Casual Conversations About Love and Murder
SOME FRIENDSHIPS FADE. OUR WAS MURDERED.
What would you do if your best friend died? What if she’d betrayed you hours earlier?
Emma’s nights are haunted by the twisted sight of her friend’s body in Stone Lake. Others in the sleepy town of Camber slap an accident label on the death and call it a day. Emma can’t. It hurts too much to leave it alone.
Proving the drowning was murder isn’t easy. The sheriff stonewalls her, her friends want her to leave it alone, and her parents are too busy bickering to worry over much else.
Cole’s mistrust for corporations and government hasn’t made him many friends in town, but his willingness to believe Emma makes him her strongest ally. Together they’ll dig into the town’s past—and their own—to get to the truth.
Even if it brings more danger to their doorsteps.
“Emma’s righteous anger, frustration, and determination are palpable, making for a take-charge heroine. Mueller’s winding thriller will enthrall.“
“This is definitely my favorite book by Chelsea Mueller! Such an original story with Veronica Mars and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder feels!”
Tonight was the night to get a boyfriend. Officially.
I needed the distraction, and Blake Haltom was going to be it.
Tonight I would just be a high school girl crushing hard on a guy. I’d be able to forget how my parents spent hours screaming at one another about every minute detail of their divorce agreement. Making my move on my crush wouldn’t solve everything—it probably wouldn’t solve anything—but thinking about Blake and his caramel brown eyes and how he shoved his hands in his pockets when he thought hard about something would make me forget.
Maisey’s beat-up Buick idled quietly on the narrow road in front of our friend Becca’s house. We were a mere fifteen-minute drive from the party, from making my move on Blake, and I had no idea what I was going to say. Maisey checked her mascara in the rear-view mirror. She’d done a poor job of concealing the zit on her chin, but the rest of her face was light brown, flawless, and bright with welcome.
I tucked my hair behind my ear and focused outside on the oaks, evergreens, and hickories clustered between houses throughout Camber as if they could oxygenate my blood and dilute the adrenaline trickling into my veins.
Becca burst onto the covered porch like the house had stolen her boyfriend, and the screen door clapped back against its metal frame. Becca still had a swimmer’s build despite quitting the team this year but the green tint of chlorine had disappeared from the blonde hair that bounced down her back. She’d foregone a purse, but the purple glitter on her phone case flashed in her hand. Overgrown trees on each side of the single-story home obscured the eaves, but I’d been close enough to know the white paint was peeling. A pallid yellow bulb illuminated gauzy fabric in the front window. Becca didn’t look back. I popped out the passenger side and flipped the seat back for her to climb into the car.
Our trio used to prep for parties at my house, but since summer Becca had skipped our hair-and-makeup sessions. She skipped immediate replies to my DMs now, too. Dark eyeliner made her green eyes pop even in the dim streetlight, but her standard tousled waves were limp. I swiped my dull brown locks over one shoulder. She’d gotten cute without my outfit consult; maybe she didn’t need my advice. I needed her, though.
Maisey shifted the car into drive but kept her foot on the brake. “We ready for Operation: Em Makes Her Move?”
I sucked in a breath and tried to exhale my nerves with it.
“You’re going to talk to him like the same normal person you are any other day,” Maisey added. I hoped I could carry half of her confidence.
It wasn’t like this was my first time talking to Blake. We’d been in the same friend group for years. “Our normal conversations have never led to kissing.”
Becca perched her elbows on the front seats, practically climbing into the front seat with us. Four unread messages stacked on the phone screen in her left hand. A tendril of tension ebbed. I was overthinking everything per usual.
“Why do you even want to date Blake?” Becca’s question slapped me.
“What kind of question is that?” He’d starred in my best dreams for months.
“Never mind.” She slipped back down into the seat.
I twisted to face her. The seatbelt cut into my neck. “No, what do you mean?”
“Bec…” Maisey had been playing peace maker between us more and more lately.
“Sorry. That came out wrong.” She tapped something quickly into her phone and then met my gaze. “I only thought talking about what makes you all gooey for him might help you focus tonight.”
My cheeks heated. “Other than the hotness?”
I brightened. “His laugh fills the room until you can’t help but laugh, too. And he’s kind.”
Maisey lifted a questioning brow but kept her eyes on the road.
“What? He’s nice to the kids from Miller that go here now. He even talks to the lunch staff that are here because the court made them be. Like legit no judgment.” I didn’t have the comfort level there yet. Knowing how to interact with people you knew could have been to jail wasn’t in my skillset.
“That was a little judgy,” Maisey teased.
I laughed. Becca went quiet again.
“Kind. Hot. Funny. Sounds like Operation: Em Makes Her Move is a go.” Maisey tapped her palm against the steering wheel like a gavel.
“I still think you should have volunteered to read aloud the sexiest parts of whatever you’re studying in lit class. Would have been a home run.” Becca waggled her eyebrows in what might have been the least sexy move I’d seen.
I eased back into the seat, but unspent anxiety and excitement tugged at my toes until I scrunched them inside my sneakers. “The party is the plan now, but we’re on Titus Andronicus anyway.”
Becca lifted a single shoulder. “So?”
Maisey’s cheeks almost obscured her eyes in the rearview window. She swallowed a laugh, but humor tinged her words. “It’s Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. Straight-up horror murder nightmare fuel.”
Becca sighed and flopped back to the rear seat. “Why can’t they just teach the romance ones?”
“That would make the whole Blake interaction easier.” My mental what-if machine was already churning through other move-making scenarios.
“You’ve got this. You’re hot. He’s hot. You’re smart. He’s funny. It makes sense,” Becca said with the confidence of our dance team’s varsity captain.
I drummed my fingers against my lips
“She might be right,” Maisey said. “Compliments work. Give him one, and then suggest a hang out.”
“Or I just wait until we’re a couple beers in for plausible deniability?” My joke fell flat. Maisey’s glare was dark enough I could have used it as eyeliner.
Becca was quiet. I peered in the backseat. Her thumbs were dancing atop her phone screen. The deep maroon color on her lips darkened her pout.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
Her bright eyes flashed up to meet mine. She blinked hard twice, and then locked her phone screen without looking. “All good. Just planning a meet-up of my own.”
Shutting me out. Again.
Maisey kept her hands at eleven and one, but her gaze flicked to me. “I can only serve as wing-woman once per night.”
I rocketed my hand skyward. “Dibs.”
Becca snort-laughed hard enough in the backseat that I had to check on her. She leaned forward, feral grin in place. The white light of a passing car flashed through the windows. I blinked and her devious smile had dimmed.
“Don’t worry, guys. Relationship drama is not on the menu.” Becca settled back against the seat like it’d close the conversation.
She and Maisey shared a steady stare in the rear view, and worry whacked the back of my neck.
“Okay,” I drew out each syllable hoping one of them would offer more. They didn’t.
How had I reached a point where I was excluded from Becca’s secrets? A few months ago, she’d tell me her deepest darkests while fixing my foundation. Today she hadn’t even tossed a tube of lipstick my way as a suggestion. We needed to talk this out. I needed one good, normal night, but tomorrow? Tomorrow I’d confront her and get us back in best-friends sync.
“You think Coach will let you pick tunes for the next routine?” Becca yanked me back into the moment.
“Doubtful.” Our dance squad drilled one routine hard, and the coach wasn’t much for my music tastes.
“Do you have picks ready? I mean, if she could be persuaded?” Becca mimed lifting a skirt hem.
I held up my hands like I was going to see more than her black leggings. “I’ve got a playlist full of bops, if you manage to convince her.”
“If anyone can work magic to get your EDM remixes into the dance team’s performances, it’ll be Bec and her smooth moves.” Maisey laughed hard at her own joke.
Becca’s phone lit in her lap. She glanced down but still maintained full swagger as she said, “I’m pure magic, and you’re welcome.”
Copyright © 2022 by Chelsea Mueller
Excerpt From: Casual Conversations About Love and Murder by Chelsea Mueller.
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