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An Excerpt: Deadly Little Secrets

Chapter One

None of it made any sense, absolutely none of it. Not when her sister Nancy tried to tell her on the telephone nor now that Linda Dulin was surrounded by two of her three sisters and her oldest niece, Lindsey, in the backyard of Linda's comfortable home on a Sunday evening. Outside the rolling hills surrounding Waco, Texas, were replete with beauty, bursting with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and delicate white rain lilies. The days were growing longer, promising summer. Yet it felt like winter in Linda’s heart, cold and lonely. She couldn’t take any more pain. She’d suffered enough. And what her sisters were saying…well, it had to stop. It was impossible, and Linda didn’t understand why the others couldn’t just see that.

“I want you to drop it,” she ordered. “Just let it go.”

At fifty-two, Linda was the oldest of the sisters, a lineup that ran from Linda, to Nancy, forty-nine, Kay, forty-seven, and Jennifer, thirty-seven. Nancy’s oldest daughter, Lindsey, twenty-six, was almost like another daughter to Linda. She knew they had come out of love, and that they were all trying to help, but that didn’t alter things. It was too late to change what had happened. Linda’s oldest child, her only daughter, Kari, had died, and there wasn’t anything any of them could do about it. They had to come to terms with what had happened; they had to move on with their lives. As impossible as that seemed, that was what Linda, her husband, Jim, and their son, Adam, were all trying to do, and they didn’t need anyone filling their minds with groundless suspicions.

“Kari is dead,” Linda said. A purposeful woman with short, highlighted dark blond hair and expressively arched eyebrows, she pursed her lips as she sometimes did when standing before her students at McLennan Community College. With a doctorate in organizational communication, she was used to being listened to in a classroom. What she needed now was that same courtesy from her siblings. “There was nothing in Kari that made me think she would take her own life. But we have to accept this.”

“Linda, you’re not listening,” Nancy protested. With shoulder-length dark brown hair and a steady gaze, Nancy might have been younger than Linda, but she was her match. All the women were strong individuals, and they’d grown up both protecting and competing with each other. They’d always been close, held together by a bond that transcended blood. Determined that Linda listen to their theory, Nancy refused to back down. “We don’t believe Kari killed herself.”

“What’s the alternative?” Linda asked, her mind resting uncomfortably on the only conclusion. “If my daughter didn’t kill herself, what are you saying? That she was murdered?”

The pause was uncomfortably long, as all the women looked at each other, wondering who should speak next.

“Linda, you have to understand,” said Kay, her blond hair in a ponytail and her hands fisted on her lap. She knew this was agonizing, but somehow she had to make her oldest sister listen. Linda was the only one seated at the round patio table who believed Kari had committed suicide, carried out by an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol. All the others had come to another conclusion, that Kari’s husband, Matt Baker, a Baptist minister, had committed the vilest of sins.

The other women had an advantage over Linda. They’d understood for years that Matt Baker wasn’t the man he pretended to be. Far from a man of God, Matt lived a double life, one where he preyed on women.

For those who didn’t know better, from the outside it appeared that Kari had the perfect marriage. Just thirty-one, she was a bright, funny, dynamic woman, an elementary-school teacher with shining blond hair cut short, a wide smile, and playful blue eyes. She and Matt had two precious little girls, Kensi, nine, and Grace, five. Another daughter, Kassidy, had died seven years earlier, and her death was the sorrow mentioned in the note found near Kari’s body. “I want to give Kassidy a hug. I need to feel her again,” it read.

Yet this final missive, including Kari’s name at the bottom, was typed. Would Kari have done that? Would she have failed to mention Adam, her only sibling? Kay, Nancy, and Lindsey had discussed it all at length and agreed that the suicide note was a lie.

Linda, however, wouldn’t budge. “Matt’s the father of my granddaughters, all we have left of Kari,” she said, her manner stern. “I want you to drop it. Understand?”

The women nodded. “Okay,” Kay agreed. “It’s dropped.”

Not long after, they hugged Linda at her front door and said good night. Yet after Linda retreated inside, the women congregated near their cars. “So what do we do?” Lindsey asked.

Faith was important to the family, going back to their paternal grandfather, a Baptist minister. The youngest of the sisters, Jennifer, who’d returned home to Florida after the funeral, was married to a music minister. The idea that Matt, the pastor of a small, rural church, could commit murder wasn’t to be taken lightly. But they knew Kari. They knew that if it were one of them, she’d move heaven and earth to find justice.

“Linda said to drop it,” Lindsey acknowledged. “So what do we do?”

For a moment, no one spoke. Then, Kay said, “We’re not going to drop it. Not now. Not ever.”

Later many in Waco would call the three women gathered at their cars “the angels,” and Linda, who would eventually come to understand what kind of man her daughter had truly married, “Charlie.” This small band of women would join together to help solve the mystery of how Kari Dulin Baker died.

Weeks after that backyard conference, Linda and Jim Dulin reluctantly accepted the heartbreaking truth that their daughter had been murdered. Yet once they did, the fight had just begun. Their journey would be a long one, requiring the aid of many. Caught in the middle and never far from the Dulins’ thoughts were their two granddaughters, Kari’s beloved girls. In the end, every step would be a fight in a valiant struggle for justice.

Chapter Two

“From the time she was little, Kari was bursting with life, and always something of a diva,” Linda says, a slight chuckle in her voice. “She, of course, fit in with the rest of us. We’re a family of she-rahs. All of us, a large, close extended family. We love each other. We’d do anything for each other. And we all loved Kari.”

On August 13, 1974, Kari Lynn was born not among the rolling hills of Central Texas but surrounded by mountains in Salt Lake City. At the time Linda was married to Scott, and they were both students at the University of Utah. It was there one horrible afternoon, when Kari was still a baby, that Linda received the tragic news that her husband had died in a motorcycle accident. “It was hard,” she says. “Kari was so small, she didn’t even remember Scott.”

Leaving the mountains behind, Linda relocated to Waco, Texas, to attend Baylor University, where one of her younger sisters, Kay, was a student. As a child Linda, her father an army colonel, had lived across the globe, everywhere from Okinawa to Berlin. “I was kind of a military brat,” she says. “Growing up, I don’t remember ever living anywhere more than three years.” But by the midseventies, much of the Dodson family had settled in and around the bucolic hills surrounding Waco, a city of 126,000 situated an hour’s drive south of Dallas.

Those unfamiliar with the Central Texas landscape, the tent of bright blue sky, the rich green forests, the grazing cattle, the wildflowers in the spring and the bright reds and golds of fall, can be unprepared....