Rue heard Pippi’s voice crack, and she bit her lip hard. I can’t cry. I mustn’t. I can’t ever cry when I know Pippi’s hurting more.
Her head still down, she blindly groped for her sister’s hand and giving it a tight, hard squeeze, she said fiercely, “You’ll get through this, Pi. But we have to do it together.”
“I absolutely agree,” a voice that wasn’t Pippi murmured, “especially since it’s my hand you’re holding and not Pi’s.”
Rue looked up at that, and that was when she saw herself holding Vik’s hand and Pippi doing her best not to laugh.
“What – how?”
“You tell me,” Vik said dryly. “I just came back to get my phone when you suddenly grabbed my—” She didn’t bother finishing her sentence, with Pippi and Rue having already lost the battle to keep a straight face. The sound of their giggles was infectious, and soon Vik had joined in the laughter as well.
Rue was right, Pippi thought as she followed her sisters down the stairs. At the end of the day, she still had her family, and together they could get past anything.
A simple word, a powerful word, and as the day unfolded, it also became a word Pippi would find herself clinging to as her life came crashing down.
Pippi’s first inkling that something was wrong came as soon as she and the rest of the family stepped out of front door, and they saw Mrs. Mullan from across the street watching them from her living room window.
“Morning, Mrs. M,” Mynt chirped with a wave.
The widow waved back even as a sad smile slowly formed over her lips.
“Is it Mr. M’s death anniversary today?” Pippi asked under her breath even as she smiled and waved at the older woman as well.
“Nope,” Great-Aunt Alice answered. “That was last month.”
Then why did Mrs. M look so sad, Pippi wondered as they started walking. She was still mulling this over and wondering if it would be a good idea to invite the old lady to join them for a day at the beach when they made it to the church…and found most everyone acting oddly.
The faces around them were familiar, all of them locals just like the Joneses, and yet…
Pippi tried to catch the eye of a former high school classmate of hers, but the other girl deliberately avoided her gaze. Most others were doing the same while there were a few who were downright glaring at her.
What in the world was wrong with everyone?
She looked at her sisters and saw that they, too, along with Astrid and her three great-aunts were all wearing the same perplexed expressions on their faces.
It was only when they were about to take their usual place at the last pew in the rightmost aisle that the puzzle pieces started falling into place. Mrs. Richards, a wealthy woman who took exceptional pride in the fact that her great-great-grandfather was one of the town’s founding members, was suddenly blocking their way.
“I’m so very sorry,” the woman murmured.
And yet she didn’t sound sorry at all, Pippi couldn’t help noting.
“But don’t you think this is highly inappropriate, considering the circumstances?” Mrs. Richards’ meaningful gaze fell on Astrid when she spoke, which left Pippi’s mother frowning in genuine confusion.
“If you have to say,” Great-Aunt Alice said imperiously, “then just say it.”
Mrs. Richards struggled to keep her smile in place. “That would be rather crass, but if you insist, perhaps I should…” She took her phone out of her bag. “If you really think this is necessary?”
Pippi’s gaze narrowed at the malice that glittered in the older woman’s eyes. She was savoring this moment, Pippi realized. She was looking forward to something…but what?
“Is AirDrop okay?” Mrs. Richards asked in a dulcet tone.
They all said yes, and a moment later, Pippi and her sisters’ phones started vibrating, and that was when it happened: the beginning of the end, and no one had seen it coming.
Astrid shook her bag in a fit of frustration, but its contents remained the same and she bit back a resigned sigh when she realized she had left her phone in her bedroom again. “I forgot my phone.” She looked up, and that was when she saw how all of her daughters had turned white. “What’s happening?”
No one answered.
Since Vik stood closest to her, Astrid tried to reach for her phone first, insisting, “Let me see.” But to Astrid’s shock Vik backed away from her, phone clutched to her chest.
And that was when it hit her.
“It’s me,” Astrid said flatly. “Whatever it is – it’s about me. Isn’t it?”
Acheron was at his desk when Wickham came striding in unannounced, an ominous look on his weathered face. “You remember when you asked cyber security to monitor any online activity concerning Ms. Jones and her family?”
The billionaire stiffened. “Have we been found out?”