Tessa Doucet is studying mortuary science because the dead can't hurt her. Then a monster from her past turns up on her embalming table, forcing her to confront the demon she'd thought she'd put to rest.
Flummoxed by the cold case Tessa brings to light, Detective Cash Starkey finds himself falling for her, even though he'd sworn to keep his distance. He doesn't want a relationship, not now, and certainly not with a woman running from her past.
Yet when a man who has haunted Tessa since childhood threatens her life, he runs into the fray instead of away from it, and together they defeat demon and put her past to rest once and for all.
Dempsey Spencer. Just as ugly dead as alive.
Tessa Doucet reeled back a step and stared at the flabby, tattooed body stretched out on Maurice's embalming table. One minute she'd been talking to Maurice about avoiding covering up the snake tattoo on the man's neck when she applied makeup to his set features, and the next she had glimpsed his face.
Her stepfather. The vile scum who'd taken away her innocence and gone to prison because of it. He'd been out of Angola for only a month and had already knocked on her door claiming he wanted to apologize, but she'd turned him away. That sick son of a bitch.
And now he's dead.
Relief splashed over Tessa in an icy wave. She drew in a steadying breath and glanced up at Maurice, a tall, angular, mahogany-skinned man with dexterous hands and a gentle manner.
He cocked a brow. "Is something wrong, Tessa?"
"Um... I-I don't think I can help you with this one."
"Unfortunately, you do not have a choice," he said in his musical Jamaican lilt, his dark eyes gleaming.
"His funeral is tomorrow, and I must leave in a few minutes to meet Ella at the airport. So I will need your help to complete the embalming process."
"What is the problem, child?"
"He's... he's..." She let the word trail away. If she refused to help him with Dempsey, she'd have to say why, and she wasn't sure she could reveal what her stepfather had done all those years ago. Besides, she didn't want Maurice to be late picking up Ella.
The mortician wiped his hands on a cotton cloth and tossed it beside the sink. "Go on."
"No. N-never mind." She lifted her chin. "I'll deal with it."
"Thank you, dear one." He winked at her and undid Dempsey's belt. "Ella will much appreciate my presence at baggage claim. She will have plenty of luggage to drag home."
"You should definitely be there to help her," Tessa said, her stomach roiling as Maurice adjusted the sheet covering her stepfather. "Is her mother feeling better?"
"Apparently, considering the amount of shopping they managed to do. Hopefully this will be Ella's last venture to Atlanta for a while."
"I hope so, for your sake."
"You do not think I make a good bachelor?" He laughed, his dulcet tones warming her blood. He retrieved the instrument tray from the counter by the sink and rolled it over to the embalming table. "Time to get started."
"All right." Nausea swirled in her stomach as she sidled closer. Maurice would first suture her stepfather's mouth closed, and then insert a mouth former to make him look natural. Dempsey's mottled face mocked her. She waved her hand in his direction and fixed her eyes on Maurice. "Wh-what happened to him? Why is his face so red?"
"I do not know. The coroner said he suffered a heart attack."
She nodded. Somehow, Dempsey dying of something as simple as a heart attack seemed wrong. He had lived a violent life... so didn't he deserve a violent death?
The warmth in her body disappeared the second Maurice turned away to wash his hands and don a pair of non-latex gloves. "I will embalm him and leave you to wash the body and do his hair and makeup. Can you handle that?"
"Yes." She glanced back at her stepfather, the man who had caused her so much pain. She didn't want to touch him, but she had no choice if she were going to help Maurice. Once she had finished embalming Dempsey, she would roll him to get him back into his shirt, coat, and pants, and then slather makeup on his ugly face and comb his scruffy halo of gray hair.
A river of disgust cascaded down her spine. The embalming room had always been a welcoming workspace, but today it seemed incredibly cold and sterile. Frightening, even. And all because of the monster on the table.