Not Dead Yet

NotDeadYet_300Coming February 4, 2019 from Jenn Burke and Carina Press

Dying isn’t what it used to be.

Wes Cooper was dead. Then he wasn’t—though he’s not exactly alive, either. As an immortal not-ghost, he can transition between this world and the otherplane, which makes him the perfect thief for hire. For seventy years he’s made a “living” returning items to their rightful owners, seeing his fair share of the bizarre in the process. But he’s never witnessed murder. Until now.

His latest mission brings him more than he bargained for: a very-dead actor who is definitely going to stay that way. It’s just Wes’s luck that his ex-boyfriend, Detective Hudson Rojas, is assigned to the case. Hudson broke Wes’s heart years ago—and could again, given he’s rocking a hot silver-fox look that shouldn’t be legal.

As they work together to track down the murderer before anyone else gets hurt, it becomes clear Wes and Hudson have unfinished business. And when a secret Hudson’s been keeping threatens more than just their happiness, it might mean the end of their not-life together—permanently.

This book is approximately 91,000 words

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Read on for a sneak peek at the first chapter…


Chapter One

You’d think I’d recognize murder when I saw it, but I didn’t always put two and two together quickly enough.

Like that job to retrieve an ill-conceived contract from a downtown Toronto office building. After hours, no one around, and I heard a woman’s passionate cry of “Do me harder, cowboy!” It wasn’t until after I stuck my ghostly head through the office door that I clued in what it meant: my target and his secretary getting their freak on. Twenty years later and I still couldn’t scrub their pony play from my brain.

Or when, on a bright afternoon in 1933, I’d blithely accepted my lover’s invitation for a daylight meeting—something he’d never asked for before. My only thought was that I’d get extra, unexpected time with Michael.

In hindsight, I should have expected the gun.

Murder was the last thing I thought I’d witness in the home of Meredith Montague, an actor and one of Toronto’s elite. The entire Forest Hill mansion dripped elegance, with pale neutral colors accented with white furniture and tons of natural light from giant windows.

The study in particular was a beautiful, serene space…except for the figures on the floor.

I remained frozen behind Meredith’s rolltop desk, despite the fact that neither figure would see me. I was invisible, incorporeal, one step removed from the living world, as insubstantial as a ghost. Hell, I was a ghost—just one who had a living body most of the time.

The bigger figure was on top of the smaller one—and, well, the first place my brain went was sex. Duh. Except…the language of loving wasn’t there. Their bodies didn’t undulate. They didn’t flow. There was no familiar rhythm, no distinctive butt-thrusts, no grunts of exertion, nothing. Only a man on top of a woman, though I couldn’t be sure. When I was in my ghost form on the otherplane, living beings seemed shrouded in cotton and fuzz, indistinct and detailless. But I could tell he was straddling her, his hands on either side of her head, his arms braced…

Wait—his hands weren’t on either side of her head. They were around her neck.

I never proclaimed myself to be a hero or even a good guy. For fuck’s sake, I sneaked into people’s private spaces as a ghost to “recover” items for interested parties—heirlooms my clients wanted back, contracts they shouldn’t have signed, or, occasionally, information they could use for leverage. I wasn’t ashamed of it. My abilities were a tool, and anyone else would use them the same way. On top of that, I found that most of my targets had done something not-so-nice to put them on the radar of the folks who knew how to acquire my services.

All that aside, deep down I’d thought that if I was ever faced with a life-or-death situation, I’d find some tiny thread of heroism rooted somewhere inside my psyche and act.

But fear—shock—rooted me to the spot. Logic said nothing could hurt me. They couldn’t see me, couldn’t feel me—other than a cold breeze if I got too close—and they damn sure couldn’t touch me. But I remembered dying. I remembered the disbelief, the fear and the pain before the shock of nothing.

Thats what shes feeling. That thought broke the bonds holding me, and I lurched upward with a vague notion I’d grab something, anything, to use as a weapon—

Except it was too late. The woman’s legs kicked once more and she went limp. I held my breath, waiting for her to move again, but the life faded from her, peeling away the obscuring layers of the otherplane to reveal her features as she became as dead and inanimate as the furniture surrounding us.

Long golden hair. Iconic red cat-eye glasses sitting askew over dull, lifeless blue eyes. A fifties-style white blouse with tiny red polka dots and red stitching, one button popped at her neck.

My target—Meredith Montague.

I’d never been around someone at the moment of their death, so I had no idea if her spirit would join me on the otherplane. I didn’t know if I wanted that or not, to be honest. There should be something more than her body on the ground, as inert as the chair beside her, but what would I say? I didn’t want to be the one to explain to her that her life was over. But there was no mystical light and no indication that Meredith’s soul would come shake my hand on its way to her final destination.

The man sat back on his heels, his hands resting on his thighs, as he looked at the body on the floor. Then he got up. I watched him warily, shrinking back as he got close. His shape was…weird. On the otherplane, most people’s figures were muted and obscured, as though they were wrapped in layers and layers of translucent gauze.

But this man…his figure was the dark, slate gray of an impending storm. It had jagged edges, as though a thousand razors extended from his clothes and skin. An aura of danger surrounded him—not an actual, visual aura, since even in the otherplane I had no ability to see that kind of thing. It was more of a sense. A warning that this was someone I did not want to mess with, a warning that went beyond what I’d witnessed.

He gave no indication he saw me as he made his way to the side bar, looked out over the grounds lit in the late afternoon sunshine for a moment, and then poured himself a drink.

With a dead body on the floor behind him, he poured himself a drink.

In some ways, the casualness was more horrifying than the murder. I mean, I could be callous and self-centered, but not on the level of ignoring a dead body in the room. But the murderer—the monster—sipped his drink slowly. As though he had the right to be there.

I shook with the need to leave, to go, to pretend the past hour hadn’t happened. Rising from where I was hunched behind the desk, I started for the wall with the big window overlooking the gardens—only to freeze as I realized the murderer’s eyes were locked on me.

They were blacker than black, fathomless pits that would have probably looked like normal, everyday human eyes were I not in the otherplane. But they sent a chill racing through me—fear, horror, wrongness. I begged my feet to move, and this time, they did. I raced through the wall, out of the house, and away, welcoming the numbness that spread through my brain and body.

I managed to make it a block away before I threw up.

*

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

My grip tightened on the payphone’s receiver as I tried to force the words out, but they wouldn’t come.

“Hello?”

Cmon, Wes. Dont fuck this up too.

“Murder,” I whispered.

“Sir? Please speak up.”

“Someone was killed. Meredith Montague. At her house. He strangled her.”

“I’ll alert paramedics and police. Is she breathing?”

“She’s dead.”

“What’s the address?”

I knew it—I’d researched it and memorized it, memorized the house itself for the job that had just turned tits up in a spectacular way. But could I think of it in this moment? Not a single digit. “It’s Meredith Montague.”

“I’ll need the address, sir.”

“Forest Hill.”

“Sir—”

I hung up, shoved my gloved hands in my jean pockets and walked down the street, trying not to look as guilty as I felt. Moments later, a cacophony of sirens slashed through the afternoon bustle, competing with the regular sounds of traffic, and I shivered. Despite the sun beating down on me with an intensity that seemed too much for a late spring day, my innards were nothing more than a block of ice.

I wondered if I’d ever be warm again.

I didn’t remember how I got back to my apartment. I mean, I must have retrieved my car and driven back, but the specifics hadn’t imprinted on my brain. Normally, coming home to the character and serenity of the converted manor house was cause for a sigh of relief, but not now. Time skipped and jumped, and the next thing I knew, someone was pounding on my door.

“Wes?”

The voice was muffled but I’d recognize it anywhere. Lexi Aster, my best friend, confidant, platonic soul mate, and perpetual pain in the ass. I glanced at my phone and cursed—she’d texted five times and I hadn’t heard a single chime. No wonder she’d come to check up on me. “I’m fine!” I shouted.

“Open the door!”

“You have a key.”

“Open the goddamned door, Wesley.”

Groaning, I dragged my ass to the door and checked the peephole out of habit. Lexi’s image was skewed by the fish-eyed lens but still stunning. Her multitude of microbraids were smooth and impeccable, and her sienna skin gleamed under the hall lighting that never made me look that good. But then, I was as pasty white as you could get, while Lexi took after her black father rather than her white mother—in looks, anyway. Her form-hugging fuchsia T-shirt and jeans showed off her ample curves. Lexi had never been one to follow the admonition that tight-fitting clothes were only for girls with thigh gaps.

The outside world saw a professional woman of color. I saw my best friend, the latest generation of the Aster family, a powerful line of witches.

Her hazel eyes narrowed as I opened the door. “You were supposed to meet me an hour ago.”

I shrugged and shuffled back to the living room, her words barely sinking in.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Lexi’s voice was soft and filled with concern.

I thumped back onto the couch and slid down to lie on my side. “Shitty day.”

Lexi’s brows rose. “Appropriate, since you look like crap.”

I flipped her the bird.

“Classy.” She tossed her purse onto the end table and sat on the opposite side of the couch. It was automatic for her to pull my feet onto her lap—how many times in the past ten years had we sat like this, watching a movie or sharing bits and pieces about ourselves and our lives?

Until Lexi inserted herself into my sphere of existence, I hadn’t really known what it was to have a friend. I had plenty of acquaintances, people who up until then I would have deemed friends. But Lexi’s unwavering acceptance of me, her devotion to seeing me smile and making me happy, and the urges I felt in return to keep her safe and sound and content made me realize that my previous friendships had been empty and unbalanced. One night, after drinking way too much tequila for some forgotten reason, I’d declared my undying love for her and asked her to marry me. The wrinkle in my masterful plan was that Little Wes only perked up for men—and only infrequently at that—and Lexi liked boobs. So best friends it was.

“Want to talk about it?”

“Pfft. No.” I tried to sound nonchalant, but the blanket wrapped tight around me gave away how I was really feeling.

Lexi started rubbing my feet through the covering. I relaxed into her touch and hoped she wouldn’t push. I didn’t want to relive what I’d seen. To relive the guilt.

“We had tonight planned since last week. I was counting on you.”

Tonight? Tonight was— “Oh, shit, Lex. I’m sorry.”

She shrugged, but there was nothing casual about it. “Too late now.”

Second serving of guilt. Order up!

For the past couple of weeks, Lexi had suspected her girlfriend was cheating on her. Little things—an endearment in a text that Marissa never used with Lexi, not being where she said she was going to be, an unfamiliar perfume on her clothes. Not enough to confront Marissa, not yet, and Lexi’s witchery wasn’t at all reliable when used for personal gain—one of the weaknesses of magic. So she’d arranged for a night off from her job as a nurse at Toronto General without telling Marissa. After Lexi departed for her shift, I was supposed to have followed Marissa if she left the house.

“We’ll figure it out,” I assured her.

“Yeah, maybe.”

I hated hearing Lexi sound so…diminished. And I hated worst of all that I’d let her down.

Eighty-five years ago, Lexi’s great-grandmother, April, attempted a spell to resurrect me after my murder. It was supposed to give me back my body and my life as it had been when I died—and it mostly worked. I wasn’t dead any longer—but I wasn’t a normal human, either. I was grateful, beyond grateful, for April’s spell, and I’d promised to repay her. It wasn’t something I’d managed in the years of April’s life, nor of her daughter’s, or her granddaughter’s—or her great-granddaughter’s, so far. In fact, the Asters always seemed to be helping me more than I helped them, but they still stuck with me. I had no idea why they did, but I was thankful for their constancy.

Fuck. I took a deep breath. “I saw someone get murdered this afternoon.”

Lexi sat up, her arms and legs uncrossing. “What?”

I told her everything, in broken fits and starts. My eyes were squeezed shut for most of it, which was probably a mistake—I kept seeing the moment Meredith became visible, then the empty holes where the murderer’s eyes should have been.

By the time I was finished, I was sitting against the arm opposite Lexi, facing her. She mirrored my position.

“Did you call the cops?”

“Yes. Anonymously.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That she was killed.”

She sighed. “Wes.”

“What was I supposed to tell them? I couldn’t say I was ghosting through Meredith’s house, and I can’t even describe the man who—who—who did it, other than to say he was taller than me and had broad shoulders.”

“Everyone’s taller than you. It’s not much of a description.” She pursed her lips for a second, her thinking pose. “There has to be something more you can tell them.”

I tucked my knees closer to my chest. “Not without giving away that I was there.”

“Yeah, and that would be tough to explain.”

“Exactly.”

Lexi squinted at me and tilted her head. Uh-oh. I knew that look. “Didn’t you date a cop once?”

Aw, crap. I should have known that drunken confession would be held against me. “You’re not supposed to remember that. It was before you were born.”

“You shouldn’t have told me about your adventures then.”

Adventures. Pfft. If by adventures she meant day-in and day-out worry that Hudson’s job would get him killed, sure. Or maybe she meant how we’d argued constantly over how I used my abilities. That had been fun. “I don’t know if he’s even still in Toronto.”

She arched a brow.

“He’s probably retired. He’d be—” I tried to calculate the numbers in my head, but my mathematics was thrown off by pictures of Hudson’s crooked smile, overwhelming all the thoughts of what had gone wrong with our relationship. A hell of a lot had gone right, and my brain was too happy to remind me of that. Goddamn it. My memories of him were so clear. With an effort, I banished them. “He’d be older.”

“So?”

“I’m not calling him.”

“You could give him a truthful statement about what you saw and let him figure out how to incorporate it into the investigation.”

“If he’s still a cop. If he has any influence on the investigation. If—”

She grabbed my phone from the coffee table and chucked it at me. “You’ll never know if you don’t call.”

I smacked the phone back on the table. “No. Damn it, Lexi, I did my civic duty. I called them, told them she’d been killed. What more do you want from me?”

“I want you to do the right thing.”

I suddenly found the coffee table very interesting as she pushed to her feet and grabbed her purse.

“I’ve gotta go.”

I trailed after her as she made her way to the door. “You don’t have to. We can brainstorm—I’m sure we can come up with another way to find out what’s going on with Marissa.”

“Not tonight.” When she turned to face me, her expression held nothing but disappointment. It made me cringe. “I understand not wanting to get more involved. I do. But you’re already involved, simply by being there.”

“And how is sharing my absolutely useless information the right thing?”

Or potentially ripping off the barely healed scab on my broken heart? By anyone’s measurement of time, thirty-three years should have been long enough to get over Hudson and his damned smile, but now that I was thinking about him, I could feel my soul bleeding. A trickle, just enough to know that things weren’t as healed as I thought they were.

“It’s something. Better than doing nothing.”

“But I didn’t do nothing. I called—”

Lexi sighed and headed for the stairs, raising a hand in farewell. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I closed the door and leaned my forehead on it for a second before stumbling back to the living room. The blanket tangled around my legs and I kicked it off with more prejudice than it warranted. Collapsing on the couch, I grabbed the remote control and started stabbing my way through channels. That was a mistake. It didn’t take long for me to come across a local channel with the breaking news about Meredith’s death. Her image stared at me accusingly—until I blinked and realized she was actually smiling in the picture.

Call him, Lexi had said. As if it was easy to break more than three decades of silence. I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to hear his voice. I didn’t want to imagine how time had treated him—but now that my brain had gone there, it was all I could think about. Would he be bald? Going gray? Would he have a beer gut? Kids?

He was as gay as me, but it had been the mid-eighties when we’d broken up and Hudson had made it clear that openly being with me was something he could never do. Despite all but living together for five years, despite me worrying constantly that this undercover assignment was going to be the one where he got hurt and no one knew to tell me, he’d refused to put me down as his emergency contact.

They would know what it means, he said.

Logically, I grasped why he was afraid. He was in a macho job, one where he had to trust his colleagues to have his back, and he couldn’t give them any reason not to trust him. Back then—hell, even today—cops got killed for being gay. Not directly, maybe, but from a slow backup response or lack of support when requested. The closet was the only truly safe answer—though that could be argued too. I knew all that. But emotionally…

Denial had already killed me once.

Was Lexi right? Should I do more? I couldn’t see how my information would be useful, but I wasn’t a cop. Maybe it would help. Maybe something I saw would be the key to everything.

Goddamn it.

I spun my phone on the coffee table. “Phone the switchboard, or whatever the hell they call it now,” I muttered. “Leave him a message.” Because it was almost 8:00 p.m.—he’d be done for the night. Now was the perfect time to call, actually. I wouldn’t have to talk to him.

I pulled up Google, found the generic number for the Toronto Police headquarters, called it and pressed a button to speak to a person. When someone answered, I asked for Officer Hudson Rojas.

“Do you know what division he’s in?”

“Ah—no. I don’t.” When we met, he’d been in traffic, but the undercover assignments he’d taken on in the last part of our relationship meant he’d gotten transferred. I had no idea to which division. He’d stopped talking to me about his work at some point—probably by the third undercover stint in as many months.

“One moment please.”

The line went to hold music. Then, much sooner than I expected, it started to ring. One ring, two…it’d go to voicemail soon and then I could—

“Rojas.”

The familiar, sexy roll of his surname made me want to whimper. Oh my god, it was him. Not voicemail, not a recording. Him.

“Hello?” he prompted.

His voice was deeper and rougher than I remembered. Kind of like gravel scraping against my nerve endings—nerve endings that were never that sensitive with anyone else.

“I can hear you breathing and I’ve got your number on my screen, so you might as well say something,” Hudson rumbled. “It’ll save me the time of reverse lookup and tracking you down for pissing me—”

“Hi, Hud. It’s me—Wes Cooper.”

There was a satisfyingly long pause before Hudson said, “Wes?”

“Yeah.” I let out a small chuckle. “You remember me.”

“Of course I remember you, I— Holy shit. Wes.” Was it my imagination, or was that a smile in his voice? Could he actually be happy to hear from me? “I never thought— How the hell have you been?”

“Good.” How else did you sum up thirty-three years to a former lover? “You?”

“Good. Yeah. Wow.”

And now the awkward descended, along with a laden silence. I hadn’t forgotten my reason for the call, but how the hell did I segue into that? Great to hear your voice, Hudson, and by the way, when I was a ghost in Meredith Montagues house this afternoon, I witnessed her murder.

“Um…so still a cop, huh?” Brilliant addition to the conversation, Wes. Jesus.

“Detective now.”

“Congrats.”

“Thanks.” I heard shifting on the line, and I imagined Hudson leaning back in his chair. “So why’d you call?”

“I guess it’s a little hard to believe I’d reach out after all this time to say hi.”

“A little, yeah.”

“Right. So, um…you know Meredith Montague?”

“The actor who was murdered this afternoon?” Hudson’s voice lost its happy glow and grew sharp edges. “What about her?”

Damn, this was harder than I thought—and I’d known it was going to be tough. I wished I could whip out a snappy quip, but I wasn’t that much of an asshole that I’d make fun of a woman’s death. Especially not one I’d witnessed. “I saw it.”

“Saw what?”

I wasn’t gonna have to spell it out, was I? I pressed my lips together, hard enough that they went numb, then spit out, “Her murder. Okay? I saw her get killed.”

A sound came across the line—a sound I shouldn’t have recognized after all this time. A sharp inhale with a soft grunt edging into a sigh. The sound of Hudson wanting desperately to react but holding back until he could control himself. It brought back memories of how often he’d looked at me, caught between frustration and resignation at my career. He’d never approved of how I made my living, and unlike Lexi, never hesitated to tell me I should do something else.

“Christ,” he finally said. “Let me guess—you’re the one who called it in anonymously.”

“Yeah.”

Another cut-off sound. “I’m coming over.”

Okay, that I hadn’t anticipated. “No. You don’t have to—”

“I damn well do, because I’m not taking your fucking statement over the goddamned phone. You’re at the same address?”

“Yeah.”

“Be there in twenty.” The line went dead.

I stared at my phone for a moment. Then I carefully put it down on the coffee table, scrambled to my feet and darted into the bedroom to raid my closet. If I was gonna see my ex-boyfriend, it was not happening in sweats and a ratty Edmonton Oilers T-shirt I’d owned since before we broke up.

I was going to be shiny and sparkly, damn it. An ornament of look what the fuck you missed.

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