Spineless by Autumn Reed

Prologue

Thea, ten years old

“But this is your home.”

Home.

It was a strange word. I understood its definition, but that didn’t mean I knew what it meant. Not really.

For as long as I could remember, my mother had dragged me from city to city. From school to school. From roach-infested motel to roach-infested motel. We’d rarely stayed anywhere long enough to have an apartment, much less a home.

I’d thought things were finally changing. That we’d found our place. Our people.

But that had only been wishful thinking. Mom was dead, and I was leaving.

I looked at the three boys who I’d started to view as friends. My best and only friends, really. They were supposed to become my stepbrothers. Now, that would never happen.

“This is not my home,” I finally replied to Leo. “I don’t belong here.”

I’d never belonged anywhere.

Leo, the oldest of us at twelve, stretched to his full height. “Then, we’ll go somewhere you do belong.”

“Like where?” Tristin asked, doubt in his voice. He’d never been the type to jump into something without a plan. Not like his half-brother.

“The woods. Just until Thea’s aunt goes back to Kansas.”

Kansas. The word was enough to make my stomach ache. I’d never been to the middle of the country, but my mother had often talked about growing up on a farm there, and I’d never wanted to visit. It sounded dismal.

“We’ll get ca-aught,” Hayle piped up, his stutter appearing. That was the first time I’d heard it in a while. It was a sure sign he was uncomfortable with what Leo was suggesting.

“Go pack a bag,” the eldest brother commanded, ignoring Hayle. “We’ll get supplies and meet you in the back in ten minutes.”

Deep down, I knew I should resist. But desperate times called for desperate measures. Or so I’d heard from my mother too many times to count. Besides, I’d never been good at telling Leo no.

“Okay.” I started backing away toward the staircase that led to my room. “Ten minutes.”

As I walked up the stairs and past a framed photograph of my mother on the wall, I tried not to think about watching her casket being lowered into the ground this morning. I didn’t want to start crying again. The boys would think I was being a baby.

Voices drifted from Vincent’s study, and at the sound of my mother’s name, I paused. A voice I recognized as my almost-stepfather’s said angrily, “Goddammit. I thought you said you’d tied up all the loose ends. Why the fuck do I have a voicemail from a detective?”

“Relax. He probably wants to provide the official cause of death. No one suspects murder, I assure you.” The mystery man let out a laugh. “By the time I was done, even I was starting to believe her death had been an accident.”

Cause of death?

Murder?

They were talking about my mother . . . but what did it all mean?

Vincent sighed. “This can’t come back on me, no matter what. Everyone has to believe Amber’s death was an accident.”

“They will. No one will ever learn the truth.”

My heart hammering in my chest, I tiptoed past the study and to my bedroom. I didn’t understand what was going on. Who was that man Vincent had been talking to? And why did they make it sound like Mom had been . . .

I wrapped my arms around my waist, not even wanting to think about the “M” word. I’d seen enough movies to know what it meant—that a bad man had killed my mother. But, who? And, why? Vincent had told me there’d been an accident. That no one could have prevented it.

He’d lied to me.

None of this made sense. All I knew was that he could never find out I’d eavesdropped. I used to believe he was safe, but now he scared me. I had to get away from him.

As fast as possible, I packed my favorite belongings and lugged two bags downstairs to where my aunt was waiting for me. If we hurried, we’d be able to leave without being noticed.

Without a word, she took one of the bags and pressed on my back to lead me toward the front door.

I’d been right. I didn’t belong here, and it sure wasn’t my home.

If I was lucky, I’d be able to forget this place—and these people—ever existed.