If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I decided to split the sequel into two parts - a novella, Through the Mist: Adrift, and then an actual sequel, Through the Mist: Reunion. In September, I offered a sneak peek at the opener of the novella.
Here's a low-fat Thanksgiving treat. I offer you an excerpt from the novella. I would greatly appreciate your feedback - either here or on Facebook, whichever medium you prefer.
Enjoy! I hope you have a safe, happy holiday.
Asheville, North Carolina
Beth Hunter Madison tossed the keys of her white Range Rover to the young man working the valet stand outside the Tudor-style mansion in Biltmore Forest. She strode into the home with more confidence than she felt, her head held high.
As she handed her black wool coat to an awaiting attendant, she gazed up at the huge crystal chandelier that hung from the vaulted ceiling of the entrance. She walked across the gleaming marble floor until she reached the twin mahogany staircases that lead to the upper floors. She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. She felt out of place in the opulence of the home, yet she must reach down deep and draw on whatever ounce of strength that remained buried inside her.
You can do this, she told herself. Turning to her left, she slowly strolled into the spacious living room where the crowd had gathered.
The party was the premiere event of New Year’s Eve celebrations in the city and was not to be missed. Only the crème of Asheville society was there. If you did not receive an invitation, then you had little chance of succeeding in the town.
She noted several current and former clients were fully kitted in their best evening wear. She smoothed the front of her blue knit dress and glanced down at the leopard print pumps she wore. She hoped she was dressed smartly enough for the chic crowd. She wanted to make a favorable impression tonight.
Sadly, the majority of her clients were rapidly moving into the “former” category. The party might give her an opportunity to chat. Maybe a little personal contact would soften the grip on their wallets and send more business her way.
“Champagne, ma’am?” a man in a tuxedo asked, brandishing a silver tray of crystal flutes. She nodded and took the offered drink. Taking a sip of liquid courage, she plunged into the crowd.
She moved carefully around the room, smiling at each person she saw. They returned her smile with little warmth and quickly turned away upon her approach. She knew she should not be surprised that no one wanted to engage in conversation. Still, it hurt.
“Why, Beth? Is that you?” a voice called from behind her. She turned to find a willowy, blonde-haired woman slithering her way.
The woman was Cathy Rogers, the host of the soiree and the best real estate agent in town. She helped Beth’s friend Tilly sell her home. She was also the leader of the Young Urban Professionals League, a group of locals who allegedly aimed to promote business people just starting out in their careers. In reality, they were nothing more than an old school, “good old boys” network. Their members orchestrated most of the substantial business deals in town. If Beth wanted to succeed in Asheville, she must stay in YUP’s good graces.
For this reason, Beth answered Cathy with forced enthusiasm. “I wouldn’t miss your annual New Year’s Eve party,” she said. As they air kissed each other, she lied, “I look forward to it all year.”
Cathy toyed with the long strand of pearls that coiled around her ivory neck. “It is the social event of the year, if I may be so bold,” she said with false modesty. “I am surprised you would come after what happened between Randall and you.”
“The divorce is not final. Besides, I am a member of YUP, am I not?
Beth took a long drink of champagne. She tried to formulate a response that did not include the word “bitch.” Nothing came to mind.
“I heard you went to Scotland for the Christmas holiday,” Cathy said, looping her arm around Beth’s and turning her toward the massive fireplace in the center of the room. She leaned closer and whispered loud enough for the people around her to hear, “Did they ever find a trace of Tilly Munro?”
Beth nearly bit her tongue in two but managed a civil reply. “The police ended the search months ago,” she replied through gritted teeth. “No one knows what happened.”
“Well, God forbid that I should lose my husband and children in a car accident,” Cathy cried dramatically, placing a bejeweled hand to her chest. “I can see how that would drive you to – oh, it is so tragic.” She fanned herself. “It would make you want to end it all, right then and there.”
Beth carefully placed the empty champagne glass on a table. She considered snapping off the flute and jamming the stem into Cathy’s eye. She supposed that would be very rude indeed and would likely put an end to the career she came here to save. Swallowing a biting retort, she said, “Tilly was my best friend. If anyone would know her state of mind, it would be me. I assure you she was sad, not suicidal.” Seeing the disbelief in Cathy’s eyes, she added, “The area where we stayed was very remote. I am sure she just got lost on a walk.”
She looked up and gasped when she saw the couple standing beside the fireplace. Too late, she realized that was exactly the reaction Cathy wanted. The woman had deliberately led her to this spot.
Her future ex-husband Randall Madison stood beside a buxom, middle-aged woman whose fiery red hair tumbled in artfully tousled waves down her back. An emerald-colored, sequined dress that Beth recognized as a pricey designer gown hugged her ample figure. The neckline plunged so low that, when she laughed, her voluptuous breasts threatened to wiggle their way out of the garment and into the hands of the eager men who ogled them. The woman grinned broadly and leaned toward Randall, whispering something into his ear. She winked at him and lightly touched the sparkling diamond necklace around her neck.
It was a necklace that once adorned Beth’s neck. A family heirloom, Randall only allowed her to wear it on special occasions. And now, another woman wore it.
“Oh, there’s Valerie Burghley Statton,” Cathy said, feigning embarrassment. “I cannot believe he brought her to the party. He should have had the good grace to spare your feelings.” She practically purred as she added, “Of course, he probably didn’t think you would come to the party.”
Now Beth really wanted to smack Cathy Rogers. Having the soon-to-be ex-wife see her soon-to-be ex-husband with his new amour was the kind of drama that made for a good party. It was especially juicy when the ex-wife was someone who had no place in what Cathy deemed “proper society.” Valerie Burghley Statton came from a well-established family with roots leading back to the best families in England. She was old money. She was a thoroughbred. Beth was a donkey.
Before Beth could quietly slip into the crowd, Randall spotted her. The smile faded from his lips. He gave her a sad, pitying look that was more than she could endure. She did not want his sympathy.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled, pulling away from Cathy’s clinging arm and fleeing the room. She hastily retrieved her coat from the attendant in the hallway. She stood outside in the cool evening air, inhaling deeply and trying to calm herself. She really did not want to make a scene, especially in front of these people. She came there to salvage client relationships, but seeing Randall with that woman was too much. She could not spend the evening staring across a room and seeing everything that had slipped through her fingers.
She slowly turned and discovered Randall standing in the doorway. She managed a weak smile. Her eyes quickly scanned him from head to toe. He had lost weight. Ever since she met him, he complained about his pudgy belly. She would always laugh and hug him tighter. She did not mind at all. Well, Valerie must not like it, she thought bitterly.
She noticed other changes too. His wrinkles were less pronounced, perhaps the result of cosmetic intervention. His hair was sandy brown now, no longer a distinguished shade of white. He looked like the old pictures from his youth. I guess Valerie did not want him to look like her grandfather, she thought. She felt sad for Randall. The woman seemed to be smoothing away all the rough edges that Beth loved.
He moved closer. “How are you, Beth?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she replied. She stared expectantly at the valet who took the hint and ran to find her car.
“I have been worried about you,” he said, lightly caressing her arm. “Do you have everything you need?”
She shrugged. “I’m fine,” she repeated. “I found a nice apartment. I’ve reconnected with old friends. Life is good.” She waved her hand. “By the way, I will clear out the last of my things next week. It won’t be a big deal.”
“Take your time. I told the lawyer that I am in no rush to put the house on the market.”
They stood in awkward silence for several minutes. Beth wanted to say so much to him yet could not find the words. How do you spend most of your adult life with someone and then – and then, he is just gone? She buried her true feelings and managed to say instead, “You look well rested, Randall.”
He nervously ran his hands through his hair. “Since we sold the practice, I have more free time,” he said. “Valerie says….“ He stopped himself, his face reddening.
“We have been separated since August,” she said. “You can say her name. It’s no secret.”
“It seems strange, don’t you think?” he asked, lowering his voice. “I never saw this happening with us. We were always a team, Beth.”
She took a step back. She did not want to be so achingly close to him. She wanted to fall into his arms and scream that she never wanted this either. Instead, she said, “It is happening. Our marriage is over. We should move on with our lives.”
She heard the valet pull her car to the curb. She turned to leave, but Randall grabbed her arm.
“Have lunch with me tomorrow,” he said. He glanced back at the doorway, as if he expected someone to be waiting for him. “Let’s meet at our favorite restaurant. First one there buys, like always.”
“Be sure to tell Valerie where you are going,” Beth said tartly. “I don’t want to sneak around behind her back to see my husband.”
Randall flinched involuntarily. “I am sorry that I hurt you, darling,” he said. “You hurt me too. Don’t forget that.”
Sighing heavily, Beth tugged her arm from his grasp. She did not want to talk about it, not here. “I will see you tomorrow,” she said. “Don’t be late.”
She headed for her car. She could hear him hurrying behind her. Oh good grief, what now? she wondered. She angrily spun on her heels to face him, folding her arms tightly across her chest.
“I heard things haven’t been going well with your business,” he whispered, a look of genuine concern on his face. “Are you sure you’re alright? Is there anything I can do?”
She cursed Cathy Rogers. She was sure that bitch told him. Beth used to be the most popular graphic designer in town. Before her marriage ended, it was a nice side business, something to occupy her time and help her feel productive. As the wife of a successful cardiologist, she did not have to work. They had plenty of money.
Without Randall’s income, it was her lifeline. She needed the business to make a living. She was confident that the exodus of her clients could be blamed on her failed marriage. She was not born into this little club of rich people like Cathy, Randall, and Valerie. There was no reason to do business with her anymore.
On the spot, she decided to stretch the truth a bit. “Business is wonderful. In fact, I have a job offer for a project in Scotland,” she said. “I’ll probably be jetting back and forth from America to there. It’s very exciting.”
She savored the stunned expression on his face. “When I was there over Christmas, I met the duchess, and she asked for my help,” she said. It wasn’t a lie, though it sounded more official than it may have been. She tossed back her head and chuckled. “Oh, silly me, you don’t know who she is, do you? Well, we can talk about it tomorrow.”
He brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, an intimate gesture that made Beth’s heart flutter. “I hope you can make a fresh start,” he said. “You deserve to be happy.”
She took a step backward. “I will see you tomorrow,” she said quietly.
She hastily walked toward her car and did not look back.