Beautiful SinnerSophie Jordan
For my Kiawah Island retreat crew:
Thanks for cheering me on as I finished this book. I love all of you!
The Devil’s Rock Series
About the Author
By Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
The thing about small towns was that everyone knew your business.
Even now, at the age of thirty, Gabriella Rossi’s life was still fodder for gossip. She thought she left this town for good after high school. She thought she escaped it years ago. She thought she had moved on to better things. But here she was, walking into her former high school, a place where hope went to die, a place that held few fond memories and smelled of stale body odor and mothballs—a place she had thought to never step foot inside again.
She inhaled a deep breath as she prepared to walk into the sprawling two-story structure.
You can do this. You’re not seventeen anymore. You’re not the brunt of jokes or bullying. You’re not Flabby Gabby.
“Come ON! We’re going to be late!” Tess snapped and charged ahead toward the looming building, tugging her seven-year-old son by the hand as her heeled boots beat out an angry staccato.
“That girl needs a good whippin’,” Nana Betty grumbled as she rolled her walker another step forward. It had been five weeks since her knee surgery, but her grandmother was gradually regaining her mobility.
Gabriella grinned as she held on to her grandmother’s elbow and guided her up the curb and onto the sidewalk. “She’s a little old for spankings now, Nana.”
“All the more reason. She should know better than to be such an asshole.”
Gabriella had to bite her lip to stop from laughing. She couldn’t help it. Hearing her diminutive eighty-year-old grandmother use such language was funny as hell. “Tess just wants to get good seats.”
Nana Betty grunted. “What for? So we can see your brother up close? I see his face enough. Bah.” She lifted a gnarled, heavily veined hand from the bar of her walker and slapped the air.
“Nana,” she chided, even if she was secretly amused. Their brother was the principal of Sweet Hill High School. That pretty much made him a town celebrity. Parents who wanted the best for their child curried favor with him like he was the crown prince of Sweet Hill. He reveled in it.
But today wasn’t about Anthony.
Tess’s daughter was being inducted into the National Honor Society. Their brother just happened to be officiating over the ceremony.
As they entered her old high school, Gabriella told herself returning to this place was no big deal. Her niece would get a certificate and a shiny pin and then their family would leave and go eat dinner at Applebee’s or some other place her mother selected.
Gabriella’s phone rang in her bag. She fumbled for it, pausing in the hallway.
Her heart lifted a little at the sight of Cody’s name. Finally. He was calling her back.
She gave Nana Betty an apologetic smile. “Give me a minute, Nana. I need to take this. Hello,” she answered a little breathlessly.
“Hey there, Gabs,” he returned.
She winced. She hated when he called her that, but at least she had him on the phone. She’d left her boss at the Austin Daily Reporter multiple emails and voicemails over the last two weeks without a peep from him. Jerk.
“Thanks for calling me back, Cody. Have you had time to look over any of the proposed topics I sent you?” It was a courtesy question. He’d had plenty of time to look over her proposals. Just like he had plenty of time to post pictures of himself water skiing with friends at the lake. She wasn’t stalking him. Really. They were Facebook friends. He posted those pics for the world to see.
“Yeah, those aren’t going to work. Send me some more.”
All the air expelled from her lungs in a deflated rush. It probably wasn’t a great idea to come off as annoyed or desperate. Even if she was.
“Cody . . . you said I could still work while I helped out with my grandmother.” She had taken her sabbatical with the understanding that she could freelance for him remotely at her own pace. She wasn’t being paid, so any additional income would be helpful. Except Cody had accepted none of her proposals in the five weeks she had been here, forcing her to get a part-time job at a coffeehouse. Cody had agreed to the two-month sabbatical, but she was starting to wonder if her job would be waiting for her in three weeks.
“Then give me something I want. You’re not writing for your high school paper anymore, Gabs. You’re supposed to be a real reporter. So prove it. Prove you’re good enough for this paper.”
It stung. She thought she had been doing that.
She had spent the last three years as a reporter for the Austin Daily Reporter. It had been a step up from her previous job as a copy editor at a paper in Fort Worth. When she first went to work in Austin she had thought her career was finally taking off. Recently, however, she felt like she was stuck in a rut. Maybe it was turning thirty. She had taken a hard look at her life and realized that Cody kept most of the good assignments for himself or his more veteran reporters and stuck her with all the fluff pieces.
Her silence must have been telling. He tsked and adopted a consoling tone. “Now hang in there, Gabs. You’re a good writer. You just need the right story—”
“Is this because of us? Because we broke up?” The caustic retort slipped out before she could help it.
Nana Betty lifted both of her gray bushy eyebrows.
Her cheeks flushed in embarrassment. Not one of her best decisions—dating her boss—but she wasn’t some bitter ex. She had thought he wasn’t bitter either. When she had taken that hard look at her life, she had also realized her relationship with Cody wasn’t something she wanted anymore.
When you’re thirty and you can’t imagine the man you’re dating as a potential husband, then what was the point in dating him?
His friendly tone vanished. He laughed harshly. “You’re not that special, Gabriella. You’re definitely not the kind of girl a guy can’t get over.”
She flinched, remembering another reason she had ended it with him. In any disagreement or fight, his temper flared. “Gee. Thanks.”
“This isn’t personal. It’s business. If you want to keep working for me then give me what I want. And you know what that is.”
She sighed. Yeah. She knew.
She knew exactly what he was asking of her because he’d asked it ever since he learned she was from Sweet Hill.
Ever since he learned her cousin was Shelley Rae Kramer and ever since the man sent to prison for killing Shelley Rae was exonerated and released. It was big news. National coverage kind of news, and Cody wanted the inside track.
As far as he was concerned, Gabriella had access to the inside track.
She took a step away from Nana so she couldn’t be overheard. “I won’t exploit my family like that.” She regretted ever confiding in Cody about her family. It had happened in a stupid moment of weakness when they’d been dating.
The murder of her cousin had hi
t her family hard, and the recent discovery that the wrong man had been sent to prison for the crime had only ripped open the wound. Her family’s emotions ran the gamut—from denial to anger. Any closure they’d managed to achieve had been shattered. Her aunt and uncle couldn’t cope anymore. They’d bought an RV, packed their things and left town. That still didn’t stop the reporters from harassing the rest of the family though. They wanted interviews from anyone connected to Shelley Rae.
“Jesus, be a professional, Gabs. I don’t give a shit about your family. I want Cruz Walsh. He’s the story. What kind of person confesses to a murder he didn’t commit? Find out. Go get it.”
She chewed the inside of her cheek, mulling that over. He was right. She could do the story on Cruz without focusing on her family. But . . . could she? This was Cruz Walsh they were talking about. She didn’t know if she could be objective when it came to him.
“Fine,” Cody snapped into the silence of her thoughts. “Then some other reporter will do it. They’ll get the story you’re sitting on. They’ll publish it. And it may or may not even be the truth.”
She winced at that because over the years there had been a lot of untruths spread about the night Shelley Rae died. The wrong man had been convicted for the crime, after all. The truth mattered to her. It always had . . . in every story. Cody knew that about her. In the beginning of their relationship he had called it endearing. Now, it just annoyed him.
Maybe she should consider writing the article.
“Gabriella!” Her sister marched down the hall, her boot heels clacking on the tile and her oversized designer handbag swinging wildly from her elbow. “What are you doing? You know I want good seats and you’re jawing on the phone.” Shaking her head, she snatched Gabriella’s phone out of her hand.
Gabriella tried to snatch it back, hearing the faint tinny echo of Cody’s voice as he repeated her name. “Tess! That’s my boss!”
“What boss?” Her sister dropped Gabriella’s phone into her bag with a derisive snort. “Last time I checked, you didn’t work. You live in Nana’s garage apartment.”
“I work for the Austin Daily Reporter,” she said between clenched teeth. She’d said as much to her sister before. “You know I took an unpaid sabbatical to come here and help Nana after her surgery.” Because she gave a damn. Her brother and sister might be local but they were too busy with their lives to help out with Nana on a daily basis.
She helped care for Nana alongside a part-time in-home nurse and physical therapist. In addition to that, she worked at The Daily Grind. She didn’t really have a choice. She needed the money. And it wasn’t as though any of the family thought to pay her for putting her life on hold and coming to Nana’s aid. They just figured her life was the least important. She had no husband or kids and they didn’t consider journalism a real career, so she should be able to drop everything. Because her everything didn’t amount to anything in their eyes.
Tess squared her shoulders with a sigh and leveled a stern look on Gabriella. “I mean a real job. A career.”
The barb stung. A real job. Like Tess had. Meaning a job that garnered a large salary.
Tess was one of the most successful real estate agents in town. Her billboard greeted you as you drove into Sweet Hill. She always liked to lord her success over Gabriella, dropping how much money she made on her most recent sale. As though making a lot of money made her a better person. Ever since Tess divorced last year, she was even more driven, and more obnoxious over her perceived success. As though it somehow made up for the part of her life that was broken.
With a disgusted sigh, her sister spun around and charged down the hall, still dragging her son.
“Don’t pay her any mind. That girl has been as mean as a rattler since she caught her man diddling their housekeeper,” Nana Betty chimed in.
It was true. She’d caught Jason in bed with their nanny/housekeeper. Actually having sex together in their bed. Tess had come home early to change clothes because she’d spilled food on her blouse at a lunch meeting and she caught them together. After that shock, Tess discovered her husband had had a string of affairs with women all over town. Their housekeeper. Their dental hygienist. Their daughter’s piano teacher. Even one of Tess’s former sorority sisters. He would sleep with her when he went to Amarillo on business. Apparently there was no actual business in Amarillo. Just Tess’s sorority sister.
“Well. Wouldn’t you be in a bad mood, too?”
Nana sniffed. “I would have shot him in his special place.”
Chuckling, Gabriella took her grandmother’s elbow. Together, they advanced down the hall and turned the corridor to the auditorium.
The double doors loomed open and students stood there, handing out programs to the large crowd of people gathered waiting to go in.
“Looks like we’re not getting front row seats.” No doubt they would hear about that later from Tess.
“Nana Betty. Aunt Gabriella.” Trent, Gabriella’s eighteen-year-old nephew, approached them with a smile. His father could be a pain, grilling her on her life choices even more than Mom and Dad did, but Trent was a good kid. Laid-back and generous. He lacked his father’s intensity.
“There’s handicapped seating up front. I can take Nana there,” Trent offered.
“Sounds great.” Handing Nana Betty off to her nephew, Gabriella glanced around her former stomping grounds warily . . . like she needed to be on guard. Just like old times. She’d always been on guard in high school.
She may have skipped her ten-year high school reunion, but she knew she’d have to come back here someday. She had nephews and nieces that went to this school. Her brother was the principal. Trent was graduating in a couple months. It was an eventuality.
Only she had hoped it would just be to visit . . . and then she could flaunt a cute boyfriend or maybe a husband. Oh, and by then she would have won a Pulitzer, too. Yeah. That was the dream. Reality fell short. Substantially short. The last thing she wanted was to run into someone she went to school with.
“Oh my God! Gabriella Rossi. Is that you? You haven’t changed a bit!”
She heard the voice and knew immediately who it belonged to. Twelve years had passed but that voice hadn’t changed. It was still shrill and had that air of no-one-cares-if-I’m-loud-because-I’m-so-cute.
Gabriella was beset with a flash of Natalie’s face. Laughing and always taunting as she looked around to see if her audience was suitably impressed. If Natalie was shouting a greeting, Gabriella guessed she had forgotten it had been her habit to torment her.
But Gabriella hadn’t forgotten. No, she would never forget.
The heaviness in her chest expanded. She couldn’t look. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to see Natalie right now or ever. It seemed the height of unfairness that she should have to. Wasn’t living through high school with the likes of Natalie enough? Did she have to experience her as an adult, too?
She couldn’t do this.
She thought she could return here with a sense of accomplishment for her big city life and career to boost her, but she hadn’t taken into account that she might see Natalie again. People like her weren’t supposed to be real. Past tormentors should be relegated to the past. Bullies lost to childhood, never to surface again. They weren’t supposed to materialize in the here and now.
Before she could consider what she was doing, Gabriella spun around and ran. Heat flushed through her. Forget about how stupid she must look. The past—fear—was a powerful motivator.
She took a corner, rounding it sharply and colliding with a body that felt like a mountain. The velocity launched her back and gave her whiplash. Hard hands clamped down on her arms, saving her from hitting the ground.
“Oh!” she breathed, her gaze jerking forward and locking on the guy in front of her.
Speaking of people who weren’t supposed to materialize . . .
bsp; She had thought coming face-to-face with Natalie was bad. But this? Him? This was so much worse.
She cocked her head to the side, staring intently into the pair of dark eyes staring back at her. Even if he wasn’t holding on to her, she couldn’t go anywhere. She was trapped. A bug pinned beneath a jar from the power of his stare alone. Her mouth dried and her pulse fluttered at the skin of her throat.
She knew those eyes. Knew them from long ago and knew them from recent news footage.
Knew them from her dreams.
Some things were impossible to forget. His face was one of them.
The thin white scar bisecting his right eyebrow and slashing his cheek was new. It didn’t detract from his good looks though. On the contrary, it seemed to enhance the beauty of his face, add a bit of harshness to all that masculine beauty.
In high school, all that masculine beauty (minus the scar) had made her heart race. Of course, her heart betrayed her now . . . still racing.
The big hands holding on to her arms flexed. The heat from his palms and fingers singed her through her sleeves and into her flesh. She felt that heat everywhere. All the way to her core. To nerves she didn’t even know she possessed.
Her gaze stalled on his lips. She knew that mouth, too. Intimately. He didn’t know that, of course. No one did. She’d sat on that secret for years, burying it deep, taking it out only at night. Alone in her bed with her fantasies.
But here she was.
Here they were.
Of course, she never expected to see him again.
Never expected that Cruz Walsh, the man sentenced to prison for murdering her cousin, would ever be free to walk the streets, much less collide with her in the hallway of their old high school.
If Cruz had to choose between prison or returning to the halls of Sweet Hill High School, it would be a tough decision.
Both had been their own form of hell on earth, but if he were honest with himself, he’d been more at home in prison than he ever had been in high school, so there was that.
Yeah, he knew that didn’t speak well of himself. Especially considering he had been an innocent man sitting in prison. It shouldn’t have felt right. Prison shouldn’t have felt like a place where he belonged, but Cruz had never felt at home in polite society.