The Last Invitation
They meet the second Tuesday of every month and vote…and then someone dies.
Over the last few years, prominent people—a retired diplomat, beloved basketball coach, the CEO of an empire—have died in a series of fluke accidents and shocking suicides. There’s no apparent connection, no signs of foul play. Behind it all is a powerful group of women, the Sophie Foundation, who meet over wine and cheese to review files of men who behave very, very badly, and then mete out justice.
Jessa Hall jumped at the mysterious, exclusive invitation to this secret club. The invite comes when she’s at her lowest, aching for a way to take back control. After years of fighting and scratching to get ahead, she’s ready for a chance to make the “bad guys” lose. Jessa soon realizes, though, just how far she’s willing to go and how dangerous this game has become.
Once in the group, it’s impossible to get out. She has nowhere to turn except former friend Gabby Fielding who is investigating the mysterious death of her ex-husband. Aligned in their goal to take down the Foundation, Gabby and Jessa need each other but working together doesn’t mean they trust each other…or that either will survive to tell the truth.
Seven. One Vote.
The Sophie Foundation. To the public, a charitable organization set up by a select group of powerful women to fund special projects relating to women’s health and welfare. Very general-sounding in its purpose, and not by accident. Behind the scenes, in private, a smaller group within the Foundation carried out very different agenda.
“Let’s get started.” The meeting had been called to order without the need to yell or ask more than once.
Attendees immediately complied. Folders opened. Notepads appeared. They didn’t leave an electronic footprint and burned all documents after the meeting. They never wavered from this rule.
“The first item relates to the individual referred to in the documents as Offender C.”
They’d wait to vote until everyone had an opportunity to speak and all arguments had been heard and settled. No one dared to come unprepared. The thought was unimaginable. They performed invaluable work. Risky and serious work.
“In light of the facts and history, and the probability of further acts of violence, I’m requesting our most significant penalty.”
A few members glanced up at the ringing command of the leader’s voice. “Death.”
Gabby Fielding hated talking with her ex-husband. She’d divorced him for a reason. A terrible, still couldn’t-process-it reason that left her with no choice but to get out of the marriage she’d once believed, naïvely so, would last forever.
Back then she’d also considered him her best friend, a man she could trust, which now seemed trite. Today, she thought of him as a gigantic asshole, both relentless in his need to “win” and indifferent to the people around him. A blowhard with an overinflated ego backed up by an impressive bank account he’d built from almost nothing…and that “almost” ended up ruining everything.
This morning, yet another fight about their daughter, Kennedy, loomed. She was fourteen and had just left to start her second year away at boarding school in upstate New York, as he’d insisted. He’d argued about her needing a “push” then conflated the high yearly tuition with the guarantee of lifetime success, all while covertly convincing Kennedy she wanted to go.
Gabby knew he’d picked the school because she hated the idea of Kennedy being away from home. The custody arrangement Gabby regretted signing before she’d finished writing her name on the damn paperwork less than three years ago required them to meet by September 1 to discuss and agree on a winter holiday and vacation schedule for Kennedy. The supposed legal genius Gabby paid a fortune to represent her in the divorce insisted this was a good idea. Gabby fought it back then and lost, and she’d been right to be skeptical.
Baines Fielding, self-made and very impressed with all he’d accomplished, did not negotiate. He didn’t concede. He did not lose… or more accurately, he used the threat of cutting off the money to make sure he never lost.
This round he weaponized Kennedy by refusing to give permission for the summer program she wanted to attend until “your mother meets her obligations.” So, fine, Gabby would engage in her agreed-upon yearly grovel for Kennedy’s benefit.
Gabby inhaled nice and deep, reaching for the endless well of self-control required to get through this meeting and the expected barbs Baines would aim at her. She refused to fix her hair or take a quick look in the car window before stepping up to his front door. The years of primping, tucking, sucking in, and wearing spiky heels for his pleasure ended with their divorce.
She rang the doorbell. Minutes passed without him showing up, so she rang it again.
She mentally debated walking away but feared he’d lie and insist she’d never showed up. She couldn’t risk losing even more time with her daughter. If he wanted to play games, she’d play. Maybe she’d sit on the hood of his pretty little sports car and wait for him to race out of the house, screaming about the paint. Even better, she’d walk in the front door. After some rummaging in her purse, she found the extra key she wasn’t supposed to have. Coming inside without his permission would piss him off, possibly set off an alarm, but so what?
The last week in August in DC meant stifling humidity. After a few minutes out of air-conditioning, her clothes stuck to her. She risked melting into a giant overdressed puddle.
She touched the knob and the door opened without the need for the key. No squealing alarm. No yelling about her trespassing in the house she’d picked out and decorated…then lost in the divorce.
“Baines?” She called out his name, then, in a much quieter voice, “Asshole?”
The words echoed back to her without a response.
Her sandals clicked against the marble foyer. All that shiny white struck her as sleek and pretty when she’d lived there. Now it seemed stark and cold, which fit the current owner’s personality.
“Baines, what the hell? Where are you?” Her voice bounced off the two-story entrance as she moved around. He didn’t pop up with his perfectly dimpled cheek and his usual what’s wrong with you? expression. She assumed her very busy, very important ex was trying to make a point.
She walked across the entry to the paneled library at the opposite side. “Hey, are you on the phone?”
She stepped into the doorway and…red. The shocking color flashed in front of her. Bright and out of place. In spots and splashes. Splattered across the painting next to him in a random pattern of dots. Dripping down his white shirt. Oozing from the hole right by his ear.
The panicked screaming in her head told her to run, but she couldn’t move. She stumbled. Off-balance, she slammed into something hard. The wall, a piece of furniture—she didn’t know or care because every part of her, from her brain to her bones, went numb. He couldn’t be…
Baines. She tried to say his name. She thought her mouth opened but couldn’t be sure. All that noise pounding in her head, the jumble of thoughts, but no sound came out.
The air in the room wrapped around her, cutting off her breath. The sensation of being hunted and stalked hit her right before the room went dark.
“You’re pathetic.” His rage, usually tamped down and reined in, hidden behind a baby face and black thin-framed glasses, whipped out without warning.
Jessa Hall didn’t panic because she’d been called worse. She regularly received comments about her alleged incompetency, or how ugly she was, and how she’d ruined everything. She was a divorce lawyer. Misplaced hate came with the territory.
The issue right now was Darren Bartholomew’s unraveling. Forty-six years old, probably objectively attractive to some in a rich-white-guy kind of way, but not to her. He came to court dressed in his usual nerdy, pressed-to-perfection look. He could pass as a college professor, but he was vice president of…something in a century-old family business, which meant he didn’t do much of anything but collect checks from a trust fund.
She’d known his family for all of three weeks. In that time, he’d never raised his voice. Never showed any outward signs of anger. Never yelled. He’d been a model of calm, practical decency. The smart, reliable one. The one who listened and said all the right things. That he let the mask slip—chose to show the real him, the him his wife said she feared—in the open area right outside a courtroom, less than twenty feet away from two sheriffs, surprised Jessa.
She refused to show weakness as she turned to face him. “Calling me names isn’t going to help your case, Mr. Bartholomew.”
She’d hoped the teacher-like snap in her voice would bring him rushing back to reality and click his usual well-meaning façade into place. The discussion provided his estranged wife with the cover she needed to sneak away and make a dash for the elevators behind his back.
Darren didn’t blink as he faced Jessa down. “You have no idea what you’ve done.”
“I haven’t done anything yet.” The judge had handled all the talking during the hearing, but Jessa understood that she’d be the target. In part, that was her job as the guardian ad litem. She’d been appointed by the court to represent the best interests of Curtis Bartholomew, the five-year-old being pulled apart by his parents’ very ugly divorce.
Her firm, a boutique family law practice that produced a string of judges to the Montgomery County Circuit Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals, agreed to GAL appointments as a service to the court. She’d been assigned to the Bartholomew divorce, and to Curtis, and she really wished she was back in her office, doing just about anything else right now.
“She has custody,” he said. She, presumably, being Ellie Bartholomew, his wife.
“Your wife has temporary physical custody. You have visitation.” Something his attorney should be explaining to him, not her. Jessa stretched up on tiptoes and looked around for the overpriced, business-and-not-really-divorce-attorney good old boy who represented Darren.
“No overnight visits.” Darren shook his head. “I’m limited on how much I can see my own son.”
“I know that’s upsetting.” Jessa tried to signal for Darren’s attorney, a reinforcement to explain to Darren that physically removing his wife from the house and throwing a duffel bag at her in front of Curtis and his friends had started the custody case off in a very bad way. The judge had not been impressed with Darren’s in-court not-really apology for his behavior, which was why they were all in this mess. “But it’s just until the psychologist, Dr. Downing, finishes her custody evaluation and—”
“She isn’t smart enough to make Curtis’s lunch.” Darren’s soft, nonthreatening tone was back, but it didn’t match the heat behind his words.
Jessa assumed he again referred to his wife’s perceived failings. But maybe he meant Dr. Downing. Maybe all women. Who knew? But that summed up his entire custody argument—the woman he’d married was too incompetent, stupid, ill-equipped, to even see their son, let alone have custody.
Darren was an all-or-nothing guy who’d already made it clear that his family’s influence and money should mean everything when it came to who was best able to parent Curtis. He could give Curtis things. Vacations. Private school.
Jessa really didn’t like this type of man at all. He seemed benign. Came off, at first, as caring and devoted. Completely shocked that his wife wanted to end the marriage and clearly taken by surprise by her choice after an unimportant fight that got out of hand, or so his explanation for kicking his wife out went. But here, today, the real Darren peeked out.
He suddenly smiled, as if they were having a conversation about the weather or some other innocuous subject. Jessa found the fake-calm version of Darren even creepier than the fury-spewing version.
Darren’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You should know if anything happens to my son before I can fix your mess, I will kill you.”
The words, so delicately delivered, so cool and unruffled, shocked her. “Excuse me?”
But Darren had walked away. He headed in the direction of the sheriffs, holding out his hand and introducing himself. Politicking, as was his normal state.
His attorney finally stepped in front of her. “Did you want something?”
Some backup, jackass. “Now you show up?” When the other attorney frowned, Jessa tried again. “Your client just threatened me.”
“He seems fine to me.” He glanced at Darren before looking at her. “He’s making friends, as usual. He’s a natural. You should know he’s not a man who’s accustomed to losing.”
So entitled. “We’re talking about custody of his son, not a business deal.”
The attorney laughed. “You act like he knows the difference.”
End of Excerpt
The Last Invitation
is pre-ordering now,and begins shipping & downloading December 6, 2022:
The Last Invitation
The Last Invitation is packed with all the must-haves for a relentless, intricately woven thriller—a secret society, the past coming to haunt the present, and a surprise villain. A tale of old friendships, secrets, and revenge, Kane reminds you once again to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
— Jaime Lynn Hendricks, bestselling author of Finding Tessa and It Could Be Anyone
Darby Kane’s THE LAST INVITATION is not only a thriller that will keep you up late, turning pages and questioning every character, it’s also timely in a way the world needs right now, addressing domestic violence and womens rights. We already knew Kane could write a twisty thriller—now we know she can do so while confronting injustices in the world. If you want a thriller that will keep your toes and makes you think, The Last Invitation is what you’ve been waiting for.
— Jessica Payne, author of Make Me Disappear and The Lucky One