Coached to Death: New Excerpt by Victoria Laurie

When Catherine Cooper settles in the Hamptons on the heels of a nasty split from her long-time husband, the luxurious coastal community seems like the perfect place to get back on track in style. But as Cat soon discovers, starting fresh on the East End can be deadly . . . Read on for an excerpt of the first chapter of Victoria Laurie's Coached to Death.

Coached to Death

Victoria Laurie

The Life Coach Mysteries #1

October 29, 2019

Cat Cooper never imagined selling off her in-demand marketing firm would mean going from the pinnacle of success to a walking hot mess. Gouged from an unexpected divorce, Cat suddenly finds herself struggling through a new career as a business-savvy life coach for the hopelessly adrift in East Hampton and contending with Heather Holland—a spiteful neighbor who will do anything to bully her out of town. But her second act may very well continue behind bars when Heather’s dead body turns up next to a shattered punchbowl . . . and Cat’s pinned as the murderer.

But given Heather’s mean girl reputation, any one of the guests at her invite-only luncheon could have committed the crime before planting Cat’s punchbowl next to the body. Determined not to trade designer duds for an unflattering prison jumpsuit, Cat sides with her best friend Gilley to scour chic boutiques and oceanfront mansions in search of the criminal who framed her. With a stoic detective looking to get her in cuffs, it’s up to Cat to catch the real killer and land on her feet once again . . .

Chapter 1

“You can do this,” I said firmly. My reflection eyed me doubtfully. Fluffing my blond hair before adding another spritz of hair spray, I faced my concerned expression in the mirror one more time, squared my shoulders, and said, “You can. Your sister gives advice all the time, and look at how successful she is!”

My reflection rolled her eyes. She knew that, while my sister was a world-renowned psychic who was so good that she had a four-month waiting list and was often recruited by the FBI to help solve their toughest cases, I was most definitely not my sister. I didn’t have an intuitive bone in my body.

But I did have a few decades of keen business experience on my résumé, and a very large marketing firm that I’d built from the ground up and had recently sold for just over fifty million. That had to be worth some street cred when it came to handing out life advice.

Still, it was one thing to run a fast-paced business, and another to help a soccer mom find her inner purpose beyond being a glorified caterer, childcare provider, and chauffeur.

While my reflection and I silently exchanged frustrated looks, my cell rang. I answered it immediately. “I need you,” I said, perhaps a weensy bit desperately.

“I’m on my way,” Gilley sang.

I lifted my wrist to eye my watch and frowned in annoyance. “It’s almost ten. You’re late.”

“I had to stop and get some doughnuts. You wouldn’t want your first client to walk in and not have access to doughnuts, would you?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. A headache was certainly destined to make its way onto the morning’s agenda. “Gilley,” I said, using the same voice I saved for those times when my sons were being difficult. “Erma’s e-mail clearly stated that she’s been using food to help her cope with all the negativity in her life.”

“Oh,” Gil said. “Sorry. I’ll get rid of them.”

I glanced at my reflection again. She cocked a skeptical eyebrow. She knew that “get rid of” was code for “swallow them whole like a python.”

“You really need to pace yourself,” I told him after a few seconds of silence.

“Wha?” Gilley said, his voice muffled by a mouthful of doughnut. “I’m not going to waste them, Cat.”

I sighed and glanced again at my watch. It was five minutes to ten. My client, Erma Kirkland, would be here any minute. “Please, just hurry, okay?”

Gilley muffled a reply, which I couldn’t make sense of. The python had perhaps moved on to its second doughnut. Ending the call, I came out of the small restroom located in my newly decorated office suite to nervously stare one more time at the ambiance I’d created.

My work space is located in the heart of East Hampton’s downtown. The building itself is nearly two hundred years old. Hunting for an appropriate location, I stumbled upon this lucky find and was delighted by the fact that the exterior still had such strong old-world charm. When I inquired about the building itself, I was additionally delighted to find that it was up for sale. I bought it even before I’d secured the lot for my new home. In fact, the old building was the first thing I’d purchased after the ink dried on my divorce papers.

It may have been a little impulsive, actually, but can you blame me? My husband of twenty-one years announced the day after I received the wire from the sale of my marketing firm that he wasn’t happy with our relationship. It turns out he was much happier with the bartender from the country club, where he’s the resident pro. She’s a perky brunette named Lisa. He’s clearly having a midlife crisis, and they’re now living together in Connecticut in a house he purchased with his share of our divorce settlement—roughly half my earnings from the sale of my business.

Bastard.

Ah, well, at least he didn’t get the thing he’d wanted even more than my money—full custody of our boys. Matt and Mike, my twin fourteen-year-old sons . . . such smart, gorgeous, mischievous young men. They’re in boarding school just three hours away, and I miss them terribly, but it’s what they wanted as things between me and their father escalated through the divorce courts. I can’t say that I blame them for wanting to be away from both of us. The drama was a little much for teen boys to handle.

I’m hoping the year at boarding school will allow the dust to settle and they’ll be eager to come live with me again. Fingers crossed on that, because right now I’m all alone in an enormous, nearly complete home (which my sister has dubbed Chez Cat), and it feels empty and sad. That’s probably why I spend most of my time at the guest house (Chez Kitty), where Gilley has essentially moved in while his husband, Michel, gallivants all over the globe, photographing the world’s most beautiful models. Still, their marriage seems strong, even though I know Gilley is heartsick about Michel being in such demand and away from home most of the time.

He and I formed our own little lonely-hearts club, and to keep ourselves from getting too depressed over the past seven months, we threw ourselves into the project of bringing this old office building up to code and up to snuff.

Nine charming suites occupy the space, three per floor. When I initially purchased the building, each suite had a tenant, except for my office here on the ground floor and one on the third floor, left of the stairs. I’d renovated and decorated that one first, but for some reason I hadn’t yet been able to rent it out. Plenty of people had come to take a look at it in the past few weeks, but no one had leased it just yet.

Still, there was a podiatrist who’d shown some promising interest in it earlier in the week, and I was hopeful he’d come back with a check in hand, ready to sign.

Nervously, I moved around my own suite, fluffing the pillows on the love seat and trimming an odd thread from the throw rug. Surveying the large suite one final time, I sighed contentedly. I loved this space.

I’d used soothing tones of creamy cocoa on the walls of my office, balancing that with bright white trim and a smoky brown hardwood for the flooring. The love seat, where my clients would sit, was vanilla cream leather, soft as butter to the touch. My own chair was a high-back wing chair with a small side table pre-set with pen and paper, ready for taking notes. I’d also set a similar notebook with pen on a small side table next to the love seat for my first client, Erma, just in case she forgot to bring her own.

I tried to picture the scene of the two of us, sitting together. She would be a pretty but nervous woman, lacking confidence and direction. She’d fiddle with her pearls as she told me about herself. And I’d listen to her story and learn what was holding her back, and then I’d lend her some insightful advice—some gentle coaching to steer her in the right direction. And through this process of my trademark Listen, Learn, Lend technique, Erma would gradually evolve, like an awkward duckling, into a confident swan.

I imagined her back on that love seat after a few months, fresher, prettier, more styled, and confident. She’d be Erma Kirkland 2.0, and she’d rave about her new life and tell everyone how working with me had helped her. Her friends would come to me, and I’d fix them, then their friends would line up, and soon I’d have a blog, a waiting list, and a massive following. There’d be a book—aptly titled Listen, Learn, Lend, and a morning-talk-show book tour, where I’d turn on the charm, and then some producer somewhere would step out of the shadows and suggest a show of my own. I’d be the queen of advice for lost women everywhere.

I’d be the new Oprah, and Gilley would be my Gail.

I sighed happily, imagining myself on the cover of Time, and was pulled abruptly out of my thoughts by the jangle of the front door opening. Gilley sashayed in, smiling broadly, his lips still wearing a dusting of powdered sugar. “Cat,” he said, pausing mid-sashay to look me up and down. “You. Look. Radiant!”

I blushed in spite of myself. I’d taken considerable care with my appearance this morning. Not wanting to appear too businesslike or otherwise intimidating in one of my usual Hermès suits, I’d opted instead for a pair of suede brown dress slacks, a bulky cream sweater that hung off one exposed shoulder, and spikey Stuart Weitzman ankle boots. I’d topped off the ensemble with some chunky gold jewelry. “Thank you,” I said, running a recently manicured finger under my bangs to move them out of my eyes. “But you’re still late.”

Gilley waved his hand casually before shutting the door and setting down his messenger bag. “I still made it here before your client. Technically, that’s a win.”

“How about next time we avoid getting technical, and you just show up early?”

Gilley regarded me with half-lidded eyes. “For years, M.J. lectured me on the importance of punctuality, and . . .”

M.J. was M.J. Holliday, Gilley’s former partner in crime. The pair went way back, to elementary school in Georgia. They’d grown up more like siblings than classmates, and the best friends had even attended college together in Boston, eventually beginning their own ghostbusting business which took on a whole life of its own when it blossomed into a hit cable TV show and then a movie called Ghoul Getters. M.J. was married now to Heath Whitefeather, who, like her, was a fellow spiritual medium. The pair were mostly retired from that life now, and were currently settled down in New Mexico, raising a family.

“And? And what?” I asked, when Gilley refused to finish his thought.

Gilley waved his hand nonchalantly. “And you can see how well that worked out.”

I sighed. “Point taken. Still, can I at least convince you to sit down at your desk before Erma gets here?”

Gilley curtsied before bouncing over to his desk to pull out the chair and sit down in one graceful move. Opening up his laptop, he pretended to type furiously while smiling at me.

As I was rolling my eyes, the front door opened again, and a giant walked into our office.

The woman was at least six feet tall, with flaming red, curly hair, small squinty eyes, and large manly hands. Dressed in layers of black, she was a dramatic creature. And sweaty. And so nervous her hands were shaking. “Hi!” she boomed.

Gilley and I both winced at the volume of the greeting.

“Hello,” Gil said softly, as if encouraging her to use her inside voice. Getting up, he walked around the desk to extend his hand to her. “Welcome to Cat’s Coaching Corner. I’m Gilley.”

“I’m Erma!”

Gil and I both winced again, but he managed to cover it by pushing that big smile onto his lips. Erma looked at him and his outstretched hand as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but then she seemed to remember herself and engulfed his hand in her palm. I watched him grit his teeth, likely from the force of the handshake. “It’s great to meet you!” she said, pumping his poor arm like a gambler on a hot streak at a slot machine. And then, all of a sudden, she stopped pumping and pulled him toward her with a jerk. Inhaling deeply, she said, “Holy cow, you smell like doughnuts!”

Gilley’s eyes widened, and he looked at me in alarm, but I had no idea what to do. Before I could even say a word, Erma tugged Gilley forward even more—practically into her chest—as she said, “Are there doughnuts?”

“Uh,” Gilley said, staring up at Erma, who was about six inches taller than him. “No. No doughnuts. Sorry.”

Erma scrunched up her face into an impressively disappointed frown, but in the next instant, the frown was gone, replaced by that beaming smile again as she wrapped Gilley into a big bear hug. “Aw, it’s okay,” she said, inhaling deeply again after she let out a satisfied sigh. “Man! It’s like breathing in heaven.”

Gilley squeaked when Erma squeezed him tightly one last time before releasing him. She then turned to regard me, and I couldn’t help the small step back I took as her slightly wild eyes lit on me. “You must be Cat!”

“Yes,” I said, my mind racing with possible escape routes. This woman was so much more than I was prepared to deal with. When Erma looked ready to charge and sweep me up in a big hug too, I reacted by turning my back slightly to her before making a large sweeping motion with one arm. “Won’t you please join me in the seating area, Erma? We’ll get right to your session.”

Erma seemed a little unsure what to do, as if she were caught between attempting to still come at me for a hug and following my directive and proceeding to the sofa. Meanwhile, Gilley slinked away from her, clutching his hand, as though it was painful, all the way back to his desk. At last, Erma followed my instructions, lowering her arms and trotting forward like an obedient Saint Bernard.

As we entered the seating area, I motioned her over to the love seat and sat down in the big wing chair. I had a whole speech prepared to get us started. Something inspiring. Something motivational. Something she’d likely pull quotes from and post to her Facebook page.

“I can’t believe I actually get to meet you!” she giggled before I’d had a chance to even open my mouth. “You’re like the most famous person I’ve ever met!”

The statement caught me a little off guard. “I am?”

“Well, yeah! I mean, I saw you speak at that Empowering Women seminar thingy? Ohmigod, you were, like, incredible! And then I saw you speak at the Women in Charge seminar, and then again at the Women Can Have It All conference, and all three times you were so . . .” Erma waved her hands in frantic circles in front of me. “So, you know . . . amazing!

I blinked again. “You were at all three conferences?”

“Oh, yeah. Those three and, like, twenty others. I go to all of ’em. Can’t get enough of that girl-empowerment stuff. Not that any of it’s helped. My life right now is definitely circling the drain, but, you know . . . gotta keep fakin’ it till you’re makin’ it, am I right?” Erma held up one large, meaty palm in an invitation for a high five, and I felt myself recoil slightly. One good high five from the woman across from me and I’d probably go flying, ass over teakettle.

Sitting firmly in my chair, I compromised by raising my hand slightly to give her an air high five. She didn’t seem to notice my lack of enthusiasm because she slapped at the air too. “Yeah!” she shouted. “Girl power! Unh!”

My wide-eyed, somewhat panicked gaze flickered to Gilley. His back was to us, but I could see him hunched over and shuddering with laughter. The little hobgoblin.

“So,” I said to her, trying to get us back on track. “Talk to me about what’s not going well with your life, Erma?”

She snorted out a chuckle. “It’d be faster to tell you what is going right with my life.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s a good place to start. Tell me about that.”

“Well, I’m sitting here with the famous Catherine Cooper- Masters!” she said, her smile so wide it hurt to look at her. “Or is it Catherine Cooper now? I heard you got divorced.”

I cringed inwardly. It was hard to be reminded of that still painfully fresh experience. “It’s just Cooper now,” I told her. “But you can simply call me Cat.”

“Oh, that’s so cool!”

I smiled nervously. Good Lord, what’d I gotten myself into?

“Cat,” she said, taking it for a test run. “Cat, Cat, Cat, Cat, Cat!” she added, taking several loops around the track.

“Yes,” I said. “But let’s focus on you, Erma. I was really looking for something more specific that had to do with just you. What’s going right in your life?”

“Um, well, I guess my car hasn’t been repossessed yet. I’m ninety days past due on my payment, so I think that’s super positive!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gilley stand up abruptly.

“Erma?” he said.

She swiveled in her seat.

“Yeah?”

“Do you own a green Chevrolet?”

“Yeah, why?”

“There’s a man with a tow truck breaking into it.”

Erma flew up off the couch faster than anyone of that size should’ve been able to. Dashing out the door, we heard her shout, “No! Not today! Any day but today!”

I was slower to react, but I quickly joined Gilley at the window. “Oh. My. God,” I whispered.

“Where did you find her?” Gil asked me as we watched Erma flap her arms wildly at a man almost her match in size who was clearly repossessing her car right in front of my office.

“She was the first person to answer my ad.”

“Didn’t you do a little background check on her first? You know, check her social media profile to make sure she wasn’t someone like . . .” Gil paused to wave a hand at the window. “That.”

“No,” I said crossly. “I’m a life coach. I’m supposed to help people in crisis, not stalk them on Facebook to see if they’re only slightly in crisis.”

“Honey,” Gil said seriously, “there’re people in crisis, and then there’re people in the circus, and you got the later.”

I stared out the window at Erma as she began to flap her arms up and down and hop about like an angry chicken. “Craaaaap.”

“What should we do?” Gil asked as we watched Erma’s dance escalate when she threw herself onto the hood of the tow truck in a desperate attempt to stop the man from taking her car.

“Hand me my purse,” I said.

Gil reached under his desk to retrieve my purse and offer it to me. I took it outside and waved to the driver, who was currently yelling at Erma to get off his truck or he’d call the police.

“Yoo hoo!” I sang.

Both the repo man and Erma stopped their yelling and turned to regard me silently. I fished inside my purse and retrieved my checkbook. “How much?” I asked as I stepped up to them.

“How much what?” the man asked.

“How much does she owe? Including your towing fee, of course.”

“I get three fifty to tow the car and not answer questions about how much anybody owes,” he said to me.

“Ah,” I said as Erma wiped at her cheeks and eyed me with desperation. “Well, what if I give you three hundred and fifty dollars not to tow the car?”

The tow-truck driver wiped his hands on a bandana he retrieved from a back pocket. Leaning against his truck, he said, “That’s not how this works, lady. The bank gives me three fifty for this car, plus thirty other cars to repo a month. If I take your money and don’t bring this hunk of junk in, then I risk losing that business, and unless you’ve got a hundred grand to give me, which is what I’ll lose if I take your money, then I ain’t gonna do that. Now, I’m sorry, but I gotta take the car. There’s no gettin’ around it.”

Erma let out a loud sob and buried her face in her hands. I pressed my lips together in frustration. Then I peered around the tow truck to take in Erma’s car, which had definitely seen better days. “Erma?”

“Y-y-yeah?” she said between tearful sobs.

“How much do you owe on this car? Total.”

Lifting her chin to reveal splotches of red all over her pale face, Erma said, “I don’t know. A little over two thousand, maybe?” She then looked at the car herself and added, “I know it’s not much, Ms. Cooper, but it’s the only asset I’ve got.”

“How did you get so behind on the payments?” I asked as gently as I could.

“Well, I don’t make a lot of money at my job, and you’re pretty expensive, so I made a few monthly sacrifices in order to come here and get your advice.”

I bit my lip again. I knew it wasn’t my fault that Erma appeared to be such a mess both socially and financially, but it was still tough to hear that I was the reason she’d been skipping her car payments. Just then the tow-truck driver finished hooking Erma’s car to his vehicle, and before getting into his rig, he said to her, “If you want your car back, you’ll need to talk to your bank. They’ll let you know how to get it out of the yard. And if you don’t come up with the cash to pay all the fees and catch up with your payments, they’ll sell it at auction after thirty days.”

Gilley joined us just as the driver pulled away with Erma’s car. When he turned left at the light at the end of the block, my new client sat down on the curb, buried her face in her hands again, and sobbed in earnest.

Gil eyed her with pity, but I was already formulating a plan.

“Gilley,” I said softly.

“Yeah?”

Shoving a twenty at him, I said, “I need you to go to the nearest doughnut shop and bring back some goodies for Erma. Then I need you to head to the house and retrieve the Audi from the garage. Bring it back here as fast as you can.” I owned several cars. The Audi had been a favorite of my ex-husband’s, so I’d made sure to take it in the divorce.

“Why am I retrieving the Audi?” Gil asked.

“I’m going to loan it to Erma.”

Gilley raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t otherwise question me. Loaning out one of my cars to a relative stranger wasn’t the smartest thing I could do, for sure, but this woman needed help, and at the moment, it was a means to an end until we could get the rest of it sorted out.

Gilley left, and I took Erma gently by the arm, leading her back inside, where she flopped down on the love seat and continued to weep into her hands. “I needed that car,” she said at last.

I offered her a box of tissues and some water, which she took, and then I sat down across from her. “Hey,” I said to get her attention when she simply stared forlornly at the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she said, lifting her eyes to mine. “Now you know why I needed your help. I’m a disaster!”

“Yes,” I said bluntly. “You are definitely a disaster.” That won me a startled look. “But you know the good thing about disasters? They’re very effective at wiping the slate clean. Once we clear away the debris, Erma, we can rebuild your life into something that will work for the long haul.”

Her lower lip trembled. “But how can I do that without transportation? There’s no way I can come up with the money to get my car back if I can’t get to work and earn the money. And I need it to get to work.”

“What about the train?” I asked.

Erma’s frown deepened, and she went back to staring at the floor. “I used to take it in to work, but with all the stops I’d have to get up at five to get to the train by six to get to work on time, and I just can’t seem to get myself together in the mornings in time to make it into work before eight. My boss threatened to fire me if I was late even one more time.”

“Well, then, it’s settled. I’ll be loaning you my car for now, and I’m going to loan you the money to pay off your car and get it out of the yard. You may pay me back over the course of the next several months with whatever payments you can afford.”

Erma’s wide eyes blinked several times. “You . . . you’re . . .gonna loan me your car? And help me get mine back?”

“Yes. I have a very comfortable spare car that I’m going to allow you to borrow. And I’m not going to take any more of your money for our sessions together, Erma. You can’t afford me.”

A look of panic replaced the incredulity on her face. “But I need you, Ms. Cooper! I need a life coach!”

I smiled reassuringly. “I agree. Which is why I’m going to coach you pro bono.”

Erma began to weep again in earnest. “It’s too much,” she sniveled. “I feel like I can’t accept because it’s just too much.”

“It’s not, Erma. It’s not. And you will accept my offer to help you. That’s the first step to getting your life back on track. You’ve got to recognize when it’s okay to both ask for and accept help.”

“I’m not so good at that.”

I sat back in my chair, knowing I had the perfect advice to give this woman for our first session together. “The only way to be good at something is to have lots of practice at it. So, on that front, between now and our next session, I want you to ask ten people for help.”

Her eyes bugged. “Ten?

“Yes. Ten. And not a person less.”

Erma bit her lower lip. “Okay. I guess I can do that.”

“No, no,” I said, wagging my finger. “You don’t guess. You will. You will ask ten people for help. It doesn’t have to be for something big—heck, you can ask a stranger to hold the door for you, and that’ll count as one, but you should ask at least a few people for some kind of meaningful help in some way over the course of the next week.”

Erma nodded, and her eyes finally reflected more determination. “Got it. Ask for help. Okay, I’ll do it!”

“That’s the spirit!”

Twenty minutes later, Gilley pulled up in my Audi A3, and after scarfing down a doughnut, Erma was happily on her way. As we watched her drive off, Gilley bumped my shoulder with his.

“That was a nice thing you did,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied, allowing a satisfied smile to rest on my lips.

It felt good to help people. I liked this feeling even more than I liked closing a major marketing campaign, which until today had been my absolute favorite thing—professionally speaking.

Copyright © 2019 Victoria Laurie

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