Before She Dies
Our little town has a street carnival that comes once a year. It’s very typical of carnivals in general, but it does have one unique feature – every year it is accompanied by a bevy of hot air balloons. Watching those beautiful ships fly across our skies and land in a field very near our home is one of the highlights of summer. It is, in fact, the start of summer.
Pasts can be dangerous. They can also be impossible to escape. Charlotte Wellington has done all she can to forget hers, changing her name, leaving behind the desperate, lost girl she was to become a high powered, sleek defense attorney. All through college she worked not just to excel in her chosen field but to cultivate the polish of the rich and privileged so no one could guess her despised roots. And yet she didn’t leave them completely behind. For Charlotte still lives in a town where the carnival she grew up in stops once a year. She never goes, but it is always there, a shimmering reminder on the edge of her vision. When Grady, the owner, shows up on her doorstep the first week the carnival is back in town, she knows the past has finally merged with the present. He needs her help. The young girl who plays Madame Divine, carnival fortune teller, needs Charlotte to get her off a shoplifting charge. While she normally wouldn’t help Grady so much as cross the street, this request was guaranteed to get a response from her. Not only was Charlotte once a teenage girl playing Madame Divine, the young girl who is doing so now is related to her by blood. Charlotte might not help Grady, but helping young Sooner (who is the spitting image of Charlotte’s sister Mariah) is a completely different matter.
Daniel Rokov knows the relationship between a police detective like himself and a defense attorney such as Charlotte Wellington will never be completely smooth sailing. But he’s never been one for calm waters. However, his efforts to move them from secret lovers to an actual couple have been met with strong resistance. Charlotte seems determined to hide from him, never completely undressing during sex, never giving him the tiniest morsel about her past. Then his attention is snagged by the ritualistic killing of a young, beautiful fortune teller. Fearing the case will force him to put his relationship with Charlotte on hold, he is surprised when every thread he pulls starts to drag him closer to her. What ties this lovely, sophisticated professional woman to charlatans who claim to see the future? And why does he get the feeling she is the answer to every question he is asking?
Shakespeare was right when he said that tangled webs are woven by deception. Almost everyone in this novel is keeping deep, dark secrets and those secrets add up to a complicated tale. But it’s not just the deception that ties people together. Here, people are who they are because they all share in the lies and their consequences. What they keep from each other could be the very thing that would set them free from the web. Instead, they horde the information to themselves, and it forces them to stay when they would much rather leave.
The relationship between Charlotte and Grady is an example of that complicated way of life. By nature, carnies are distrustful of all around them. Charlotte has carried that lack of trust, to an extent, into her current life. Grady holds it as one would a sacred tradition. His secretive, controlling character is part of what drove Charlotte away to begin with. But however much Charlotte may judge Grady, she is in many ways his mirror image. She uses polish, sophistication and education as her tools where he uses good old boy charm and arm twisting, but both manipulate those around them. Both like to keep private things that would be better if shared. Both like power and to be their own boss. It makes sense she would emulate him since he isn’t just the owner of the carnival; he’s her step-father. This relationship is at the heart of who Charlotte is, and yet she is quick to deny that, even to herself. I was also surprised by some of the hostility she felt. It is understandable for a teenager to rebel, to be angry about how they are raised and to feel “used” for every chore they have to do. But given Charlotte’s experience with the legal system I was surprised she never softened towards Grady, never realized that he had actually taken fairly decent care of her over the years. It was clear she loathed the lifestyle she had been raised in, but also equally clear that her mom hadn’t been doing a bang up job before Grady came along. Regardless of their feelings for each other, Grady and Charlotte’s lies are at the heart of the web woven here.
They are also at the heart of the relationship Charlotte is afraid to have with Daniel. While she very much wants the warm, loving connection he offers her, she is equally afraid to open herself to that. She has held on to her secrets for so long she is not sure of who she is without them, or how it will affect her career if she lets them go. Could the past still destroy the life she has built for herself, or is she paranoid? I felt these were legitimate questions, especially since Charlotte had built her new life on illusions. I enjoyed watching her character struggle with changing who she was while still balancing that with the ideal of herself she made up. She worked past and present, truth and fiction into a whole she could live with by the end of the novel, and that made for an engaging, interesting read.
Daniel is a bit vanilla next to her, but in the best possible way. While we have seen his character many times before – strong, stalwart, loyal, brave, true, devoted public servant – he made the ideal foil for Charlotte. His simplicity complemented her complexity. And he wasn’t boring, just straight forward. I also liked that he had a grandmother who could actually see the future. It was a nice counterbalance to the emphasis placed on the number of fortune tellers and psychics who are actually frauds. If I had a quibble about him it would have been the bounce back he had from the apparently recent-ish divorce. However, I know enough about divorces to realize that the process rarely begins with the paperwork, it just ends with it. I was fine with him being ready to commit again with Charlotte. I could totally buy they would have a wonderful HEA.
I really liked the mystery here. It pulled off the magic trick of being both complicated and simple. Complicated to solve because of the lies, cover-ups and just general bungles of the people all around it. Simple because once you understood the who and the why the crime almost made sense. Or as much sense as psychosis ever can. If you like your mysteries to be edge of the seat thrillers, you’ll love this one.
For fans of Ms. Burton’s earlier work you will be glad to know we see Angie and Malcolm from Merciless in this novel. It was a real treat to spend some time with them.
If you like taut, edgy thrillers than I am happy to give this romantic suspense novel a wholehearted recommendation.