She hadn’t gone to the funeral. Funerals were for the ones in mourning, not the ones who felt nothing but guilt-ridden relief that the deceased was well and truly gone. Michelle definitely fell into the second category. There had been a time when she’d loved Robert Tanner more than anything else in the world, but that felt like a long time ago. That was before the threats and the jealous rages. Before he’d started hurting her.
Instead of attending the funeral, she’d gone running, hoping endorphins and hard breathing could quiet her memories and the accusing voice in the back of her mind. It was the voice that whispered that it was her fault that Robert was dead.
“It isn’t my fault,” she reminded herself firmly and upped her pace once more. “He hit me again, I left, and he couldn’t handle it. That’s it, end of story.” Only it wasn’t. He’d left that damned note and made sure that even after he was gone she would be the one who felt guilty.
She yearned for the peace and freedom that running used to bring her. But it didn’t seem today would bring her that sense of calm. Sweat stung her eyes, and she wiped her brow as she ran, flipping her blonde hair back off her face for what felt like the hundredth time. It always slipped out of her sensible ponytail no matter how tightly she wound the elastic. She slowed down as she turned the last corner and her apartment complex appeared at the far end of the street. She walked the last bit, cooling down as much as she could in the sweltering August heat. She fished out her keys and let herself into the cool shadows of the lobby. She stopped to check the mail, sorting through the various envelopes. “Bill, bill, you could already be a winner—hello, what’s this?” She stopped sorting to look carefully at the envelope in her hand. The typed address was correct, but she realized there was no stamp and no return address, front or back. Very odd.
Michelle headed for the elevator and carefully tore open the envelope. She unfolded the letter with an uncomfortable mix of curiosity and trepidation.
I should be in the ground by now. I wonder, did you go to my funeral? I forgive you, Chelle. I know you didn’t mean to do this to me. You could never be so deliberately cruel. I will be watching you from the other side, waiting for us to have another chance together.
“Oh god, that sick bastard.” She crumpled up the letter, crushing it into a tiny ball as she stormed off the elevator and down the hall to her apartment. The one she’d moved into after she’d left him. He’d never been here. He shouldn’t have known the address, but somehow, he’d managed to track her down, again. She locked the door behind her, slamming home the deadbolt and the extra security chain she had installed the day she’d moved in.
She hurled the wadded letter onto the table and headed to the shower, her stomach in knots and her head whirling. As she stripped out of her running gear, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. She’d gained back a little of the weight Robert had insisted she lose while they were together, and she knew she looked better for it. He’d completely taken over her entire life when they’d been together, right down to controlling her weight and her wardrobe. He’d forbidden her to wear anything he thought showed too much skin or any shoe that made her taller than he was. Now, he was dead and he was still trying to run her life.
She uttered a muttered curse and turned on the shower. She left the water running at barely a lukewarm temperature, knowing she needed to cool off both physically and mentally. The letter’s arrival had set off an emotional firestorm, and she wished like hell she hadn’t checked the mail today.
The water was cool enough it was a shock when she first stepped under the stream, and she fought the urge to turn up the heat until her body adjusted. Sweat and road-dust were swept away by the soothing stream, and she tried to keep her mind blank. Just being, not thinking of anything. Not about his cruelty or his petty mind games. Damn it, I’m doing it again.
Michelle grabbed the shampoo bottle and squirted a fragrant measure of the liquid into her hand. It was her favorite brand, and she’d bought a bottle of it the day she’d left Robert. He’d never liked the fruity scent and had instructed her not to use it. Haunted by thoughts of her bullying ex-boyfriend, she started to wash her hair. She abandoned the impossible task of seeking calm on today of all days. It just wasn’t going to happen. She had barely gotten the shampoo rinsed out of her hair when she heard her phone ring twice, indicating she had a visitor at the door.
“Now what?” she asked aloud as she grabbed a towel and dripped her way over to the phone. “Hello.”
“Michelle? This is Nancy Tanner. I need to speak to you.”
Michelle’s blood turned to ice water as she heard Robert’s mother speaking on the other end of the line. She suppressed the urge to scream and managed to answer politely, “Mrs. Tanner, now isn’t a very good time. Perhaps tomorrow?”
“I insist, Michelle. I’ve just come from poor Bobby’s funeral and I must speak to you. Let me in please.”
She stuck her tongue out at the phone in her hand and rolled her eyes. Just what I need. “All right Mrs. Tanner, come on up.” She hit the number pad and heard the telltale buzz of the front door being unlocked downstairs.
“Clothes, I need clothes!” She dashed off to the bedroom in a panic and grabbed the first things she could find, a pair of well-worn jeans and an old, faded blue T-shirt she usually reserved for wearing on laundry day. Her hair was still dripping wet and she toweled it dry as best she could before scraping it all back into a quick bun just as Nancy knocked.
She took a deep breath and opened the door, trying to ignore the rivulets of water trickling down the back of her neck from her wet hair. “Hello, Mrs. Tanner, come on in.”
Nancy Tanner was the epitome of elegance, even in mourning. From her black Louis Vuitton shoes to the perfectly matched black pearls at her throat, her image was one of carefully crafted style. Her gray eyes took in Michelle’s appearance and a faint frown of disapproval creased her brow. “You certainly have let yourself go since you abandoned my son.”
Oh, this is going to be fun. Michelle bit back an angry retort and gestured for Nancy to follow her to the living room. “I was just showering after a run, Mrs. Tanner. I wasn’t expecting guests. What is it I can do for you?”
“As if you didn’t know,” Nancy sniffed as she perched on the edge of a chair, her eyes full of malice. “You took my son away from me, and as if that weren’t enough, you’re taking everything of his. I have nothing to remember him by, nothing! What did you do to my sweet Bobby to make him do this to me?”
“What?” Michelle could feel her jaw sag open, and she closed it with an audible click of her teeth. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Mrs. Tanner. Robert and I broke up a month ago. His choices were none of my doing, and the only things I took when I moved out were the few things I had when I moved in.”
“He killed himself because he couldn’t live without you! You!” Nancy was babbling, but there was a bitter edge to her words. “He could have had any woman in the world, but for some reason he settled on you, a common nobody.” She removed a black silk handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at her eyes before continuing, “And now he’s given you everything. Everything! The house, the cars, stocks, and the money his father set aside for him, all of it.”
Shock stole Michelle’s breath away, and she felt the room sway and spin around her. “He left it all to me?”
“Don’t pretend with me, you hussy! You gold-digging tramp! You know he did! The will is new, less than a month old. You got it all!” The older woman pulled out a document from her purse and waved it in Michelle’s face. “You made him do this! I don’t know how, but you did this!”
Michelle’s hand flew up to protect her face from the flapping pages, and Nancy simply threw it at her. Her face was contorted into a mask of rage.
“My lawyer says it’s perfectly legal, but I am seeking other opinions. Enjoy it while you can. I will want every penny of it paid back when I prove this was all a terrible travesty of justice!” She got to her feet and dabbed at her eyes again, though Michelle couldn’t see any actual tears. “My poor, darling Bobby. I will never understand what he saw in you.”
“You’re grief-stricken, Mrs. Tanner, and I think you should leave.” Michelle managed to rein in her temper and stood, pointing down the hallway to her front door. “Right now.” Before I start telling you all the things your darling Bobby used to say about you, you horrible shrew.
“I’ll see you in court!” was the last thing Michelle heard as Mrs. Tanner walked toward the elevator.
“Can this day get any worse?” she asked aloud and shut the door, relocking it carefully before heading back to the living room and the document sitting on the chair where she’d left it. “What the hell have you done now, you manipulative bastard?” She sat down and started reading, making small noises of horrified disbelief every few paragraphs. He’d left her everything, right down to his clothes. She was rich, and she didn’t want anything to do with any of it. Damn, she needed a drink.
It was nearly four in the morning when the voice woke her from a restless sleep.
Her heart slammed hard against her ribs, and she found herself reaching for the phone to dial 911 before she realized she was alone in her room. He wasn’t there. He couldn’t be there. Only one person in the world called her by that horrible nickname, and he was dead.
“You’re losing it, Michelle. Get a grip,” she muttered and tried to go back to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. Every shadow in her room took on some sinister aspect, and whenever she closed her eyes, she swore she could hear something moving around her room.
“I give up.” She finally abandoned any hope of getting more sleep and got out of bed, her eyes gritty and her mind still foggy from the lack of rest.
She padded out to her balcony in bare feet and leaned against the railing, breathing in the night air that was coming in straight off the ocean, cooling her down and clearing her mind at last. Another breath and she closed her eyes, rolling her shoulders to ease the tight muscles that had been present since she’d found out about Robert’s suicide. The wind blew softly against her bare legs. She’d forgotten her robe, but what did it matter? There was no one to see her right now, and the T-shirt she slept in more than covered what could be seen over the balcony railing anyway.
She could hear the distant sound of the waves on the local beach and let her mind drift. The breeze swirled around her again, a gentle caress. She felt the first glimmer of relaxation and sighed in gratitude. This was more like it. The wind picked up a little, lifting a portion of her hair and blowing it back from her face.
“Chelle,” the voice came again, softer this time, like someone was whispering in her ear. The breeze grew stronger, and for a moment, she swore something touched her bare thigh. “I miss you, Chelle.”
Her chest locked up, smothering the scream that nearly tore from her lungs. Panic washed over her, and Michelle bolted back inside, slamming the sliding glass door behind her. She turned on every lamp and light switch, filling her little apartment with light and checking every corner and cranny. No one was there.
“What the hell is going on?” She was back in the middle of her living room, arms hugging her chest as she fought to slow down her hammering heartbeat. “C’mon, Michelle, keep it together.” She hugged herself harder and forced herself to breathe slowly until something vaguely resembling calm was restored.
“You’re just stressed, that’s all, and it’s been a hell of a day.” Michelle ran a hand through her sleep-tangled hair and then headed back to her bedroom. She needed to sleep, and then tomorrow she’d start dealing with everything. As she climbed back into bed, she glanced at the clock and groaned as she realized that tomorrow was already here.