Her Last Breath Page 1

Author: Hilary Davidson

Genres: Thriller , Mystery



I didn’t know what to wear to the funeral. Any other day, I would’ve called my sister for advice, because Caro always knew the right way to do things. But she was dead, and I’d never hear her soft, husky voice again.

After pulling every piece of clothing I owned—all of it black—out of the tiny alcove I used as a closet, I put on a tunic that could pass for a dress. Then I added tights and a cardigan that hid the tattoos on my arms. My feet went into a pair of expensive, impractical heels that could only have been a gift from my sister. Climbing the stairs out of my basement apartment in Queens, I felt queasy. But it wasn’t until I took the subway into Manhattan and stood in front of the church that I felt like an imposter.

“Your name and invitation?” demanded a uniformed security guard.

“Deirdre Crawley. I’m Caroline Thraxton’s sister.”

The guard said something I didn’t catch because I was staring at the facade of the church, awash in déjà vu. Catholic churches with elaborate stone scenes of the Resurrection or Judgment Day were a dime a dozen. This one had the Crucifixion front and center, rendered with a grim intensity that hollowed out my chest.

“St. Vincent Ferrer,” I murmured. This was the church where my sister had gotten married four years earlier.

“What was the number on the back of your invitation?” the guard asked, clearly unsure whether he needed to be polite to me.

I blinked, trying to picture it. Some Thraxton minion had couriered the invitation over at six o’clock Monday evening. Remembering Caroline Anne Thraxton, it read, stark black type embossed on thick ivory stock. Please join us for a memorial service and luncheon. It had chilled me, the elegantly thorny black vines winding around her name, ready to choke it.

“It started with a seven.” There had been six digits on the back, but only one came to mind. I’d thrown the invitation onto my bookcase and hadn’t glanced at it again.

“You need that code,” the guard said. “You can’t get in without it.”

At that moment, a switch flipped in my brain. I’d barely slept the night before; the truth was I’d barely slept since my sister had died. I’d made it to the church on autopilot, aware of my own steps as a zombie. But this callous creep was the first obstacle I’d encountered, and all my grief suddenly spiraled into rage.

“My sister is dead, and you’re not keeping me out of her funeral.” My voice was razor edged.

As if sensing that I wanted to hit him, the guard pulled his head back sharply. I pushed past him and stormed up the steps.

Inside, white roses bloomed like a pox on the dark wood of every pew. Guests in couture laughed and gossiped. There were white ribbons and tulle wrapped around towering bouquets at the end of every aisle. The church looked exactly as it had at Caro’s wedding, and I felt as out of place as I had that day.

It would’ve made me cry if the guard hadn’t been breathing down my neck.

“She doesn’t have an invitation,” he said to whoever was listening. “She doesn’t belong here.”

I tried to walk away, but he grabbed my wrist. I took a deep breath. Caro, please forgive me for clocking a guy at your funeral.

“She’s aggressive. She shoved me out of the way,” the guard was whining as I turned, balling up my right fist.

“Did she really?” answered a sly voice. “Consider yourself fired.”

I unclenched my fist as if disposing of evidence. There was Juliet Thraxton, broad shouldered and big boned, in a curve-hugging black suit with a pair of diamond pins in one lapel. Her platinum-blonde hair was rolled up in a chignon and tucked under a feathered black hat with a short veil. It looked like a prop from an old movie, worn by a widow who’d paid some mope to shoot her husband.

Her plump scarlet mouth was still moving. “Do I look like I’m kidding?” she asked the guard. “I’m not. Get out.”

His face was bright red. “But she—”

“Pushed you out of the way. I heard you.” She flicked her hand at him as if he were a mosquito. “Thraxtons don’t employ losers. Go.”

He retreated, muttering furiously.

“Thanks,” I said cautiously. Caro always said firing people gave her sister-in-law, Juliet, a purpose in life.

“Trust you to liven up a funeral.” She gave me a thorough once-over and raised an eyebrow as if I’d failed to meet expectations again. Juliet was the queen of barbed quips, and for a moment I thought she was about to strike. Instead, she sighed. “You probably want to see Teddy,” she said. “He’s up front with his nanny.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s having a tough time. Poor kid.” She started to turn away. “Don’t go looking for trouble. It finds you without any help,” she added cryptically before gliding off.

I wasn’t sure if that was a dig about the guard she’d fired, or a reference to my father. I scanned the crowd but couldn’t spot him. He had to be lurking in the shadows with the other monsters. I felt conspicuous, parading up the center aisle of the church. People turned to glance at me, but I wasn’t important enough to speak to. My sister’s casket sat in front of the altar, but I wasn’t ready for that. Instead, I looked for my nephew. Teddy was wearing the world’s tiniest, sharpest black suit, complete with a white boutonniere. He stood on the pew to hug me.

“Auntie Dee,” Teddy sighed into my neck.

What could I say to a three-and-a-half-year-old whose mother had died suddenly? Everyone who knew Caroline was still reeling from the shock. If it was hard for me to comprehend, it had to be impossible for her son. I had no idea what his father had told him.

“You’re a tough guy, aren’t you?” Tough was the biggest compliment my family offered. Nice was fine, smart was good, but tough was what we aimed for.

“Yep,” he answered proudly.

Gloria Rivera, his nanny, got to her feet. She was anywhere between thirty and fifty—it was impossible to tell—petite and raven haired, her face round and her eyes brimming with sympathy. “I’m so sorry, Deirdre.”

“Thanks.” She was the only person in that church who’d said those words to me.

When Teddy finally let go, I drifted toward my sister’s casket, pulled along by some invisible cord. The upper portion was open, so you could see Caro’s perfect, unblemished face. My sister looked like nothing so much as Sleeping Beauty, golden blonde and rosy cheeked. I could almost imagine her sitting up suddenly, smiling as if this were all one big stunt to reunite our fractured family.

“I didn’t know I could miss anyone this much,” I whispered.

For a moment, in spite of the chattering crowd behind us, it felt like we were alone in that cavernous church. And then the spell was broken as a hand brandishing a gold claddagh ring touched down on the polished wood of the casket. I recognized my father before I saw his face. This was the moment I’d been dreading. My sister, in life, had run interference, keeping my father and me segregated in our respective corners on those rare occasions when we were forced into the same room—at Caro’s own wedding, our mother’s funeral, and Teddy’s christening.

We stared at each other for a moment. His blue eyes were hard and cold. The air around us was poisoned. Nothing had changed. He opened his mouth to speak, but I turned and stepped away before he had the chance.

The minor chords of the pipe organ underscored the ugliness of the moment. I stumbled back down the aisle. Was it my imagination, or were people staring? At the wedding, I’d heard someone say, Can you believe Theo married her? There’d been no end of comments about what a lucky girl my sister was. One bejeweled, bouffant-haired guest even said to Caro, You must feel like Cinderella. My impossibly elegant sister couldn’t come up with a better response than a shell-shocked smile. At her funeral, the mood wasn’t any different, even if the lucky girl was now lying in a casket.

I needed fresh air. There was a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. My mind tripped over what my mother would’ve thought of the scene. Her eldest daughter dead, her husband and younger daughter at daggers. My mother had always seemed sad when I was growing up—no matter what good thing was on the horizon, there was a dark shadow trailing behind it. If I was honest, she hadn’t been wrong.

As I exited the church, the guards shot me a curious glance, but the one who’d hassled me was gone. I clattered down the steps. It was a sunny day, for April. I stayed upwind of a forlorn clump of smokers. On the sidewalk stood a creep with a camera, and he pointed the lens at me. I turned away, pulling out my phone. I needed a distraction before I exploded.