A Taste of... Autumn's Break

Chapter One

Edwin Gallagher wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

Holding a small, silver-framed photograph, Edwin leaned back in his chair and sipped at the twenty-year-old whiskey in his tumbler, using his desk like an ottoman to rest his tired legs. His late wife would’ve smiled to see his feet up on the old farmhouse table she’d bought him for his home office a lifetime ago.

Doreen would have tickled the soles mercilessly and laughed as he jerked them back. “If you’re going to live like you were raised in a barn, you deserve whatever punishment you get.”

He gazed at her photograph, the one they’d taken together at their last anniversary. They’d been married thirty-five years. It was supposed to have been their “coral” anniversary, in between the twenty-fifth for silver and the fiftieth for gold. Instead, it turned into their “cancer” anniversary. Their last anniversary. Eight months after she’d smiled into the camera, she was gone.

The signs of it already showed in his wife’s face in the photograph, although they hadn’t known anything was wrong at the time. She’d said she was tired, but in true Doreen fashion, she hadn’t uttered a single complaint or even slowed down. Even as ravished by the hateful disease as she was, she smiled like an angel, her dimples adorable under her thick black curls.

Pancreatic cancer worked quickly. She’d been gone less than a year now, and the shock still washed over him from time to time.

Before cancer had taken her—fifty-eight was too damn young—she had been a force to reckon with. Organized, orderly, and solid. A loud, infectious laugh. Generous to a fault. And so very understanding. Would she understand him now?

Edwin thought about what he intended to do in just a few minutes, if all went well, and tried to imagine her reaction. Doreen would snort, roll her eyes, and poke him in the side. “I told you to take care of yourself, Schmoopsie Poo. If this makes you happy, then I’m happy for you.”

He remembered his final moments with her. The curls had fallen out from the chemo treatments, and the dimples had melted away with the rest of her body fat as the demon cancer spread throughout her every cell. Her deep belly laughs had become faint whispers.

He shuddered to remember her final moments. He dropped his feet to the floor and lifted the photograph up to the light.

Doreen smiled tenderly at him, still looking as though she were just about to break out into laughter, or to tell him that she loved him. He looked deep into her eyes and saw only approval for what he was about to do.

“Goodbye, darling…I promised you that I would live the rest of my life to the fullest. I just never thought I’d have to do it without you.” He kissed the glass in the frame gently, his lips lingering as he whispered, “Good night.”

With a heart that felt pulled in too many directions, he put the photograph away in the filing cabinet under the table, wincing at the sound of the drawer sliding home. It sounded like the closing of a tomb.

His heart gave a jerk behind his ribs, and he put his hand over his chest, his eyes filling with tears. Doreen would have been happy for him, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t feel like he was losing her all over again. This time on purpose. But did he have a choice?

He took a deep breath, wiped his eyes, and straightened in his chair. He couldn’t quite talk himself into putting his feet back up on the desk, and instead slipped them into the comfortable loafers he preferred when he was home.

It was still early evening, although it being mid-January meant that the sun had already fallen behind the horizon. He checked the time on the old-fashioned wood clock on the wall. Five minutes of six.

Five minutes to prepare for a “yes.”

Five minutes to prepare for a “no.”

In other words, not enough time—or far too much time, depending on how he looked at it.

Edwin stood up and walked to the window, feeling nervous as a boy. His reflection stared back at him, and he frowned at what he saw. His hair was thinning and more gray than blond, face covered with the lines of a life lived well. He hadn’t lived as fully as Doreen had, every moment of every day, but he hadn’t done too badly. Turning to the side, he patted his flat stomach before flexing an arm, the muscle of his bicep popping up in response. He might be decades older than the woman he wanted to marry, but he didn’t look too bad.

He poured another whiskey and stood at one of the windows that looked out onto the driveway. He brushed aside the lace curtains Doreen had picked out and watched for the glow of headlights.

Was he really ready to do this? Tonight?

He patted his pocket for what felt like the ten thousandth time. The little lump was still there. He took it out, a small black velvet box with rounded corners and a gold hinge in the back. He opened it once more and was delighted as the two-carat radiant-cut diamond nearly blinded him with twinkling light.

This was a ring worthy of a woman, and a twinge of guilt nipped at him…not for the first time.

Doreen’s ring had been much smaller. Purchased when they were both young and too broke for extravagance, it had been the best he could afford at the time. He’d offered to replace it with something more elaborate, but she’d refused. “You can buy me a necklace or some fancy earrings if you have such a bug up your butt about it, but this is the ring you thee-wedded-me with, and I’m not taking it off.”

And she never did. In fact, she had made him promise to let her wear it to the grave. He tried not to imagine what her hand looked like now, as decomposition wore at the skin. The flesh drying and shrinking as…

A pair of headlights turned into his driveway, and Edwin was relieved to have his mind pulled away from the treacherous thoughts. With one last look at the filing cabinet and its lone picture, Edwin took in a deep breath, firmly replacing the past with the present…and he hoped, the future.

The car parked to the far right of the house, and the headlights winked out. He didn’t know why she refused to park at the garage, but that was a conversation for another day. Right now, he just wanted to savor the anticipation of what was to come. In just a few moments, his happiness would once again be complete.

The front door opened, and he finished the whiskey and put the ring back in his pocket.

He didn’t want to spoil the surprise.

He walked out of the study and into the foyer just as Kim was standing on the patterned entryway rug, taking off her boots. Her coat was on the brass coat hanger stand by the door, her big black leather purse on a nearby barnwood bench like it belonged there.

Which was exactly what he wanted.

He waited until she straightened, his throat almost too tight to welcome her. “Hello, sweetheart,” he finally managed to say. “Did you have a good day?”

She brushed long auburn hair out of her face, the old, faded scar at her temple catching the light. Her fingers brushed the puckered flesh, and her face changed to a mix of shame and self-loathing, but only for a second before her hair dropped back down to cover the flaw.

Edwin didn’t know why she was so very self-conscious of the scar. He’d asked her about it several times, but she’d always brushed his questions away. The jagged line didn’t draw attention from the fit body that was currently hidden under a blue sweater that fell over black tights. In fact, it didn’t come close to drawing attention away from Kim’s numerous positive qualities, both inside and out.

She squinted at him, waving her arms in front of her as she attempted to peer through glasses that were steamed from the sudden warmth of the home compared to the cold of outside. “Is that you, Edwin, or is it foggy in here?” She laughed playfully, the sound making his heart leap in his chest. “Brr! It’s cold out there.”

He chuckled and opened his arms. “I’ll warm you up.”

She stepped into them, standing on tiptoe on the rug in order to snuggle into his arms more completely. She was chilly, as if she’d been driving with the heat off and the window down. He held her tight. She shivered at first, but soon settled into his embrace. He kissed the top of her head, breathing in the scent of her lilac shampoo.

Pulling away from him a few inches, she peered up at him through glasses that were still a little bit fogged. She looked worried. “Are you all right? You seem…” She shook her head and placed her cold hand on his cheek. “Did something happen today?”

The ring seemed to grow heavier in his pocket. In his imagination, what he was about to do had seemed so simple. In reality, he was sweating. He needed to do this here…now…before his nerves got the best of him again.

Here we go.

Taking a single step back, he wiped his palms down his pants and took one of her small, gentle hands in his own. He scratched the side of his nose, which seemed to always want to itch when he was nervous.

Taking a deep breath, he forced the words out of his mouth. “Kim, you know that I love you.”

Her face brightened, a shy smile creeping out. “I know.” Her expression slowly shifted into a frown. “This isn’t some kind of setup for you explaining why you have to leave me, is it? Please don’t tell me that you’re too old for me or anything like that.”

He had to blink to keep his eyes from overspilling with tears. “No, no, that’s not it. Not at all. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. I’ve decided the age thing doesn’t matter to me as much as I thought it did. It was just my way of trying to hold myself back. No, what I really want is to make you happy.”

As his leg muscles tensed in order to do what he ordered of them, his heart raced with excitement and hope.

Could he do this?

Could he get down on one knee without falling over?

Could he reach into his heart and find the perfect words to say?

Could he…stand again afterward without asking for a hand up or having his knee pop or give out on the way back up?

Yes, he decided. He could.

And he would.

As his knee sank into the thick material of the rug, he took the small box from his pocket. “Kim…not so many months ago, I thought my world had ended, then you swept in and breathed new life into me. I love you more than I ever thought I could love anything or anyone, and I want to spend the rest of my life at your side.” He swallowed hard, emotion burning his eyes as he opened the box. “Kimberly Elizabeth Benson, will you marry me?”

Her hands flew to her mouth the moment she saw the ring, and her beautiful green eyes shifted from one emotion to the next as he watched, his entire being trembling with anticipation. Shock transitioned into delight, then gradually softened into sympathy before her eyebrows pinched into worry. “Oh, Edwin. Are you sure?”

He held the box higher. “I’m sure.”

She licked her lips and twisted her fingers together. “What would Doreen think about this?”

It was the last thing he had expected her to say, and the tightness in his throat grew. “Believe it or not, I’ve been thinking about it all day. I think she would be happy for us.”

Her eyes sparkled with tears as she leaned down to his still kneeling form, one arm circling his shoulders, her long hair falling into his face. She leaned against him, resting her head against his shoulder. He soaked in the scent of her soft, floral perfume as he tightened his arms around her.

The soft hiss of a zipper caught his attention, and he nearly fell over as Kim’s weight shifted against him. Was she reaching for a tissue? Had she fainted? Why hadn’t she said yes?

Worry spiraled through him as she pulled away and stood to her full height. His worry transformed to fear the moment he once again gazed into her eyes. They were no longer filled with love. They were now filled with anger and something else…hate?

Her nostrils flared as her fingernails sank into the back of his neck. “Wrong answer.” The words were more like a hiss.

He tried to pull away, but her arm tightened, holding him in place. Fear like he’d never known crawled like spiders across his skin. “Kim? Honey, what’s wr—”

White-hot pain made him jerk and twist like a puppet on a string. A horrific crunching sound filled the air, and agony rose straight up his back and into his teeth. His nerves screamed in shock as he struggled, still trapped within Kim’s embrace.

She grunted, and the blade in his back turned, sending a new wave of misery following in its wake.

He tried to make his mouth work, wanting to beg her for an answer, but he could barely take in enough air to breathe. “Why?” The sound of his voice was little more than a decaying whisper.

With a final grunt, Kim let him go and stepped away. Her eyes changed as they gazed down at him, still somehow on his knees. They sparkled again, but this time with satisfaction, maybe even…righteousness.

Edwin attempted to stand, but instead, he fell forward, his arms and chest slumping like a heavy winter coat sliding off its hook, carrying him off-balance until he had to use his hands to hold himself up. He raised his head, needing to see her face. She was watching him, a cruel looking knife with a black blade held in one hand.

He blinked, wondering where a sweet woman such as Kim would have gotten a military knife such as that. As he watched, a drop of blood fell from the tip and landed on the beautiful Persian rug Doreen had purchased so many years ago.

The sight angered him, but before he could utter a reprimand, his hands collapsed underneath him, and he fell, his cheek pressed against the rug before he managed to roll onto his back.

Light from the chandelier hurt his eyes, and he turned his head so that he could get one last look at the woman he loved…the woman who had betrayed him. Killed him.

“Why?” The word was even weaker than before.

The expression of satisfaction on her face widened into a wicked grin. She reached up for her glasses and tossed them to the side. Taking a step forward, she dropped to one knee.

The knife lunged toward him as if it had a mind of its own, as if her hand only obeyed the cold steel’s command.

And was hungry for his blood.

“You’re just like the rest of them.”

She clearly hated him so much. How had he not seen the cruel emotion hiding beneath her beauty? “Kim, I—”

The knife drove into his throat, filling his mouth with the taste of metal.

As his beloved sweetheart pulled the knife away, the space it left behind was filled with an ocean of warm, wet fluid that ran down into his lungs.

His hand clasped his throat, the movement coming without any conscious will of his own. He could no longer control his movements as his body struggled to save itself. But even his deepest instincts could not save him now. Not when he had trusted this woman so deeply and understood her so little.

His heart pounded in his chest, a prisoner beating against the bars of its cage, a quick barrage of beats driven by terror. Through the pain, he listened to the whirl of his pulse as it grew weaker…slower.

As darkness began to claim his vision, he kept his gaze fixed on her face. She had killed him. With death in front of him, a cave waiting to swallow him whole, he still didn’t understand what had gone so wrong.

Why would she do such a thing?

Was she crazy?

Had he failed her?

Laughter echoed through the room, but because he was watching her face, he knew the sound wasn’t coming from Kim’s lips.

Doreen appeared beside the younger woman, her approving smile turning darker with anger, hatred, jealousy as the giggles turned into howls.

He’d been so wrong. So very, very wrong. About everything.

Doreen hadn’t approved, and now she was laughing at him, making fun of him for wanting too much, too soon. Much too soon.

He had failed her.

Failed Kim.

Failed himself.

As his vision dimmed completely, he was certain of only one thing. He would wander the land of the afterworld completely alone.

Chapter Two

What had I done?

Again.

Killing Edwin Gallagher hadn’t been part of my plan. Not really, and especially not tonight.

I’d actually been rooting for the little fellow, hoping against hope that he was a better man than he turned out to be. I’d prayed that he’d come to his senses and realize just how selfish he had been by turning his back on his late wife, especially so soon after her brutal death.

But…

He’d failed Doreen.

He’d failed me.

And ultimately, he’d failed himself.

This was all his fault.

His fault…his fault…his fault!

Taking in a deep breath, I forced the air coming in and out of my lungs to slow down. I was going to hyperventilate or have an anxiety attack if I wasn’t careful.

Breathe in.

Out.

Repeat.

Once I was a bit calmer, I took in the scene. Took in myself. What did I feel?

Disappointment was the first word to shoot through my brain.

The disappointment was hard, but I had to admit, the killing had been easy.

Was that good? Or bad?

I couldn’t tell.

Of course, I had a little bit of practice by now, and it helped that his end time had come so unexpectedly. I hadn’t known that the bastard was planning to go down on one knee. Hadn’t known how the fury would rage inside me. Take over me. Lead my every move.

A trill of renewed anger vibrated through me as I recalled Edwin’s words and the look in his eyes as he proclaimed that he loved me “more than I ever thought I could love anything or anyone.”

It was those words that had condemned him to a death sentence.

Those words had fueled the hate and fury bubbling beneath my skin. Made me reach for my purse. Pull out the knife. Plunge it into his back, which was fitting. After all, with those eleven words, he’d effectively plunged a knife into the back of his late wife.

Tit for tat.

Poetic justice, in my own humble opinion.

But now…I had a problem.

Because I honestly hadn’t planned on killing Edwin, especially not so abruptly or with so much blood involved, I had a mess to clean up. I also had a story to weave for the authorities when they came sniffing around to investigate his disappearance, which they would surely be forced to do when one of his kids or friends reported him missing.

What to do?

His body was sprawled on top of the rug, which was so soaked with blood that the pretty Persian was now a solid color. I watched until it stopped pumping out of his body, breathing in and out to further calm myself as the time passed.

It didn’t take long for most of the viscous liquid to exhaust itself, but it seemed that hours had passed as I watched. My skin prickled and stung as I waited, like someone had been rubbing pepper into a paper cut.

Despite the gore, Edwin looked almost peaceful. It was a mask, though. Edwin Gallagher had worked hard to maintain the illusion of being a good man, but I knew the truth.

Edwin’s wife, Doreen, had died of pancreatic cancer only seven months ago, and the bastard had been quick to get back into the saddle. My saddle, and who knew how many others before me.

The poor little widower had refused to show me photographs of his late wife, saying that he didn’t want me to feel like I was living in her shadow. He wouldn’t talk about her, and when he spoke of her, it was almost by accident. He would start relating a story about his past but would then cut himself off or change the story so that his wife was no longer present in it. He thought he was being clever, but I knew his actual intentions.

“There was this one time when we went to church…” he’d said just yesterday, then stopped and reconsidered, scratching his nose. He always scratched his nose when he was nervous. “I mean, this one time that I went to church…”

He seemed to think that he was sparing me, but I knew the truth.

He was erasing her.

Edwin had been systematically removing Doreen from his life for months.

Every trace of her throughout the house was gone. Not a single photograph of her remained on display. Over the short time I’d known Edwin—just under a month—I had looked. I could tell where the pictures had once hung.

As a more or less stereotypical engineer, Edwin didn’t have an artistic temperament and hadn’t bothered to rearrange the art to conceal the obvious blank places on the walls, the empty spots on the tops of dressers, and the gaping spaces between books where photo albums had once rested on the shelves.

He hadn’t noticed.

I had.

It had disgusted me, witnessing yet another man so callously move on with his life, as if the woman who had cared for him had never existed. I’d hoped Edwin would be different. Not just for his sake, but for me too. If just one man would prove to me that not all men were the same, maybe I wouldn’t feel so much hate for the entire gender.

But Edwin was exactly the same. He just wanted a younger replacement to fill his bed. To prove to himself that his wrinkled up little dick still held all the power. That he was still a man.

But marriage?

How ridiculous.

I hadn’t meant to make him pay with his life…just his lifesavings. The savings his sweet wife would never benefit from. But then he sank down on one knee…

Shivering, I recalled that exact moment. Recalled how the light had glittered from the ring. A ring with one intention…to prove Edwin’s ownership of me.

I might have gone a little crazy.

There. I admitted it.

Yes. Crazy. But only a little.

Settling a score for his late wife seemed quite sane to me. I just wish it hadn’t been right here. Or right now. And certainly not before I’d drained this pitiful man’s lifesavings, taking him for everything he owned.

But by asking for my hand in marriage, he’d forced my hand. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

Now, what to do with the body?

I could toss the house and make it look like a burglar had struck, but I’d done that before, and in the end, it hadn’t benefited me at all. Because I’d known then what I knew now. The minute I cleaned out Edwin’s accounts, the police would know the crime wasn’t as simple as a B & E gone wrong.

With my first victim, I’d been forced to toss his place and then walk away, not getting more than a couple thousand dollars that he’d lavished on me during the dating process. Carl Jameson had been so very generous with his gifts, and I hadn’t meant to kill him either. He just…he just…

I shook my head, pressing my fists against both temples to keep my brain from exploding. I didn’t want to think of Carl right now. Didn’t want to remember how he’d sung me that stupid song of love with his stupid guitar. Didn’t want to think of his confessions of love. Didn’t want to think of my reaction. My lack of control.

So far, the police hadn’t suspected that Carl had died at my hands, and I wanted to keep it that way. They just wouldn’t understand that his death had been an accident. A happy one, but an accident, nonetheless.

Edwin’s death had been an accident too, I told myself. I hadn’t intended on killing him. He’d made me. Made me! His fault…his fault…his fault!

Opening my eyes, I realized I was on the floor, though I didn’t remember how I’d gotten in that position. Sitting up slowly, I wondered if maybe this entire thing had been a dream.

But no, Edwin was still there. Just as Carl and Brice had been there too. Three deaths by my hand.

Serial killer.

The words whispered around me like a snake.

I’d watched enough crime shows to know that if anyone labeled me as a serial killer, the Feds would be called in. The chances of being caught before I could finish my mission and disappear would increase. And that wouldn’t do.

Right now, the authorities hadn’t connected me to Carl. Only Brice.

And I couldn’t allow them to connect me to Edwin either.

I had to be careful, and make the poor widower simply disappear. I just needed to make sure that I didn’t leave anything behind that would give my plan away.

Evidence. It was the word I most feared. That was why I very seldom came to Edwin’s or any of my suitors’ homes. Most of the time, I invited them back to my place.

Not my real home, of course, but to the cute little apartment I rented for that very purpose. I’d cook for him, and we’d have long conversations by the fire. I’d let him kiss me, even fondle my breast with shaky fingers.

Then I’d send him home, leaving him panting for more.

It always worked.

Sleep with a man, and they thought they owned you. Tease a man, and their ego always had them coming back for more.

And tonight was supposed to have been that night. It had all been so carefully planned. He would have bowed down to me, taken his punishment. Then, he would have eaten out of my hand, if I’d allowed it.

I glanced at the engagement ring again.

A marriage proposal after only a month of dating was a record, and I shouldn’t have killed him for it. Not yet, anyway. He was supposed to have been punished first. Plus, emptying a person of their savings took time if one wanted to do it in a way that didn’t raise their target’s attention.

Of course, my target’s attention would never again be raised, so it wasn’t too late to help myself to what I could get my hands on. But the authorities…I had to be careful because of them.

I looked at his body, at how quickly it was already changing as death took over.

If I didn’t hurry…I’d lose my chance.

First thing first was getting access to Edwin’s phone. Being careful not to step in the blood with these particular shoes, I patted his pocket, and sure enough, the device was there. Once it was removed, I looked at his hands. They were covered with blood. I had some cleanup to do first.

Running outside and into the cold, I grabbed my Mary Poppins bag from the trunk of my car. I’d learned at a young age to be prepared for anything, and this bag was filled with items I thought I might one day need.

And tonight, I’d planned to need everything inside, but not for this.

Tonight was the night I had planned to have Edwin submit to me. They always did, even the manliest of them. On their knees, bound, begging for more.

That was how I liked them.

But Edwin had been down on his knee for a completely different reason, so it was his fault…his fault…his fault that he had to die.

“Stop it,” I told myself sternly. What was done was done, and I had to stay focused on what needed to be done next.

I’d learned that secret from my dearest daddy. “The past is the past and no longer matters,” he liked to say. But all his sage advice really did was give him an excuse to feel no guilt for everything he did…to Mama…to others…to me.

“Stop it!”

The command came out much louder than I’d intended, the words echoing through the stillness of the cold night.

Back inside, I considered taking off my wig but decided to keep it in place. If a hair slipped out and escaped my attention, I didn’t want any lethal DNA strands to belong to me. Still, I pulled the long tresses back from my face and wrapped it in a tight coil. No need to leave any evidence at all, especially since I’d paid a king’s ransom for the custom-fitted mane of gloriously real hair.

If the authorities were to believe that Edwin simply disappeared, I didn’t want to give them any proof that foul play might be involved. A long red hair could muddy the waters unnecessarily.

Next, I pulled out the skintight latex suit I’d brought with an entirely different reason in mind. Shedding my clothes, I pulled it on, the rubbery material clinging to each inch of my skin as I zipped it up.

Tonight should have been so much different.

“But it isn’t,” I hissed to myself before exchanging my shoes for a pair of comfortable rubber-soled ones, then slipped on a pair of Tyvek booties. One could never be too careful.

Safe sex.

Safe death.

For me, they were one and the same.

After pulling on some latex gloves, I picked up the small velvet box with its betrayal ring inside. The diamond was spotted with Edwin’s blood. Fire and ice. The combination was intriguing.

So intriguing.

The flavor of blood was on my tongue before I even realized I needed a taste. This blood was cold…unsatisfying…and before I could stop myself, I was bending and pressing my lips to Edwin’s neck, and sucked.

Warmth.

Better.

So much better.

Someone moaned…me, I realized, and the sound pulled me from my trance. Disgusted with myself, I pushed away so hard that I fell onto my ass. What was wrong with me?

“What’s wrong with me?” I screamed the question this time, needing it out of my head.

“Nothing.” The word was like a whisper in my ear. “You’re just combining his DNA with yours so this moment can be with you forever.”

Yes. That was it. I remembered now.

I was simply carrying Edwin Gallagher with me forever. I was absorbing him into my system so that his essence would fuel my hate.

I licked my lips and looked at the oozing wound again. I turned away. No. Just no. Licking my lips, I knew that one taste was impulse. Two tastes labeled me as crazy.

Forcing myself to focus, I wiped Edwin’s thumb with an alcohol prep wipe and hurried to press the digit to the sensor of his phone. This part couldn’t wait. In my vast research, I’d learned that dead people’s fingerprints changed rather quickly once their heart stopped beating. Decomposition took place immediately, dehydration a part of the process. I could have sucked on Edwin’s thumb to rehydrate it, but the blood there would be cold.

Cold couldn’t satisfy. Couldn’t comfort.

With the phone now unlocked, I went into his settings and turned off all the password protections. Now…I could take my time. I had hours and hours to roam the beautiful house and dispose of the widower. And possibly take pictures that would be profitable on the dark web.

People were so perverted. But money was money. If I was going to reach my goal to have enough to disappear forever, I couldn’t turn any of the green stuff or bitcoin away.

And because I’d been impulsive, I might have to stay away from Edwin’s other accounts.

Dammit.

Turning slowly, I took in Edwin’s vast home. I’d been inside only a few times. Part of my strategy in hooking a catch was to make it well known that I wasn’t after his money or any of his possessions, which was why I usually invited him back to my place. My first visit here, Edwin gave me the grand tour, except for his study. On my second visit, he’d carefully slid the reclaimed barnwood door shut then as well.

What he was hiding in there, I didn’t know and hadn’t asked. Another strategy of catching a man was to never question his intentions. Only question the man…be enormously curious about each and every detail of him. Listen in rapt fascination as he droned on and on about his work, his accomplishments, his interests. Smile and laugh, soften the eyes, gaze at him as if he was the most fascinating human you’d ever encountered.

And just like that…hook, line, sinker.

Edwin’s sinker had been the dazzling diamond he’d wanted to brand me with. I didn’t want it. I wanted more. Much, much more.

The barnwood door squeaked as I slid it open, and it only took a few minutes to go through his desk. As a retiree, he did very little work anymore. Bills. Bank statements. 401k plans. Keys to safety deposit boxes.

Bingo…a little black book with all his passwords.

Another way I’d reeled Edwin in was by asking him to “teach” me how to solidify my portfolio, and the man had happily whipped out his smartphone to show me the apps he used. Men just loved to educate and instruct. They loved to fix problems by mansplaining ad nauseam.

With the account information now in my possession on the device, I could have hacked them all, but having the passwords saved a great deal of time. I just needed to be careful in how I funneled them to my accounts, if I ever decided it was safe enough to do so. For now, I could start by misdirecting the authorities into believing it had been one of his bratty kids who didn’t want to wait for an inheritance.

I’d never met Edwin and Doreen’s children, of course. The three were scattered across North America, but Edwin had told me how he regretted spoiling them so much. Regretted how they only called when they needed something from him.

Especially the youngest. Danielle. Hooked on drugs and bouncing from man to man, she would be the perfect fall guy for my plan. Flipping through the little black book, I found exactly what I needed. Danielle’s bank account information. A little transfer from one of the accounts of Edwin’s vast portfolio should lead authorities on a merry little chase.

Smiling now that I’d created a plan, I continued to search his office. I found the jewelry store receipt for the engagement ring Edwin had purchased just a few days ago. The amount would have been impressive, if it hadn’t been an attempt to buy freedom from guilt in betraying his wife. The receipt was in a folder called “taxable items,” and my heart hardened even more. This folder was for his accountant.

For men like Edwin, romance was just a business expense.

Pocketing the receipt, I yanked open the final drawer in the file cabinet and paused as a face stared up at me. Two faces, actually. Edwin and a pretty woman with curly black hair and dimpled cheeks.

Doreen.

I’d found pictures of the woman online. She’d had social media accounts, and volunteered her precious time at a number of charities. But this was the first picture of her I’d seen in Edwin’s house.

One picture, tossed into the very bottom of a drawer.

So pathetic.

If I’d had even the slightest tinge of guilt for sinking that knife into Edwin’s flesh, I didn’t anymore.

The two of them sat together at a small table with a bottle of Chianti and a red rose between them. Edwin’s arm was around Doreen. She was very thin, her skin sagging at her jawline, making me wonder if the photograph had been taken shortly before her diagnosis.

As tired as her eyes looked, though, she wore a genuine smile.

Edwin? Not so much. His expression was flat and emotionless. Even cold.

I ran my finger over the woman’s smiling face. “Well, Doreen? What do you think? How does it feel, knowing that your ‘one true love’ couldn’t wait barely six months before he went looking for a younger model?”

Doreen didn’t answer, partly because she was dead, and partly because she had no doubt been the kind of woman—good-hearted, open, generous—who hadn’t been able to see the bad in anyone.

Ever.

My throat tightened. The woman in the photograph seemed to smile ruefully at me, as if to say, Love is blind, kiddo. It’s hindsight that’s twenty-twenty.

“Isn’t it, though?” I asked the photo wryly.

The snapshot was in a silver frame engraved with Happy 35th Anniversary Edwin & Doreen. It had a stand-up back, so I carried it out to the foyer and put it on a side table so it could face Edwin’s dead body as I worked.

And I had much work to do.

Disposing of the body was the most urgent…and most dangerous. But I had no other choice. I couldn’t just leave it here where Edwin’s weekly housekeeper would find it in a couple days.

Delaying discovery always meant that less evidence could be collected. But I also liked the idea of it, of cleaning up after the guy so that he was being erased too, the way he had tried to erase his wife.

I found cleaning supplies in a closet that I was sure nobody but a weekly maid had touched since Doreen’s death, and used them to mop up the worst of the blood that had oozed out from the sides of the rug. I did not want to be tracking my way through that.

“Even from the grave, it must sting,” I told the photo. “To spend your entire life loving a man, and then to have ‘til death do us part taken so literally…that’s just unforgiveable, right?”

Doreen didn’t answer. The smile plastered on her dying face looked a little fake and strained, to be honest. Just because women had to learn to smile through their disappointments didn’t mean it was easy.

Pausing in my work, I realized that I was treating the situation a little more flippantly than it deserved. I faced the photo again.

“I’m sorry. This is a serious moment, and I don’t mean to sound sarcastic.” I placed my gloved hand over my heart, hoping to demonstrate my sincerity to the dead woman. “I have nothing but sympathy for you. I swear, I never intended to try to take your place. As a matter of fact, I took a vow to put things right. And I promise I’ll get you out of here soon. I just have a few more things to take care of.”

A glance at the clock gave me a jolt of surprise. I’d spent hours going through Edwin’s office. Needing the cover of darkness to do what I must now do meant I couldn’t dally any longer. It wasn’t even midnight yet, but I wanted to give myself plenty of time.

Rushing to the kitchen, I snatched up the keys of Edwin’s flashy Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class and went into the garage. Opening the tailgate, I folded the back seats down before covering the now extended cargo area with several layers of heavy plastic I found on the garage’s well-stocked shelves. After that, I hurried to the merry widower’s weight room and snagged forty pounds of free weights. He wouldn’t need them again. The idea made me even madder, thinking of the older man trying to get in shape for a younger woman when he probably didn’t give a shit how he looked when he was married to Doreen.

Taking a deep breath, I refused to think about that anymore. I needed to clear my mind for the task ahead. Being upset over things I couldn’t control would only distract me and lead to mistakes.

I couldn’t make any of those. Too much was at stake.

With those tasks complete, I went back to the foyer and put on a disposable raincoat I kept in my bag in case of unanticipated splatter. As tightly as I could, I made an Edwin burrito by rolling the rug around him, then rolled the entire thing in a tarp I’d also found. He was heavier than I’d imagined he would be as I dragged him through the house, grateful that the floor was tile, making the task much easier. Still, I was sweating by the time I reached the garage.

 Grunting and cursing, I hefted the entire burrito into the cargo area, making sure the plastic stayed firmly in place. With a sigh of relief, I slammed the tailgate shut before continuing with my work.

I cleaned up the mess as best as I could, using a custom mix of hydrogen peroxide and other household cleaners that should help break down the hemoglobin in the blood and make it harder for any probing crime scene investigator to track. Well, from luminol, at least. I had no doubt that there were more high-tech ways to spot blood, but if I was very clever, law enforcement would never have a reason to use them. Only time would tell.

When that was done, I wandered around the house, tempted to take small items that I knew were incredibly valuable. I didn’t, of course. Physical items could be traced, and to sell them I would need a buyer. When more than one person knew your secrets, it increased your risk of exposure.

And too many people already knew.

Something else I didn’t want to think about too closely.

In the basement, I spotted a rug that looked very similar to the one that was currently serving as Edwin’s casket. My high esteem for Doreen went out the window as I unrolled yet another expensive Persian. How could anyone just toss such a beautiful object into a storage space like this? So very wasteful. Maybe she did deserve to waste away from the cancer after all.

With the abandoned rug firmly in place in the foyer, I took a tub of disinfectant wipes from my bag and set to work wiping down everything I’d touched. On my hands and knees, I made sure that not a single hair could be used as evidence against me. A final sweep and mop of the area, and I was certain that I was safe.

Soon, the kitchen, foyer, and garage, and everywhere I’d snooped, were as spotless as I could make them, and the rags, mophead, and leftover cleaning supplies were either packed up in my purse or in garbage bags in the trunk of my car.

Pulling on Edwin’s coat, I secured his hat down over most of my forehead. Changing into a fresh pair of gloves, I was ready to leave. I locked the front door, went into the garage, and started Edwin’s Mercedes. My own car was on the opposite side of the driveway, as far away from any nosy neighbors as could be, and its current location meant I wouldn’t have any trouble backing out.

It didn’t take long to make it to a bridge three counties over. In the movies, the killer was always putting a dead body into the driver’s seat, starting the car, and jamming a rock on the gas pedal. They set the car in drive, and it would then shoot over a cliff to a crescendo of dramatic music.

And then the cops recovered the car and found some damned piece of evidence in it.

Me, I just parked the car as far out along the embankment as I dared, checked for oncoming traffic, and dragged the Edwin burrito out of the back and over to the embankment on the upstream side of the bridge.

Just as I was about to heave him over, I realized that I’d forgotten the weights. I didn’t want him floating up too soon. Or ever, hopefully. I ran back to the SUV and grabbed the weights and a roll of tape from my bag, then carefully stuffed the heavy cast iron into the rug, using the duct tape to secure everything nice and tight.

As I worked, I flinched every time I thought I heard a car approach.

None did. I was lucky.

When everything was ready, I looked up at the dark sky. “You’re free now, Doreen. Vengeance is yours, and you may now truly rest in peace.”

With the very last of my strength, I hefted him over the side of the near-vertical embankment and watched him tumble downward, crossing my fingers that he wouldn’t get stuck on a rock or a branch. The last thing I wanted to do was try to climb down there in the dark.

But he landed in the water with a slushy splash. Seconds later, he was consumed by his watery grave.

Walking a half mile or so down the river, I found a particularly wide area and threw the knife with all my might. It disappeared just as easily as Edwin had.

Well, that was that.

The cold air felt wonderful on my heated skin as I walked back to Edwin’s SUV. I drove back to the house and reentered the garage. Once the door had closed, I wiped down every surface with cleaning wipes and then used the shop vac in the corner to make sure I didn’t leave any random strands of the red hair.

Removing the collection container, I stuffed it along with Edwin’s hat and coat into a large black bag. I walked carefully back through the house, searching for anything I might have missed. Back in the foyer, it was just me and Doreen again.

I picked up her photograph. “Time to go, sweetie. Soon, we’ll have a ladies’ night. I promise.”

I also picked up the engagement ring, scowling at the ten-thousand-dollar diamond. I would worry about disposing of it later.

Considering my night’s activities hadn’t been planned, I thought it had all gone smoothly. And yet…I was left feeling unsatisfied. I’d been initially fulfilled, knowing I had rid the earth of a man who didn’t deserve to breathe the air that Mother Nature produced, but now, after handling all the details, I felt tired, achy, and hollow. Although I was still glad that I’d killed him for Doreen’s sake, the magic of the night had rubbed off already.

What was missing?

Was it just too much time spent cleaning up afterward? Should I have been more cruel? Made sure that he fully understood why I’d turned on him?

Probably.

As I backed out of the driveway and headed out onto the road, I brainstormed ideas for making my future Romeos suffer more. Pain only lasted so long. Unless it was my pain, and then, it was never-ending.

It was the anticipation of pain that built the suspense, I realized as I pondered the thought. Now, all I needed was more anticipation.

And when I selected my next victim, he would suffer more. I would see to that.

Autumn's Break releases on October 6!

Autumn's Break by Mary Stone

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