As a special holiday treat, here is the unedited first draft of my upcoming release, American Witch.
Please remember, when I post draft work it’s all subject to change or even deletion. Anything you read will very likely have typos and grammar issues that will be addressed during the editing process. For that reason, I ask that you don’t post this in other places or share it with others.
Happy reading and happy holidays!
Molly stared at her discovery while she flushed hot, then cold, and the roaring in her ears was the sound of all the balls she’d been juggling for years as they crashed at her feet.
Her fingers shook as she pulled out the strange pair of underwear from the narrow space between her husband’s nightstand and their king-sized mattress. She dropped the panties on the bed. They were outrageously feminine, a dark purple with a lace trim. They were a size smaller than what she wore.
Her gaze listed around the shadowed, quiet room, a foundering ship in search of a safe harbor. Years ago, Molly had decorated the master bedroom to reflect serenity, but at the moment it felt anything but serene. A storm had rolled in, and despite it being early afternoon, the sky was so dark outside it looked like twilight.
Rain lashed against the windows like a wild creature trying to break in. Water ran in rivulets down the glass pane, and thunder growled. Inside, the house felt too still as if it held its breath, and the heavy, dense air was thick with an electrical charge.
Her attention snapped back to the purple panties. They were a shocking intrusion, the purple violent against the pale cream duvet.
What kind of woman trysted with a married man in his own bed, then forgot to put on her panties when she left? What kind of husband did that to his wife?
Hot tears spilled down her cheeks. Something tightly leashed inside tore, and her emotions raged uncontrollably.
On the landing at the head of the stairs, the antique grandfather clock stopped ticking. The bedroom plunged into semidarkness with a sizzling electric popthat made her nearly leap out of her skin.
From his office downstairs, Austin shouted irritably, “Goddammit, a fuse blew again. The party’s in two hours, and I’m in the middle of crunching the numbers I need to go over with the partners tonight. Would you go down and fix it?”
Go ahead, Molly. Fix it.
Go into the basement and reset the circuit breaker.
Then bake the puff pastry hors d’oeuvres by 5:45 p.m. The chicken should marinate until 6:10 p.m., and then you need to put it immediately in the preheated oven. Check the wine cooler to make sure the white wine is chilled to 52 degrees, slice the lemons and limes for cocktails, and don’t forget, you need to ice the sponge cake with buttercream frosting and top it with the fresh fruit that you’d already washed and left to dry on paper towels.
And you need to shower, put on your makeup, and dress well so you can do your part and charm your guests tonight.
Would the owner of the purple panties be there?
She couldn’t feel her fingers. Carefully, she folded the panties and stuffed them into the pocket of her old cardigan. Then she went downstairs, picked up her purse, located her car keys, and walked out of the charming six-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath, Cape Cod house.
The gray sky spat needles of chilly rain as she climbed into her Escalade in the driveway. After starting the engine and cranking the heat high, she took the panties and laid them out on the passenger seat. Then she fastened her seatbelt and pulled out.
Her shoulders felt crushed, and her face was streaming. She couldn’t get a deep enough breath into her cramped lungs.
She drove to the end of the street, and then turned and drove back on the neighboring street, passing large, well-tended lawns and equally large, familiar houses. Zig-zagging back and forth, going nowhere, her mind a blank.
Her cellphone rang. She ignored it. It rang several more times, until she put it on vibrate. Then it buzzed like an angry hornet. She didn’t want to ever talk to him again. She felt like she could drive for weeks and weeks. Just watch the road as it came scrolling toward her. Why couldn’t she do that? When she thought of how trapped she felt, a wave of anguish rolled through her.
Every light in the dashboard of the Escalade lit up and the engine sputtered. Suddenly calming, she listened as it gave one last cough before it died. Using the SUV’s momentum, she steered to a stop at the curb and put it in park opposite a large, landscaped retention pond at the edge of the neighborhood.
She told the absent woman who owned the panties, “Today is Thursday. The cleaning service came yesterday morning. I got home from visiting my mother last night, and I only just got around to straightening the bedroom today. So you were in my bed yesterday afternoon.”
“True,” admitted the woman in her imagination. “There wasn’t any other time it could have been.”
Molly could picture her. The woman would be leggy. Perhaps lightly tanned, with golden blonde hair and freshly returned from a trip to the Caribbean. The purple panties would look good on her. She would be intelligent as well as pretty, educated with a knowing expression in her worldly eyes. She might hold her mouth in a slight ironic slant.
She probably looked a great deal like Molly. Austin had a type.
She said between her teeth, “You left those panties on purpose. Nobody forgets something like that. You left them for either Austin or me to find. If Austin found them, it would remind him of what you and he did. If I found them, I would learn about your affair. Either way would work for you.”
In her mind, the woman smiled and crossed her long legs. “Indeed. What else have you got?”
She clenched the steering wheel with both hands. “Austin wouldn’t bring an unknown hooker into the house. If he were going to have a hooker, he would go to a hotel. This is a relationship. You and he have been together before.”
The woman gave her a conspiratorial smile. “You’re not quite as stupid as Austin thinks you are.”
This time when Molly glanced at the panties, the passenger seat didn’t seem quite empty. An indistinct, transparent form of a woman appeared to be sitting there, although she wasn’t the tall, leggy blonde Molly had been envisioning. She got the impression of a small, curvy figure, dark hair and a bright gaze.
Blinking rapidly, she dug the heels of her hands into dry, burning eyes. When she looked again, the strange hallucination had vanished. The seat was as empty as it had always been.
What the hell is happening to me?
Shaken, she wiped her face. When she had composed herself she found her phone. Ignoring the multiple text and phone messages, she called roadside service.
It took them almost an hour to arrive. As she waited, she slipped out of the car and, ignoring the light rain, she walked the path alongside the pond while keeping her vehicle in sight.
The wind was chilly, but she barely noticed. She felt like a walking bruise. Everything in her life had been about Austin’s career. Every decision they had made had been carefully plotted out.
They had met in college, and after graduation they had moved to Atlanta where Austin’s father had a small law firm. Then his father’s firm had been bought out by a larger one. Austin had become a partner in the new, larger firm, while his father had retired.
So they had settled here, making more money as the years rolled by, increasing in influence and reputation, developing important connections, and buying a showcase house with an open floorplan that was perfect for throwing frequent dinner parties for powerful people.
Out of the corner of her eye, a glowing red flared, capturing her attention. Turning, she watched as the lights of a tow truck appeared at the end of the street. While the mechanic parked, she walked back quickly and stuffed the panties into her cardigan pocket.
She waited in the Escalade as he changed the battery. Afterward, she paid with her credit card. He handed her the paperwork. “That car is less than two years old,” he told her. “The battery should have been fine. If I were you, I would contact the dealership. This is probably still under warranty.”
“Understood. Thank you.” She took her receipt.
While he had worked on her SUV, the last of the afternoon light had faded. She was horribly, unforgivably late.
When she drove home, the house was ablaze with lights. Austin had fixed the blown fuse. High-end cars parked along the side of the long driveway and on the street.
His important dinner party had started. The white wine hadn’t been taken from the cooler, so it would be too cold. The hors d’oeuvres hadn’t been baked, the cake hadn’t been iced, and there had been no one to cook the chicken.
She certainly hadn’t showered, nor had she put on makeup. She caught a glimpse of her appearance in her side mirror. She looked like a half-drowned rat.
Okay, she thought. What am I going to do now?
I could go in the back way, slip upstairs and clean up, go back down and make my excuses. Austin would be furious, but he would hide it with smiles and a kiss on the cheek.
Afterward, he would lecture me. He might yell a bit. I could make up some lie about going to help a friend in trouble, tell the truth about my car breaking down, and the whole thing would blow over.
But no. I don’t think so.
She strode for the front door, picking up speed as she went, while the frozen lump in her chest melted into something hot and volcanic. Anger felt like an animal living in her chest. It made her strides long and powerful.
In the door.
Past well-dressed, startled people. Molly let the rage take over while she hovered high in one corner of her mind, watching.
The colors of the guest’s clothes seemed garish, too bright. Many of the women were beautiful, their painted mouths forming words as they stared at her, some catty and judging, others disturbed. Was the owner of the panties here? Possibly.
She stalked past partners in Austin’s firm and their significant others. Select clients. Judge Mallory. Somewhere, the new DA Josiah Mason would be mingling. A real up-and-comer, people called him. A man to be careful around. A man to watch.
Everyone had drinks. Several people called out questions and greetings, but she didn’t answer. She had a single objective.
She found Austin talking to Russell Sherman, the managing partner of the firm, and a tall, imposing man she didn’t recognize. When she drew close, the three turned to her. Her sense of disconnection vanished, and suddenly she slammed back into her body again.
Austin’s handsome face creased in a smile, while his sharp gaze looked murderous. “There you are, honey. What happened? I was getting worried about y—”
As he talked, she reached out one clenched hand and dropped the wadded-up panties in his martini glass. His words cut off, like flying birds shot out of the sky.
“You broke my heart the first time you cheated on me,” she told him. “Broke it into a million pieces. I was only twenty-one and a junior in college. You were twenty-two and had just graduated, and we’d only been together for a year. But you were sosorry, and sopersuasive, and oh lord, my mother was sodamn insistent. So I stayed and gave you another chance.” She turned to Russell and the powerful-looking stranger who stood beside him. “He can be persuasive, can’t he?”
Russell stared at her like she had turned into a rattlesnake, while the new, unknown man watched her with an impassive gaze. He had a hard, strong-boned face that was distinctive rather than classically handsome. In her mind’s eye, he seemed to shimmer with a dark essence, as if he was a polished onyx that caught at the light, while all the people around him faded into the background, like flat paper dolls in a book that told someone else’s story.
“Molly,” said Russell with an embarrassed laugh and a sideways glance around the quieting room. “This is neither the time nor the place.”
Her voice sliced across his. “This is exactly the right time and place.”
Russell turned away, moving his square, bulky body like a weapon. In a quiet aside, he said to Austin, “Get her under control.”
Austin had whitened. His jaw clenched, and his eyes burned with a promise of retribution. Grabbing her arm with hard fingers that bit into the muscles of her biceps, he muttered, “We’re going into the kitchen. Now.”
Fury erupted, filling her body with a flash fire. She actually saw sparks of light like lightning at the edges of her vision.
Jerking her arm free, she hissed, “I believe the legal definition of assault is laying hands on another person without their permission. Or is that battery? I can never keep those two straight. Touch me again, and I’ll call the police.”
Red spots of hectic color burned in his taut face. He bit out, “Have you lost your fucking mind?”
Over his shoulder, she caught sight of the antique Japanese Satsuma vase he had given her as a wedding present twenty years ago. They had gone to Japan on their honeymoon and discovered the vase while shopping. It had cost so much money, she had walked away from it, but Austin had returned to the shop to purchase it for her.
She had felt so happy then. So full of faith in their future, with the shadow of his first infidelity buried well and truly in the past.
She focused all her rage and hurt on that vase. The specks of lightning at the edges of her eyesight flared, and something—some indefinable, invisible thing—shot out of her body like a thunderbolt.
Across the room, the vase slammed into the wall and shattered, and the stand toppled over.
Hey, she thought. Hey wait.
I… did I do that? How the hell did I do that?
She stared numbly at the destruction, while the rest of the world faded into swirls of people exclaiming and muttering in the background. Some of the dinner party guests were slipping out the front door, while others lingered to stare.
The imposing stranger regarded the fallen vase then turned to look at her, a corner of his mouth tilting up. Against a deep suntan, his knowledgeable eyes were yellow like a cat’s. Reaching to his forehead with long fingers, he tilted an invisible hat at her.
Austin broke the throbbing tension with a loud laugh. “I guess we should have gotten someone to fix the wobble in that vase stand,” he said in a voice pitched to carry across the silent room. “Tell you what, everybody, it’s abundantly clear Molly and I are having a rough moment. Why don’t you all head to the bar in the other room? Russell will serve you up whatever you desire, while my wife and I resolve this.”
That snapped her focus back into place.
“Because resolving thisshould only take five minutes or so?” Her acidic retort caused his head to rear back.
“Where is your Xanax?” he muttered.
“You think drugging me is the way to deal with this right now?” Raising her voice, she said clearly, “The second time you cheated on me, I cried for weeks. You didn’t know I found out. I was too—something. I don’t even know what the word is. There you were, going through your life with your dick hanging out of your pants, and I was too scared or intimidated, or heartsick to confront you. I felt like a failure. I thought it had to be at least partly my fault. I had fallen out of love with you by then, but I still tried to make our life together work. I’m not a quitter. I would stick it out. For better or worse, right?”
As she watched, the embarrassed anger in Austin’s face switched to uncalculated fury. “You frigid bitch,” he spat. “You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘love.’ Everything always has to be portioned out with you, balanced on some kind of invisible scale. I had to earn every fuck I got from you.”
His words sank invisible claws deep and tore at her, underneath her unmarked skin. Her face burned with greater fury and humiliation.
She made her shaking lips form words. “The second time you cheated. That was when I knew I didn’t want to have children. Years passed, and now here we are. I’m almost forty, you’re over forty. And I’m looking back over the last twenty years of my life, and all I can think of is what a goddamn waste, and noneof it was my fault.”
He barked out a harsh laugh. “You’re delusional.”
“Did I ever cheat on you?” she snapped. “Did I?”
“Of course you didn’t,” he growled. “You barely knew how to part your legs.”
The calculated cruelty in his words shredded every tender memory they had shared—every tender moment she had thought they had shared—and the depth of his anger confounded her. She felt wounded and bloodied. Was she really that cold and inflexible? That unlovable?
No. She would not let him do this to her.
Pulling herself together, she thrust away the pain, took a step forward and stabbed at his chest. “Quit trying to justify what you did by tearing me down. I was the perfect wife. I was great in bed, I took all the right classes, and I worked out and kept my figure. I was patient, and I learned how to cook all the right things. I always put your career first, and for what? You are a goddamn waste of space, and I am done living a cliché.”
“Jesus, you two,” Russell growled, shouldering his blunt figure between them. “Will you quit burning down your lives in front of everybody and shut the fuck up?”
Awareness pierced the anger in Austin’s gaze, and he looked mortified. That did her hurting heart a little bit of good.
“I don’t think so,” she told Russell. Underneath everything else, she saw the surprise in both Austin and Russell’s eyes that she would dare to talk back like that to the managing partner. Turning her attention back to Austin, she shouted, “You had that woman in my house. In my bed. No, I will not shut the fuck up!”
“Forget about the bar,” Russell said to the strange man. “This evening is over. We should be going.”
“No, you gentlemen go ahead and stay,” Molly said. She glared at Austin until his gaze slid away. “There’s a lot of booze in the house, and I’m sure Austin could use some commiseration over his frigid bitch of a wife who won’t spread her legs or shut up when she’s told to. I’ll be the one who leaves.”
Turning away, she charged through the people who still remained and jogged up the stairs to the master suite. Moving swiftly, she pulled out her suitcases and threw things in. Underwear, casual clothes, several pairs of shoes, toiletries…
She needed all her jewelry. There was quite a bit of money tied up in it, and she wouldn’t leave a single piece behind.
What else, what else? What are you supposed to take with you when you burn down your life?
Right now, Austin was busy dealing with the important people and contacts in his professional life, trying to smooth over a mortifying situation. But when he had time to think, he would think like a lawyer.
She took her suitcases down the back stairs. She could hear a few voices still talking at the front of the house.
Leaving the cases by the back door, she strode into Austin’s office, opened the floor safe and stuffed everything into a large leather satchel without examining it—investment portfolios, car titles, CDs, cash, wills, advanced directives, both of their passports.
He wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. He needed to stay and face whatever happened next.
After she had cleaned out the safe, she shut it and dug the household checkbook out of the upper desk drawer of Austin’s desk. First thing in the morning, she would go to the bank and transfer their liquid assets into her own bank account. He had enough to clean up from the fallout of this evening. Relationships to bolster. No doubt a mistress to complain to. With any luck, he wouldn’t expect her to move so fast.
While she worked, wetness streamed down her face and her emotions raged all over the place, rampant and chaotic. Pain and self-recrimination were a large part of it.
She was almost forty years old and childless, with a patchwork history of working part-time at various socially acceptable jobs and volunteering at socially acceptable charities. She had spent all her adult life trying to fit into the right-sized box.
Somehow, she needed to unchain her mind. She needed to discover her authentic self and try to live thatMolly’s life, before it was too late.
Slinging the leather satchel on one shoulder, she slipped into the kitchen. Just before she pulled her suitcases out the door, she looked around one last time.
The kitchen counters were littered with open bottles, glasses, trays of uncooked pastry puffs, the bare vanilla-berry cake. Austin had a mess on his hands. That, along with work, would be more to distract him while she took care of business in the morning.
All those empty bedrooms in a showcase house, and he had to take that other woman into hers. All those empty, childless bedrooms.
One last wave of rage and pain burst through her.
The kitchen lights flickered. As the entire house fell into darkness, she wheeled her suitcases into the rainy night. Nobody approached as she threw her luggage into the back of the Escalade and climbed in. Relief washed over her raw nerves as she drove away.
The SUV’s headlights lit the edges of the wet, burgeoning foliage that hemmed the neighborhood streets. Black pressed on the other side of overhanging branches, turning sights that had been long familiar strange, until it was as if she traveled down a secret tunnel.
Immense shapes seemed to lurk in the trees. She thought she saw a wolf watching her, and a raven. Each one melted back into leaves and shadows as she drove past it.
Then she broke out of the foliage into an open area by the entrance to the interstate. Massive relief lifted her up, as if she had traveled an unimaginable distance and crossed an invisible border to a new country.
After a single glance back at the forest from which she had emerged, she turned onto the highway and drove into the city.
She thought, I’m almost forty years old, and I’m just being born.
Sherman wasn’t the type to let go easily once he had his mind fixed on something, and he had his mind fixed on forging a connection with Josiah. He held on like an octopus gripping with all tentacles.
In the end, however, he didn’t hold a candle to Josiah’s implacable will. After extricating himself, Josiah drove swiftly, taking a circuituous route as his mind filled with images from the wrecked dinner party like lurid snapshots of a crime scene.
The District Attorney had a two-bedroom loft apartment in an upscale building near downtown Atlanta, and it was filled with carefully curated items. Josiah also owned an old four-bedroom, two-story house outside the city limits that he had bought under a different identity, and that was where he drove.
The house was located down a quiet country lane that deadended at the property. It had three-quarter acre yard that bordered a large farmland and a patch of old growth woods. The isolation and privacy suited him.
This place, too, had carefully curated furniture—just enough arranged at the front window so that the house looked occupied when the blinds were up. Aside from a few lamps scattered throughout the rooms and set to operate on timers, most of the house was empty.
Except for the basement.
Pulling into the driveway, he mentally checked the subtle magical spells that he had woven around the perimeter of the property. Nothing had been disturbed. Still, he didn’t relax until he had let himself inside and walked through the house to inspect it visually. Only then did he descend the old, bare-wood stairs into the basement.
He had put months of planning and work into this space, and he had done all the work himself. There were two finished rooms and a utilitarian bathroom, with more protection and obscuring spells layered on the floors, walls, and ceiling and anchored with runes made with magic sensitive silver.
The earth itself was another layer of protection and concealment. You could do a lot of magic in a basement before it began to leak out and become potentially noticeable to outside observers.
The basement was his real base of operations. One room held a bed, large enough to be comfortable for his tall frame, a closet filled with clothes, and a TV tray he used as a nightstand.
The other room was larger. At one end it held three computers, several phones, and a monitor for the extensive security system he had installed. The other end held magical paraphernalia—all his current tools—along with a large safe.
There were two ways to enter or exit the basement. One was the obvious way, by using the old stairs that led up to the large empty kitchen. Josiah had created the other way, which was part of the reason why it had taken him so long to adapt the area to suit his needs.
After chiseling out a hole in the concrete wall, he had patiently dug a tunnel long enough to come out under the cover of the thick tangle of old-growth forest. There was no way he was going to get trapped in an underground space, if he could avoid it.
He owned still other properties in other areas, under yet other names. Many of those properties had undergone similar adaptations, but none of those properties were relevant to his current persona as Josiah Mason.
Sitting in front of one of the computers, he conducted an internet search on Molly Sullivan and scrolled through local news articles and photos. Most of the hits were from society pages or charities.
She was right—she wasthe perfect wife, especially for a law partner at a busy firm. At least on the surface. In the photos, she was cool, elegant, and composed, completely unlike the haggard, angry woman who had confronted Austin with such steely determination.
He picked up one of the phones and punched a number he had set on speed dial. When the person on the other end picked up, he said, “Change of plans.”
“Okay,” the man said. “What’s up?”
“Build a file on a woman named Molly Sullivan. Blonde, blue-eyes, five ten or so, between thirty and forty-five, wife to Austin Sullivan from Sherman & Associates.” At least for now. “Dig into her past and her known associates, but most especially, find out where she lands tonight. She left her husband tonight after a messy, public confrontation at the party. I want to know where she goes and what she does next.”
“I’m on it.” The man disconnected.
Josiah tossed the phone onto the desk and sat back, the fingers of one hand hooked over his mouth as he studied the image of the beautiful woman on his computer screen.
He had meticulously planned for so many contingencies, but he had not planned for this.
“You’re quite a complication, Molly Sullivan,” he murmured. “Now I have to figure out what to do about you.”
Copyright: 2018 Teddy Harrison LLC