Kimberly Belle

Kimberly Belle

Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of eight novels, including the forthcoming The Personal Assistant (out 11.29), The Marriage Lie, a Goodreads Choice Awards semifinalist for Best Mystery & Thriller, and the #1 co-authored Audible Original, Young Rich Widows. Her books have been published in 20+ languages and have been optioned for film and television. A proud graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.


The Personal Assistant

She aced the interview and now she knows all your secrets…

When Alex first began posting unscripted family moments and motivational messages online, she had no intention of becoming an influencer. Overnight it seemed she’d amassed a huge following, and her hobby became a full-time job—one that was impossible to manage without her sharp-as-a-tack personal assistant, AC.

But all the good-will of her followers turns toxic when one controversial post goes viral in the worst possible way. Alex reaches out to AC for damage control, but her assistant has gone silent. This young woman Alex trusted with all her secrets, who had access to her personal information and front row seats to the pressure points in her marriage and family life, is now missing, and the police are looking to Alex and her husband for answers.

As Alex digs into AC’s identity – and a woman is found murdered – she’ll find the greatest threat isn’t online, but in her own living room.

Amazon US  |  Amazon UK  |  Barnes & Noble | Indiebound


Prologue

This is how it begins, flying down a country road. Windows down, music blaring. An old Journey classic, one she knew by heart. She belted the lyrics into the warm wind.

The road she was flying down was like all the others in this godforsaken chunk of southern Georgia, two faded lanes slicing through endless pecan fields, and she took the curves faster than she should. Running with the devil, her father would say if he were here, but it was the perfect fall day and her hair was flying and the guitar riff made her think of her brother, who she missed like crazy. She wondered if he was even alive out there on the west coast, and if so, how a Southern boy like him could survive in all that constant rain and gloomy green.

Up ahead, a truck lurched out of the field, lugging a belly piled high with nuts on the way to the factory. It turned her way, engine puffing up twin clouds of exhaust as it lumbered straight at her, its wide girth eating up the asphalt. She gripped the wheel, her right tires hugging the shoulder. This country road wasn’t big enough for them both.

The truck driver didn’t slow. Didn’t move over, either, though he lifted a hand in a friendly wave. There wasn’t much she agreed about with her father these days, but he was right about the pecan farmers. They already owned enough of this county, the least they could do was share the damn road.

Suddenly, they were side by side. The trash bag she’d taped over the busted back window flapped and pulled, then blew off entirely when the truck missed her by a hair, flooding the car with stinky exhaust. He blew past and she blew out a big breath, her fingers relaxing on the wheel just long enough for the back tire to slip off the asphalt. It spun in the shoulder for a second or two, then exploded with a spectacular pop.

The Honda lurched to a messy stop, dumping yesterday’s Big Gulp into her lap. She ignored the mess because she had bigger problems. She didn’t need to look to know her back tire lay in tattered ribbons across the road, or that the truck was long gone. The air reeked of burnt rubber and pecans.

Well, hell. She couldn’t afford a new tire. She couldn’t even afford an old junky one from Wade up at the dump, who she still owed fifty bucks to for her last tire. The hotel where she worked was a good five miles from here, and it’s not like her asshole boss offered sick days. You don’t work, you don’t get paid, it was as simple as that.

She rested her forehead on the wheel and thought through her options, but she didn’t like any of them. Her father was no help. The last time she asked him for a loan, he called her a whore and a devil child, and she wasn’t looking for a repeat scolding. She couldn’t hitchhike, not in this getup—an up-to- there dress that could do double duty as a costume for slutty maid. Hitchhiking was how girls like her got in trouble.

So…walk, then?

She groaned, lifting her feet from the floorboard where a slice of toe peeked through the sole of her battered flats. “So far I really, really hate this day.”

She didn’t hear the car sidle up alongside her until it was already there, motor purring in her ear. She lifted her head, looking into a window as black and smooth as a mirror. Her own face staring back.

With a whirr, it lowered to reveal a man. Dark hair, square chin, sharp cheekbones under shiny shades. Her very own knight in shining armor.

He whipped off the sunglasses and tossed them on the console. “Looks like you could use some help.”

Chapter 1

Alex

I know the second I crack an eye that the day is going to be brutal. Hot and muggy, the kind of heat that gathers into thick clouds that turn violent later in the afternoon. I feel it before I am fully awake, the low pressure clanging in my temples. Then again, that’s probably just the tequila.

Pictures flash through my head, stop-start images from last night.

Oh, God. AC. My social media assistant and operations assistant and every other assistant role you can imagine, my work wife and right-hand gal. Remorse creeps in as I roll to my side, breathing through a wave of nausea. I’m supposed to be the responsible one, the older and wiser boss who sets an example, not her drinking buddy. That last shot was a mistake.

No. The mistake was the half dozen that came before it, and the way I tossed them back one after the other, boom boom boom, like a sorority sister on a mission. I should have stopped after the first one, well before AC’s face started turning fuzzy around the edges.

On the nightstand, two white Excedrin flank a sweaty bottle of water. Patrick, my hero. With a grateful groan, I drop them on my tongue and turn the bottle up, but at the movement or the sudden surge of liquid, my stomach flips and rolls. For a few hairy seconds, I wonder if I will keep them down.

I stare at the ceiling and talk my stomach off the ledge, consoling myself with the reason I was celebrating in the first place.

Me disco-dancing around the kitchen…AC pouring shot after shot…My husband, Patrick, watching with a grin.

One million followers.

Even serious, stoic Patrick had to blink twice when I shoved my phone in his face. His eyes bulged at the digits atop my Instagram page, a number that after so many months refusing to budge finally flipped into surreal territory.

The thought sets off a chirrup in my chest, a familiar fizzle and pop behind my breastbone.

One million freaking followers, and they’re following me. @UnapologeticallyAlex.

“I don’t get it,” Patrick said the first time my fame eclipsed his, when a fan handed him her phone and asked for a picture with me. “What are you selling? Some mantra about staying positive in a house with two hormonal girl-monsters? A motivational meme you pilfered from the internet and slapped your logo on? Don’t take this the wrong way, but why is that woman grinning like she just met Beyonce?”

Patrick doesn’t understand the charm of Unapologetically Alex because he’s a numbers guy, a self-made moneyman who dishes financial strategies on the nightly news. He covers topics like how to become a millionaire before the age of twenty-two. How to cultivate real wealth and lifelong financial freedom. How to never work for anyone but yourself ever again. For all my husband’s brilliance, the world of Insta- influencers is as real to him as the tooth fairy. It’s like trying to explain the appeal of cats to a dog person.

The only thing Patrick understands about my job are the financials. How for every ten thousand followers I have, I can demand a higher price for sponsored content; how when those followers are engaged—watching my videos, liking my posts and commenting—I can demand even more. And I’m not going to lie. After years of raising two girls on my own, without a penny or pat on the back from their father, the money is the best part.

But that night in the restaurant after my fangirl left, I did my best to explain the rest.

“She’s grinning because I’m not a rock star. I am her cheerleader, the person who believes more in her than she believes in herself. I am the woman she could be if she just learned to live unapologetically.” It’s my slogan, the one I close out every post and video with. “That’s why she’s so excited, because she’s me. I’m her. We are the same person.”

“She’s you.” Patrick looked over and sure enough there she was, typing away happily on her phone, uploading the picture he’d just taken of us. “She doesn’t look anything like you.”

“It’s not about looks but how I make her feel. She and all the millions of women just like her are sick of scrolling Instagram and feeling shitty about themselves as a result. Why do women insist on comparing ourselves to people we don’t know and will likely never meet? When did external validation become a prerequisite for our inner peace? Doubts, stresses, anxieties, expectations, comparisons. Let all that shit go. Live your own life, be your own person. Show the world your authentic, badass self and the rest will come. You are perfect as you are.”

It’s the speech I’ve used many times on panels and interviews to explain the success of Unapologetically Alex— a persona I fell into almost by chance. It all started with a silly post that went viral, but in the comments and DMs I noticed a theme: a very loud, very vocal tribe of women who are sick of stuffing themselves into the mold other people created for them. The perfect mother, the perfect housewife, the perfect hostess and friend and lover. What even are those things, anyway? And why would we let anyone else define how we want to live our own lives? But for whatever reason, they latched on to that post and appointed me their de facto leader. After that, all I had to do was hang on to that crown.

A billion users. A hundred million images uploaded a day. After that first, viral post, I wanted a piece of the Instagram pie.

But cranking out a constant stream of content is exhausting, and followers and likes don’t necessarily equal money in the bank. It’s why I hired AC, to take over some of my day-to-day tasks and free up my time so I can translate my platform into actual cash. A podcast series, sponsorships that pay with checks instead of boxes of merchandise that clog up my garage, a kick-ass book proposal that’s about to go to auction—these are just a few of the projects in the pipeline.

As if my thoughts have conjured him, Patrick appears in the bedroom, a steaming mug and a plate in his hands. “Morning, sunshine.” He flashes a smile. “I figured you might be having a rough go of it.”

I groan and push myself to a sit. “Why didn’t you stop me after the second shot? You know how tequila makes me crotchety.”

“Woman, I tried. I told you about that time in Tulum when you drove your bike into the ocean and spent the entire next day hanging over an eco-toilet. Or when you fell headfirst into the bushes outside Lasky Steakhouse, and I had to drag you out by your ankles. I even poured the bottle down the sink, but you made AC go out and get another. You seriously don’t remember any of this?”

I wince, shaking my head, and it thuds in response. “Please tell me I was passed out by the time she came back.”

“Uh, no, you were not passed out. You were screaming about belly shots.”

“You’re lying.”

He hands me the mug, then reaches past me for a button on the wall. The motor hums and tugs the shades upward, filling the bedroom with bright light.

“Sadly, no. There were no belly shots, but not for lack of trying. Though I will say, that image of you draped across the kitchen island in your underwear, screaming for AC to—and I quote—‘pour the freakin’ tequila in my belly button so my smokin’ hot husband can suck it out’ will stay with me until the end of time.” He lifts my white tank to reveal my stomach, where the skin is still sticky. “Very little liquid actually made it into your belly button. AC was laughing too hard.”

I plunk the mug on the nightstand and cover my face with both hands, discovering the remnants of yesterday’s mascara in tiny beads smeared down my cheeks. “No. No no no no no. Tell me I did not do that. And tell me the girls didn’t hear.”

My twins from my first marriage, Gigi and Penelope, whose rooms are at the top of the stairs, are twelve going on twenty- five. An age where they are all raging hormones and shitty attitudes and mortified by my very existence. They tell me this with slamming doors and rolling eyeballs, because otherwise they would have to actually talk to me, their mother, who is too loud, too silly and weird and embarrassing—mostly the last one. There’s nothing quite as savage as a preteen’s ridicule. It leaves a mark, one that lingers for a very long time.

Patrick sinks onto the edge of the bed, sliding the plate onto my outstretched legs. He picks up a triangle of toast and presses it to my lips. “Here. The bread will soak up some of the booze.”

“The girls, Patrick.”

He dips a meaningful gaze to my plate—a bite for an answer. Good God, I love this man. Solid and stable and endlessly good-natured, an excellent protector and stepfather to my two girls. The kind of man who is the polar opposite of their deadbeat father.

And Patrick has always been so generous, sharing this house and his bank account with me and the twins, never treating it as his money but ours. His financial advice segment at WXBA is another way he gives back, his contribution to the city in the form of investment tips and money tricks in language anybody can understand. Atlanta’s very own money guru.

I nibble off a corner of the bread, and it’s gone soggy in the middle from the butter, but he used the good kind, the organic one with sea salt. When my stomach doesn’t revolt, I follow it up with another.

“This is delicious, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And judging by the side-eyes the girls gave me this morning, I’m guessing they heard most of it, though I did give them a stern talking-to in the car on the dangers of binge drinking. I’ve never seen them so excited to get to school.”

The thought of that awkward twenty-three-minute drive unravels something in my chest. Patrick adores taking the girls to school. It’s one of the few times he gets them all to himself, and they tell their stepfather things they would never in a million years tell me, their own mother. It’s good for him to get some special time with them, eye rolls and all.

My phone buzzes on the nightstand, and we both ignore it.

“Thank you for being the responsible one, and for taking such good care of me. But mostly, thank you for not fussing.” I reach up to cup his cheek with my free hand.

“Last night you told me if I fussed, I could forget about getting another blow job. Ever. For the rest of my life. No way I’m risking that.”

I laugh. “Even when drunk off my ass, I know what makes Patrick Hutchinson tick, and guess what? It’s not money.”

“Don’t tell anyone. The truth would ruin me.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

We are quiet for the span of three breaths, a shared moment of complicity.

His hand skims up my leg, making the skin of my thigh tingle. “How’s the head?”

I test it with a little shake. “Better.”

“The stomach?”

I drop the last bite of toast onto the plate, and Patrick moves it to the nightstand, his gaze never leaving mine. The fingertips of his other hand hit the fabric of my pajama shorts and keep going. Six years with this man, and he can still do this to me—melt me with a look, heal my hangovers with a kiss. I wrap my arm around his neck and pull his face to mine, so handsome it makes my heart ache.

On the nightstand, my phone buzzes again and again, a solid stream of messages and notifications, reminding me of the million things on the agenda for today, the meetings and the strategizing and the twins’ late-afternoon soccer game halfway to Tennessee. I let all that shit go and feel my husband’s warm, willing body on top of mine. His strong hands, having their way with me.

His lips freeze halfway across my collarbone, and he glances at the screen, lit up with an avalanche of incoming notifications. Patrick spends a lot of time in a newsroom. He witnesses every crazy storm and school shooting. Of course he has to look.

“Oh.” He lifts my phone from the nightstand. “Oh.”

“Oh, what?”

“Just some trolls.” He shakes his head, replaces the phone.

“Really angry ones.”

Last week a few trolls were after me because of the casual mention of the fact I have a house cleaner, and the week before that the jeans I was wearing weren’t earth-friendly enough, and before that an eagle-eyed follower identified the champagne I was sipping as Ruinart instead of some cheap prosecco. I’ve been in this business long enough to have learned to ignore the haters. And I do. Mostly.

I think about what they could possibly be objecting to this time, posts and comments I’ve made in the past few days. I shuffle through them in my mind, but it could be any one of a million things. Trolls, internet warriors, keyboard crusaders, whatever you want to call them—they’re always angry about something.

I pick up the phone, and the notifications roll by faster than I can read them, an endless stream of vitriol.

Also, these aren’t trolls. These are handles I recognize, ones I interact with all the time. I know the emojis they favor and the superlatives they throw around in my comment sections. Amazing. Obsessed. Thank youuuuu. These are women normally gushing with gratitude, who share my posts and DM me like we’re old friends. Now they have nothing but ugliness, pummeling me with hateful words that sear themselves onto my skin like a cattle brand.

I push Patrick off and lurch to a sit, trying to make sense of the storm rolling across my cell phone screen.

And that’s when it happens—the toast making a reappearance, the tequila returning for revenge. I toss my phone and the covers and sprint to the bathroom.

@Patriciainpa Ummm @rachel76 did you see this latest post? Am I the only one who feels hoodwinked?

@rachel76 I see it, and no, you’re not the only one. WTF is wrong with this woman? Unfollowing.

@Patriciainpa I’m still following but only to see what horrible things come out of her mouth next. If nothing else this thing with @unapologeticallyalex is gonna be hella entertaining.

@misterfluffles @rachel76 @patriciainpa I’ve been telling you all along this bitch is not what she seems, and neither for that matter is her husband. Do y’all believe me now?

 

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