I fidgeted with my emerald green blouse while I sat at the long conference table. My lawyer, Marsha, sat next to me, scrolling through her emails. She was in her professional zone, no trace of stress or anxiety on her face, while I was the exact opposite. I’d been waiting for this day for over a year. Today my divorce would finally be finalized.
My soon to be ex-husband, Richard, and I had been estranged for thirteen and a half months. I’d been the one to file for divorce, and he’d fought me on it every step of the way. We’d barely not had a contentious courtroom divorce; he’d caved at the last minute, finally agreeing to the terms my lawyer had sent to his. I wasn’t even asking for anything. I didn’t want the house or his money. All I wanted was my car, and half of our checking accounts and savings accounts.
Marsha had told me I was taking it too easy on him. I had rights to his retirement and the properties he’d owned before we got married, but I didn’t want any of it. All I wanted was my freedom.
Richard and I had gotten married young, me being twenty-two and him being twenty-four. We’d had a few good years, but when I’d turned twenty-seven, after five years of marriage, I’d realized what a mistake it had been. We barely knew each other before we got married, and even five years later, we still barely knew each other. He’d been adamant that divorce wasn’t necessary, wanted to try counseling.
But it was too late; I’d already fallen for someone else. I hadn’t acted on my feelings until after I’d told him I wanted a divorce and moved out of our house, but he’d found out shortly after, like people always did in a small town. He’d called me a slut, and then tried to win me back.
It had been too late.
I didn’t love him anymore, and I refused to stay in a marriage where I was unhappy. Life was too short.
My rebound relationship had fizzled out quickly, and I’d decided not to date until the divorce papers were signed.
I had a dating profile made and was ready to swipe through it as soon as the ink was dry.
“You’re late,” my lawyer said as Richard and his lawyer walked into the conference room. Richard looked disheveled. His hair had grown too long, his beard unkempt; his tie was already pulled down, and his dress shirt was half untucked. The bags under his eyes told the story about how he hadn’t been sleeping. Momentarily, I felt bad. It was my fault he looked like that. But then I remembered how much work I’d put in trying to make our marriage succeed before I’d walked away. I tried to connect with him; I bought sexy lingerie, sex games, planned trips and surprise date nights, but in the end, when I’d still been the only one putting in any effort, I’d had enough. If he couldn’t show me he wanted me when we were together, what happened after I’d left him wasn’t my fault.
“We’re here now.” His lawyer, Eli, was always short and curt with his words, speaking only when necessary.
“I have the paperwork,” Marsha said, sliding one of the four copies across the table. “Everything we’ve discussed is in the paperwork. Ms. Coulters leaves with fifty percent of the assets in the joint checking and saving accounts; neither party receives alimony; Ms. Coulters keeps her vehicle. Everything else of value is outlined. You can read it yourself.”
Silence filled the room and Richard looked angry while his lawyer read through the paperwork one final time. I avoided making eye contact with him. I didn’t want to see the anger in his eyes. He hated that I felt no remorse for filing for divorce, that I had no reservations about ending our relationship. I wanted more.
I deserve more.
“Everything is in order.”
“All that’s left to do is sign.”
“Mr. Coulters will transfer the assets to the bank account listed.”
The tension in the room only rose higher when I signed all four copies and slid them across the table to Richard. He huffed unhappily before signing. He didn’t even wait for anyone to say anything before storming out of the room and slamming the glass conference room door closed behind him. I rolled my eyes at his childish antics. Relationships broke up every day. Richard was still young, attractive, had a good job. He’d be fine; he’d find someone else in no time if he just opened himself up for it.
And I was going to find someone else, too.
Richard’s lawyer nodded at us both before disappearing and chasing after his client.
“Congratulations,” Marsha said.
“Thank you for everything.” I stood from the table and shook her hand one last time before walking out of the conference room.
By the time I made it to the parking lot, I felt free, happy, light, and so much hope for the future.
The sky was a bright blue while the autumn sun shined down on my face. The air was warm, but crisp, hinting at the cooler days to come. I strode to my car, a new purchase to celebrate my newfound freedom. It was a shiny new Audi A5 cabriolet. It was completely impractical, especially with how cold it got in the winter, and it took some getting used to after having only driven SUVs my entire life, but I was obsessed with her. She was shiny red, and I’d always wanted one.
As I climbed in, I felt eyes on me. Turning to look around, I saw Richard standing outside of his black Toyota Tundra. He stared at me with open disdain, not even trying to hide how much he hated me. He’d never looked at me like that before. Even at the height of the turmoil of our marriage, he’d never looked at me with hatred.
An icy chill raced up my back, something like fear, but I pushed it down.
He stared at me until I drove away, his blue gaze nearly empty as I drove my car past his.
“I can’t believe you’re actually already going out on a date,” Charmaine said. “Your divorce has been finalized for like three days.”
“Yes, but my marriage has been over for a year. It’s not too soon.”
“And you bought that car, and this house.”
I’d closed on this house a few days before the divorce and today Charmaine was finally helping me move in. To save money post leaving Richard, my best friend had let me crash in her guest room, rent free. I’d saved enough for a down payment on this house. It was much smaller than the one I shared with Richard, and much less modern.
The old cottage was situated on the outskirts of town, close enough to the grocery store and other basic necessities, but far enough that I had privacy. It was settled neatly up on a hill, surrounded by forest on all sides. The driveway was nearly a quarter mile long, hiding the house from the main road. It had an old fireplace that was still up to code. I wouldn’t need it until the snow fell, but I couldn’t wait for long winter evenings, cuddled by the fire with a book and a hot cup of tea.
“And the car!” She shouted. “Are you even going to be able to make it up the hill in the snow?”
“Of course.” She rolled her eyes at me. “I have an appointment in a couple weeks to get snow tires put on it.”
“Where does this go?” She asked, apparently tired of talking about my car.
“On one of the built-in bookshelves,” I said, pointing to the shelves that stood on both sides of the fireplace. “I’ll arrange all the books and photos later, just put them on it.”
We worked in tandem, unpacking box after box. Somehow, I’d been convinced that I didn’t really have that much stuff, having let Richard keep most of it, even the expensive kitchen gadgets we’d received as wedding gifts. The only things I’d taken were the stand mixer and the coffee machine. I’d let him keep the slow cooker, pressure cooker, blender, food processor, bread maker, and all the other random things we’d registered for. Richard didn’t even drink coffee, but he’d still thrown a fit when I told him I wanted the coffee maker.
Charmaine focused on the living room while I unpacked the kitchen. I didn’t have any furniture yet. It was all getting delivered the next day. I’d have to make monthly payments on everything, but I couldn’t find anything at the second-hand stores that I liked. And it was worth it to be free of my marriage. I’d pay any amount of money to start over like I was.
“Want to order something for lunch?” I asked.
“Do places actually deliver out here?”
“Haven’t looked yet.” I pulled out my phone and opened one of the many food delivery apps. “Sure do. Sandwiches?”
I ordered us sandwiches, not needing to ask Charmaine what she wanted, as well as chips, cookies and drinks, and went back to unpacking.
By the time our lunch arrived, I was sweating, exhausted, and thirsty.
“We’re getting too old for this,” Charmaine said, flopping herself onto the floor where we’d have to eat since didn’t have any chairs. “Next time you move, hire a moving company.”
“Next time? There’s no next time. This is the house I’m living in for the next 80 years. I’ll die in this house.”
“And if you meet a man?”
“He can move in with me.”
Charmaine chatted about her latest work project, developing some type of new chemical for cleaning that was more effective than the bad for you chemicals, but just as non-toxic as the natural stuff that wasn’t as effective. My best friend was a thousand times smarter than me. I was only good at numbers, which was why I’d become an accountant.
“What time is your date?”
“I’m meeting him at seven.”
“Plenty of time to finish unpacking and shower.” I finished the last bite of my sandwich and balled up the wrapper to toss it back into the bag being used for garbage. “Do you need more help today?” She asked.
“No. I’m not gonna do much more, probably just organize a little.”
“Okay. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I wasn’t nervous at all as I drove to town for my date, but I wasn’t naive; I would never invite a man to pick me up for a first date. I always met them in crowded, public places, always the first to arrive, making sure plenty of people saw me should anything ever go wrong.
I maybe watched too much true crime.
The restaurant was a local place I’d been to a few times with Charmaine. The menu rotated depending on the season, and the fall menu was supposed to be excellent.
I stood outside the restaurant, smiling at the people walking by while I waited. “Joy?” A man’s voice said from next to me. Turning, I found Christopher, my date.
“Christopher?” I smiled. “Nice to meet you.”
“You as well.” He smiled brightly back at me, looking exactly like his profile picture. He was tall, well built, with dark eyes and straight, jet black hair. His bangs were a little too long and fell in front of his eyes.
He opened the door for me and let me walk in front of him. “Good evening, welcome to Seasons. Do you have a reservation?”
“Hi, yes, for Christopher.”
“Welcome, right this way.”
We followed her to a corner table. The low lighting of the restaurant was romantic, candles illuminating the space. There was fall decor everywhere, and it felt homey.
“Can I take your coat?” The hostess offered.
“Please,” I said, shrugging it off and handing it to her. Christopher handed his to her too before she trotted off back to her station.
Christopher pulled my chair out politely before sitting down across from me. Before we could even speak to each other, our server was there. “Good evening, welcome to Seasons. My name is Tim and I’ll be your waiter tonight. Can I start you off with something to drink?”
“Water with lemon and,” I paused, looking over their fall drink menu. “The apple cranberry Moscow mule.”
“Excellent choice. And for you, sir?”
“Water also, please, and the autumn IPA.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I glanced over the menu, waiting for him to make conversation.
“You moved into your new place today, right?” He asked.
“I did. I’m in love with it already." I paused, still looking at the menu before speaking again. “You had your daughter today, didn’t you?” Christopher and I had matched on the dating app the day of my divorce, and we’d been chatting everyday since then, slowly getting to know each other.
“I did. She’s getting so big, so fast.”
Christopher had been honest about having a child from our very first conversation. He’d had a fling, and the woman had gotten pregnant. Neither of them liked the other enough to have a relationship, so they were co-parenting, and it was nice to see them doing it amicably. They each had 50-50 custody.
“She started kindergarten this year.”
“Here are your drinks,” Tim said, coming back. “Have you had a chance to look at the menu?”
“I was thinking the Fall Sampler looked good,” Christopher said to me. “Then we get to try a bit of everything.”
“That sounds great.”
“The Sampler? Excellent choice. Do either of you have any allergies or intolerances?”
“No,” we said at the same time.
“Your first course will be up shortly.”
“Tell me about your mom,” I said before taking a sip of my drink. I’d read on some dating website that the best way to judge a man’s true character was to ask about his mom and watch his body language, not his words. If he praised her, but his face and body contradicted his words, that was an immediate red flag.
“My mom is great,” he said. “She was really unhappy when I told her I’d gotten some girl pregnant, even more disappointed that I didn’t want to marry her. But I knew she’d change her mind as soon as she held her grandchild for the first time. And I’d been right. She loves Amanda so much, and she and Tiffani get along great. They talk all the time.”
“That’s really wonderful,” I said, meaning every word.
He hadn’t given off any red flags with the question. He clearly didn’t resent her, and he also didn’t come across as a huge mama’s boy.
“Your first course,” Tim said, setting down two small plates. “This is a bacon, apple, and brie crostini. Enjoy.”
Christopher and I ate each course, and between bites we asked all the traditional first date questions. Do you have siblings? What do you do? What are you looking for?
I wasn’t necessarily looking for something serious, but I also wasn’t opposed to having something that could eventually turn serious. He was looking for something serious, and I definitely was open to the second date he’d suggested.
One of my other first date rules was always say goodbye at the restaurant. I didn’t need to be walked to my car, lots of bad things could happen if I let that happen.
“I had a great time,” I said after he’d paid the bill and we were standing underneath the street lamps.
“I did too. I’d really like to see you again.”
“I’d like that.”
“I’ll call you.”
With his hand on my lower back, he leaned down and kissed my cheek before offering me a goofy smile and walking away. I watched him disappear around the corner before turning and walking to my car.
Once in the car and my bluetooth connected, I called Charmaine, another thing I always did after a first date.
“How was it?” She asked.
“Good. I really like him. I’m going to see him again.”
“Even though he’s got a kid?”
“I’m not opposed to kids. I was opposed to having kids with Richard.”
“Fair. How was the fall menu? I’m trying to get my mom to go with me, but you know she hates leaving the house since dad died.”
“It was so good. And I had an apple cranberry Moscow mule, and when the dessert courses started I had a pumpkin spice drink that I can’t remember the name of, but was so delicious. You should definitely go. Heck, if your mom doesn’t want to go with you, I’ll go again.”
“It’s a deal.” There was a brief pause before she spoke again. “Rory is barking. I need to take her for a walk. Text me when you get home.”
Charmaine cut the call, and I drove the rest of the way, listening to the radio.
When I got home, I walked into the house, double checking that I locked the front door behind me before checking all the windows and the backdoor before telling Charmaine that I was home.
In the living room, I was confronted with all the boxes that were still scattered everywhere. I still had a lot of work cut out for me to get everything unpacked.
“That’s strange,” I mumbled to myself, walking to the bookshelf. I could have sworn that the candle set was complete, but somehow, the biggest candle of the trio was missing. They were holiday scented and complimented each other when they all burnt at the same time. It must have just ended up in a different box when I’d packed it up. I was sure I’d find it tomorrow when I unpacked further.
I grabbed a bottle of water and went upstairs.
I washed my face, brushed my teeth and changed into warm, flannel pyjamas before climbing into bed and falling into a peaceful sleep.
Except my peaceful sleep didn’t last.
I woke up several hours later, still in the middle of the night, to a pounding on the door.
Terrified, I climbed out of bed and walked to the top of the stairs. I could see flashing red and blue lights coming in through the window. “Mrs. Coulters! This is the sheriff. If you’re home, come open the door.”
Everyone knew Sheriff Woodson. I tiptoed down the stairs to the door, peeking through the peephole. When I was sure it was actually the sheriff, I opened the door.
He wasn’t alone.
“Are you Mrs. Coulters?” The sheriff rolled his eyes. If I wasn’t, he would have said something.
“Ms.” He nodded at my correction. “And not for long, I’m changing back to my maiden name.”
“I’m Detective Gomez.”
“Sheriff, what’s going on?” I asked, ignoring whoever the detective was. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“There’s been a fire, Joy. Richard is dead.”