Here is a sneak peek of the first chapter of Ghost Mortem. Please bear in mind that it’s the first draft of raw, unedited text, and is subject to change before the book will be published.

That being said, I hope you enjoy.


Ghost Mortem

The days that change your life don’t always start out with a bang, but sometimes they end with one.

“Oh, baby. Yes.” The purring feminine voice slid through my cracked open bedroom door and turned my insides liquid. My ears buzzed, my vision blurred, and my mind raced frantically as I tried to think of possible alternatives for the sounds I was hearing.

Yeah, I knew there was no better explanation, but my brain didn’t want to believe I’d see what I knew was happening on the other side of the door if I looked, and I didn’t want to look.

But I did. The tiniest peek through the crack between the door and the frame was enough. More than enough, actually.

Teeth clamping down on the inside of my cheek, I bit back a scream until it lodged in the back of my throat while my marriage shattered to pieces that fell soundlessly on the hardwood floor. Fight or flight rode in on a rush of adrenaline and propelled me back down the stairs.

My pulse pounded as I headed to the garage, yanked my car door open to leave, then shut it again. Running away wouldn’t be as satisfying as confronting the situation head on. Besides, I had to do something. I had to make them see how they’d hurt me. Find something to put a stop to what was going on in my bedroom.

My eyes searched the depressingly empty garage and found nothing useful hanging on the barren walls.

We’d never been one of those handy couples with cabinets full of tools who could whip up a backyard arbor or bench in a weekend. We weren’t sporty people, either, with bats or tennis rackets or golf clubs stashed away in cabinets. In fact, Mother Hubbard would have felt right at home in the echoing space.

Frantic with purpose, I made my way back inside, into the kitchen, and struck solid gold. Carefully and quietly, I chose and readied my weapon, settled it firmly in hand, slipped off my shoes, and crept slowly back up the stairs.

All the way down the hall, I wondered if it was weird to hope they weren’t finished just so I could enjoy the looks on their faces when they saw me looming over them. Maybe. But I needed to take action, make a statement, do something epic to keep from falling apart.

Her eyes were closed, his back arched as he rose over her when I crept into the room, their noises covering mine even as I made my way closer to the bed.

My heart lurched, my vision narrowed, but I banished all traces of second thoughts and stepped closer.

A dozen phrases sprang to mind, but in the end, I said nothing as I tipped the bucket and let the cold, wet shock of ice water put an end to their treachery. I couldn’t have spoken anyway, my throat was too busy working with the effort to hold back sobs of pain and anger.

What? You thought I had a knife or something? Tempting, but I’m not that kind of person.

My husband rolled off his bed partner, shivered once and blinked up at me with dark, shock-glazed eyes. If I’d ever found the man handsome, I didn’t anymore. He lost even more of his appeal when it wasn’t shame that settled over his face, but defiance. She at least had the grace to look away, and pull the sheet more snugly around her body.

I burned him with a look. Hurtful words with sharp edges tumbled through my head, none seeming strong enough to cut to the depth of his betrayal, so I bit them all back and ground out a warning, “Don’t say a word. Not a single word.”  If I started screaming now, I might never stop.

Nothing he could say would make a difference, anyway. We were over and no glib assurances would change the situation. If he bothered to make an effort, I didn’t hear him over the thrum in my ears and the booming echo in my head.

Go. Just get out. Now.

My inner voice made sense, and so I ran. Or maybe I walked, or stumbled. To be honest, I’m not really sure what happened between the time I left the room and when I found myself standing in the lobby of the Fairmont and staring into my purse as if it held the secrets of the universe. The twenty minute drive had evaporated out of my head like mist burned away by the sun.

After watching me for a moment or two, the desk clerk murmured in a respectful tone, “Are you all right, Mrs. Hastings?”

Um, no. Not even a little bit. I sucked back the laugh that bubbled into my throat because it felt like it carried more than a hint of hysteria, fumbled my debit card out, and paid for a suite.

On any other day, I’d have run to my nearest\ friend’s house for sanctuary, but since hers had been the face looking up at me from beneath my husband, that was no longer an option. Another giggle threatened at the thought, and so did tears that burned and stung.

“I’m fine.” I lied and watched his lips curve into a knowing smile as he observed my lack of luggage. Excuse me for not taking time to pack when my life was falling apart. All I wanted was a dark room in a private space where I could think. Or  better yet, not think. I didn’t need him judging me in any case. It took more than gritting my teeth to keep from yelling at him to just hurry up and give me the key card, and more effort still to make it to the room.

As soon as I shoved the door shut with a gentle thud, everything that had been building up inside me broke and I’m ashamed to say I did, too.

If the next few hours constitute my greatest moments of weakness, then I’ll own each and every minute of the time spent burrowed in the bed examining my marriage under the microscope of hindsight. The signs, once I knew to look for them, had been there. The little touches, the conspiratorial smiles. They way he’d put his hand on both our backs if the three of us walked into a room together; references to his girls; their shopping excursions for my birthday or Christmas. All the actions I’d taken as friendship now were tainted with betrayal.

Day turned to night, then to breaking dawn. I didn’t sleep; Paul didn’t call; my ego took another drastic hit. I honestly can’t say if I’d have been able to forgive him or not, but I don’t think less of myself for wanting him to ask. Or for considering whether or not to call in sick for the day.

Paul came from money. Enough that his family’s philanthropic interests required a staff to coordinate, and since he hadn’t wanted me to get a job, I’d been serving as the Director of Development for the charitable arm of the business for the past few years. An unpaid position, but one I found fulfilling.

Until today when working for the family of the man who had just cheated on me wasn’t high on the list of things I wanted to do. But, since we were in the midst of putting on an event, I was needed. The homeless need not suffer because of me.

I rose from the bed, splashed water on my face, and  braced myself to face the world again. When I dropped the key card at the desk on my way through the lobby, the concierge looked at me with an almost relieved expression, which  I assumed had to do with not wanting my red-eyed, rumpled self cluttering up his fancy schmancy lobby. Later, I’d realize there might have been other reasons.

Slapping on the sunglasses I fished out of my purse, I shot him a level look and stepped out onto the pavement where the valet waited with my keys and a smirk of his own. One that cost him half his tip. Screw him. Screw them both.

In fact, screw all men including the one who later informed me over the loudspeaker at the gas pumps that my card had been declined and I’d have to come inside with cash.

Screw all the men was my new philosophy.

At the office, I pulled into my parking space and laid my head down on the steering wheel while I gathered up the slivers of my dignity. Would anyone notice I was wearing the same clothes from the day before? Did I really care? Since the answer to both questions was the same, I had to force myself out of the car.

I could, I thought, condense my day into a couple of hours of work if I delegated, and then what? Go home and deal with all that I wanted to avoid. Maybe I’d just put in the full day with overtime instead. The sofa in the break room might be comfy enough to spend the night.

With that not so happy possibility running through my head, I stepped into the lobby and pasted a fake smile on my face.

“Good morning, Albert. How did Alicia do on her placement exams?” Albert manned the building’s security desk as a side job to put his daughter through college. When he didn’t flash me his normal smile, I should have known something was up.

Rising, he circled the desk to put himself between me and the elevator. “I’m sorry, Everly. I can’t let you go up.”

Lack of sleep is probably why it took me so long to clue in. “Why? Is something wrong with the office? Should I call maintenance?”

“No Ma’am. I have my orders. I’m to tell you your services are no longer needed, and I’m sorry. Well, I that last part wasn’t an order, but it’s true.” He patted me kindly on the arm.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t form words.

“It’s shameful the way this is happening, but I did get them to let me gather up your things.” A slight widening of his eyes went along with the emphasis on certain words. Albert was trying to tell me something, and I was too numb to understand. While I stood there trying to make sense of it all, he handed me a small box with the African violet from my desk sticking out the top.

“I really am sorry,” Albert repeated, and the only thing that saved him from being lumped in with the rest of the men I’d had to deal with that day was that he offered to carry the box to my car.

“I’ve got it, thanks.” As fragile as I felt, I didn’t trust myself to keep from blubbering all over him. “Give Alicia my best wishes. She’s going to do well in school, I just know it.” The effort to smile cost me plenty, and when I made it back to my car, it felt like my face might break. Pulling in a few deep breaths, I put the box in the back and slid into the driver’s seat. My hand trembled so hard it took two tries to slide the key into the ignition switch.


Cheated on, and then fired. What next?

Like an idiot, I turned to the one person I thought might help.

Big mistake.

Funny, it never occurred to me that the attorney overseeing my husband’s legal affairs might not be the best person to ask for advice in my current situation.

You learn something new every day.

“But he’s been cheating on me.” I figured if I repeated it enough times, Winston Durham would stop looking at me like I was something he’d scraped off his shoe.

Steepling his fingers and talking to me over them, Winston’s tone zoomed past what one would normally consider condescending and landed in scolding territory. “You walked out on Paul, abandoned him. That’s grounds for him to file for divorce.”

“For a night.” I spit. “It hasn’t even been a full twenty-four hours. Isn’t there some kind of time limit for what constitutes abandonment?”

“Nevertheless, you left the marital home and your husband without giving him any expectation for your return.” Still talking down to me, Winston prattled on about my supposed violations of the prenuptial agreement I’d signed when I married Paul.

“What about the cheating? Wasn’t the agreement supposed to protect us both in case this type of thing happened?”

His eyes slid away from mine, and with a sinking feeling I knew I had it all wrong.

“Now, Everly, you contributed very little to this union.” Somehow he made the word sound dirty. “My duty is to protect the family and their assets, and the agreement you signed is ironclad.”

Grammie Dupree had been a five-foot nothing bundle of dynamite, and she’d passed some of her fire down to me, so I flared, “Yesterday I was a happily married woman with plans to start a family. Today I feel like a wrecking ball laid my life to ruins, and you’re acting like I was the one running the controls. I never expected any of this to happen. I certainly didn’t want to find my husband in bed with my best friend, or to come here and have you treat me like I’m the cheater and he’s the injured party. He hasn’t even bothered to call and apologize.”

There’s a spot somewhere between heartbroken and royally ticked off. I know, because that’s where I was, and according to Winston, who wasn’t moved by my emotion, I was also about to become homeless because I’d needed to take a night away to process.

“I don’t remember seeing a clause in the agreement that said I’d be thrown out of my own home for doing nothing, but it doesn’t matter anyway. I wouldn’t live in the place for one more day even if Paul offered it to me on a silver platter.”

“All Paul is offering, and I think he’s being overly generous, is to pay for the divorce. According to the agreement, he need do no such thing.” It sounded like Winston thought Paul was granting me a boon.

“You should always read any contract thoroughly. A mistake so many young people make. I can provide you with a copy of the agreement, and I’ve already drawn up the dissolution papers for you to sign.”

At this point, nothing could shock me except maybe if he wanted me to sign them in blood, but whatever. Being mad had helped push me back from the emotional hole trying to form under my feet.

I just wanted the jerk to stop talking so I could walk out of his office like my butt was on fire.

“I understand you maintain a personal account containing the proceeds from a small sum inherited from your aunt.  Paul will not contest your right to those funds, but if he pays the legal fees for the divorce, you should expect no other settlement. You will, of course, be allowed to remove from the home such personal property as you owned prior to the marriage.”

Oh, he’d zoomed right up to the top of the screw men list. “Mighty magnanimous of you, I’m sure. You must think you have a heart of gold to let me take my own things with me when I leave.”

The stone-faced lawyer barely raised an eyebrow when he flipped open the folder and pointed to a paragraph outlining how the assets would be divided should one of us abandon the other. My initials stood out in black ink on the white page, otherwise, I’d have sworn this was all a huge mistake.

I probably should have argued for more, but I’d pretty much hit my limit and needed to concentrate on the details because the landscape was more than I could handle. With no warning, my marriage had ended and  to make it worse, Winston treated me like some opportunistic skank who’d only been in it for whatever I could get.

Between teeth gritted hard enough to make my jaw ache, I said, “Give me the papers, I’ll sign them now, pack up my car, and be out of the house by the end of the day.”

A mental estimate had me leaving behind most of my fancier clothes in order to fit in all of my books and the only piece of furniture I’d owned. I should have known there’d be another twist.

Winston didn’t even have the decency to look sorry as he slid a sheaf of papers out of a folder and laid them in front of me. He’d even taken the time to attach the little flags indicating where I was supposed to sign. They fluttered as the pages landed on the desk.  “I believe the car is in Paul’s name and counts as a marital asset. You’ll need to make other transportation arrangements.”

Sucking back an anatomically impossible suggestion for where my freak-weasel soon-to-be ex could park the car—hopefully with his lawyer behind the wheel—I signed the papers. Glowering, I returned to the car to retrieve my plant from the back seat, then tossed the keys on the desk and walked out of the office.

It had taken no more than an hour to strip away all but the shreds of my dignity, and leave me with a headache threatening my temples.

What was I supposed to do now?

I stood on the sidewalk contemplating that question until standing still seemed silly. My grandmother  swore the Dupree women were made from sterner stuff than most, and now that I was about to go back to being one again, this was my chance to prove her right.

Winston Durham wasn’t the only lawyer I knew and although, until  today, he’d always treated me with kindness, he wasn’t the most shrewd. Resigned, I set the box down, fished my phone out of my purse, pulled up my contacts list, and shamelessly called in a favor to get an immediate appointment with someone I could trust.

“What on earth induced you to sign this?” Patrea Heard tipped her head down and stared at my flushed face over the top of her reading glasses. “He can’t be that good in bed.”

That was a discussion I refused to have with someone I only knew in a professional context. “It’s really as bad as Winston said? I had to give him my car keys.”

“Oh, honey, you’ve been hung out to dry. The way this is worded, he could have claimed half your inheritance, made you pay the rest in legal fees, and still not owe you a penny in alimony.” Patrea flipped through the first two pages of the agreement and excused herself for a moment, taking the sheets of paper with her.

When she came back, she continued going through the documents circling certain sections as she went.

“The scope of this is almost criminal. Unless he was generous with jewelry at birthdays and Christmas…” she threw me a questioning look and I shook my head. “It looks like it’s as bad as Durham said. Did you read this before you signed it?” She spun a sheet for me too see and tapped the section she meant.

I sighed. “I did. Of course, I did.”

Patrea tried to hide a snort behind a polite cough and I looked again.

“Well, that part looks unfamiliar. If my initials weren’t on it, I’d think I missed this entire section.”

Eyes narrowing in suspicion, Patrea pulled it from me, inspected it for a moment, then pushed the page back across the desk. “Look closely, are you certain this is your handwriting?”

Obediently, I studied the loops and whorls on my signature, then picked up a pen, flipped over the sheet and wrote E.D. on the back. “Looks the same to me.” I spun the paper to give her a better look.

“I’m no handwriting expert, but I know someone who is, and I’d be happy take your ex apart in court if this is a forgery.” If you’ve ever seen a cat posed to pounce on a mouse, you’d recognize the look on Patrea’s face.

“What would he have to gain from forging my signature? The money my aunt left me wouldn’t cover his sushi orders for the next six months.” My stress magnified the sound of Patrea’s fingers drumming on the desktop.

Handwriting experts and fights in court cost money—money I didn’t have. Winston had made himself quite clear. If I didn’t go quietly, he and the new Paul, the Paul who slept with my best friend on sheet’s I’d picked out, would make me pay.

Underneath all the bravado I generated in order to get through this ordeal, the scorned woman cowered and mourned her loss. Even if I could muster up the financial support to take Paul on in court, I wasn’t sure I had enough fire left in me to fight. Not at that moment, anyway.

I cleared my throat and tried to sell the lie. “Listen, I signed the prenup because I loved him and I’m not interested in taking him to the cleaners. That’s not how I do things, and I have to live with myself when this is done.”

Reaching for the page I’d penned with my initials, Patrea said, “You’re better off alone than with the type of person who would…do you have any other money stashed away? Income from your work?”

Was she looking for a retainer? “None. Paul insisted we didn’t need the money. They fired me this morning. Can you fire a volunteer? I guess you can.”

I’d known Patrea since she approached the foundation for help raising funds to turn several abandoned homes into shelters. She’d proved herself a staunch ally with a lot of heart even if it was wrapped up in a no-nonsense exterior.

“Oh, you volunteered, all right. You volunteered to be a victim.” Patrea also had little patience for injustice. “Threaten to go public. That’s what you should do.”

“With what?” I reached across the desk to gather up the papers and put them back in the folder while I tried to make sense of what she meant.

“With all of it. There’s nothing in there that prevents you issuing a press release. Tell the public why you left and what he did to you. The family won’t want the publicity, and I’m betting he’ll make a fair settlement. He’s the one who effectively ended the marriage and he should pay.”

I goggled at her. “I would have liked to keep my car, but I don’t want his money enough to air my dirty laundry to the media. He’s getting everything else, I’d like to retain at least an ounce of my pride. Besides, as you pointed out, I already signed the dissolution papers, so I’m not even sure why I’m here.”

Probably because I felt shattered and scattered and abandoned to the winds of change. Maybe I was looking for an anchor, or lifeline.

Patrea offered neither, but she did give voice to the question already pinballing around in my head. “What are you going to do now? Do you have a plan? A place to stay? I have a spare room if you need—”

I cut her off before she could finish the offer. “Thanks. I’ll manage. Thank you, though.” I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and prepared to get on with the worst day of my life.


The woman behind the counter at the U-Haul rental center took one look at my face and gave me a sympathetic look. “Where you going, honey?” She waited to key in the address. The question flummoxed me. I knew I had to get out, but that was as far as I’d taken the thought process.

“Home,” was the only answer. “I’ll go home and find a place to rent.” As I said it, it made the best kind of sense.

“I gotta have an address to figure up the mileage.”

I gave her my parent’s address. “How many days you think it’ll take to get yourself settled?”

The woman was full of hard questions. “I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting to have to move. I’m not sure.”

Her fingers danced over the keyboard. “I can cut you a deal on that one for a week.” She pointed out the window toward a regular cargo van with the company logo splashed across the windowless sides.

“Best I can do is a hundred bucks plus taxes and mileage if you go over the three hundred allotted.” Her kindness nearly undid me. “Should give you enough time to figure things out.”

A week. I had a week to sort out a new life. Entirely doable, right?

Ten minutes later, I settled my purse on the passenger’s seat and fought off the urge to rest my forehead on the steering wheel and give in to the misery. I felt like a dry, hollowed out husk held together by little more than sheer will.

You can do this, I told myself as I pulled up to the house that already felt alien to me.

Worst one, first one. One of my grandmother’s favorite adages made great sense, so I started in the bedroom after changing into yoga pants and a soft T-shirt and tossing the clothes I’d been wearing into the trash. I never wanted to see that outfit again.

I’d expected to find Paul lurking around to prevent me from making off with the silverware or anything else that might be construed as a marital asset. When I found the house deserted, I wasn’t sure how to feel. On one hand, it could mean he didn’t share Winston’s view of my greedy nature; on the other, it could mean he didn’t even care enough to say goodbye. Or both. It could be both.

One more insult to add on top of the rest—being made to feel like a criminal in my own home. Yet, I was thankful that the house was blessedly empty while I sorted and packed.

Winston had been correct in his assessment of what I’d brought to the marriage. But then, silly me, I’d believed Paul when he insisted my love was all he needed.  Seven boxes of books, another containing an old quilt, and some other childhood mementos, three medium-sized wardrobe boxes, and another for smaller items cleared out the bedroom.

My wedding band joined my engagement ring on the nightstand, and from the jewelry box, I retrieved my grandmother’s opal ring to replace them so my hand wouldn’t feel odd and barren.

As I sped through the rest of the house, it occurred that my leaving wouldn’t make much of an impact on the decor. There was little of me there.

In the kitchen, I unearthed Aunt Frannie’s tea set, and a pair of antique salt and pepper shakers. The last thing to go into the van was my grandfather’s rocking chair, and when I pulled out less than two hours later, my hands were shaking on the steering wheel. Such a paltry span of time to take apart something meant to last a lifetime, and I hadn’t even called my parents to warn them I was coming home.


If you enjoyed this sneak peek, Ghost Mortem is available for preorder here:

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