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First pages

Chapter One

Nancy Frost frowned and hitched her left shoulder higher, trying to anchor the phone in place while her fingers flew over the keyboard. The multiple screens open on her monitor displayed column after column of figures that should make sense but didn’t, and a page of names and numbers she didn’t recognize.

“Any idea where you’d like to eat tomorrow night?” Meredith asked, her voice coming through the phone, reminding Nancy she was at the end of the line.

She clicked on another tab, opened a new screen, adding to her frustration. More names and abbreviations.

“Why don’t we go down to the marina and pick a place?” she answered distracted. Here she was trying to make sense of the most recent changes to this clients’ tax portfolio, and suddenly she had three ledger pages with titles, names, and numbers she’d never seen before. Had someone been in her file? Security was tight around here, but it was possible she’d left the file open, and someone else had slipped in.

“Listen, I’ve got to go. This damn file might as well be in hieroglyphics.”

Meredith chuckled. “If those numbers aren’t talking to you, then someone’s in trouble.”

“Or I’ve lost my edge,” she groaned. “Nothing’s going well today. See you tomorrow.”

She ended the call and glared at the computer screen, hitting “save” without thinking.

“I will figure this out,” she ground out through clenched teeth and frowned.

Rumor had it the company was rebranding itself to attract new clients. As a tax accountant, her job should be secure, but a high completion and efficiency rating didn’t hurt. As the only female accountant on staff, she was constantly up against the old boys’ network. Despite what everyone thought, male chauvinism was alive and well at Olsen, Jansen, and Merriweather.

Looking up in the top corner where the account number was visible, she choked on her own saliva.

387800563239.

“What the hell?” she hissed, angry with herself. “A typo? Really? Four numbers out of order? How in the world did I manage that?” No wonder nothing made sense. Moving quickly, she closed the file. The last thing she needed this morning was an affronted accountant claiming she’d broken one of the gazillion rules this place had. Hoping she hadn’t inadvertently changed something, she closed the program, pulled her kitty cat USB flash drive out of the slot and dropped it into the small zippered pouch in the voluminous purse she carried.

“I need a break.” Her voice echoed in the empty office. Her head was pounding, it was almost lunchtime, and there was no point in starting something else now.

She’d just slipped on her suit jacket when one of the firm’s security men shoved his way into her glorified broom closet, pulled the plug on her computer, undid the wires attached to it, and tucked it under his arm.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she cried, reaching for her laptop.

“Come with me.”

The stone-faced man, probably a gestapo extra in some WWII movie, grabbed her by the arm and marched her down the hallway, her feet barely dusting the floor given the difference in height. Heads turned as other staff members watched the gorilla manhandle her to the CEO’s office, no doubt wondering what dastardly crime she’d committed.

She’d only been in Harold Olsen’s office the day she’d been hired. If intimidation was part of his job description, then Olsen had it down pat. He sat behind a large antique desk, his fingers steepled under his chin, his ebony head reminding her of a shiny new bowling ball. His thousand dollar suit fit like a glove, the pristine white shirt emphasizing his dark complexion. A pasty-faced Clive Connors, dressed in a sharkskin suit that befitted the eel and her immediate supervisor, sat in a chair in front of the desk. He didn’t bother standing, nor did he look at her. The security guard handed him her hard drive. She felt like a child dragged before the principal for throwing spit balls.

“Have it searched and then wiped clean,” the man barked, every inch the company executive whose orders were to be obeyed at all costs.

“Seriously?” Her eyes opened so wide, she was sure her eyebrows were at the top of her forehead. “What do you expect to find on my computer? State secrets?” She shook her head in disdain.

“Yes, sir,” Clive answered, continuing to ignore her presence.

Clive had hit on her when she’d first started working here, but still in mourning, she’d fended off his requests. Last year, after she’d filed for divorce, she’d finally agreed to go out to dinner with him, and the evening had been an unmitigated disaster. The man might be on his way to partnership, but he was a jerk on too many levels to count. He’d made working here difficult ever since, but OJM paid better than most, and she’d kept out of his way. Seeing him here didn’t bode well.

“Ms. Frost, can you explain why you opened a restricted file?” Olsen spoke evenly, but his flashing eyes and pursed lips suggested barely controlled anger.

She exhaled audibly. “This is about that? I was on the phone and made a typo. I got out of the account as soon as I realized it. It was just an accident.”

The people here were territorial, but this was ridiculous. They were acting like she’d committed a crime. That file was open ten minutes at most. Fine, tear a strip off her, but relax. No harm, no foul.

“There’s no such thing as an accident,” Mr. Olsen said. “Your services are no longer required.”

Stunned, she looked from one man to the other. “What? You’re firing me? For this?” The last word was little more than a squeak.

Clive wouldn’t meet her gaze.

“You misunderstand. We aren’t firing you,” Mr. Olsen answered, the jumping muscle in his jaw testifying to his annoyance. “We’ve decided to downsize. We have to reduce our workforce and the easiest way to do that is to reorganize our assets to be as efficient as possible. In view of that, your current position is redundant.”

“But, Mr. Olsen, that makes absolutely no sense,” she said, frustration and confusion giving her voice an edge. “I’m a tax accountant. Even if every client this firm has goes belly-up, there are still tax forms to complete. I’m exactly the kind of employee you need. My record is exemplary.”

“The decision’s been made,” he answered tersely, not even trying to hide his irritation. “Believe it or not, this firm functioned quite nicely before you arrived and will do so again after you’ve gone.”

“Clive, for Pete’s sake, say something. I’m good at my job, and you know it,” she begged, the desperation in her voice shaming her.

He shrugged and stared at her for the first time. “Sorry, Nancy, but it’s out of my hands.”

But he didn’t look sorry. The son of a bitch looked smug.

“In view of this decision and keeping in mind your work for the firm, a generous severance package is waiting for you in HR. Tomkins here will accompany you back to your office so that you can collect your personal items, and then he’ll escort you off the premises,” Olsen said, his face an impassive mask.

“You’re firing me right now? Without any notice? You can’t do that,” she whispered, so shocked she could barely speak.

This couldn’t be happening. Her heart thundered in her ears as the reality of the situation sunk in. How would she pay her bills? She’d refused alimony from Neil. Sure she had a few personal tax clients and could always do more forensic accounting work for Meredith and some of the other lawyers, but those jobs were hit or miss. Three years of her life down the drain just like that. She wasn’t the low man on the totem pole, so why cut her, why let her go?

“I can assure you we can, and we have. Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be. I’m sure with your abilities you’ll find work elsewhere.” He glared at her.

What on Earth had she done to piss him off this way?

“Will I at least be getting a letter of recommendation?” She’d need one to find another job.

“By all means. Mrs. Willis has it ready for you. You can pick it up with your check. Good day, Ms. Frost.”

“I’m sorry, Nancy,” Clive said, opening the door for her, his thin lips drawn in a smug smile.

“You bastard!” She spat the words at him. “Just because I wouldn’t sleep with you is no reason to feed me to the dogs. I could sue you for sexual harassment.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” He looked down his nose at her as if she were some kind of bug. “And as far as suing me,” he said, chuckling, his sapphire gaze boring into her. “It’s your word against mine.”

Shaken by the icy animosity in his voice, she swallowed her retort. “Who will take care of my clients?” she asked, grasping at straws. “I should talk to them and bring them up to date.”

“I’ll look after them, and believe it or not, I can do the job as well as you can.” He dismissed her, entering his office without a backward glance.

“This way,” the goon reached for her arm again, and she yanked it away.

“Touch me again, and you’ll regret it,” she hissed. “I know where my office is.”

Mustering all the dignity she could, Nancy led the way back to the small space she’d called her own. In her absence someone had emptied her desk and packed up her photographs and other memorabilia. The partially filled box sat in the center of her blotter.

“If you’ll put your arms out at your side, I’ll search you.”

Gritting her teeth, her cheeks burned.

“Oh no, you won’t. I warned you what will happen if you put your paws on me again. There are no pockets in this skirt or jacket, and I’m not about to let you cop a feel,” she ground out, her chest heaving in her fury.

Glaring at her, he mumbled into the radio he carried. Within seconds, a woman, not an employee she recognized, arrived.

“Put out your arms,” the woman said brusquely.

Grudgingly, her mouth a thin line, Nancy complied, allowing the woman to pat her down, more roughly than necessary.

“She’s clean.”

“Satisfied?” Nancy asked, her fury and humiliation warring for dominance.

“Empty your purse,” he stated baldly, while the woman crossed her arms and stood by the open door.

Clenching her teeth to hold back the scathing remark on the tip of her tongue, Nancy turned over the bag allowing its contents to fall on the desk.

“If you’re checking to see if I’ve stolen company pens, don’t worry about it. I haven’t. I prefer something of higher quality.”

The man rifled through the items, checking inside each small bag and pouch and finally nodded.

“Keys.”

“You could pretend to have manners,” she grumbled. Removing the keys and the electronic fob that opened the garage door from her key ring, she handed them to him. As quickly as she could, she stuffed the items back into her purse. He picked up the box.

“Hang on a second. Let me check to make sure whoever packed this didn’t miss anything.”

She opened her desk drawers, but each one was empty. Turning to her filing cabinet, the suspended files were nothing but frames. Even her trash can was gone.

Stunned by the speed with which they’d erased her presence here, Nancy grabbed her coat and followed the two security people out of her office. She didn’t look back. Walking between the rent-a-cops, she held her head high, looking neither left nor right, hiding the fact she was devastated.

Sondra Willis, the HR manager, stood next to her assistant’s desk.

“That was fast. Mr. Olsen called down only half an hour ago. I’ve barely had time to print the check.” She handed Nancy the large brown envelope. “That’s quite the package you negotiated. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

Negotiated? I’ve been fired.

“Is my reference letter in there?” she asked, noting the female security guard had vanished.

“It is, as well as my contact information if they would like to speak to me in person.”

Nodding, Nancy left the HR office and preceded her jailor to the elevator. The walk of shame was short. He depressed the number for the underground parking garage. As soon as the doors opened, he handed her the box.

“You’re not to step back inside this building. If you do, the police will be called, and you’ll be charged with trespassing. Is that clear?”

“Crystal.”

Stepping out of the elevator, she hurried to her parking space, the behemoth standing there watching her. What did he expect her to do? Slash someone’s tires with her nail file?

After placing the box in the trunk, she punched in the code for the keyless entry, her favorite car accessory. Neil always complained she could never find anything in the bottomless pit she considered a purse, and as much as she hated to admit it, nine out of ten times, he was right. Today would be no exception. She smiled and waved at the cross-looking man waiting for her to exit the garage. What she wanted to do was stick her tongue out at him, but that action lacked dignity.

The rain was coming down as heavily as ever. If it didn’t let up soon, she’d be up to her knees in mud in the morning. Signaling, she eased into the surprisingly light traffic and drove away from downtown. Within twenty minutes, she pressed the automatic garage door opener as she turned into the driveway. She should’ve stopped for groceries the way she’d planned, but right now, all she wanted to do was crawl into bed and lick her wounds.

* * *

Nancy pushed her hair out of her eyes, wishing she’d brought a bandana, and forced the stubborn cart down the grocery store aisle, ruing the fact she’d been stuck once again with the one with the crooked wheels that required a linebacker’s strength to keep straight. In the humidity, her long, frizzy curls made her look like a cross between Lady Gaga and Chaka Khan.

Her trek to the cemetery this morning had depressed her more than it usually did. She glanced down at her hands, at her dirt encrusted fingernails, and sighed. If only it were possible to turn back time.

“Hello, Nancy,” Mavis Clooney said, reaching for a pint of ice cream just as she did. “Rough morning?”

“You could say that.” She smiled through gritted teeth.

Murphy’s Law at work. Get all dressed up, and you see no one. Go out in an oversized University of South Carolina Gamecocks’ sweatshirt and dirty, old jeans, and suddenly you run into everyone you know. How was she supposed to know the sixty-five degrees at seven this morning would morph into eighty-five by eleven?

“I heard you’ve had another reversal,” Mavis said, her curiosity palpable. “I swear you have the worse luck.”

“I prefer to think of this as an opportunity. The firm’s downsizing. I’d been there three years, and I was ready for a change. Tax accounting isn’t my forte, although the quality of my work wasn’t in doubt.” And she had a beautifully worded form letter that said just that. “They gave me an excellent severance package, so I’ve got lots of time to decide what to do. Meredith has been after me to do more forensic work for her, so who knows?” Better a small lie to save face that having the town’s biggest blabbermouth spreading innuendos.

Mavis grimaced. “Divorce lawyers are a nasty bunch, but I suppose she’s one of the better ones.” She shook her head and added a container of chocolate ice cream to her cart. “People give up too easily.”

Nancy bit her tongue. The last thing she wanted to do was make a spectacle of herself arguing with one of the town’s biggest gossips.

“It was nice talking to you, Mavis. I have to get going or in this heat, I’ll have ice cream soup, and so will you.”

Nancy moved down the aisle toward the cashiers. The sooner she got out of this place, the better. Smiling at another acquaintance, she selected what seemed to be the shortest line, regretting it seconds later when a sudden, sharp pain in the back of her shins made her wince.

“Ouch!” She glared at the child who’d rammed the grocery cart into her legs.

“Watch it, sweetie. That really hurts.” She smiled to take the sting out of her words.

This was her own fault. She’d skipped the market yesterday to go home and commiserate with the only men in her life these days—the ones who came on a box of rice, a can of pasta, or a pint of Rocky Road ice cream. If she’d taken the time to buy groceries, she could be doing something semi-pleasant, like do-it-yourself root canal surgery, instead of standing here melting. Glancing down at the digital sports watch on her left arm, she frowned. How could she have been here an hour? She rolled her eyes as the store manager came over to straighten another snafu.

Finally at the cash register, she placed her items on the conveyor belt and waited for the cashier to punch them in. The trainee, another zing from Fate, did it so slowly that Nancy wanted to yank her away from the register and do it herself. She was on the verge of hopping over the counter to do just that when her cellphone rang.

The familiar tune identified her caller, and she opened the bag, still in complete disarray, searching for the device. The large, brown leather messenger satchel held everything she considered essential, and weighed a ton. Who needed a gym when she carried that sucker everywhere? If she ever hit anyone with it, the person was out for the count. The tune repeated itself four times before she brought the device to her ear.

“How’s my favorite bloodsucking lawyer?” she asked, not bothering to say hello.

Slipping her bank card into the slot, she keyed in her pin number for the cashier.

“Wow. You’re in a nasty mood.” Meredith’s bubbly voice came across the line.

“It’s been that kind of day, and from where I sit, I don’t see it getting a whole lot better. I ran into Mavis Clooney. She’s not a fan of lawyers.”

“She’s not a fan of anything.”

“Are we still on for tonight, or are you calling because you’ve had a better offer?”

Nancy kept her voice low. Being subjected to other people’s one-sided conversations annoyed her. Even if you tried not to listen, the words infiltrated your brain and insisted you forget about everything important to you and concentrate on them.

“Would I do that to you?”

“In a shot, if the right man asked.”

Meredith chuckled. “Well, he hasn’t, so we’re good to go.”

“If you aren’t calling to bail, what’s up?”

“Actually, I need a favor that could be mutually beneficial given your current situation.”

“Give,” she said, curious in spite of everything.

“A friend of mine needs your help—wife and two kids are getting screwed by Mr. I couldn’t keep it in my pants in love with a girl barely out of diapers. Larry’s convinced the guy’s hiding money. I thought since you had time on your hands you might be willing to have a look. He doesn’t need a full forensic audit, he just needs to know if it’s possible the guy’s got money squirreled away.”

The begging tone in Meredith’s voice got to Nancy the way it always did. It wasn’t as if she could say no; after all, money from these private jobs might be all she would have coming her way for a while, and whether she liked it or not, she’d gotten used to eating each day, and at the price of food and other necessities … The severance package had been generous, but once Uncle Sam took his cut, unless she added to it regularly, it wouldn’t last long.

She tucked the phone between her neck and her ear and loaded the plastic bags into her cart as Meredith filled in the details. As soon as the basket was reloaded, she grabbed for the phone again, but it began to slip from her shoulder and fall. Bobbling it like a poor juggler, she failed to hang onto it, and bent over to pick it up off the floor. The child giggled, no doubt drawing attention to her bootie stuck high in the air.

“You still there?” Nancy asked, straightening, hoping the phone had survived its dive to the tile-covered concrete.

“Yes. Where are you?”

“Grocery store.”

You? Meredith’s voice went up an octave. “On a Saturday morning? I don’t believe it. You did go to the cemetery, right?”

“I did.” She wasn’t ready to talk about that now. “Why this case?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Larry Jackson’s an old friend.”

“You haven’t mentioned him before.”

Meredith sighed. “He used to hang around with my older brother, Charlie. We’ve kept in touch. What do you say?”

Nancy frowned, nodded to the cashier—who had to be all of twelve—and force the unwilling cart out into the crowded parking lot.

“Nancy?”

“Sorry, I’m waging war here. I wanted to take a breather before I decided what to do. Can it wait a couple of weeks?”

“Unfortunately, it can’t. The jerk’s threatening to sue for full custody of the kids if she doesn’t cooperate.”

“Sounds like a stellar human being,” she grumbled.

Meredith knew her too well. She’d never be able to pass up a case where kids were involved. Divorce was a fact of life. Not every relationship ended in happily ever after, but kids didn’t deserve to suffer because Daddy couldn’t keep his fly zipped.

“Give your friend my information. Have him send me what he has, and I’ll look at it as soon as possible. My fee’s seventy-five an hour plus expenses.”

“Thanks, Nancy. Now, where are we meeting for supper?”

“How about Lucifer’s? Say eight? I’m in the mood for crab quiche and strawberry margaritas. Your treat.”

“You’ve got it. I really appreciate this,” Meredith said.

Nancy sensed a “but” coming. “Spill it,” Bad news was like a beached whale. You didn’t need to be close to know it was there.

“Lordy girl, sometimes you scare me. You must have a sixth sense or something. I got your signed divorce papers this morning. Once you add your signature, I’ll file them with the courts.”

Wanting to curl up into a ball and hide from the pain Meredith’s words inflicted, Nancy wished it were true. She would never be able to set this pain aside. If she were clairvoyant as Meredith suggested, she would’ve avoided Cedar Drive that day. Straightening her spine, she laughed bitterly.

“That’s wonderful. Great timing. You really know how to make a rotten day worse.”

“Don’t be like that. This was your idea. I tried to talk you out of it, remember?”

“Let it go, Merry. Even arguing requires an emotional commitment, and there was nothing left but apathy and sorrow. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Have it your way. See you at eight, and thanks again.”

Nancy ended the call, dropped the phone into her purse and transferred the groceries from the cart to the back seat of the car. After leaving the shopping basket in the cart parking area, she got into her vehicle and started the engine. The air conditioner took only seconds to blow cooling air in her face. She slipped her favorite CD into the player and cranked up the volume hoping the music would dispel the gloom threatening to engulf her. Not even Sweet Caroline could chase away her misery.

Chapter Two

Nancy used to love the sight of the magnolia trees lining many of the town’s main streets, perfuming the air with the scent of the south. Now, every breath filled with their sweet aroma reminded her of what she’d lost. Three hundred and sixty four days a year, she could keep it all together, but today … Taking the long way home to avoid Cedar Drive, she swallowed her misery and focused on the road. Dark clouds hovered on the horizon. There would be a storm tonight icing the disgusting cupcake of this lousy day.

After pulling the car into her laneway, she noted the dark SUV with tinted windows parked in the driveway across the street and frowned. When had the Hendersons gotten a new vehicle? She’d seen it late last night when she’d shut the drapes. It was a strange choice for a couple in their early eighties. Turning back to the front of her home, her scowl deepened. After all that rain, the grass had grown at least three inches, and the damn lawn needed mowing again. Maybe it was time she sold the place and moved on.

Unlocking the garage door into the house, she stopped, surprised not to hear a long buzz. With so much on her mind, she must’ve forgotten to set the alarm when she’d gone out earlier. She could just hear Neil complaining. Well, what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

After stowing the groceries, she grabbed a cold beer out of the fridge, drank deeply from it and carried the rest upstairs. The flashing light on her office phone beckoned. Pressing the play button, she listened to the electronic voice deliver its message and then…

“You have one new message. Time 11:10 AM.” The line was silent for a moment, and then the room echoed with the voice that filled her with longing and pain.

“Hi, Nancy, it’s me. I know my voice is probably the last thing you want to hear today, but we have to talk. By now you should have the signed divorce papers. I hate this machine. I don’t want things to end like this. Can’t we at least be friends? The number’s 1-858-277-4657.”

“End of message. You have no more messages.”

Nancy took down the number and pressed a button on the phone.

“Message erased.”

She would have to call him back, but not now, not while the pain was this raw. Tomorrow or the next day would be soon enough. Lifting the beer to her lips, she finished it.

Walking into her bedroom, she picked up the green, hummingbird-print quilt on the rocker and sat, hugging it to her, once more mourning everything she’d lost. She’d loved Neil with every fiber of her being, but what they had wasn’t meant to be. Their future had ended four years ago today on their first wedding anniversary, the day her mother and their unborn child had died.

Lost in painful memories, she barely registered the jingle of the phone. Its third ring dragged her back to the present. She was tempted to let it go to message—it was probably Meredith cancelling after all, and she’d be grateful if she did. It might even be Neil again, and he was the last person she wanted to talk to right now.

Unable to squelch her curiosity, Nancy put down the tear-soaked quilt, stood, and walked over to the extension on the bedside table. The number wasn’t a familiar one. She took a deep breath before picking up the receiver.

“Hello?” she answered, her voice husky.

“Nancy Frost?”

“Yes.” She didn’t recognized the man’s voice and hoped she hadn’t picked up on a telemarketer. It wasn’t a 1 800 number, but … Normally, she hated being rude to anyone, even annoying strangers at the end of a phone line; however, in her current mood, this guy might be in for a tongue lashing.

“This is Larry Jackson. I was speaking with Meredith Stone earlier, and she said you’d agreed to look at some financial records for me.”

The man’s voice was pleasant, but he sounded tired, and his words carried an undercurrent of frustration and anxiety.

“I’ll do what I can, Mr. Jackson,” she answered, trying to sound like the confident professional she needed to be.

Meredith might think she was the best in her field, but every time Nancy looked at a new set of books, doubt assailed her. What if she missed something critical?

“If there’s anything there, I’ll do my best to find it, but, as I’m sure Meredith told you, sometimes everything’s on the level. Unless there’s a second set of records hiding somewhere…”

“I wouldn’t put it past this sleaze ball,” Larry interrupted. “I just got off the phone with his lawyer. B. J. Pratt informed me they’re moving the meeting date up to Tuesday. I’d hoped to be able to give you more time, but he’s backing us into a corner. I’m sorry about this. I’ve emailed you the records we were given. Let me know if there’s anything missing.”

“Not a problem. I’ve come up against B. J. Pratt before. He won’t be happy you’re bringing me in on this.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.” Larry paused. “When can you have a look at them?”

“Later today. I’ll call you tomorrow if there’s anything suspicious.”

He chuckled, but she could sense his concern. “That’s all I’ll need, and don’t worry about the time and cost. The husband’s footing the bill.”

Nancy started. “Her husband’s paying to have me go through his company books and personal finances, and Pratt agreed to this?”

“They agreed to an independent audit and recommended a few local forensic auditors,” Larry answered, “but if they suggested them, I didn’t want to use them. Meredith tells me you’re the best there is, and that’s all I need to know. Pratt doesn’t know it’s you yet. I’ll let him know in the morning—maybe it’ll throw off his golf game.”

“It probably will,” she answered and chuckled, imagining the sour look on Pratt’s face. “I’ll get back to you tomorrow. Goodbye.”

Nancy hung up the phone, went into the bathroom, and washed her face. Staring at the haunted woman in the mirror forced her to admit the truth. She had to stop grieving before it killed her.

“This pity party is over.”

She wasn’t Cinderella, and there wasn’t a fairy godmother waiting to make all the terrible things in her life go away. Prince Charming had left the ball, taking his glass loafers with him. It was time for her to pick up her rags and get on with it. She reached for her purse and car keys. The first step was always the most difficult. Go big or go home.

Just after eight, Nancy smiled as Meredith approached the table, the stunned look on her face making everything she’d gone through this afternoon worthwhile.

“You look amazing. If the waiter hadn’t pointed you out, I’d still be searching the crowd,” she said, her eyes wide in admiration. “I love the hair and the color … those cheekbones … I guess I hadn’t realized how much weight you’d lost. I envy you. I diet, someone else eats, and I gain weight.”

Nancy grinned. “Thanks, but I wouldn’t recommend this diet to my worst enemy. The cheekbones come from a Native American ancestor on my mother’s side. The hair, the new cosmetics, and a more stylish wardrobe are the first steps to the new me.”

“Well, it works. Your eyes are incredible. You really should wear your contact lenses more often.” Meredith pulled out the chair and sat down across from her.

“I wasn’t sure about the hair color … the burgundy’s a little flashy, but I definitely wanted it short, and with the weight loss … It was time.”

“Past time, I’d say. The transformation is incredible. My God, your own mother, bless her soul, wouldn’t recognize you. That dress is gorgeous, but it must’ve cost the Earth. I’m glad you decided to handle all this positively. I honestly expected to find you navel gazing or crying into a margarita.”

As if on cue, the waiter, dressed in black pants and a skin-tight, red, logo-emblazoned T-shirt, showed up with two of the restaurant’s signature sweet and salty drinks. He placed the glasses on the table, handed them each a menu, and moved away.

“That boy can park his shoes under my bed any night he wants,” Meredith whispered and licked her lips.

Nancy laughed. “If he hit on you, you’d wet yourself.” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the new me. I’m good, better than I was yesterday, and not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.” She took a mouthful. “Life is a lot like these drinks. Some days are sweet and wonderful, while others are bitter, tear-filled, and miserable. You have to learn to take the good with the bad. Tears can’t fix anything as I’ve finally realized. Here’s to the past.” She sipped once more.

Meredith touched the brim of Nancy’s glass with hers. “Here, here, although I still think everything could’ve worked out differently.” She sampled her margarita, smiled, and drank some more.

“Not everything that happens is an opportunity for growth. I’ll never forget them,” Nancy said, her voice tinged with sadness. “But I have to put it behind me—all of it. It wasn’t all Neil’s fault, but I can’t go back and fix the mistakes we made any more than I can pluck the moon from the sky.” She took a mouthful of the cocktail and licked the salt off the rim of the glass. “Where are my divorce papers?”

“Right here.” Meredith opened her purse and pulled out a brown envelope.

Nancy reached for it and transferred it to her voluminous bag without opening it. She would deal with them later.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Susanne Matthews is of French-Canadian descent. She’s always been an avid reader of all types of books, but with a penchant for happily ever after romances. A retired educator, Susanne spends her time writing and creating adventures for her readers. She loves the ins and outs of romance, and the complex journey it takes to get from the first word to the last period of a novel. As she writes, her characters take on a life of their own, and she lets them lead her into their world.

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
I would like my readers to understand that even when life looks its bleakest, there is hope for a better tomorrow as long as you have faith in yourself and those who believe in you.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I enjoy books with romance in them, but what grabs me is the mystery and suspense. I want my readers to feel that edge of the seat thrill for themselves.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
I've always admired writers, but never had the courage to try myself until I retired. With ample time on my hands, I decided to strive to reach a goal I thought impossible for me to achieve.

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