Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Previous: The Hunt
Next: Devil May Care

I sat on the sofa and watched my dead ex-husband take the last pizza slice from the box. I suppose I should say, “My dead ex-husband’s ghost,” but he didn’t look like a ghost. Or act like one. I’d think he wasn’t dead at all if it wasn’t for the way his head lolled to the side, neck broken.

I suppose, too, that I shouldn’t call him my ex when the divorce hadn’t been finalized. And, no, that impending divorce had nothing to do with his accident. I’d been there, but I hadn’t killed him.

“You know what would go great with this?” he said, lifting the dripping pizza slice. “A cold beer. Any chance, babe?”

“You don’t need a beer. You’re dead.”

He shrugged and leaned back into the couch, feet propped on the coffee table. “That’s a matter of opinion.”

“Well, you’re dead to me.”

He met my gaze. “Am I?”

I got up and went to bed.

As I tried to sleep, I could hear him downstairs. Not giving me a moment’s rest. Selfish bastard.

My mother had warned me not to marry him. With my mother, though, there were few things in life she hadn’t warned me against, from riding a bike to buying my own business. She had her reasons—I was her only child, and she’d been an invalid since the accident that killed my father, so it was in her best interests to keep me safe and close. Whenever I suggested getting my own place, she’d peer over her glasses, cold eyes glittering, and say, “Go on, but remember this: If you walk out that door, you’re dead to me.”

Those were the last words she’d said when I finally did leave to get married. Six months later, she was dead, and the house was mine. I’d rented it out until, sadly, her predictions on my marriage proved all too accurate.

Despite her dire prophesies, it hadn’t ended badly. We separated by mutual agreement. I returned to my mother’s house. He kept the condo, which he’d had before we married. As a lawyer, he made more money, but I pulled in enough not to bother with alimony. No kids, no pets, no fuss, no muss. He’d even given me a convertible as a parting gift . . . and to make sure my bedroom door stayed open.

I walked into the bathroom the next morning and found him in the shower. I tried to pass by, but he threw open the door and leaned out.

“Wanna join me?” he asked, waggling his brows.

“No, thanks.”

He only grinned. “Then I guess I’ll have to take care of it myself.”

He wrapped his fingers around his cock and met my gaze, his grin inviting me to watch. There’d been a time when I would have—a lot of times when I had. But there was nothing sexy about a dead guy whacking off in my shower.

I turned away and started brushing my teeth. A couple of minutes later, the door squeaked open again.

“Grab me a towel, babe?”

“You’re dead,” I said, not looking up from the sink.

“Matter of opinion.”

I turned then. “You want an apology, don’t you? That’s what this is all about. Yes, I’m sorry you’re dead. But I have no reason to apologize.”

“No?”

“No. Now go away.”

“Til death do us part, babe,” he said, grinning. “And you’re not—”

I strode out and slammed the door behind me.

I spent the morning in my home office trying to balance the bar’s books and ignore the noise from downstairs. It was him, demanding my attention, as usual. That’s the misleading thing about strong-willed people. You figure if they’re so capable, they won’t need you. Bullshit. First my mother, then my husband, always demanding, always expecting, always needing. Death didn’t change that.

At first, he’d liked what I’d done with my life. He’d been tired of dating lawyers and doctors and PhDs. A bar owner with a high school education better suited his bad boy self-image.

After we married, though, he started expecting more. More of my time, more of my attention. Why couldn’t I host dinner for his colleagues? Why wouldn’t I join the other wives at their charity luncheons? Why didn’t I try harder to fit in? Why didn’t I make more of an effort to better inform myself, better educate myself, just better myself?

He began to notice my deficiencies. Not that he’d ever say so outright, but he got in his little digs, always joking that he might not have the smartest wife in the room, but he always had the hottest one. Eventually I decided I was more mistress material than wife. He didn’t disagree. So we split, he got the stuck-up, straight-laced lawyer girlfriend, and I was the woman he came to when he wanted to hang out and kick back, to talk and screw until morning.

That was fine by me. I got as much out of it as he did . . . until two days ago, when I told him it was over. He didn’t like that, and he died because of it. But I didn’t kill him.

When I went downstairs to head out to work, he was there, crouched at the bottom of the stairs, fingering a dent in the baluster.

“Seems I left a mark,” he said.

“Yes. A year ago, when you ripped out my mother’s chair-lift for me. Remember?”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. You fell—” I pointed “—over there.”

He looked at me. His eyes had started sinking into his skull. I glanced away and tried to walk past him, but he stepped into my path. Tried again. Blocked again.

“What?” I said.

No answer.

“I didn’t push you down those stairs and you know it.”

He didn’t argue, only slid his gaze to the side, conceding my point.

“So why are you—? Oh, I know. You wanted a proper burial—big funeral, fancy headstone, scenic plot.” I crossed my arms and looked up at him. “You know I couldn’t do that. How would it look? You break your neck on my stairs three days before our divorce is finalized? The cops would have ripped me apart, and your bitch girlfriend would lead the charge.”

He didn’t argue, which was as good as agreement. He didn’t get out of my way, either.

“What if one of your clients called with the same story?” I said. “Her soon-to-be-ex died from a fall down her stairs after an argument. You would have told her—off the record, of course—to do exactly what I did.”

Again he said nothing. This time, when I tried to get past he let me.

After work, I lay in bed, listening to him downstairs. He seemed to be getting quieter, but I could still hear him. Damn him. Tenacity was a fine trait, but there comes a time when one needs to accept the inevitable. He never could, and that’s what had gotten him killed.

He’d come over Thursday night, as he always did, telling his girlfriend he liked to work late and wrap everything up before the weekend. We had our routine down pat. He’d bring takeout. We’d watch TV, maybe a movie. Then we’d adjourn to the bedroom, euphemistically speaking. There were rarely beds involved.

That day, over Chinese takeout, I’d told him there would be no more Thursday nights after the divorce. I’d had enough of his jealous girlfriend, always sending her friends to my bar to check up on me, driving past my house when he didn’t come home on time, cornering me in the grocery store to warn me that once the divorce was final, I’d have no reason for contact with him. At first, I’d been amused. After a year, I was sick of it. Besides, I’d met someone, a firefighter who came into the bar now and then, and we’d hit it off and, well, you know . . . Point was, it was time for us both to move on.

He hadn’t liked that.

We’d argued. When it was obvious he wasn’t listening to me, I’d retreated up the stairs. He followed. At the top, he’d grabbed my arm. I’d wrenched away. He’d fallen. The end. Not my fault.

It was over, and he couldn’t accept that now any more than he had on Thursday. It was time for another chat. So I went downstairs.

He wasn’t grinning and teasing now. Again, nothing new. His grins had always been quick to turn to scowls when charm didn’t get him what he wanted.

“Get over it,” I said.

He glowered at me, sunken eyes narrowing.

“Don’t give me that look. Remember Tim from your softball team? Paralyzed in that ski accident? What did you say?”

He only glared, his shriveled lips tightening.

“You said you wouldn’t want to live like that. So now you’ve changed your mind?” I snorted. “Great. And who did you think would have looked after you? That girlfriend of yours? Give up her hotshot lawyer job to play nursemaid to her drooling boyfriend? Not a chance. You know exactly who’d have been stuck with it. Your not-yet-ex wife. Well, no way. No fucking way.”

His lips parted in something I didn’t catch, but I knew it wasn’t complimentary.

“You would have been miserable. Just like her.” I waved at my mother. “On her death bed and she calls me home, begs me to take care of her. I look after her for a month, and what were her last words? Told me I was still cut out of her will. Vindictive bitch. So I did what I had to do. But I’m not a murderer. I didn’t kill her, and I didn’t kill you.”

“I’m not dead,” he rasped.

I ripped off a piece of duct tape, then leaned into the basement crawlspace, where he lay beside the skeletal body of my mother. He thrashed his head from side to side, feebly protesting in the only way he still could. I slapped on the tape.

“You’re dead to me,” I said.

I rose, relocked the hatch and went upstairs.

Peace and quiet, at last.

Previous: The Hunt
Next: Devil May Care