover merely in a panic because he’d regained consciousness in a dark, confined space? Or was he trying to knock out a taillight in hopes of gaining the attention of the car following behind?
She couldn’t believe he was still breathing, let alone coherent enough to execute such a plan. He was too young to be that smart, wouldn’t dare defy them even if he was. But Rover had to know that this was the end. He’d never see his parents again if he didn’t do something. Wouldn’t that make him willing to take anyrisk?
Tiffany wasn’t sure. It always surprised her how cowed and controllable the early teens her husband brought home really were. Colin had a way with them, knew just the type of individual to pick.
Another thunk caused her palms to grow slick with sweat. Damn it! This wasn’t supposed to happen. It’d certainly never happened before. Colin usually knew what he was doing.
Could anyone else hear the racket Rover was making?
She glanced in her rearview mirror. The black SUV that’d been following her for the past several miles was still there. The driver, a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses, had her window down to take advantage of the warm spring weather. The wind blew her dark hair back, revealing an oval face with full lips, the kind of face Colin would probably find attractive, despite the age difference. But the woman didn’t look any more interested in Tiffany than she had before.
Or maybe she did. She was following closer….
More movement, sounds of distress drew Tiffany’s nerves taut. I’ve got to pull over.
But if the driver of the SUV had seen or heard something unusual, she might stop, too. And how would Tiffany explain having a boy in her trunk? Especially one in Rover’s condition?
Think! It was better to keep driving. She’d turn at the next light and hope the SUV went straight. There were several ways to reach Highway 50. Once out of the city, beyond Placerville, she could pull down a dirt road in the mountains where she’d be hidden by pine trees.
But then what? It was one thing to dump a body, another to be the reason that person was no longer alive.
The noise coming from her trunk grew louder, more insistent. If the lady behind her didn’t hear it, a pedestrian at the next crosswalk could.
Tiffany drew in a deep breath through her nose. She had to get this right or Colin would be upset. If she screwed up too badly, they’d both go to prison.
Heart hammering, she reached into her purse and fumbled around until she located her cell and managed to push the speed-dial button that would ring her husband’s cell.
“Colin, he’s alive!” she blurted into the pause that followed, but then his voice cut in with the canned response of a recording and she realized she’d gotten his voicemail.
“I’m afraid I’m not able to take your call right now…”
Frustrated, she punched the End button. Colin thought it was funny to bait people into believing they had him on the phone. She usually laughed when he caught her on it. But she wasn’t laughing today. She needed him. Now.
“H-e-l-p! Mo-om? Da-ad? Someone help me!”
That was Rover screaming!
Taking the next right, Tiffany gave her car too much gas. When the tires squealed, two men leaving Lamps Plus looked up, causing her to regret having a lead foot. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself.
But at least the black SUV continued down Madison. That was a small relief.
Her hand shook as she dialed Colin’s work. “Come on, hurry. I need to talk to my husband,” she muttered through the subsequent ringing.
Finally, Misty, the receptionist with the frizzy hair at Scovil, Potter & Clay picked up. “Law Offices.”
“M-misty? This is Tiffany Bell. Is my husband there?”
“Let me see.” There was a long pause. Then she came back on the line. “He’s in a meeting.”
“Will you get him for me?”
“He’s with the boss.”
As a new hire fresh out of law school, Colin had to be careful to keep the other lawyers at the firm happy, especially Walter Scovil, the most senior of the senior partners. But nothing was more important than this.
“I’m sorry, it’s an emergency.”
“Oh! Is everything okay?”
Hoping to staunch the tears burning behind her eyes, Tiffany blinked repeatedly. “His…um…his mother fell and…and she’s hurt.”
Colin hated his mother, wouldn’t have walked across the street to see her even if she was on her death bed, but most people didn’t know that. It wasn’t something he shared with anyone besides her. They both knew what other people would think if they heard him call his mother the names he used.
“I feel terrible,” the receptionist said. “I’ll get him right away.”
The stoplight ahead turned red and traffic in front of Tiffany began to slow. She studied the intersection, wondering if she could switch into the right-hand turn lane, or catch a green arrow on the left. Anything to avoid coming to a complete stop. But too many vehicles blocked the way. She had no choice but to wait for the light.
Biting her lip, she eased her foot onto the brake…and let her breath go only when she didn’t hear anything from Rover. Had he died at last?
“Tiffany, why are you calling?”
The sound of her husband’s voice caused her to lose the battle she’d been fighting with her emotions. As she wiped the tears rolling down her cheeks, she caught the man in the truck next to her staring and averted her eyes. “It’s Rover,” she whispered into the phone.
“Is everything okay?”
“No! He’s alive.”
“He can’t be.”
“He is. He’s in the trunk banging around and crying for help.”
“Then pull over and take care of it!”
“Right here? In the middle of Fair Oaks?”
“Shit! No, of course not.” There was a long pause. “What street are you on?”
“I’m heading south on Hazel, trying to reach Highway 50.”
“Wait until you can get out of town, then pull over and deal with the problem.”
She’d figured out that much. It was what came next that made her uneasy. “What do you mean, ‘deal with the problem?’”
He kept his response low. “Just what I said. Finish the job.”
Kill Rover herself? Her stomach flipped over at the thought. The boy had been Colin’s toy; the clean up should be Colin’s job. “But…I don’t have a weapon.”
“Use a piece of wood or…or a rock if you have to. It’s not hard.”
Tiffany felt her jaw drop. How had what’d started as a little fun at someone else’s expense grown into this? Sometimes, lying awake at night, she couldn’t believe how badly their lives were spinning out of control. And yet she didn’t know how to stop it. Colin didn’t even want to try. He was too addicted to the adrenaline rush, to the sexual excitement, to the power, and he’d sucked her in right along with him by repeating the same old promise, “Just one more time. I’ll quit after this.”
Now she wasn’t only participating in a peripheral way; she was tying up his loose ends. “You’re kidding, right? You know I don’t have the nerve for…for that.”
“You don’t have a choice!”
The light turned green. The guy in the truck next to her gave her an appreciative smile as they both accelerated, but she wasn’t worried about him suspecting anything. Rover hadn’t made a sound for several minutes. “But—”
“Do it, or I swear to God, Tiffany….”
He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to. She knew what he would be like if she didn’t fix this. He’d punish her now that he no longer had his “pet.”
“Okay. I got it. I-he’s not moving anymore.”
“So you called me for nothing?” He sighed into the phone. “You’re pathetic.”
“How can you say that after all I’ve done for you?”
“Don’t start. You wouldn’t be anything without me. You were nothing but a fat slob when I met you.” He lowered his voice further, but she knew he had to be in his office with the door closed or he wouldn’t have spoken as freely as he had. “There wasn’t a guy in high school who’d even look at you, with your greasy hair and filthy clothes. And now all my friends drool when you walk by. I’ve turned you into pin-up. I’ve taught you how to take care of yourself.”
Unfortunately, taking care of herself proved an on-going effort. He demanded she work out two hours a day. He weighed her regularly and monitored every morsel she put in her mouth. He wanted her at a steady 120 pounds, with breasts the size of watermelons, he said. But she wasn’t quite that large. Fortunately, Colin was more concerned with keeping up appearances than fulfilling his porn star fantasy, which tempered what he’d wanted to do to her body. In the end, he’d settled for an augmentation that put her at a full D cup, and he had her nose fixed and her cheekbones enhanced. They still owed over $9,000 to Visa for those surgeries, but he didn’t seem to care about the expense. He loved that they were the most admired couple in the neighborhood.
“What other men think doesn’t concern me,” she said, and it was true. He was the only person that mattered in the world, the only one who’d ever loved her. She didn’t want to lose that.
“If I mean so damn much to you, do what you have to do!”
Without any recent noise coming from the vicinity of the trunk, Tiffany was feeling more confident. She rolled down her window to allow some cool air into the car and pulled her sweat-soaked blouse away from her body. “Right. Of course. I’ve got it.”
Highway 50 came up on her right. She accelerated onto the on-ramp, knowing it would be tough for anyone to hear Rover once she was on the freeway. “It just scared me for a minute, that’s all.”
“I know, babe. But you’re stronger than you think. You belong to me, don’t you? Every thought you think, every move you make all comes from me.”
She knew he was too possessive, but she considered herself lucky. It made her feel attractive, desired, secure in his love. He took her to the tattoo parlor every once in a while to have his name tattooed on a different part of her body. So far, both breasts, her ass and the inside of her thighs said, “Colin’s.” But she didn’t mind. He wouldn’t bother with the time and expense involved if she wasn’t an important part of his life. It was only people who tried to contest his will that ran into problems with him.
Shivering, she remembered the incident that had finally brought their relationship with Rover to an end. It was the boy’s own fault, she told herself. He knew what Colin was like, what he demanded. If Rover would’ve obeyed, like usual, there wouldn’t have been any reason to kill him.
Instead, she was driving to a remote location to dump his corpse.
“What should we have for dinner tonight?” she asked, hoping a change in topic would make Colin respond favorably.
“I don’t know. I have to get back in that meeting.”
“Okay.” She was still on her own with this terrible assignment. But at least she’d been able to touch base with Colin, to get instruction. “Good luck.”
“Thanks for watching my back, Tiff. I’m going to show you how much I love you tonight,” he said and hung up.
She couldn’t help smiling as she dropped her phone in her purse. With Rover gone, they’d be alone again at last, the way Tiffany liked it best. She knew she was stupid to grow jealous of her husband’s toys–or pets as he called them–but she didn’t like how much he seemed to enjoy some of the stuff he made them do. Especially the boys. They satisfied him better than she could, even with the fake boobs and the tattoos and the dangerous domination games they’d begun to play. Sometimes she got the impression she was just for looks, part of his image, something for his lawyer friends to envy.
But that couldn’t be true. Colin shared everything with her, including his pets. Rover had been doing the housework for weeks.
Drying her tears, she turned up the volume on the radio and began to sing along. This wouldn’t be difficult. She’d head down the same road where they’d once spent Thanksgiving, pull deep into the woods behind the cabin they’d rented and roll the body out onto the ground. Then she’d head to the grocery store and get the items to make her husband a romantic dinner. She’d let Colin chain her up and whip her afterwards, really get into it. Then he’d forget all about Rover and forgive her for bothering him at work.
She was almost herself by the time she found what appeared to be a safe location. She hadn’t heard a sound from Rover since he’d cried out for his parents. He had to be dead. She’d seen what her husband had done to him.
But he wasn’t. When she opened the trunk, he jumped out at her. With his left eye swollen shut, his lip busted and a bevy of ugly cuts and black bruises darkening his bare white skin, the boy resembled some kind of monster gone wild. He knocked her to the ground, but he didn’t attack her. Despite having bare feet, he ran faster than she ever dreamt possible, sobbing for help as he went.
He was so loud, she dared not follow. After scrambling to get back in the car, she tore off, ignoring the groaning of the BMW’s struts when she raced over one bump or another. The car didn’t matter. She had to get out of sight before Rover roused someone.
And then she had to think of a way to break the news to Colin.
“In the first book in a new trilogy loosely linked to her previous Last Stand books, Novak delivers another expertly crafted work of suspenseful intrigue heightened by white-knuckle danger and realistically complicated romance.” –Booklist
“I guarantee The Perfect Couple will keep readers on the edge of their seat. Each character is completely developed, from Tiffany and Colin to Zoe and Jonathan. The story line sizzles… Brenda Novak has penned a winner.”
–Romance Reviews Today
A Five Rose Review! “…A well-written book that kept me glued to my seat page after page.” –Sandi, A Romance Review
4 and ½ stars! “Realistic and gritty, this story grabs the reader by the throat on the first page and never lets go. The characters are all handled well, but the villain stands out.” ~ RT BOOK Reviews
“I know one thing when I open a Brenda Novak novel; I will be pulled in from the first page and will not be able to put it down until I am finished. THE PERFECT COUPLE was everything I was expecting and so much more. Novak pens another spine-chilling suspense wrapped in a commanding romance that had this reader grabbing for a tissue at the end. The characters are charismatic and the imagery so vivid you feel like you are part of the story. I rooted for justice and love to win the day and wanted to see the evil doers get the justice that was due to them. THE PERFECT COUPLE is another keeper and I am anxiously waiting for the next installment in this series. ~ RomanceJunkies.com, FIVE RIBBON RATING
Reader’s Group Questions
- Obsession and manipulation are two themes in this novel. Why do you think Colin becomes so obsessed with his next door neighbor? How does he manipulate his own wife? His father? Zoe?
- After getting pregnant when she was raped at 15, Zoe decided to keep the baby. When the story opens, her daughter, Samantha, is in her early teens. In what circumstance would you consider making the same decision? Or would you never make this decision?
- To save her daughter, Colin’s mother left him and his father, moved away and cut ties. This was before she really knew how dangerous he was, but she had an inkling. Do you think she was wrong to act so decisively? Do you believe her actions contributed to what made Colin what he turned out to be? Or do you feel Colin’s father’s indulgence is to blame? Could you spot a psychopath?
- Tiffany essentially helps Colin murder innocent young girls and boys, and yet she’s not a violent person in her own right. Why do you think she goes along with what Colin does? Do you have any sympathy for Tiffany?
- Samantha’s real father does something very unexpected. How does it make you feel about him?
- Zoe’s fiancé is what most people consider “a good man.” He’s a hardworking, non-violent, upstanding member of the community–and yet he, too, is lacking in some areas. Why does he react to Zoe’s situation the way that he does? Do you feel he makesthe situation worse?
- The idea to create The Last Stand came from Brenda’s drive to make a difference to those battling diabetes (with her annual on-line auction for diabetes research at brendanovak.com). It’s her way of turning a negative into a positive, of fighting back (her youngest child has this disease). In the first three books of this series, Skye, Jasmine and Sheridan were fighting for victims as a way to champion over their own violent pasts. Jonathan has never been a victim. Why is he driven to help?
- Samantha is in a very difficult situation beginning with the first chapter. Do you think she handles it bravely? If you were her, how would you have behaved differently?
- In what way is Colin’s mother a stronger character than his father? Could you ever make the same decisions she did?
- How did self-esteem or the lack of it contribute to each character’s choices?