Mourning After – Chapter One

This past summer I signed on with Sweet Promise Press to write Book 4 in their new series, FUNERAL FAKERS. The series features out-of-work actresses living in Asheville, North Carolina who work as Personal Mourners–Did you know that was a real thing? Seriously. Each actress stumbles upon a mystery during the job they work and must work to solve it.

And good news for Kindle Unlimited Readers–the series will launch directly to KU!

The first book launches this Friday, Nov 2nd. My book launches on Black Friday (eep!)

Until then, here’s your first look!

 

Chapter One

 

“First, second, third, fourth.”

I said each number as the car ground from gear to gear.

“That will show him to make fun of my abilities. Think I can’t drive a stick? Watch me.”

Traffic came to a stop. I bit my bottom lip, realizing the stoplight was at a steep incline. I did not want to roll back into the car behind me. Driving the sports car had been much easier on the open road. Give me straight highways any day to maneuvering the mountains of North Carolina.

The traffic light turned green, and I lifted my foot off the clutch while simultaneously pushing down on the accelerator.

The car revved forward with the full power of its eight cylinders. “Whoops, a bit too much gas.” I quickly jumped forward a couple of gears to bring the RPMs under control.

For not the first time since coming into the Smoky Mountains, I thought about how much money the zippy car would fetch me.

A parting gift was how Bradley had worded it.

As if I was retiring or willfully walking away.

And it wasn’t the truth. Not a gift.

Hush money.

He might as well have said, “Take the car and leave. Don’t ever come back.”

Not that there was anything left for me in New York City. Not now. I couldn’t even mount the energy to contemplate a comeback when I was still reeling from the backlash. Not that I had struck it big, but man, I was close. So close. People had started to notice me. The people that mattered—directors, producers, the press. I was going to be somebody.

And now I wasn’t.

I refused to let any more tears fall on the matter. Not now, when I was driving this beast and one slip of the accelerator would have me rocketing into the car in front of me. Besides, crying ruined my mascara, and I wasn’t prepared to have a makeup overhaul on the side of the road, so I pushed those thoughts aside and focused on the traffic.

Outside my window, the small town of Bakers, North Carolina, located just outside of Asheville, welcomed me home.

Home.

Even those words sounded foreign. It had been so long since I had considered any place home. I didn’t even know where that was anymore. I wondered when that feeling would lift or if I would stick around long enough to let it.

Probably not.

The truth of the matter was Gran was the only family member who hadn’t said told you so when I announced I was leaving acting. So, off to Gran I went.

Thankfully, Gran’s house wasn’t hard to find. It was tucked into a little retirement community called Pleasant View. Here the houses appeared uniform in their single-story design with their postage-stamp yards that I was sure maintenance took care of, and concrete back patios set for entertaining. Gran’s home was on the first street when you entered the community. Her little smart car parked driveway. It was cute and spunky, just like her. I parked the Porsche at the curb and started to get out.

“Comingto ask Mother for more money?”

The middle-aged woman’s voice caught me off guard. For a second, I thought she was talking to me until I turned around and saw another woman walking down the sidewalk. The first woman appeared to be leaving Gran’s house while the other was just arriving, but as to who they were, I had no clue. What I did know was that if I had been doing a study on opposites, I imagine this is what it would look like. The first woman was polished and put together—black dress pants, white silk blouse, and black heels with the jewelry to match. The other was a sloppy mess—white sweatpants, black tank top with a bleach stain splashed down the front, black flip-flops, sans jewelry. I’d guess their ages to be somewhere between forty and fifty. It was too hard to tell from this far away.

I hung back and pretended to retrieve my bags from the car.

“What are you doing here?” the sloppy woman snapped in reply.

“Not that it’s your business, but I gave Mother a ride. Mabel’s granddaughter just got into town. They’re having a party. Bet you’ll like that.”

I stopped with my head ducked inside my car at mention of Gran’s name. She hadn’t mentioned a party, but that didn’t surprise me. Gran loved to entertain. Welcoming me home would be just the excuse she’d need to bust out the bubbly.

“Shut up, Gwen.”

“Make me,” the polished woman shot back. “Besides, what are youdoing here? It’s not like you were invited.”

“I just got off work. Thought I’d stop by Mabel’s and see if she needed a hand.”

“Nice uniform,” the woman said under her breath. “And like I believe that. The day you become charitable is the day pigs fly. Just head on home. No one needs your problems, and that’s all you’ve got.”

“When did you become so nasty? Is that why Jim left you? Wait, no, that wasn’t it now was it?” The sloppy woman folded her arms across her chest and just glared.

“Why you … I swear, if it wasn’t for Mother—”

“You’d what, Gwen? C’mon, let’s hear it. What’s that?” The woman let the silence hang in the air. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. If anyone should just head on home, it’s you. Go on home to your sad, lonely little life.”

“Whatever, Roseanne. I do just fine on my own,” Gwen said, tossing her shiny brown and silver locks over her shoulder and revealing a designer handbag. Between the handbag and the oversized sunglasses perched on her head, I had to believe she was telling the truth. If her accessories were any indication, her life was just fine.

“You just keep telling yourself that,” Roseanne said over her shoulder as she walked up to Gran’s house. The combination of walking and talking was a disaster. Roseanne ended up tripping on the front step and landing face-first on the concrete. I temporarily forgot my ruse and left my bags in my car, jogging across the street to see if she needed any help.

“You’re such a mess. It’s embarrassing.” Gwen started to walk toward her sister.

“Go away. You’re the last person I need help from.” Roseanne had rolled onto her backside and wiped her palms on her pants.

“You okay?” I asked, not even apologizing for my intrusion.

Gwen inspected her manicure, unconcerned. “I’m sure she’s fine. Don’t let her try and milk you for any sympathy.”

I, on the other hand, couldn’t hide my shock. Roseanne’s palms were bleeding, and I was sure her wrists had to be aching from bracing herself. These women weren’t senior citizens, but they weren’t spring chickens either. Heck, I was in my twenties and knew a fall like that would have me smarting.

“I’m fine. I don’t need anyone’s help,” Roseanne shot back to both us. Again, I was shocked by the woman’s attitude. What was with these ladies? Roseanne turned and walked up the front steps the rest of the way and disappeared inside Gran’s house.

Gwen rolled her eyes and clicked the doors open on the Mercedes parked at the curb in front of my fancy pants car.

“Nice car,” she said to me with a wink.

“Oh, thanks.”

She clicked away in her heels before I could say anything else.

 

*                *                *

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked in the door to Gran’s, but it certainly wasn’t a dozen or so senior citizens each holding a glass of peach-colored champagne, ready to toast my arrival. The bubbly matched the peach and cream interior of Gran’s living room and somehow managed to complement the turquoise silk tracksuit she was wearing.

“Woo-wee, there’s my girl!” Gran said when she spotted me. “Everyone, this is my granddaughter I’ve been telling you so much about.”

There was a round of welcomes and smiles while I mentally fought to switch from the confrontation outside to the party within.

“Harold, grab our guest of honor a glass of champagne. Maven, you come over here and give me some love,” Gran said.

She wrapped me in a full embrace and in that one second, I felt more love than I had the whole previous year in the Big Apple.

“Where is Harold? Oh, over flirting with Greta again. That man.” No matter the words, Gran’s voice was full of admiration. He caught Gran’s eye and winked.

“On it,” he replied, apparently having heard Gran’s request. Harold was short in stature and moved faster than I had expected for a man with a humped back and a cane. Far too soon, he handed me my own glass of champagne.

“Here go, darlin’.”

I thanked him and readily accepted the crystal glass. Leave it to Gran to celebrate in style.

“My pleasure.” Harold might be ancient, but his Appalachian drawl was as fresh as could be.

“To Maven—welcome home, sweetie.” Gran lifted her glass into the air, and her friends followed suit. I was speechless and thankful no one was expecting a speech. If I were Gran, I would have had more than a few words prepared. It was just her style. It used to be mine, too. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get that back.

The group accepted my smile in response. I took a sip from my glass and raised my eyebrows in appreciation. Peach moscato was a favorite of mine, as most of the sweet wines were.

“Now let me introduce you to everyone.” Gran slipped her arm through mine, and I willingly allowed her to steer me about the room.

“Harold you met. He’s a charmer. You need anything—a dinner date, a movie date—give him a call. He’ll be sure you have a good time.” Gran winked and Harold chuckled. My intuition told me there was something between him and Gran, but I didn’t say anything.

“This is my next-door neighbor, Greta. She makes the finest black forest cake in all of Bakers.”

“Yes, it is very good. It was my grandmother’s recipe. I only wish I could make it more often.” Greta had a slight accent punctuating the consonants, making them sound thicker. German perhaps? I was sure Gran would fill me in tonight over coffee. That’s one thing I could never do—drink caffeine before bed—but my Gran made a pot of coffee every night and drank half of it before bed. At least she used to. I’m assuming she still did.

I didn’t even have a chance to politely reply to Greta before Gran carted me off in another direction. It was then that I spotted Roseanne through the kitchen doorway, rummaging around in drawers and cupboards, clearly looking for something. The way she moved about the kitchen told me she was familiar with the place. As to who she was exactly, I had no idea. I thought about excusing myself to give her hand, but then I remembered her short temper and the way she had snapped at me outside just moments ago and decided to give her some space.

Gran followed my line of sight.

“That’s Hazel’s youngest,” Gran said, waving the woman away. Now Hazel I knew. She was Gran’s right-hand gal pal. Those two ladies were trouble of the best kind. They had made the trip up to New York City when I starred in an off-Broadway adaption of Hairspray. A very off-Broadway adaptation. Okay, it was dinner theater, but that still counted, right?

“Be careful around her. She’s a rough one. Into drugs.” Gran kept her voice low.

Roseanne opened another kitchen drawer.

“Hope she’s not nicking the silver again,” Gran said, more annoyed than anything.

Wow, I mouthed. Roseanne settled for a glass from the cupboard and turned toward the sink to fill it. It looked like Gran’s utensils were safe for now.

“Her sister is Jen?” I asked.

“Gwen. Have you met her?” Gran tilted her head in question.

“Not officially. They got into it a bit as I was pulling up,” I confessed.

Gran waved my comment away. “Those two are always on the outs. Oil and water. Poor Hazel.”

“Poor me what?” Hazel asked, joining us. The only difference between her and my gran was that Hazel’s tracksuit was purple and her hair was white while Gran’s was Miss Clairol’s Apricot Glaze.

“Those girls of yours,” Gran replied.

“Oh, well, in that case, I’ll take all the sympathy I can get. You got any gin?” Hazel eyed her glass of champagne suspiciously.

“You know I do. Make me one while you’re at it.”

“Well, yeah. How about you, sweetheart?” Hazel asked me.

I scrunched my nose in response. I couldn’t even stand the smell of gin. There would be no dirty martinis in my future. Well, unless they were made with vodka.

“Our girl here can’t stomach the spirits,” Gran responded.

“Oh, I can stomach plenty of them, just not gin,” I countered.

“More for us,” Hazel said with a smile and trotted off to the bamboo liquor cabinet against the dining room wall.

Gran was introducing me to another set of guests when Roseanne walked out of the kitchen. I smiled politely and watched as she popped two pills into her mouth.

“They’re Tylenol,” she said to me with the pills between her teeth as if I were judging her.

“Okay.” I tried to act as if I couldn’t care less, but it was hard with the amount of hostility the woman gave off. I could have asked how her wrist was, or if there was anything I could get her, but truth be told, the woman was not nice. She rubbed me the wrong way, and I found myself wishing she would leave soon. I felt awful about that. Perhaps the big city had rubbed off on me more than I’d like to admit. It was going to take a bit for me to adjust to small town living again. And Bakers was small. The wooden sign I passed when I drove into town read “Population 600,” and I was pretty sure Gran knew all of them. It was just her way.

Roseanne snarled and continued to walk toward her mom, who was fixing gin and tonics by the look of the ingredients. Roseanne took the liquor bottle from her mom and poured herself a healthy glass. I tried not to stare, but the woman was such a train wreck, it was hard not to. I found other people watching as well—keeping Roseanne in their line of sight. Oh yeah, there was a story here.

Roseanne bent down and whispered something in her mom’s ear. Whatever it was, Hazel seemed exasperated.

“Again? I told you this was the last time. You have a job now. You have to start paying for things on your own.” Even though Hazel was lecturing Roseanne, she still fished some dollar bills out of her pants pocket and handed them to her daughter.

It was probably the worst moment for Gwen to reappear, but that’s exactly what happened.

“Mother, how many times have I told you to quit enabling her. She’s never going to learn.” Gwen spoke as if her sister wasn’t even present.

“Eat dirt,” Roseanne shot back.

“Oh, are you cooking again?” Gwen replied sarcastically.

My eyes darted between Roseanne and Gwen before settling on Hazel, who looked absolutely mortified. The poor woman.

“Shut your mouth, Gwen. No one asked for your opinion. Why are you back?”

“I left my cell phone behind. I’m just swinging by to pick it up. Not that I need your permission.”

I turned away from the two sisters, who continued to bicker back-and-forth, and I felt mighty sorry for Hazel. She was clearly the loser in this case, having two kids who appeared to despise one another. I never considered it this way, but perhaps it was fortunate that I was an only child. I’m pretty sure worrying that I would’ve hated my sibling never factored into my parents’ decision. It was hard to be a jet-setter with a family in tow, and caregivers were more inclined to let you drop off one child on their doorstep.

“New York City. Well, I’ve been fixin’ to get back up there for ages but just haven’t been able to swing it.” Harold laughed nervously as he rejoined me. He seemed different somehow from a few minutes ago. I wasn’t sure, but his accent had a slight tremble to it. Sweat started to bead on his bald head and roll down. Seeing he was only five feet tall, the top of his head was clearly in view. I watched his eyes flicker to Roseanne and Gwen, who were still battling it out despite Hazel’s plea for them to knock it off or take it outside.

“Not a fan of confrontation?” I offered up.

“No, not even a little bit.” Harold pulled at the collar of his turtleneck to give himself some air.

The sisters’ public row continued with names and insults flying from both of their mouths. Greta grabbed a fistful of chips and watched the action as if it were a daytime drama while Hazel attempted to shush her girls. Everyone else stood in stunned silence. Roseanne and Gwen had reached a point where it was impossible to ignore them anymore, and that was saying something. North Carolinians were nothing if not polite.

“Why did you ever come back? No one likes you.” Gwen motioned around the room for emphasis. Everyone turned away, but no one contradicted her.

“You two-timing tramp. You think you’re better than me?” Roseanne retorted. Greta sucked in a breath. My mouth snapped shut. The sweat dripped off Harold.

“Enough!” Gran hollered. “You’re a guest in my home, and I won’t be having that!”

Gwen blinked for a moment and blushed, finally realizing everyone was staring at her. Roseanne, on the other hand, downed the liquor in her glass and met everyone’s stare head on.

“Pardon me, I’m leaving. Sorry for the intrusion.” Gwen’s voice was barely above a whisper as she addressed the group. She kissed her mom on the cheek, leveled her sister with a stare, and quickly exited out the door. Roseanne turned around and refilled her glass with more liquor. A double by the size of the pour. Clearly, she wasn’t going anywhere.

You know that saying about one bad apple ruining the bunch? That’s how I was starting to feel about Roseanne and this little party. Thankfully, soon after Gwen left, another guest walked through the door.

“Daniel!” Greta exclaimed. Everyone welcome the man’s appearance, myself included, even though I didn’t even know who this middle-aged fellow was. It was just nice to have a fresh face join the party and defuse the tension.

“I thought Mom might be here when she wasn’t next door. Hope you don’t mind me dropping in?” Daniel asked Gran.

“You’re always welcome. You know that,” Gran replied. “How’s the campaign?”

“In full swing.” Daniel flashed a winning smile. “But it looks like it’s going to be a close one.”

“You have my vote.” Gran patted Daniel on the arm. “Daniel, I’d like you to meet my granddaughter, Maven Mackenzie.”

“Pleased to meet you.” I stuck out my hand and was greeted with a firm handshake. Daniel had that skill down pat.

“Nice to meet you. My mom said you’d be coming. Nice trip?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it that, but the scenery was beautiful,” when I wasn’t worried about navigating the curvy landscape.

“That it is. I do love it here.”

“I’m hoping I will too,” I answered honestly.

Daniel’s attention was then captured by another guest who had saddled up and started talking politics. I left him to his conversation and went to nab an hors d’oeuvre. It looked like Gran had put together my favorite ham rollups with cream cheese and pickles. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was one item she could pull off in the kitchen.

I started surveying the guests. I noticed that the warm fall day hadn’t stopped Daniel from wearing a full suit and tie. His suit was dark gray, the dress shirt light blue, and the tie was a combination of both. His wardrobe matched the rest of his looks—dark hair and light blue eyes. He was color-coordinated through and through and matched the ladies and gentlemen at the party, who were all wearing pressed pants and button-up shirts. When I was a little girl, I would have called them church clothes—the kind of nice clothes you would find at department stores and that required ironing. Like the outfits Gran would wear to Second Presbyterian and then out to brunch for waffles after.

Roseanne’s wardrobe, on the other hand, made her stick out like a sore thumb.

“Roseanne?” Daniel said her name as a question and seemed more than a bit surprise to see her. For her part, Roseanne seemed completely unfazed and unimpressed. She responded with a silent evil eye in his direction. Unless that was just her normal look? At this point, I was beginning to think so.

Daniel didn’t say anything else, turning back to his conversation instead. Roseanne continued to stare down anyone who even glanced in her direction.

As I watched Roseanne, I thought she looked like she’d been living a hard life. Bleached-out blonde hair, skin so tan and wrinkly it looked like leather, stained clothes. I still wasn’t sure her age, but seeing her mom was in her seventies and she was the younger sister, it was probably somewhere around forty-five. Speaking of family, Roseanne’s appearance made no sense given how put together both Hazel and Gwen appeared. I couldn’t help wondering what Roseanne’s story was. It was something I picked up at acting school, how to study other people so you can emulate them. I was getting a whole slew of information just watching Roseanne in front of me. She refilled her glass for the third time and continued to glare at everyone as if daring them to approach her.

Harold, on the other hand, was still standing next to me, sweating away.

“Would you like to join me outside?” I offered. It seemed like the polite thing to do and I was sure he’d like to get away for a moment.

“Yes, ma’am, I sure would.”

I had him lead the way, and we walked through Gran’s living and dining rooms into the kitchen and out the back door to the patio area. It was a comfortable space set on a cement pad identical to the neighbor next door, and the neighbor after that, and after that. The only variation was in the style of patio furniture and potted plants. Gran had chosen a gold and orange theme with marigolds, black-eyed Susans, orange blanket flowers, and mums of both hues that were just starting to bud. The flowers stood out amongst the dark brown wicker and cream-cushioned furniture.

“Better?” I asked Harold with a smile on my face.

“From the way I heard it, you were the one who needed saving, and now here you are saving me. My angel.”

I couldn’t help but blush. Gran was right. Harold was a charmer.

“What made you leave New York City, darlin’?”

Harold’s question was innocent enough, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it. Instead I replied, “Oh, this and that.” New York was exciting, but it was also exhausting, and it can be overwhelming and downright depressing when your dreams come crashing down. Suffocating, heart breaking … that’s the New York City I knew.

Harold saw right through my ruse. Either that or Gran told him more than she should have. “Oh, I’ve met a couple this and thats in my day. Don’t worry, you forget them eventually,” he said, patting my hand.

I smiled in reply, even though I knew it didn’t reach my eyes. It was the best I could do.

“That’s a beautiful cane you have there.” The light-colored wood was carved to look like a tree with a bird perched on the top, acting as the handle.

“Why, thank you. Carved it myself.”

“Really? That’s amazing.”

“Just a little hobby of mine.”

“There you two are.” Hazel joined our little tête-à-tête.

“Just getting some fresh air,” I said.

Hazel handed us each a fresh drink. The clear, fizzy liquid with a slice of lime had me second-guessing Hazel’s memory.

“Vodka tonic,” she said as if reading my thoughts.

I laughed. “Good to know.”

Harold looked slightly confused but didn’t comment.

“What are you going do now?” Harold brought the conversation back around to me.

“Well, first things first, I guess I need to find a job. Gran has been gracious enough to let me stay with her, but I know the complex has rules for how long I can stay.”

Since I was under fifty-five, I couldn’t be a permanent resident. Not that I’d want to be per se. Nothing against Gran, but it would feel good to be on my own two feet again, holding my own.

“So, I need to get a job and then my own place, and I guess we’ll see.” I shrugged my shoulders. That’s as far as I had allowed myself to think ahead.

“Well, it’s nothing major, but I do need help moving some furniture. I’d ask my son, but with the campaign in full swing, I don’t want to bother him.” The accented voice came from behind me. I hadn’t heard Greta approach.

“What campaign’s that?” I asked.

“U.S. Senate. He’s going to win, too. I know it.” Greta beamed. I looked around for the source of her pride, but Daniel seemed to have already left. Come to think of it, perhaps Roseanne did, too. That would be wonderful.

Greta was still talking, and I forced myself to pay attention. “I’d be more than willing to pay you for your help. How does that sound?” she finished saying.

“I can give you a hand.” I started to say that she wouldn’t have to pay me, that it would be a neighborly thing to help her out, but then Harold piped up.

“My shutters need a little sprucing up. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not as strong on my feet anymore. You take a tumble at my age and you don’t necessarily get back up.”

I pictured Harold up on a ladder and was horrified at the thought. “Just tell me when, and I’ll be there.”

“If you’re taking on clients, my garden could use an extra hand if you don’t mind pulling weeds,” Hazel chimed in. “Roseanne’s always saying she’ll get it, but we all know that ain’t gonna happen.” Greta nodded in agreement and I had to bite my tongue on that front.

“I guess I can do that.” There wasn’t much room for gardening in our apartment in New York City, but I could certainly pull weeds. How hard could that be? I don’t suppose I’d be raking in the dough anytime soon, but it would get me out of the house and make me feel useful. That was almost, if not more, important than the cash.

The rest of the evening passed pleasantly. Roseanne did in fact seem to disappear, which significantly lightened the gathering’s mood, and I was able to get to know my new neighbors. I was dead on my feet by the time the last guest left. Maybe it was from all the socializing, but I had a feeling the vodka tonics Hazel kept handing me played heavily into it as well. I was asleep before my head even hit the pillow.

Mourning After is available Nov 23rd!

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