a stand-alone novel by Gwen Hunter
Although not part of the Rhea Lynch, MD. Series, this book could be considered a prequel.
It has the same fictional setting and features Ashlee Davenport, Rhea's favorite emergency room nurse.



I invited death into my home.

Oh, I never thought about it in exactly those terms, with exactly those words, but that's what I did. I issued a formal invitation, then stood back and waited for death to move in, make himself at home, put up his feet and stay. Like a guest who quietly takes over, surrounding your life with his own until he belongs there as much as you, and asking him to leave is impossible.

I did that with death. All unknowing and innocent, all guileless and full of kind intentions. And I paid the price.

There is a price for everything. Jack taught me that. In his insistent, determined, and deliberate way, my husband taught me everything about life—and by his death, started me on the journey into the past. His past. Searching for meaning amidst lies and deceit and ruin.

The end of the journey was the same as the beginning. Death. Just death. Death of dreams. Death of illusion. Death of truth as I had known it.

And the curious reverse side of death. Resurrection. A new beginning. Whether I wanted it or not.



Jack died in late spring, when the wisteria and dogwoods no longer have blooms. When the jonquils and daffodils and early blooming irises hang, wrinkled and brown, on their stiff green stems. When the heat is bearable by day and the night breezes are enough to cool the house. When blankets are kept handy for the occasional dip in temperature that makes the gooseflesh rise by morning. Brisk. That's what they call the time of year he left me.

It was quick. He didn't suffer. Dr. Hoffman told me that in the ER, where I stood afterward, shivering and blank-eyed and bewildered. He didn't suffer. He just . . . went. A single, massive, intracranial bleed.

He was dead when the EMTs arrived. They knew it. I could see it on their faces. A major artery had burst in his head, and he had fractured his skull when he fell. Jack was dead when he hit the floor.

The blood from Jack's ears and nose and mouth proved it. The bloody tears that seeped down his blue face confirmed it. But I was doing CPR when they arrived, his blood all over my mouth. Ground into my hands. And they had no choice but to continue.

We compressed his chest. We breathed for him. All the way to the hospital emergency room where I worked as a nurse, I gave feverish orders in the back of the ambulance. Administered drugs. Shocked him over and over again.

The EMTs, out of sympathy for me and respect for the dead, permitted my futile attempts. A paramedic or a stranger might have gone by the official protocol and forced me to ride up front, following a standardized outline, a formalized list of priorities. But I knew these guys. Had worked with them for years in the emergency room and in the field at accident scenes and drownings, crisis situations handled by the county's volunteer Rescue Squad.

So, out of pity, and out of custom, they let me run the code. For all the dark and lonely miles of narrow farm country roads, they let me do what I could to save a life already bequeathed to the hand of God.

By the time we arrived I had Jack intubated with a long, firm plastic tube in his lungs, an IV in his right arm running LR—lactated ringers—and another in his left running normal saline. I never checked his pupils beyond that first time. Fixed and dilated. A certain sign of brain death. But I couldn't let him go. Not then, when I still believed in the man I thought him to be.

And now it was weeks later, the funeral long past. The cut flowers in their plastic urns had curled and withered, the grave where they buried Jack was no longer a fresh red scar in the green sward of cemetery lawn. The condolence calls and visits by the church members had slowed. My Nana no longer came every morning and every night to sit with me while I cried, and... the sun still rose in the mornings and I was still alive. And alone. The Jack I thought I knew still hadn't come home to fill the empty place at the table. To curl around me at night spoon fashion, sharing business concerns and tidbits of his day. To make me laugh and feel safe.

I knew he never would.

I had been trying for the last week to find the strength to begin my life again. To pick up the shattered pieces and start over. To leave the safe confines of my home and blink my way into the bright glare of the real world, like a mother bear emerging from hibernation at the end of a too-long winter.

I had called Lynnie Bee, my supervisor, and requested an end to my leave of absence. But now that it was the day for me to return to work, to walk back into the same room where Jack had died, I found myself retreating, longing to crawl back beneath the covers and hide just one more day.

I couldn't. I knew that. But the tears had started the moment I opened my eyes, and I had accomplished nothing, though I had been awake since long before dawn.

I was standing in my closet, choosing a uniform from among my scant supply of `skinny clothes' in preparation for my first day back on the job, when I heard the first, faint jingle of the phone. It was followed by the even fainter, dull voice of the personal line's answering machine.

I seldom answered the phone anymore; even more seldom did I listen to my messages. I just didn't have the energy to deal with the world, now that Jack was gone. But for some reason, just this once, I stepped out of my room and listened.

The amorphous, asexual, computer generated voice spoke its generic message and sounded its banal tone. I listened as the man on the other end changed my life—again—forever.

"Jack. It's Bill. Pick up the phone."

The voice was gruff, brusque, the words commanding. Moving slowly, my bare feet on the satiny, hardwood floor, I stepped down the hallway toward the small table holding the phone and answering machine.

"Jack, damn it, pick up the phone. I know this is your private number. I paid plenty for the listing." There was a short pause, as if Bill expected Jack to answer. "If you want to play hardball, you picked the wrong man. I have contacts you don't know about."

Again there was a short pause and I stopped before the machine, my skin chilled as the air conditioner blew icy air up beneath the tee shirt I wore. I crossed my arms and shivered slightly.

"It's been six weeks, damn it. You said you only needed four. I've been more than fair."

I shivered with uncertainty and the cold, lifting my right hand. It hovered over the receiver, pale and thin.

"You promised me restitution, you thieving bastard. I've got a kid in med school," he added. "And if he doesn't hear from me soon, he'll have to drop out."

I rested my hand on the cool plastic of the phone. The air conditioning went off, leaving the house still and icy. Jasmine, my daughter, had been adjusting the thermostat again. She and Jack liked it cold in the house. Too cold for my comfort.

"You son-of-a-bitch. If you're trying to get out of compensating me for damages then you've got a bigger fight on your hands than you ever bargained for." The pause was even longer this time, and when he spoke again, his voice was lower, a coarse growl. "It's been six weeks, damn you," he repeated. "If you don't pick up this phone, I'll see you in Columbia, in front of a judge. I'll ruin you, you sanctimonious son-of-a—"

The machine clicked off in mid curse. The silence of the house wrapped around me, a cloak of loneliness and solitude. Shivers gripped me, and raising my left hand, I adjusted the thermostat up five degrees into a more temperate zone. My heart seemed to slow, the hallway wavering around me as shadows moved and shifted. I licked my lips, salty with old tears.

I looked again at the phone, my skin white against the maroon plastic. Dark red . . . one of Jack's colors. Power colors, he called them. Parts of the message came suddenly clear, as if my mind dilated, focusing on the words. Depraved words, words of a madman.

Six weeks? Jack had only been dead that long. How had . . . Bill, was it? . . . gotten the personal line's number? It was listed in my name. Six weeks? And then other parts of the one sided conversation began to penetrate the haze in which I had wrapped myself.

Restitution? Jack had never cheated anyone in his life. Jack had been a saint. Tears spilled over and traced a path of fresh tracks down my chapped face.

Turning, I moved down the hallway, the house still dark in the gray, post-dawn light. In the stillness of the empty house, I stepped into Jack's office, my toes sinking into the rich pile of deep red carpet. Intended originally as a study, the office was L-shaped and built on to the front of the house. Jack had added onto it over the years, enlarging the space to include a small conference room, a secretary's office, and a fireproof storage room built like a vault. There was even a large safe on one wall, hidden behind an oversized framed print of an English countryside.

Although the day-to-day business of DavInc, as Jack called his myriad real estate development companies, took place on the job sites in various developments, the paperwork had been generated here. The brainstorming, deal making, problem solving, and long range planning transpired here. The books and legal papers were here, locked away in the safe. I opened the blinds. A rosy glow brightened the rooms.

Hunting prints hung on the paneled walls, dogs and turkeys and bucks, a seascape with sea oats waving in an invisible breeze. Photos of Jas and me. The head of the twelve point buck I had killed took center stage of one whole wall, surrounded by dozens of Jack's kills from over the years. None was larger than mine, a fact Jack had boasted of to his men friends without mentioning the circumstances of the accidental kill. Awards and diplomas and maps of nearby counties dotted the other walls. Photos of past developments, slick advertising shots, were framed and hung between.

Upholstered, low backed chairs squatted in the reception area, leather covered chairs everywhere else. The dark carpet was still marked with Jack's footprints. His gun cabinet stood by the door to the house, solid and dark and ugly, filled with the handguns and antique weapons he collected.

I hated having guns in the house. Jack and I had argued about their presence for years, one of the few subjects we ever disagreed over.

Dust lay like a fine gauze veil over everything. The room smelled musty. The answering machine blinked a steady red rhythm. I stood over the machine, complex and alien looking in the dim light, though I had operated it often since Jack bought it several years past. The house was hushed around me, as if it too were curious about the machine's recordings.

I pressed PLAY.

And listened to Peter Howell's voice as he told Jack he would be in late to work in the morning. He had called at 10:15 P.M. the night Jack died. At that exact moment, I had been standing in a corner of the Cardiac Room in the ER, watching a first response team cut away the rest of Jack's clothes as they worked to revive him. Watching Jack's feet turn blue.

Tears were a steady stream down my face; I wiped at them with shaking fingers. The next six messages were shocked calls from Jack's sub-contractors, two clients calling with condolences, and Esther, Jack's secretary.

And then the infamous Bill.

This was a calmer Bill, his voice sounding only slightly concerned, telling Jack he appreciated the meeting of Tuesday afternoon, and the calls Jack had made to Paul Wilkes, the North Carolina governor. And he looked forward to a "resolution of the situation." All in all, it wasn't a very helpful message.

There were over three dozen messages covering the next three weeks. Weeks I had ignored the office, the development out at Davenport Hills, the business entirely. Without thinking, I picked up the pad and pen beside the phone and began making notes, just as I would have if Jack had been here. At some point, my tears dried.

Between messages, I jotted notes in the margins, small things that needed attention, possible solutions to the site problems mentioned, though often as not, Peter Howell would leave a second message with the solution he had worked out. However, Peter himself had a problem that I should have handled weeks ago. The payments of the weekly and monthly operating costs out at the development were seriously over-due. Work on both roads and housing construction was about to shut down just two weeks after Jack died.

I sniffed. Jack didn't believe in power of attorney for employees. He signed each check drawn on almost every account, overseeing all areas of DavInc. No bit of minutia escaped his notice. Though I had never told him so, Jack had been a control freak, an A-type personality, obsessive-compulsive about almost every aspect of his life. Yet, he had the charisma to pull it off without becoming an ogre.

Even when bulldozing his way through a business meeting, forcing other, powerful men to bow to his will and preferences, he was so charming that they went away happy, convinced that Jack was a brilliant business man, who always had their interests at heart. Jack always got his way.

I smiled as I wrote up the next message, a petty complaint from some rich, whining housewife that her kitchen floor was coming up beneath the refrigerator and that her house stank. It sounded like she had a leak. A bad one apparently. I made a note to have Peter get the plumbing contractor back over there, pronto.

Yes, Jack had always gotten his way. My Jack, who could handle anything. I looked at my ring, the two carat diamond he had insisted I wear the night we went in to tell my parents I was pregnant and that we were getting married in two weeks.

Even then he had been certain of success. Success in winning me.

I was nineteen, and halfway through nursing school at Presbyterian Hospital, while Jack was nearly thirty-four and never married. I had pursued him recklessly and seduced him with all the intensity of my innocent teenaged heart. He was far too old for me and guilty of disgracing the child of his business partner . . . but he was rich. And that, after all, was what mattered to my mother. The money overrode the disgrace. The money overrode everything. Jack had known that. And Jack had won, then as always.

He had swept me up from my dorm and carried me to his car, much to the amusement of my friends hanging out the windows. And though he hadn’t called in over two days, and though I had been both frantic with worry and furious with him, and though I had determined to ignore him completely when he did finally call, I wrapped my arms around his neck and held on.

"I wanted to wait till you were out of school, but since I can’t stand it when we aren’t together, and since we managed to get you pregnant with my son and heir, I decided it needed to be now." He dumped me into the front seat and ran to the driver’s side, gunned the motor and took off down the road. He proposed as he drove, a reckless grin on his face, the wind tearing through his hair.

"Marry me. And wear this." He tossed me a velvet ring box. "I haven’t had it sized yet, so don’t lose it."

"Marry you? I haven’t heard from you in two days. I thought you were dumping me," I wailed. Why haven’t you called? Or come by?"

Jack looked at me a moment before snapping his eyes back to the road. There was a devilish glint in his eyes. "I had to buy the ring. And get the preacher. And make the honeymoon plans. I’ve been busy. What do you think about Italy? I’ve never been there. Do you have a passport? And by the way, if it isn’t a son, don’t worry about it. We can always do that next time."

I had laughed then, through my tears, and placed the ring on my finger. Jack had taken care of everything from then on. My parents, my future, my very life. And now he was gone.

Bill's voice on the machine forced me back to the present. My smile slipped away.

"It's been four weeks and two days, Jack. Call me." He hung up. I had never heard anyone order Jack around. US senators were polite to Jack. Bankers were polite to Jack. Even my mother was polite to Jack, and my mother . . . well . . . was my mother.

Then Peter Howell again. He sounded desperate, needing checks written, or access to the accounts. I bit my lip, ashamed. I glanced over at Esther's desk. It was locked, the checkbooks in the side drawer. The message was two weeks old. Why hadn't someone come to the house? They all knew where I was.

Bret McDermott had left a message just after Peter's. Bret, DavInc's banker, was a local boy made good. Starting out as a teller in the Dawkins County Savings and Loan, he had moved up fast through both promotions and bank mergers. Now, he held a vice-presidency in the prestigious First America Bank, working in the bank's Charlotte headquarters some thirty-five miles away.

Bret had solved Peter's dilemma, transferring funds from DavInc's line of credit into Peter's petty cash account. Bret could do that without Jack's signature, although the petty cash account had never been intended to handle such large sums of money. It was a financial loophole Jack would have closed had he spotted it, and it was a smart move on Bret's part.

I hadn't known Bret and Peter were acquainted. Interesting. I'd have to tell Jac— The thought cut off in mid conception.

"Jack, it's been five weeks. I have bills and problems of my own. My lawyers are getting antsy and want to hear from you. Don't make me take this to court. I don't want the legal fees, and I don't really want to see you ruined. Call me." Bill hung up.

"Court?" I asked the quiet office. It was the same thing he had said earlier, about seeing Jack in Columbia, in front of a judge? Only Federal Criminal Court and large Civil Court cases met in the state capital. . . .

The next three messages were from Bill, each one more vituperative and angry than the last. But not once did he explain the nature of the problem. Jack had known what was going on. Jack had been handling . . . something.

I looked around the dusty office. It offered no clues.

The last message from Bill was left the night before. It was similar to the threat I had heard on the personal line only an hour past.

"Jack. This's Bill. When you cheat a man, you have two options. One is to make restitution. The other is to go to court and be exposed as the thieving bastard you are. Either way, I'll get what's mine." His voice sounded slurred, as if he had stopped off at the local bar before heading home and sampled too many wares. "And if the courts wont handle it, then I'll handle it myself. Just you and me." The phone went dead, the little red light no longer blinking up at me. I opened the door of the machine and removed the incoming message tape. Replaced it with a spare from the drawer beneath.

"Court. . . ." Jack would never cheat anyone. He had been a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Dorsey City. Jack was a trustee. A member of the County Council. Jack had a reputation as an honest man. Jack was gone.

The tremor was back in my fingers.

I walked back down the hallway, into the master suite, pulled on a pair of old jeans and sneakers. Changed T-shirts. Pulled a nurse's scrub suit from the closet at random and tossed it on the chair beside the unmade bed. It no longer seemed important what I would wear back to work this afternoon. Any old thing would do.

Upstairs, it was silent, Jasmine already at the barn, helping Jimmy Ray feed the horses, if he bothered to show up for work, that is. Jimmy Ray, a twenty year old, high school dropout, helped out at the farm whenever he was sober, which was less and less often these days. Even he seemed to fall apart after Jack died. After checking to see that Jimmy’s battered old truck was indeed parked out back, I returned to the office and flipped on an overhead light. Where to start?

Esther, Jack’s secretary, kept the office up to date and organized, but I didn't want to call her. Not about this. Not until I knew what was going on.

There were two sets of file cabinets in the fireproof room Jack had built when the business started taking off. One set housed old business. The other cabinet held newer stuff, I remembered that much. And this definitely was a new problem.

The top two drawers were for Davenport Hills, the most ambitious real estate project Jack had ever undertaken. It was so huge, it would one day be a town, just off I-77, between Charlotte, North Carolina and Columbia, South Carolina. It involved hundreds of acres and millions of dollars. And I knew it was beyond me the moment I started on the files.

Contracts full of legal mumbo-jumbo, I set aside on the worktable in the conference room. Computer printouts of overhead costs went nearby. The list of investors in the project, I glanced over, recognizing a few names. There was no Bill. No William either.

Setting the list of investors aside, I went plowing through the file cabinet, not recognizing half of what I looked at. Until I found a file of letters from the investors. They were careful letters, offering support and help, but which actually said very little of substance. The only thing they all had in common was a mention of Davenport Hills, and a problem Jack was having. It sounded like a major problem, so major the investors were all tiptoeing around it.

Jack had never mentioned a problem of any great importance to me. But then, Jack had never mentioned a Bill to me either. Bill who?

At the back of the file, I found a letter from Jack. It was only a simple memo, the kind of thing he would compose before giving his notes to Esther to type. Unfinished, unsigned, undated, it was handwritten in Jack's careful script on company letterhead, the few errors scratched out with neat x's the way Jack always did.

I wanted no part of this. You gave me your solemn assurance that no one would be hurt, and now the inspector is dead. It should have been a paper problem, not something that needed your special talents and connections. xxxx It shouldn't have required such extreme measures to clear the way for use of the land. Because of your incompetence, the entire project is in danger. But please be aware, xxxx I have managed to retain the evidence. All of it. If this comes to light, you will take the lion's share of responsibility, and criminal consequences will be on you and your man. I will not go to jail for murder.

I sat slowly on a leather chair. It sighed beneath me, a melancholy sound, half grief, half shock. A numb heat flushed through me and was gone. Placing the file on the table, I went through the investors’ letters again. Surprisingly, most were from Senator Vance Waldrop, a democrat from South Carolina. Reading them carefully, I tried to fit the word `murder' in place of `problem’, tried to read between the lines. Nothing fit. Nothing made sense.

Shaking, though no longer from the cold, I gathered up the file and the list of investors and went to Jack's desk. I sat in Jack's chair, the file with his letter on top, open before me on the desk. Dust motes wafted in the faint light from the windows.

I read the letter again, carefully, hoping for some other interpretation of the words on the page. Hoping for something to wipe away the meaning of the last word. Murder.

The words were the same the second time I read them. And the third. Finally, I looked away from Jack's writing, my eyes unfocused in the dim room. There had to be a mistake. I had to be reading something incorrectly. Interpreting it wrongly. After a long moment, I paged through the files, studying each piece of paper for . . . something. I wasn't certain what.

The financing for the development was provided half by private investors, half by First America Bank through Bret McDermott. The individual investors comprised a small list put together by Jack:

    -- Virginia Reaburn Waldrop, wife of Senator Vance Waldrop. (Vance was a flamboyant elected official of the old style, dealing in home grown rhetoric and convenient politics. I didn’t like Vance, but Jack had liked his influence in government circles.)

    -- Taylor Inc., (a rival investment company whose appearance on the list was surprising.)

    -- S&B Investments, Inc., (a company put together by the husband of an old school friend, Monica Beck. S&B had invested with Jack for years.)

    -- Caldwell and Caldwell, Inc., (my parent's company.)

    -- Hamilton Holdings (my nana’s company.)

    -- MJM Investments, Enterprise Investments, and Carolina First Inc., (all companies I didn't recognize. And no "Bill.)

    -- And then there was Bret McDermott.

I had a feeling it wasn't exactly ethical for Bret to have a finger in the pie as an individual as well as a banking big-wig, but then ethics were bent so often in this business that if you could actually see them, they would all look like pretzels. Jack's words. I smiled at the memory.

Jack, of course, was above such bending. Wasn't he? A small voice at the back of my mind whispered the question. My smile faltered.

Tilting the desk lamp, I reached beneath it and removed the key that opened Jack's desk. A singularly simple hiding place, but then, this part of Dawkins County was practically crime free. Security measures were more trouble than they were worth out here, as Jack had discovered after he had the tamperproof safe installed in the office. It had been an expensive lesson..

The center desk drawer opened with a slight click and revealed little of interest. Paper clips, a box of staples, White-Out, dozens of the fine tipped, roller ball pens Jack used, a nail clipper, phone book, small calculator and electronic address book programmed with Jack's sub-contractors. There was a leather business card folder, for useful business contacts, tape, a New Testament, small calendar, check book. Stuff. Nothing helpful. Nothing that said `Murder. Look here’.

Jack's briefcase was on top of the desk, the clasps open. I lifted the lid and peered inside. Just the usual jumble of bits of paper, two business checkbooks, pens, several sets of folded houseplans. A miniature road map of Davenport Hills with the velum overlay he had been working on the night he died.

It was the solution to a standing-water problem on the newest golf course. A costly problem to correct, but nothing to do with murder. I closed the lid. Opened the bottom side drawer. There were weekly and monthly company record books. Paperwork for the different corporations. Tax notices. More stuff, but not murder stuff. Closing it, I opened the top drawer.

My eyes settled on the photograph, focused and stayed still. A hot sweat broke out, beading around my chest. I tried to take a breath and couldn’t. A suffocating heat cloaked me. Long seconds went by. All I could see was the photograph.

The air conditioning. came on, cooling my suddenly hot skin. I blinked. Long moments passed before I eventually reached into the drawer and removed the photograph. All of the photographs.

The one on top was a woman. A tall, slender, beautiful woman, stretched out on beach sand in the sun, her skin glistening with oil. Dark hair was braided and curled around to lie between her naked breasts.

It was Robyn. Jack's former secretary.

My best friend. I forced a breath into my lungs. The air made a tortured sound, moving.

The second photograph was more revealing. Robyn, naked, playing in the surf, on some deserted beach, long ago. I studied it a long moment, not thinking. Not feeling. Just seeing. I scanned slowly through the rest of the shots, feeling breathless and somehow fouled.

There were perhaps sixty photographs, most of them of Robyn in various stages of undress. In some of them, she was with Jack.

They were making love.

I felt nothing. A curious, sterile, lack of feeling. Slowly, I went back through the photos, studying each one carefully. Memorizing the play of light on Robyn's skin. Seeing for the first time what her face looked like in passion. Learning all over again what Jack's face looked like when he was aroused.

When I had searched each face, each expression, when I had examined each photo with painstaking deliberation, I stacked them carefully against the desk top. Aligning the edges, my fingers moving in the strange light like a card sharp at a dusty poker table.

When they were perfectly stacked, I stood, and carrying the files and the photos, I left the office, shutting off the lights. Closing the door.

In the kitchen, I chose a plastic Winn Dixie bag the cleaning crew had folded and put in the recycling basket beneath the sink. Inside, I placed the photos, the file of letters, the list of investors, and the murder letter. I tied the handles and hid the bag in my bedroom closet beneath my winter boots.

I didn't stop to think about my mother, who would have done the same thing to block out an unpleasantness. I didn't consider that I was hiding from a truth I needed to face. My only consideration was Jasmine. That she not discover any of this. That she never know.

Firmly, I closed the closet doors, my palms flat on the painted raised panels. They made a solid sound. A final sound.

A light tap sounded on the bedroom door. Jas's knock. Three beats, a pause, and three beats. Before I could answer, she entered.

Jas was taller than I, slender, and bronzed by the sun, but she looked older than I remembered from just weeks ago. Somber. Her face was marked with grief and drawn tight with tears; my heart turned over at the sight.

We had grieved together for the first few days after Jack died, leaning on one another, crying and comforting one another. But since then, Jas had stayed apart from me, mourning in solitude with only the horses for comfort. Jack’s horses, the huge, black Friesian work horses my husband had bred. It was a habit she acquired as a child, withdrawing from people, clinging to horses in the solitude of the barn when things went wrong in her life. This time, solitude had not been a good thing for my baby.

"Mom?" Tentative tones, so unlike my usually decisive, strong-willed child. "Mama?"

My hands were still on the closet doors, and Jas didn't immediately see me. Her large brown eyes took in the unmade bed, sheets soiled, unchanged since before the funeral. Jack's dirty clothes in a pile on the floor, his shoes beside the bed, one on its side, unmoved since he died. There was a layer of dust over everything. She made a face.

I almost smiled, but my skin felt stiff, frozen by old tears into a chapped mask. Jas was neatness personified. She and Jack had regularly straightened up the house between visits by the cleaning crew. I never had.

"Looks like a museum," she muttered.

I did smile then, and my face didn't crack. The motion just pulled unused muscles against my skin. "Yes, it does," I agreed. Jas jumped. "Want to help me clean it up?"

She stared at me, my ratty hair pulled back into a ponytail, my tear chapped skin and out of date clothes. I thought she might comment on my appearance. Instead, a peculiar expression crossed her face, a look heavy with shades of emotion. Tenderness. Fear. Determination—as if she had reached a decision and was here to follow through with it. And then the emotions vanished, and only tears remained, misery swimming in her eyes.

She shrugged and whispered, "I miss Daddy," wretched and fighting tears I hadn't seen in days. "And I'm worried . . ." she took a deep breath, ". . . about you."

I suddenly recognized the extra burden I had unconsciously placed on my child when I allowed her to grieve alone. Perhaps it was her nature to turn to horses instead of people, but Jas needed my comfort, whether she knew it or not. Jas was suffering, her outward misery warped and tarnished by an additional, unnecessary fear for me. My child needed security and stability, not the additional worry of whether I would survive Jack's death.

Holding out my arms, I reached for my baby girl. My nearly grown, only child. I held her as she cried, my own eyes dry and hot, our arms around each other for comfort, Jasmine’s tears falling into my tangled hair from her greater height. It was a short cry, as if she had somehow used up all the heavy grieving. As if she needed only this small moment in my arms to find a reassurance she had lost. Afterward, we simply stood there, silent, sharing our warmth.

When we finally stepped apart, Jas was smiling, a smudge I hadn't noticed before tear-smeared across her cheek. "Daddy would really have hated this mess, you know."

I frowned, looking at the room. "Are you volunteering to help?"

"Sure. And we can go to Miccah's for lunch. And then we can buy groceries." Her eyebrows went up, making the point that the kitchen pantry was empty. Jas sounded like her old self again, resolute and determined, and just a little bit bossy. "And if we have time, we could even walk down to Nana’s" she added, pointing out that I hadn’t been to visit my grandmother in weeks.

She was so resilient in her youth. The world could move beneath her, quaking and heaving, and she would flex and spring with the motion. I felt my own inflexibility keenly, staring up at her. My world had changed around me twice now. Once with Jack's death, and again only minutes past, with proof of his infidelity. A betrayal that had left me feeling seared and burned, like a wound cauterized by brutal surgery. I put that thought aside for later consideration, and smiled again.

"I take it you've made a decision not to hide in the barn anymore?" I teased, moving into the bathroom and facing myself in the mirror. I flinched at the sight. I really was a mess, all puffy and red and hollow eyed. I focused on her reflection over my shoulder, her clean, soft beauty, skin pink and young.

I took a deep breath. The movement hurt my ribs. I was sore from hours, weeks, of solitary crying. "Miccah's, huh?" It was Jack's favorite restaurant, a dark, rough paneled place with uncomfortable booth seats, cobwebbed lighting fixtures, and delectable food. Left to my own choices, I would never have passed through the door again.

"Yeah. They have a special on shrimp and crab legs." It was my favorite. I used to salivate at just the mention of shrimp and crab. Jas was watching my face in the mirror as she spoke. I was being manipulated.

Sighing, I turned the shower spray to hot and pulled off my tee shirt, tossed it into the laundry bin. The rest of my clothes followed, clothes I had worn as I looked at photographs of Jack and Robyn. I stepped into the shower, feeling dirty and sweat slick.

Jas had only one parent left. On my own I might have hibernated for months, but for Jasmine's sake, it was time to get on with my life. She might be nearly grown up, and ready to move ahead with her own life, but Jas needed me.

And though she didn't know it, she needed me to clean out Jack's office. Deal with the troubling hints of wrong doing in his business. And destroy the evidence of Jack's long ago affair with Robyn. She needed to never know the truth I had discovered this morning.

"How much weight have you lost?" she said over the sound of the water. I paused.

"I don't know," I fibbed. I did know. Seventeen pounds. But I wasn't going to admit it to her. Jas had been trying to feed me for weeks and I had been tossing plates of post-funeral food out to the dogs. "Not enough in my thighs," I added. looking down.

"I can see your bones," she yelled as I closed the door and steam boiled up around me.

I pretended not to hear, burying my head beneath the scalding spray. When I got out of the shower long minutes later, the bed was stripped, the vacuum was roaring and Jack's shoes had been placed neatly in his closet. Another part of him was gone. I waited for the tears, the misery, the pain. But there was just the nothingness of before. The numb emptiness.

Scrubbing my hair dry with a towel, I pulled out the cosmetics that might help heal my tear dried skin. Or at least hide the worst of the damage. Fortified with makeup, I entered the closet I had shared with Jack and considered my wardrobe. Especially the "skinny clothes" I had saved from the last time I was this small. They were hopelessly out of style.

                               · end of chapter one ·                                

Excerpt from ASHES TO ASHES  ©Gwen Hunter
ISBN 978-1-933523-17-0 Bella Rosa Books

Under the pen names, Gary Hunter, Gwen Hunter, and Faith Hunter, the author writes action adventure, mysteries, thrillers, Fantasy and Urban Fantasy. She currently has 21 books in print in 26 countries.

Along with eight other writers, Hunter participates in a writing forum called www.magicalwords.net, geared to helping writers of fantasy and other genres.

Hunter was born in Louisiana and was raised all over the south. She fell in love with reading in fifth grade, and loved SiFi, fantasy, thrillers, and gothic mystery, with a secret passion for romance novels. She decided to become a writer in high school, when a teacher told her she had talent. Now, she writes full-time and works full-time in a hospital lab, (for the benefits) tries to keep house, and is a workaholic with a passion for travel, jewelry making, whitewater kayaking, and writing. She and her husband love to travel with their dogs in their RV to rivers all over the Southeast.

For more information please visit www.faithhunter.net, www.gwenhunter.com, and www.magicalwords.net.