A Familiar Stranger
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Such a quiet and ordinary wife and mother. Who will even notice what she’s done?
Lillian Smith leads an unexceptional life, writing obituaries and killing time with her inattentive husband and disconnected son. Then she meets David, a handsome stranger, in a coffee shop. Lured into an affair, she invents a new persona, one without strings, deadlines, or brooding husbands.
Lillian has never felt so reckless, unpredictable, or wanted. But as her affair with David intensifies, she withdraws from everything that’s real, even her closest friend. When evidence of her life as a secret lover finds its way onto her son’s social media, she risks ruining much more than her marriage or reputation.
As lies beget lies, Lillian’s two worlds spiral dangerously out of control. And betrayals run deeper than she imagines. Because Lillian isn’t the only one leading a double life.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 275
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A Familiar Stranger
I just want to start off by saying that love wasn’t what caused all this. The murder, the double life, the lies . . . None of it was triggered from a lack of me loving my husband.
It was from a lack of him loving me back.
Everything I told David on the day that I met him was a lie.
I did that a lot back then. I didn’t have a single notable thing about me—about Lillian Smith: writer, mother, wife—worth talking about, so I often invented a life, a persona, of someone better. Someone who rolled out of bed with a purpose. Someone unpredictable and exciting, and . . . hell. Lust-worthy. Someone whose husband would gaze at her in awe, and shower her with affection, and never stay late to work if he had the opportunity to spend just one extra moment in her presence.
Those people—those women—do exist, you know. In my job, I’ve dipped my toe into their lives. I’ve spoken to their friends, their families, their coworkers. I’ve summarized their lives, which are always extinguished too short.
The day I met David, I was thinking about extinguishing my own. Would Mike even notice? How much time would pass before he realized I was gone?
Dinner, probably. That would be the first tell. No poorly cooked meal set out on the table. He’d be annoyed. His handsome face would settle into those hard, disapproving lines. A terse text would be sent, one heavy in blame. A call would be made, for delivery or pickup, and the problem would be solved. My husband loves to solve problems, which is probably why he married me to begin with. Other men choose women they can’t live without. Mine chose a woman who was unlikely to live without him.
It was a hypothesis proven true by the sleeping pills I had been stockpiling, just in case.
So yeah. By the time David Laurent crossed my path, I was a disaster of the most boring variety, a woman so yawn-worthy that when David smiled at me and I introduced myself, I lied.
I picked the most exciting woman who had recently died, and I stole her spirit. I stole her story. I stole her life.
And it felt really, really good.
TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE DEATH
@themysteryofdeath: Three women go to Vegas for the weekend. A trophy wife, an internet coach, and a struggling single mom. One of them won’t make it back home. Who will die?
I posted the tweet, then pushed my grocery cart forward, pausing at a display of laundry detergent and scanning the bottles for the hypoallergenic brand that my husband preferred. Rising to my toes, I grabbed the pale-green container and pulled it from the shelf, wincing at a twinge of pain that resulted from the action.
Mike had hidden my pain medicine, though he’d acted innocent when I asked about it, his face adopting that blank, wide-eyed look I hated. He’d followed up the denial with a suggestion to use the high-dose ibuprofen, which I was supposed to switch to a week ago, but which barely cut the edge off the pain.
I wedged the green detergent jug between a bag of chips and a pack of toilet paper, then parked my cart to the side of the aisle and picked up my phone. There were already a dozen responses to my tweet, and my mood lifted as I scrolled through the replies and liked the more entertaining ones.
- christopher23: single mom, choked to death on a Chippendale’s sparkly thong lol
- ncarolinamom: trophy wife. Shot by a hit man hired by her ugly and cheating husband.
- imahoney: @ncarolinamom ikr? I agree on the trophy wife. hot ones always die first in the movies
- bornblonde247: In the MOVIES. This is real life, you idiots. I vote the internet coach. Was making a #blessed social media post while crossing the Strip and got ran over by a taxi
I returned my phone to my purse, a smile crossing my face. My followers were witty, if not a little macabre. But hey, so was I. When I started the account, it was because my family and friends had grown tired of playing my death-guessing games. Where they’d rolled their eyes, the internet had embraced me. My Twitter account was up to ten thousand followers and steadily growing.
I’d wait another hour, then add a series of hints. If no one had solved the mystery by the end of the day, I’d unveil the truth, paired with their obituary. I wasn’t sure how often the obituaries were clicked on, but as an obit writer myself, I felt like the inclusion added a certain punch of class to the game, and acted as a dignified nod to my profession.
I had a set of guidelines, designed to protect the game. I always changed enough facts so an internet search wouldn’t spoil the fun, pre-reveal. And I rarely used my own obituaries, to keep any followers from figuring out who @themysteryofdeath really was.
Sometimes, though, I just couldn’t help myself. I had a stack of obits in my drawer that were flagged for future tweets, ones that deserved more eyes than just the Los Angeles Times readers. I had a sneaking suspicion that most of our subscribers only used that section of the paper to line their kitty litter trays.
“Oh my gosh, Lillian!” The familiar high-pitched trill sounded shocked, as if running into someone you knew in the grocery store were unheard of, and I hid a sigh as I turned to face my husband’s secretary.
Heather was dressed in a red pantsuit that clung to her thin thighs, the jacket buttoned just under her lace-cupped cleavage. She held a green shopping basket in one hand and beamed at me with undisguised delight. “I’m so glad I ran into you. I was just asking Mike about you yesterday! How’s your shoulder?”
“It’s fine.” I rubbed the joint out of habit. “Doctor says I just hyperextended it.”
“Well, if you need anything.” She let the sentence hang there, and I tried to ignore the open proposition. “You know, I’m a licensed masseuse.”
No, I didn’t know that. I tried not to grimace at the news. If my husband’s model-worthy employee hadn’t been tempting enough, let’s add in a set of talented, pleasure-inducing fingers. “Thanks, Heather.”
“Oh no, thank you! Having those days off last week was heaven. Did you enjoy Santa Barbara?”
I nodded automatically while I tried to figure out what she was talking about.
“I wasn’t sure about the hotel,” she continued, oblivious to my confusion. “I mean, it’s a Ritz, so of course it should be nice, but the reviews were iffy. Mike said you liked it?” She gnawed on the edge of her bright-pink bottom lip and peered at me in concern.
“The Ritz-Carlton?” I clarified, while my mind raced through what she was saying. Mike had been out of town at a continuing-education course last week. But in San Francisco, not Santa Barbara—at least, according to what he’d told me. “Yes, it was fine. Really nice.”
“Oh good.” She blew out a relieved breath that smelled faintly of peppermint. “Well, if you need anything, just ping me.”
“Thanks, Heather.” I watched as she wobbled by in heels that had to be four inches tall.
An upscale vacation, without me. My gut twisted at another piece to the puzzle of my husband’s suspicious behavior. I added it to the stack, which was beginning to tilt from the weight.
I needed to just face what was happening, but my heart couldn’t take it. Not yet. Maybe, somehow, there was an innocent explanation.
On light obituary days, I visited the dead. I always started at the north end of the cemetery, where the freshest graves were, and worked my way up and down the rows, putting a daisy stem on each name that I knew.
The last one I visited was always Marcella’s.
I put the remaining daisies at the base of her headstone. It was a simple one—not as ornate as some, but substantial, especially for such a small grave. The engraving was simple.
Dec 15, 2002–March 1, 2010
May your laughter and smile carry you into heaven.
I liked it. That line was the final one in her obituary. I’d been tempted to use it since, but it had felt wrong, like wearing a dress you’d stolen from a friend. I did that once in college. Jenna Forester left a Betsey Johnson at my house, and I knew it was hers, and I should have given it back, but I didn’t. I wore it to Whiskey Bar on a weekend that she was out of town, and felt like a thieving bitch the entire night.
I sat with Marcella for a minute, then continued to the older section, where I found her father sitting underneath a tree, his eyes closed, legs splayed open, the hem of his cemetery uniform exposing some of his hairy, swollen belly.
I waited for a moment before interrupting him, my mind comparing this version of Lenny with the man I’d first met, more than ten years ago. When I had gotten the predeath obituary order for a young child, my heart had ached at the request. The little girl was in hospice and wanted to contribute to her own obituary, a unique but not impossible request. With my stomach in knots, I’d rung the doorbell to the hospice center and been greeted by a man with a stern, almost military bearing, his face lined in stress and fear.
Since that time, Detective Leonard Thompson had lost his job, his purpose, and his health. Now the cemetery groundskeeper, he watched over his daughter’s grave, consumed an unhealthy amount of alcohol, and begrudgingly allowed my friendship.
“Hey.” I crouched beside him and patted his shoulder. “Lenny.”
He jerked to attention, then relaxed when he saw me. “What?”
“You know, one day you’re going to get fired for sleeping on the job.” I sat beside him and dug in my backpack, bringing out the extra chicken salad sandwich I’d packed. “Hungry?” I placed it on the thigh of his faded black cargo shorts.
“Don’t you have someone else to bother? A puppy that needs rescuing?”
“Puppy rescues are only in the afternoon.” I withdrew my own sandwich, along with a can of Sprite, which I set in the grass beside him. “Right now, it’s lunchtime.”
I took a big bite of my sandwich and chewed, holding his eye contact. His beard needed trimming, the wiry nest now past his collarbones. “No onions, right?” I nudged the edge of the sandwich bag, which was still lying on his leg. “See? I listen.”
“I said that I like onions.” Lenny glared at me as he grabbed the green soda can and wedged a dirty fingernail under the tab.
“Shush, you did not.” I used my tongue to dislodge a piece of salad that was stuck to my gums. Turning my head, I watched as a mower attendant drove down an adjacent aisle. “Who’s that?”
“A new guy.” Lenny brought the soda to his lips and took a long drink, then belched. “Won’t last.”
“It does take a hardy sort,” I said solemnly, and earned a rare Lenny chuckle.
He bit into the sandwich and I did the same. Chewing slowly, I caught him watching me.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, and considering that he was probably seeing two of me, his gaze was remarkably sharp.
“Nothing.” I took another bite, and stifled a groan as he set down his sandwich and glared at me, waiting. “It’s my husband,” I admitted, after swallowing my bite. “I think he’s cheating on me.”
“Husbands typically do.”
I laughed despite the anxiety in my chest. “Thanks, Lenny. Very reassuring.”
He lifted both shoulders in a shrug. “You catch him in a lie?”
“A few.” San Francisco hadn’t been the only one. There had been an expensive cologne gift he’d lied about, scratches on his back that had looked suspiciously like nail marks, and an overall detachment from me that seemed to be increasing. Three months ago, I’d considered confronting and leaving him.
I’d abandoned the idea by morning. Was protecting my personal pride worth ripping apart my family, especially when Jacob was only two years from graduation?
And maybe Lenny was right. If most men cheat, why trade a known for an unknown?
“I cheated on Marcella’s mother.” Lenny wiped at the edge of his mouth with one dirty knuckle. “Didn’t do a great job of hiding it. I didn’t really care if she found out. It was my lazy way of getting out of the marriage, of making her take that step. Is he being sloppy about it?”
That was a hard question to look into, mainly because I was afraid of what I’d find. “Sloppy isn’t a word that ever describes Mike,” I hedged.
Lenny chuckled, and I knew he could see through me. “Just think about it.”
I didn’t want to think about it. It was one thing to view Mike as being selfish and wanting to have his cake and eat it too. It was a bigger, uglier situation if he didn’t want my cake and was plotting his way out.
I didn’t know if it was the former or the latter, but I did know one thing about my husband, and that was that he thought everything through. If Mike was planning to leave me, I needed to be prepared, because he would have contingency plans on top of contingency plans and the risk was high that I had already been set up for failure.
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