“DAVID! David Briar? Can you hear me?”
Dance music pounded in the background.
Resisting the urge to match volume, David asked, “Who is this?”
A sexy giggle followed the unhelpful reply, and David redoubled his effort at identifying the caller, mentally scanning the list of women he’d dated in the last year. He still hadn’t come up with a name when a second voice came through, loud and slurring.
“Tell him to get that pretty ass of his down here! And make him bring someone for me. I wanna get laaaiiiddd!”
David closed his eyes and considered disconnecting. In his experience, two intoxicated women meant more than double the trouble.
“Lexi!” The sound was muffled for a moment, as if the mouthpiece had been covered. “Shut up!” A rasp of static confirmed his suspicion. “I promise, I didn’t say anything about your ass, David. Not that I haven’t…I mean…you know me. I’d never actually say anything like that.”
“I’m sorry, but you still haven’t told me—”
“It’s Ephie, silly, from Stranger than Fiction.”
The tumblers cascaded into place.
His inability to recognize her was becoming a disturbing habit. A few weeks ago, he’d been equally unsuccessful when he’d stumbled upon her hesitating in a hallway. An aficionado of long-legged, large-breasted women, the sprite glancing between the number on the door in front of her and the top of the notebook angled in the easel of her crossed arms shouldn’t have given him pause. He doubted she topped five feet, especially without the benefit of the four-inch wedges she’d worn. Yet something had brought him to a halt. Perhaps the no-nonsense economy of her movements or the wispy ends of her short hairstyle drawing attention to the graceful curve of her neck, and there’d been the surprising curve of her ass, made more remarkable by the clever cut of her dress. He hadn’t gotten the chance to figure it out, though, because she’d caught him staring. At first she seemed startled, but then a heart-stopping smile, equal parts sassy and sweet, had stolen over her lips.
As he’d puzzled over the familiarity in her gaze, he’d been struck by a warping sense of déjà vu. Unlike the prickle of recognition he usually experienced when running into someone he’d met in the course of his work, he’d gotten the oddest sensation he knew her intimately, but couldn’t, for the life of him, remember her face. Unnerved, he’d hurried past without as much as a nod in her direction.
She’d sauntered into the room a short time later, boldly seeking him out. His malingering memory finally sparked as she’d strode toward him, her gaze locked on his. Epiphany Jones. He’d wondered if the lapse had come from the uncommon circumstances which had brought them together in the first place.
Over the years, Briar Funeral Home had earned a reputation for doing impeccable work under the strictest discretion. Urban legends abounded regarding the secrets David’s predecessors had taken to their graves. He couldn’t speak to the fact or fiction of the conjecture, but it was true the majority of his clientele hailed from the city’s most privileged, and on occasion notorious, circles. It was a level of celebrity which neither Ephie, nor her dearly departed grandmother, could claim. However, both had been in the employ of a woman who did.
Lillian Bennett, a stunning European beauty with impeccable style, had a dubious reputation for marrying men wealthy in assets, but poor in health. Her husband at the time, Leonard Bennett, would be the third to die in her care. He’d also been at the helm of Bennett Distribution, Incorporated, considered by many to be a modern-day dynasty.
So, when his wife contacted David after the sudden death of the family’s live-in chef, Doris Jones, he’d made a point of handling the consultation personally. Not because he’d expected the infamously aloof Mrs. Bennett to accompany the next of kin—a Ms. Epiphany Jones, granddaughter of the deceased and Lillian’s personal assistant—but because decorum demanded it. But she had attended, further surprising David by tending to the younger woman like a doting aunt. It hadn’t taken David long to understand why.
Ephie’s small stature and delicate, almost doll-like features roused even his protective instincts. But she was no damsel in distress. Though the remnants of shock and profound grief had shown plainly on her face, she’d remained composed and efficient, impressing him with a dry sense of humor and easy grin. It quickly became evident to him she was no stranger to the precarious nature of life, as well as the inevitability of death. And David had found himself wanting to know why. The unprecedented curiosity had, for him, disturbing implications.
But perhaps it explained how, not once, but twice in about as many weeks, he’d failed to recognize her. It seemed almost as if he refused to remember, though he couldn’t imagine the reason.
“Are you still there?”
He gave a short laugh before answering, “Yes, I’m here.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called. I wouldn’t have, but Lexi…Oh, God, too many shots.”
Another giggle made David close his eyes. He saw Ephie—heart-shaped face framed by flirty brown curls, doe eyes glazed with alcohol, cheeks flushed from dancing—surrounded by a pack of faceless men.
Without thinking, he blurted, “Text me the address.”
“What? No. No! I didn’t mean…I just…Lexi took my phone, and then it was ringing and you answered and I had to say something—”
“Text me the address,” he repeated firmly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He put his hand over his eyes, index finger and thumb pressed hard to his temples. “It’s not a problem. Just sit tight. I’ll be on my way in fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t forget a man for me!” Lexi sang in the background.
“Tell her I’m going to bring someone she’ll want to wait for,” he improvised, despite having no idea who someone might be.
“I will. I’ll see you soon, then?”
“Yes. You definitely will.”
Ending the call, he dropped his cell onto the kitchen counter as if the device were responsible for his predicament. What in hell was he thinking?
I wasn’t. And that’s the problem.
David shook his head. He was in no mood for sarcastic second-guessing, though his conscience had a point. He’d been off balance of late, and it was becoming clear to him it had something to do with the petite woman with the whimsical name he’d just insisted on meeting.
The blame wasn’t entirely his. The first night of Stranger than Fiction the instructor, Evan Chase, had cautioned the class. Sharing writings held the potential for creating a deep sense of intimacy in a short period of time. David had obviously fallen victim, at least where Ms. Jones was concerned. She wrote with a fearless honesty which both appalled and intrigued him. And though he seemed perfectly capable of putting her out of his mind whenever she was out of sight, for the past three Monday nights he’d found her utterly impossible to ignore. A startling consequence he’d been unable to anticipate when he’d decided to deviate from his usual modus operandi.
Several years past, he’d stumbled upon a blog touting adult education classes as an alternative to bars and online dating. He’d enrolled in the next session of a small technical school two towns over, hoping the modest drive would provide enough distance to separate him from his infamy.
Cooking 101 had introduced him to the basics, as well as the lovely Sharon, a fresh divorcée looking for a side of validation to go with tips for making the perfect Saturday night pot roast. For eight weeks they’d practiced paring and pan frying, finishing off their evenings—along with any leftovers—between the crisp luxury of pale pink sheets. The affair ended with the class. A no-fault natural death David had found refreshingly uncomplicated. He’d been hooked, taking another class every few months.
But when the winter catalog had come out, he’d found nothing appealed to him. It seemed as if he’d braised a poultry farm’s worth of chicken and could caramelize as well as any French pastry chef. A second look had revealed Stranger than Fiction, a course focused on nonfiction storytelling. He’d reasoned a writing class had to be just as likely to attract women looking for a short-term change in their lives, perhaps even more so than the relatively impersonal culinary arts. And what was an obituary, really, but a concise autobiography? Ultimately, the idea of being able to procure both a new lover and a skill useful in his work had convinced him. Besides, what possible harm could come from trying something new, especially if it didn’t interfere with his primary objective?
Leaning forward, he propped the heels of his hands against the edge of the granite countertop and looked out into the night. What harm, indeed. He couldn’t think of a single soul to call and convince to go out with him. No male soul, anyway. David preferred to spend what little free time he had in the uniquely distracting company of women.
Suddenly, a portal of light split the darkness beneath the kitchen window. Peering out, he saw a sizeable pickup truck, the driver’s-side door flung wide. A lanky silhouette dropped to the ground from the cab, and David straightened. Grabbing for his phone, he slipped it into the breast pocket of his suit coat as he turned and strode from the room, determined to convince the man who’d slipped into the shadows to be his savior.