Libby Miller is a good Southern girl, and good Southern girls know the rules. But fate has no rules. On her nineteenth wedding anniversary, fate whips up a tornado of turmoil when Libby finds her husband Neil in the arms of his assistant. But the storm’s not over. Neil flips his BMW, and Libby comes home to find his ghost in the dining room. How is Libby supposed to grieve and move on with Neil’s ever-present, meddling ethereal presence in her life?
With her twentieth high school reunion looming, Libby finds herself torn between two men from her past. One man promises passion and a new beginning, and the other wants to pick up where they left off. Neil stirs up a maelstrom of mischief, making it almost impossible for Libby to sort through the rubble. Libby anticipates a confrontation between her two suitors–not a shadowy stalker who chooses the reunion as his setting for a showdown.
In Libby’s quest for independence, she rejects the one man who can save her. Can she compromise the price of her freedom, or will it cost her a second chance at love and put her life in danger?
|Publisher:||The Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)|
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I'd colored inside the lines my whole life. Like any good Southern girl growing up in the Bible Belt, I knew lines, and I knew rules. And I knew what happened to girls who didn't. So I painted my canvas with broad bands of color, daring a few bold brush strokes close to the edge — close enough to smudge the lines. Close enough to discover that fate's coloring book has no lines.
The night of my nineteenth anniversary, fate sat cozied up in the passenger seat, and I turned at the lighted road marker onto Magnolia Avenue. I scoffed at the speed limit; and when my left hand went for the turn signal, I resisted the urge. I sped through the stop sign, squealing my tires into the turn. Defiance pulsed through my arms and exited the tips of my fingers clamped around the steering wheel.
The street light illuminated Neil's shiny, white BMW, precision-parked with measuring- tape accuracy between two white parallel lines. I had no doubt he'd engaged his blinker at the requisite one hundred feet. I eased my five-year-old SUV close to his back bumper. Too close. Neil would freak if he saw my unwashed family car almost kissing the bumper of his worshiped 725 Series.
I swung open the car door. One hundred percent humidity washed my face in the sweet scent of magnolia blossoms. I breathed in the familiar smell of home and held it like a good luck charm.
High heels in place of my sensible pumps, I hopscotched around uneven segments of the sidewalk where unruly magnolia roots sprouted through the concrete. Rebelling. Testing boundaries. Breaking rules. I wanted to be a magnolia root.
Three marble steps led to the portico of the elegant nineteenth century home that had been renovated into a stylish office building. Gold letters on beveled glass announced Neil Miller, CPA. Neil's dream. As husband and wife, we'd worked as a team to put those gilded letters on this door — his door. I dreamed of a beach house and sand castles and sunsets.
I grasped the door handle. Cold steel greeted my warm palm. My heart rate ratcheted up a notch. I could walk away. So what if Neil had to work tonight. Business always came first. After eighteen other anniversaries, one pretty much blended into the next, and it didn't require a special celebration for him to present his usual gold envelope with a spa gift certificate tucked inside.
I straightened my spine. Plans had been implemented. I'd bribed the kids to stay with friends — even robbed the play money from their Monopoly game. I'd dressed to impress and waited. And waited. Pacing back and forth in my strappy high heels until my feet ached. I considered a glass of pinot grigio, but alcohol makes me sleepy, and I wanted to be wide awake when Neil got home. At nine thirty, I swiped on lip gloss and grabbed my car keys. We'd been idling in neutral far too long. Maybe a jump start was what we needed. What I needed.
So here I stood on the threshold of Neil's kingdom — alerts firing like bottle rockets. I flexed my icy fingers and then batted them against my thighs. Why did I feel so ... so ... exposed? I'd been here a thousand times. And I was fully dressed. A giggle erupted in a hiccup. Not like the time I surprised him at home wearing strands of Mardi Gras beads — just Mardi Gras beads. I was a purple, green, and gold goddess. Souvenirs of our trip to New Orleans. How long ago had that been? Before kids. I thrust the key into the lock and listened to the tumblers tick into place.
The single cylinder clicked and echoed off tall ceilings. The door closed behind me with a whoosh. Vintage wooden bookcases climbed the walls like ladders up to the ceiling where diffused lighting illuminated classic crown molding and cast the room in a mellow, after-hours glow. Something felt off. Instead of the natural scent of old wood and lemony furniture polish, the air smelled greasy, like French fries. I dug my thin heels into the Berber runner in the hallway. The door to Neil's office stood ajar. I stopped. A soft, feminine laugh drifted through the partially opened door.
Blood gushed like sharp blows to my temples. Please, God, let me be wrong.
I pushed the door. Sheri saw me first.
Neil had hired her six months ago. Single mom of two, top of her class, on a fast track to getting her CPA certification. Fast track was right. I didn't like her the first time I saw her. This time I felt pure hate.
Sheri parted her Scarlett Johansson lips and puckered. "Libby. We were just talking about you." She pressed close to Neil and smiled, engaging top and bottom teeth.
Neil whipped his head around. Our eyes met. In a nanosecond, his face morphed from surprise into shock and then froze in fear. His head wobbled atop his toothpick neck, and the whites of his eyes flashed like neon. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.
Rage pulsed white-hot, searing the inside of my skull. My faithful partner had betrayed me, and this woman had invaded my territory and had the nerve to taunt me. Instinct screamed attack! And as much as I wanted to yank out every shiny auburn strand in her head, I froze.
I said nothing. I revealed nothing. It didn't matter; I'd already lost. So I did what I do best — hold in my hurt and pretend. I shot her my best sticks-and-stones glare, wishing I could materialize boulders big enough to crush her and my weaselly excuse for a husband. I propped one hand on my hip and slid the other into my pocket. "So you two were talking about me?"
Her demure smile puckered tight, like a loaded pistol aimed straight at my heart. Neil's chin drooped to his chest, and a puppy-like whelp leaked through his skinny limp lips. He turned to Sheri and scrambled to untangle himself. She held tight, and he shoved harder. His eyes darted frantically from me to the exit I barred, and his mouth opened and closed like a large-mouth bass. This was the man I'd trusted my whole life? And he'd traded me for her? Did nineteen years of working, raising kids, planning a future count for nothing?
Shock and disbelief battered mortal blows to my façade. How could I be so naïve? So stupid? Tears stung my eyes, and my vision blurred. I pictured myself melting into a puddle at their feet. No. No. No. I blinked until my eyes cleared. This is not my fault. I wanted to smash my fist into Neil's gaping mouth. I wanted to smear Sheri's plump lips over her high cheekbones. Dammit, I wanted to feel passionate and bold like the hussy standing before me rubbing her hands all over my cheating husband. I wanted to cry. Instead, I thrust my head back and sneered at them like they were something I'd find on the bottom of one of my students' desks. I pulled my phone from my pocket. "Say cheese," I said. Right before the flash.
I twirled around and sashayed toward the door.
"Libby! Libby! Let me explain." Neil's words bounced off my back.
I raised my middle finger in response and kept walking.
"Libby! Wait! Please! Libby! Libby!" Neil's voice cracked.
"Let her go," Sheri said.
"I can't let her go. She's my wife."
I kicked the door shut and left my footprint.
Once outside his office, my bravado dissolved into goo, and my peanut butter legs threatened to fold. I leaned forward to maintain my momentum. Escape lay at the end of the hallway. Humiliation, hurt, and heartache blocked my path. But Sheri's I-win-smile and blood-red lips swirled like a matador's cape. A wounded bull charged through the door.
I had to get away. I didn't want to share a lungful of their noxious air. I ran, careful to blend with the other night shadows. Wary toes negotiated the broken sidewalk and the renegade roots. I didn't want to be a magnolia root anymore. I wanted to be home. I wanted to be safe. I pressed my car's remote, and the lights flashed twice. I skidded into the driver's seat. Breaths came in gusts — shallow and quick. My heart clanged against my chest walls like an iron clapper. Pounding. Pounding. Pounding. I curled my shaky fingers around the hard plastic steering wheel one at a time, securing myself to a tangible object. My husband had chosen another woman to celebrate our anniversary. Tears dripped down my face, and I wiped at them with the back of my hand. Why didn't I kick him in the balls or claw her eyes out? Because I'm a coward.
Round, red taillights of Neil's precious car mocked me. I reached into my purse for a tissue and heard a clank. I pulled out the two miniatures of Crown Royal I'd taken to toast nineteen happy years. I considered chugging both. From the dark depths of my cavernous purse, lay the white envelope containing the anniversary card I'd bought my low-life husband. I ground my teeth and bit the inside of my cheek. I'm not a coward. Claw-like hands clenched the plastic package and ripped out tissue after tissue, littering the interior with white fluff. "He'll be sorry. I'll make sure."
Overhead, I switched on the interior light and dumped my purse onto the passenger seat. I swiped my runny nose and dabbed my eyes with bits of tissue. I stacked everything I could use into a pile. Nail file, hand lotion, hand sanitizer. Breath mints, antacids, and aspirin. Definitely the two bottles of booze. I opened the glove box and chucked insurance papers and napkins to the floor and found about ten packets of salt, five or six packets of ketchup, and more hand sanitizer. I scraped pieces of torn tissues into a mound and poked them into the half-full bottle of water from my cup holder and crammed the other items into my pockets. Even his stupid card.
I had no idea how much time had passed — one minute, five minutes — and I didn't know when or if Neil would come running out the door. Blood drummed in my ears. I snuffed out the overhead light and sneaked in the shadows to his fuel tank and popped open the cover. I chunked the fuel cap underhanded at the trees. Using a nail file, I pushed the protective flap of his gas tank out of the way and poured in the water/tissue cocktail, crinkling the flimsy plastic bottle to get every drop. My hands shook, but I managed to empty bottles of hand sanitizer and water and booze into the gateway of the car's circulatory system. I snapped open the breath mints and orange-flavored candies flew in all directions. I squatted on the sidewalk beside the rear tire and held my breath, listening. I groped for loose mints with catchers' mitts for hands. I held the aspirin bottle close to my body and managed to keep its contents intact. Unopened salt packets and ketchup slithered down the chute. I stared at the card in my hand. Crawling on all fours to the rear of Neil's car, I rolled up the card into a cylinder and forced it into the tailpipe. I jumped to my feet and sprinted back to my car.
My hands fumbled the keys. I forced a calming breath down into my lungs and pressed the ignition. Neil's car didn't look so cocky. I gunned the accelerator and recoiled on impact. The metallic crunch tickled my insides. Overkill? Nope. Just icing.
Giddiness gurgled up my gullet. I backed away and then stomped the gas pedal. I pulled my phone from my pocket and took my eyes off the road long enough to scroll through my contacts and tap my best friend's number.
"You. Did. Not." Bluetooth technology shared Emily's horror through the car's speakers — in stereo.
My vocal chords twisted into a knot. "I took a picture of them with my phone." Sheri's haughty grin flared in my head. "She smiled like she was glad I caught her. I wanted to ram my fist into her mouth and knock out every one of her perfect white teeth. I'll send you the picture."
"What a ... a ... witch!"
"It's okay to say bitch, Em." My phone vibrated. Neil. Again. Every time his name came up on my screen, my blood pressure red-lined. I hit decline. Every time. "Can you believe the asshole is calling and texting me? You've got to see this picture." I did the thing I'd lectured my fifteen-year-old never to do — I texted while driving. I tapped the screen of my phone and found my camera roll. The last photo came up. Irony. Neil practically forced me to get this phone and even showed me how to use the speedy camera option. I don't know why I thought to take a picture. Maybe to make sure I really saw what I saw. Or maybe to document the exact second my life collapsed. I touched the arrowed icon and pressed message. My tires grated over the grooves beyond the white line on the right shoulder. I looked up and with my free hand jerked the wheel to the left — too hard. The car crossed over the reflectors down the center lane and rumbled.
"Crap. Hold on." I let off the accelerator and veered back to the right. Again the right shoulder warned me I'd gone too far. I got back to the center of my lane and resumed my messaging.
"It's coming," I said. Then flashing blue lights reflected in the rear view mirror. My stomach did a nose dive to my knees. "Oh, shit."
"What's the matter?"
Nausea hit hard and headed uphill. "I'll call you back. The cops are pulling me over."
I eased to the side of the road and killed my engine. Police strobe lights buffeted my car and drowned me in a sea of blue. Ducking beneath the glow, I sent up a small prayer and reached for my purse. The handle snagged on the gear shift, and its contents dumped into the seat and onto the floor. I patted the floor and found my wallet. Using my side mirror, I focused on the man in uniform getting bluer and bluer. I exhaled a jagged breath. Don't cry.
The patrolman for the Birmingham Police Department directed the beam from his flashlight around the inside my car and then leaned in close. Close enough for me to see his smooth, fair skin, close enough to see that he probably didn't have to shave every day. "I need your license and registration, ma'am." His southern drawl sounded harmless, but his right hand lay poised over the gun in his holster.
I handed him my license. "I'm so sorry, officer." I reached into the glove box and remembered I'd thrown my registration and insurance cards onto the floor. "I got a little distracted and might have swerved a bit." I scrabbled around the floorboard for my papers. "Was I speeding?"
The officer trained the light on my documents. "No, you weren't speeding, but you were all over the road back there, Ms. Miller." Then he rested his hand on my lowered window and thrust his head inside my car. "Have you been drinking?"
I chewed the inside of my cheek to keep from flinging his condescending tone back into his face. I swept my bangs to the side. "I don't drink and drive." I answered in police-perfect pitch.
He pulled his head back but stayed eye-level. "Why were you weaving from one side of the road to the other?"
My mind raced through my options. I knew he couldn't fine me for catching my cheating husband, but I didn't want a ticket for texting and driving. "Well, uh ..."
He straightened up, and shone his light in my face. "I need you to step out of the car, please."
We were on the main road to my community. A community where privacy was a premium. I couldn't let anyone see me stopped by the police. I brought my hand up to shield my eyes. "You said I wasn't speeding. And I told you I haven't been drinking."
He moved the light away from my face and continued. "Ma'am, are you prepared to take a breathalyzer test?"
"A breathalyzer test?" My voice rose an octave. "I haven't had a single drop of alcohol. I don't need any kind of test."
"You can take a breathalyzer test, or I can arrest you." His tone left no room for negotiation.
Ice cold fingers of panic seized my gut. "Arrest me?" My voice reached a high-pitched nasally whine. "Oh, God. Can this night get any worse?" I grabbed my stomach. "Is there a law against swerving on the road?"
"You were driving recklessly."
Reckless driving? A breathalyzer test? "I'm a teacher at Grayson Valley Middle School." What if a parent drives by and sees me? Rumors about a teacher taking a breathalyzer test would spread faster than Ebola.
The young policeman put his hand on the button of the radio clipped to his shirt. "Ms. Miller, please don't make me call for backup."
I gripped the window sill and my nails scraped metal. "Wait a minute. Do you know Captain Eli Anderson? He'll vouch for me."
"Of course I know Captain Anderson, but I can't disturb him at this time of night."
I angled my wrist so he could see my watch. "It's just a little after ten." I squeezed my eyes closed and fought the tears leaking out around the edges. "Officer, it's my anniversary and I caught my husband cheating. I've had a night from hell, but I promise I haven't had a single drop of alcohol. But I am guilty of texting." I looked up at him and thrust my phone into his face. "Look, Eli Anderson is first in my contacts. He's been friends with my husband and me since we were in diapers."
Excerpted from "The Ghost and Mrs. Miller"
Copyright © 2017 Sandra Tilley.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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