Follow Me – Sara Shepard

IT WAS THE perfect day for a party. The summer afternoon was a temperate seventy-nine degrees, the sky was cloudless, and the Atlantic crashed hypnotically down the bluffs. He got ready, dressing in linen pants, a fitted white polo, and broken-in leather flip-flops. As he splashed water onto his cheeks, he saw a refined, debonair face in the bathroom mirror. He looked like the strong-but-silent type. Teddy Roosevelt, maybe. He smiled, delighted at the reference. Wasn’t Roosevelt the one who said Speak softly and carry a big stick? Maybe he’d think of himself as Teddy tonight. As a little inside joke. By 7:30 p.m., streaks of pink and orange made an ombré effect across the horizon. The beach was empty; a flock of seagulls perched on the wooden lifeguard stand. Partygoers glided toward the luxury beach club and condo complex, bottles tucked under their arms, phones in their hands. Past the gates, twinkling votive candles spanned the long seating areas by the pool, and brightly colored rafts bobbed atop the placid clear water.

As the guests swarmed the space, beer bottles were popped open. Everyone began to talk and laugh. Swells of Bob Marley, the Beach Boys, and Dave Matthews drifted through the air. Teddy sat on a chaise, beer in hand, and watched as Jeff Cohen, a staple on the beach scene, carefully made his way across a slack rope that had been set up between two trees. When Jeff reached the end without falling, he grinned at Cole, whose indie film about surfing nuns had won first prize at a couple of festivals last year. “Wanna give it a try?” Cole chuckled. “That’s not exactly my thing.” He raised his Nikon camera and took a snap of Jeff as he jumped to the ground. Chelsea Dawson, Jeff’s ex-girlfriend, gave Cole a flirty grin. “Cole, you’re so going to be a famous paparazzo someday.

” Cole snorted. “Uh, I have bigger career goals than loitering in a parking lot, waiting for celebs. Unless it’s you.” “Nah, I’m my own photographer.” Chelsea pulled something from her purse. An iPhone in a sparkly pink case was attached to a motorized selfie stick; when she hit a button, the device extended, lights illuminated, and a miniature fan began to whir. Her blond hair whipped prettily in the artificial wind. Her skin glowed under the golden bulb. The cobalt shade of her dress brought out the steel-blue flecks in her eyes. As she grinned into the lens, a hush fell over the crowd.

Everyone turned and looked at the perfection that was Chelsea Dawson. She examined the results and then tapped the screen. Moments later, Teddy’s phone buzzed, but he didn’t bother to check the alert. He knew what it said: New post from ChelseaDFabXOXOX. Another Bob Marley classic blared from the speakers. Someone did a perfect jackknife off the diving board. Teddy decided to check out the bonfire. Down at the beach, the stoners were arguing about whose fudge was better—Cindy’s, a local store, or Lulu’s, from one town away. “Dude, all the fudge is made by the same company, probably in a big vat,” a glazed-eyed guy said. “It’s a conspiracy.

” Teddy chuckled along with them, but then he was distracted by a sharp, familiar voice. “When did you turn into such a hater?” He whirled toward the sound. Chelsea stomped across the sand, high heels in her hand, her face a knot of pain. Jeff trailed behind her, his long hair in a messy man bun, the tails of his button-down flapping. A couple of the stoners glanced at Chelsea and Jeff, too, then went back to their fudge argument. Jeff waved a cell phone in her face. On the screen was Chelsea’s latest Instagram post. “Look, I just don’t understand why you feel you have to post photos that show your boobs to ten thousand strangers,” he was saying, loud enough for Teddy to hear. “There are a million prettier pictures of you than this one.” “Fifty-one thousand, eight hundred seventy-three strangers,” Chelsea shot back.

“Okay, so almost fifty-two thousand skeevy dudes know what your boobs look like. As a woman, I’d think you—” Chelsea groaned. “Don’t do the feminist thing with me. Your opinion doesn’t matter so much anymore. Besides, it’s important for me to build my brand.” Jeff laughed incredulously. “It’s not like you’re a Kardashian.” Chelsea’s expression hardened. Spinning around, she headed for the beaten-down path that led through the dunes, behind the apartment complex, and all the way to the public parking lot. “Hey!” Jeff cried.

“What did I say?” “Forget it.” “You’re more than a pretty face, Chel. You should have more self-respect.” “I do have self-respect.” Chelsea’s eyes blazed. “It’s you who doesn’t respect me.” “What are you talking about? I’m—” Chelsea’s expression snapped closed. “Just leave me alone.” Jeff looked like he’d been slapped. Chelsea disappeared into the reeds.

After a few moments, Jeff swiveled and settled down on a lawn chair at the bonfire next to one of the stoners. He stared into the flames, looking like he might burst into tears. The stoners suddenly seemed to notice him. “You okay, man?” one asked, but Jeff didn’t answer. Taking a deep breath, Teddy grabbed his phone from his pocket and composed a message. You all right? He could picture Chelsea stopping on the overgrown beach path. Rooting through her bag, pulling out the phone he’d given her. On cue, his phone quietly pinged. I’m fine. Thanks.

His fingers flew. Wanna talk about it? I can meet. Up popped an emoji of a face blowing a kiss. Nah. I’m really tired. We’ll talk tomorrow. He squeezed his phone hard. That had been her one last chance, and she’d blown it. Well, then. Now to put the plan he’d crafted into motion.

Teddy stood as unceremoniously as he could. No one saw him as he walked away from the bonfire, though he chose to follow Chelsea by a different route than she’d taken. A quarter mile later, a streetlamp made a gauzy golden circle across the pavement, the beach tag hut, and the concrete structure that held the men’s and women’s bathrooms and showers. A lithe shape streaked through the light near the beach path. Teddy breathed out, sweaty and anxious. A car passed, its xenon headlights blinding. Teddy crouched behind the changing rooms, his thighs trembling, his heart contracting in his chest. He’d been so desperate to get close to Chelsea. For her to know him. If she’d bothered to give a shit, if she’d reciprocated the kindness he’d shown her, he would have let her in, told her who he really was, where he really came from, how he’d become this way, who was responsible for turning him into this.

Instead, she had blown him off time and time again, so she only knew the basics, the lies. She knew him by the name everyone called him, a name he’d ditch when he moved to his next location—Washington, maybe, or Texas. It wasn’t even as good a name as Brett Grady, which he’d used in Connecticut. He’d been quite fond of Brett Grady, actually. He sometimes still called himself that when he was alone, or bored, or right when he woke up, when he didn’t yet remember who he was pretending to be. The man formerly known as Brett Grady pulled the mask out of his pocket. The slippery piece of fabric felt energized and electrified, like a living thing. He fit it over his face and walked quietly across the pavement. Next to the path, Chelsea stood by the bike rack, her hand curled over a random bike’s handlebars. It was such a pretty hand.

Milky white. Long-fingered. Elegant. It was a shame he’d probably have to break every bone. ON A STICKY, sweltering Saturday morning in July, Seneca Frazier stood on a brick-paved side street in downtown Annapolis, Maryland, wearing the long-sleeved uniform of the Annapolis Parking Authority. The getup was 100 percent wool and didn’t breathe. Unless she got into air-conditioning in the next three minutes, she was going to pass out from heatstroke. Brian Komisky, the officer she was shadowing, inspected a parking meter next to an off-white Range Rover. His hazel eyes lit up. “Bingo! One minute left, and this baby’s expired.

” He offered Seneca the gray handheld computer that electronically processed parking tickets. “Wanna do the honors?” Go, me, Seneca thought as she held out her palm for the device. It was demoralizing that making a prehistoric iPad wannabe spit out a thirty-dollar parking ticket was the highlight of her day. It wasn’t like she’d set out to score a summer internship with the APA. She’d wanted to intern with law enforcement, and her dad even begrudgingly helped her get the interview, calling upon a friend on the Annapolis PD. But somehow she’d gotten stuck on parking duty instead of actually solving crimes. She and Brian inspected more cars on the block, but everyone was paid up on their meters, so they headed to Brian’s van. Sweat dripped down Seneca’s back as she walked. They passed a little boutique called Astrid, and Seneca noticed a gaggle of girls in flirty sundresses squealing over something on their phones. She felt a pang.

According to her overprotective worrywart of a dad, that frothy, bubblegummy life was the one she should be living. In another universe, maybe. Brian started the van, and Seneca cranked the AC on high and pressed her face directly against the vent. Brian peered at her before pulling out of the spot. “You okay?” Seneca tried to tell herself that the sudden chill she felt was from the subzero air. “Right now, I’m just trying not to melt into a puddle,” she said. “C’mon, Seneca. You’ve been vacant all day. What’s on your mind?” Seneca sighed. Was she that transparent? “Is it…a boy?” Brian asked gently, turning down the AC a touch.

Seneca felt herself blush. “No!” Though it was kind of true. She was thinking about a boy. Just not that way. A wrinkle formed between Brian’s eyes. At twenty-four, he was already married to his high school sweetheart, and Seneca understood what his wife saw in him. His penny-colored hair was thick and wavy, his hazel eyes were kind, and his impressive physical size always made Seneca feel safe. No one would mess with her with Brian around. And by no one, she meant Brett Grady. Or whatever the hell his name really was.

It started three months ago, when she and Maddox Wright, a friend she’d made on a website dedicated to cold murder cases called Case Not Closed, looked into what happened to Helena Kelly, a murdered girl from Dexby, Connecticut. They teamed up with Aerin Kelly, Helena’s younger sister; Madison, Maddox’s stepsister; and another site regular, BMoney60—Brett Grady. Together they discovered that Helena had been having an affair with Skip Ingram, a much-older man, and that Marissa Ingram, Skip’s wife, had most likely killed Helena. Case Not Closed team out. Or…not. Only after Brett Grady skipped town did Seneca figure out that their so-called friend wasn’t who he said he was. Once she put together that his name wasn’t even Brett Grady, Seneca realized that Brett had fed them every clue that led them to Marissa Ingram. He’d been so subtly cunning that Seneca believed she’d come to each conclusion on her own, and she’d felt like a brilliant crime solver. Which was an improvement over feeling like the girl who’d flunked out of her freshman year at the University of Maryland—aka the truth. But Brett knew everything because he’d killed Helena.

And she wasn’t his only victim. He’d also killed Seneca’s mom, Collette, a murder Seneca had spent years trying to solve. And Seneca had discovered a slew of other cases with Brett’s name written all over them, each one involving the disappearance of a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman. Seneca didn’t dare share her theory with anyone besides Maddox, Madison, and Aerin—and she only discussed it in clinical terms, verifiable facts. Not the emotion of it. Not the crushing terror that they’d all been duped by someone they’d considered a friend. That they’d been working side by side with the very person who had destroyed their lives. She was desperate to tell the cops, but she didn’t have any hard evidence Brett had done anything. She didn’t even know his real name or age or where he was from. If only Seneca could find Brett, follow him, get something on him…but he’d disconnected his phone.

Stayed away from CNC message boards. Shut down his social media accounts. Seneca wondered whether Brett went AWOL because he knew she was onto him, but if that were the case, wouldn’t she be dead by now? At the next stop sign, Brian swung the van to the left. “Let’s take a break and get some ice cream for lunch. My treat. Sprinkles? A waffle cone?” “Whatever.” Seneca slumped, embarrassed that Brian thought she’d actually get this bent out of shape over a boy. Brian pulled into the ice cream stand, a glorified shack with a small service window and a large grassy area that abutted a swampy back stream of the Chesapeake. Seneca peered nervously around the gravel parking lot, looking for Brett, as she’d done ever since he’d vanished into that crisp April evening in Dexby. She thought of the map she’d constructed on the inside wall of her closet.

Each pin on the map corresponded with the locations of the cases Brett had commented on through Case Not Closed under the handle BMoney60—crimes he also might have committed. His trademark was weighing in with one simple but salient clue that broke the case wide open, like he’d done with the Ingrams. There were pins in Arizona, DC, Florida, Georgia, Utah, Maryland, Connecticut, and Vermont. Where would Brett show up next? All she knew about Brett was what he’d done in the past, not what he planned to do in the future. A long reed jerked. Seneca tensed. A mouse shot out and disappeared into the grass. She exhaled, suddenly drained. She and Brian ordered vanilla cones and took a seat under a filmy umbrella that provided little shelter from the punishing heat. “Well, you know what they say,” Brian said, “there are plenty of fish in the sea.

” Seneca licked the cone furiously to keep the ice cream from melting onto her hand, letting out a grunt. “Maybe you need to go on a date,” Brian continued. “I might know someone.” Seneca felt her cheeks blaze. “Brian, will you please drop it?” Love was the furthest thing from her mind. Her phone beeped. As she rummaged in her messenger bag, Brian squinted at a Honda Civic in front of an antique shop across the street. “That bastard’s in a loading zone.” He reached for the ticket machine as though it was a semiautomatic weapon. “Not on my watch.

” “I’ll catch up with you in a sec.” Seneca found her phone and squinted at it, but the glare was so bright she had to curl her hands around the screen. When her vision adjusted, she saw the alert she’d set up months ago. Her breath caught. BMoney60 has just posted on Case Not Closed! Hands shaking, she clicked on the link. A Case Not Closed thread appeared, something about a girl named Chelsea Dawson disappearing from a party in Avignon, New Jersey, last night. BMoney60’s comment was four names down the list: Easy one. It’s gotta be her ex, right? I was at that party—saw them fighting. It was VICIOUS. Whoa, read the responses from the eager amateur sleuths.

Let’s dig in. The cops need to question him. But Seneca had gleaned something very different from the post. It was as though a tiny pinprick of sunlight had emerged in the sky after months of rain. Brett Grady was back. AERIN KELLY LAY on a chaise on the top deck of a sixty-six-foot yacht named That’s Amore in the middle of Newport Bay. She was pretending to sleep, but the guy she was hanging out with, Pierce, kept fiddling with the strings of her plaid bikini bottom, and it was distracting. “Babe.” Even though it wasn’t yet noon, Pierce’s breath smelled like beer. “Babe.

I need you. Now.” “Mmm.” Aerin opened one eye. Pierce was shirtless, showing off the rock-hard abs he’d perfected working out with his personal trainer, Jules. His hair stood up in peaks, and he wore aviator sunglasses with green-tinted lenses he’d special-ordered. Pierce was always getting things custom-made. He thought buying anything off the rack was pedestrian. “Good, you’re awake.” Pierce passed her a bottle of sunscreen.

“Can you put more lotion on my back?” “Can’t your friends do it?” Aerin groaned. Pierce grinned at her. “I like it better when you rub me down.” Aerin begrudgingly squirted SPF onto her palm and kneaded the spot between his shoulder blades. “Thanks,” Pierce said. He gave her a kiss, then traipsed off to find his friends. Aerin flopped back onto the chair and tried to find her Zen again. It really was a perfect day—the Newport air was warm but not too hot, the mansions that peppered the coast gleamed like diamonds, and she was aboard the largest yacht on the harbor. Helena would approve. She flinched.

It was like her sister was a commercial jingle playing on auto loop in her brain. Aerin didn’t want to think about Helena. She certainly didn’t want to imagine her here. She was still so angry with her. Helena had lied to her, had chosen to run away with an older man and leave her family behind without a word. Aerin still loved her sister, but sometimes she wondered if she ever knew her at all. And did Aerin even know what actually happened to Helena? The world accepted that Marissa Ingram had killed her, but Seneca Frazier’s theory about Brett Grady gave Aerin pause. Aerin didn’t want to believe it. Marissa’s motive was neat, tidy, and logical, while the idea that Brett—whom she had almost kissed—had done it was nonsensical, irrational, and terrifying. How could her sister have even met Brett Grady? Aerin jumped to her feet.

A change of scenery always helped when her thoughts tumbled down this particular rabbit hole. On the lower deck, Pierce and his buddies, Weston and James, were opening beers. She walked down to them, plucked the open Anchor Steam from Pierce’s hand, chugged it, and handed it back with a wink. “Sorry,” she said, wiping her mouth. “I needed that.” Pierce’s grin was delightfully scandalized. “Babe, you can steal my beer anytime.” He loved that Aerin was a little crazy. He’d told her so when they’d met at a party in Paris, where Aerin’s parents had sent her on a pity trip after Marissa Ingram’s arrest instead of actually talking through things. Her parents had made a lot of promises after it all went down, including spending more time together and going to family therapy, but it had taken them only a few weeks to slip back to their old ways.

Instead of working through her grief in Paris, Aerin maxed out her credit card at Chanel, buying treats for kids she barely knew. She went to seedy dance clubs, drank champagne straight from the bottle, and staggered home alone through dodgy neighborhoods in the middle of the night. And on that trip, instead of facing the possibility that Brett Grady might actually be Helena’s killer, Aerin agreed to travel to Nice with a guy she’d just met. On Pierce’s private plane, she sloppily made out with him, then did some body shots of Patrón, then rinse and repeat. The first thing she did at Pierce’s family’s villa was drunkenly strip, sprint to the swimming pool, and slip on the slick stones, practically cracking her head open. Was she acting out? Sure. Laden with baggage? She’d break an airport scale. Absolutely aware of it? Of course. But what was she supposed to do? Go to therapy? Rebond with her estranged parents? Write a college essay about how she was a survivor? Cue burst of sarcastic laughter. The alcohol zooming through her bloodstream began to soothe her frenetic brain, but she could still hear the jackhammer inside her, thudding and splintering.

Move. Do something. She marched to the cockpit and plopped down on the plush leather seat. “Mind if I take us for a cruise?” she called to the boys. “Go for it,” West yelled back. Aerin pressed the lever that powered the engine. The boat jolted to life, skimming past waterskiers, a pleasure cruiser with Newport Ferry Tours emblazoned on its side, and a medium-sized yacht with a half-naked couple entwined on the prow. Her hair flapped in the wind, and she relished the rushing air on her face. She pushed the lever forward. The boat zoomed faster.

Whitecaps lapped against the hull. She felt so powerful. She pressed the lever forward again and let out a wild yell that matched the roar of the motor. “Yeah!” West called out, pumping his fist. Aerin clipped a buoy and sent it skittering across the surface of the water. The lighthouse was ahead, and she focused on it. What would it feel like to crash the boat into its rocky shoreline? Would the boat be ruined? Would they catapult overboard? Would they die? Would she see Helena if she did? “This is awesome!” Pierce screamed. But something began to shift inside her. Aerin noticed how hard she was gripping the steering wheel. Her heart was pounding, and she was out of breath.

The adrenaline high had vanished, and now she just felt…drained. Messed-up. She steered away from the lighthouse, slowed down, and slid off the captain’s chair. “Why’d you stop?” Pierce called from his perch. “Because we almost crashed,” Aerin said shakily. She stared at her hands, suddenly not quite recognizing them as hers. “I almost crashed.” The boys just laughed, like she’d made a joke. She hurried down the stairs into the cabin. It was dark and cool, and she sank into the leather booth in the elegantly appointed dining room and took a few deep breaths, trying not to cry.

“Babe?” Pierce stood on the stairs, a concerned look on his face. Aerin felt a lump in her throat. Maybe he was more perceptive than she thought. And maybe, just maybe, she was finally ready to talk about what was going on. But as her eyes adjusted, she noticed he was holding something. It was the bottle of Banana Boat. He turned around and pointed to his lower back. “You missed a spot. I’m getting burned.” Aerin wanted to hurl the bottle at him, but she found herself squirting lotion into her palm.

What did she expect? She and Pierce didn’t have that kind of relationship. They didn’t have any kind of relationship, really. As she rubbed it into his muscles, she felt a pang for Thomas Grove, the cop she’d met while investigating Helena’s death. Thomas would have noticed she was slowly going crazy. Thomas would have wanted to know why she’d almost smashed a million-dollar boat to pieces. Wrong, Aerin thought. She wasn’t even speaking to Thomas anymore. He’d quit the police force and gone to college in New York City shortly after Marissa Ingram’s arrest, when Aerin needed him most. He was probably having a great time right now. Aerin probably never entered his thoughts.

Something buzzed. Aerin’s gaze flicked to the granite bar, where she’d deposited the large creamcolored leather Chanel satchel Pierce had bought for her in France. Something was buzzing inside it. She dug her phone out of the smooth silk pocket. Seneca had sent her a text. You need to look at this. She opened the accompanying link. The headline caught her eye. Chelsea Dawson, 21, Disappears in Avignon, New Jersey. Next to the story was an image of a girl in a see-through blue dress.

Aerin stared at the girl’s blue eyes, her white-blond hair, the dimple on her left cheek. Aerin’s blood turned ice-cold. She looked exactly like Helena.

.

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