Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In November, we're reading Wanda M. Morris's All Her Little Secrets (out November 2), a thriller about a Black lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy theory after the sudden death of her boss—while she attempts to hide secrets of her own. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
Chillicothe, Georgia, August 1979
The three of us—me, my brother, Sam, and Vera or Miss Vee as everyone in Chillicothe called her—looked like a little trio of vagabonds as we stood in the Greyhound Bus Station, which, in Chillicothe, meant a lean-to bus port in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. By God’s grace, we’d survived summer’s blazing days and humid nights, the fire ant stings and mosquito welts, and all the side-of-the-mouth whispers that floated around town. What happened? What did those young ’uns do? Why is Ellie Littlejohn really leaving town? Even though I was headed to Virginia on a full-ride scholarship to boarding school, it didn’t stop some people around town from talking in hushed tones and asking meddlesome questions.
The morning sun sizzled across the black asphalt parking lot scattered with a few dented cars and an old Ford pickup. But we were the only ones waiting for the 7:15 bus headed north. I wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of jeans Vera had cut off at the knees when they got too short. She hadn’t gotten to the jeans Sam was wearing because they were about two inches above his ankles. His yellow T-shirt still bore the cherry Popsicle stain from the day before. And from the looks of it, he hadn’t combed his hair, either.
I held tight to the old brown cardboard suitcase Vera had borrowed from her friend Miss Toney. I didn’t have much, but everything I owned was neatly packed inside it, including a sturdy winter coat, two pairs of new shoes, and a few toiletries courtesy of Vera passing around the hat among her friends and the congregation at the Full Gospel Baptist Church.
In my other hand, I held a paper bag with three pieces of fried chicken, a couple of biscuits, and an ample slice of sweet potato pie. There was no extra money for McDonald’s or Burger King along the way. Vera’s cousin Birdie drove us to the station and stood against her ’68 black-and-gold Impala a few feet away, waiting for us to say our good-byes. I was a frazzled bag of nervous energy at the thought of traveling so far away from the only place I’d ever known. I was leaving Sam and Vera, the only people I loved.
But I had to go.
I was tall for my age, so Vera had to reach up to fuss with the thick ponytail on top of my head. “Now, Ellie, you mind your lessons at school. Remember, you have to work twice as hard as them white kids, even though you just as smart. Aim high. Take no blessing for granted.” She patted the ponytail for good measure. “You write me as often as you want. I put some stamps in your suitcase. Everything gon’ be fine.”
Vera, a thick light-skinned woman with deep dimples that framed a large gap-toothed smile, always spoke with such authority. Like everything she said was right or true. She flashed that smile at me.
Sam hung at Vera’s side kicking the rubber toe of his canvas sneaker against the asphalt. Even though he did what he called “cool stuff” like smoking cigarettes and stealing candy from the grocery store, at that moment, he looked exactly like what he was, a small and frightened ten-year-old boy. I sat my suitcase down and placed my lunch bag on top of it. I grabbed his hand and pulled him off, out of Vera’s earshot.
“No more smoking cigarettes while I’m gone, okay?” I said.
“I ain’t touched no cigarettes since Miss Vee caught me. I’m not going through that again.” Sam rolled his eyes.
I giggled. “And you can’t be stealing from the grocery store, okay? That was cute when you were little but you’re too big for that stuff. You can get into really big trouble, especially if Miss Vee finds out.” He frowned and looked away.
“I just don’t understand why you got to leave. Why can’t you go to school here?” Sam asked.
I plucked a piece of lint from Sam’s little Afro. “I told you. It’s a different kind of school. You study there and live there. And don’t worry. You’ll be safe now. There’s nobody around to hurt you anymore.”
I reached down and hugged him so tight if he had been any smaller, I might have snapped him in two. A few seconds later, he wriggled from my grip and ran off to Birdie’s car. I knew he was crying and didn’t want me to see.
The Greyhound bus pulled to a stop in front of us with a long loud hiss. “Here it is,” Vera said. “Now you got enough money in your bag for a taxicab once you get in Virginia. I know that school got telephones so don’t pretend like they don’t. You call me as soon as you get there. Call collect, you hear me?”
I smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
Vera leaned her large frame in and hugged me and the waterfall between us started. Vera wasn’t much on crying, but anyone standing in that parking lot would have thought the opposite. She finally let me go and pulled a couple tissues from her skirt pocket. She wiped my face and handed the tissue to me.
I stared at Vera. “I’m scared.”
She wrapped an arm around my waist. “I know you are, honey bunny. But it’s all gonna work out just fine. Your momma was right about one thing. You ain’t but fourteen, but you too big for this place. This town ain’t equipped to hold somebody as smart and strong as you. Now, get on that bus and don’t come back until the good Lord sends you back. Now go.”
The driver trotted down the stairs of the bus and smiled at us. He took my suitcase and tucked it underneath in the luggage compartment.
Vera gave me another hug. “Go on now.”
I climbed the stairs of the bus into the stifling scent of disinfectant and human sweat. I’m a big girl. I can handle this.
I walked past a pregnant lady with two little kids snuggled underneath each of her arms, an old man and woman sitting side by side talking, before I took a window seat near the middle of the bus. I located my little ragtag family out in the parking lot. Sammy, Vera, and Birdie stood beside the car waving up at me. I watched them, Vera smiling and Miss Birdie blowing kisses, as the bus pulled out of the lot and onto the street. And then I cried for a solid hour, straight across the Georgia–South Carolina state line.
Six forty-five in the morning was far too early for keeping secrets.
But Michael and I are lawyers and that’s what lawyers do. We keep secrets. Attorney-client privilege, confidential work product, ethical rules, all the ten-dollar terms we use to describe the ways we harbor information from prying eyes.
I hustled through the parking garage, a veritable wind tunnel on a cold blustery January morning, and inside the lobby of Houghton Transportation Company. Houghton management proudly announced its corporate prosperity and success to visitors with an entryway of gleaming chandeliers, polished steel, and veined marble floors. Inside this sleek glass and metal cage, we raced around for ten-and twelve-hour days in our hamster wheels of closed-door meetings, video conference calls, and potluck lunches in the breakroom.
It was so early, the security guard hadn’t even shown up for his post at the front desk. Good. No clumsy banter. The only sound in the lobby was the click-click of my red suede Louboutin pumps skittering across the marbled floor to the elevator bank. I pressed the call button for the twentieth floor. I don’t drink coffee, but I wished I had brought a travel mug of tea or a bottle of water with me to wash away the brain fog. Morning meetings weren’t unusual for us. But this one was particularly early and I’m not partial to sunrise secrets.
As the elevator rose, I closed my eyes for a moment and leaned into the wall. Michael is the executive vice president and general counsel, and I work under him as assistant general counsel in the Legal Department. Michael was cryptic in his call the night before, maybe because someone else was nearby: Let’s meet in my office in the morning. 6:45. I didn’t press him. He did the same thing last week, a late-night meeting that lasted over an hour. Only we didn’t talk about work. We didn’t even have sex.
That time, he wanted me to sympathetically listen while he complained about his wife. My better judgment told me I needed to end this. So many years. So much time wasted.
Michael was gorgeous with chiseled features, deep blue eyes, and the tall trim stature of a Kennedy from Cape Cod. If anyone had seen us together as a couple, we would have made quite the sight, me with all my tall, cocoa-hued coily mane and jiggly midsection against his slim buttoned-down WASP frame.
I’ve stood five feet, eight inches—six feet, in the right heels—since I was in the seventh grade. Men are either intimidated by me or challenged to climb and conquer “Mt. Ellice.” Honestly, I think men are attracted to the darker side they see in me. What makes her tick? they ask themselves. But Michael was different, or at least that’s what I told myself. He matched me in every way—height, intellect, and humor. He was my equal except for that pesky little business of a wife and two kids. I was stupid for sleeping with this man. Vera and her friends had a saying: Never get your honey where you make your money.
I should have gone somewhere different after leaving Dillon & Beck, the law firm where we used to work, but he made me a generous offer and I followed him here. And nothing had changed, despite all his promises of a new beginning and a different work-life balance as in-house counsel. Maybe one day I’ll get my shit together and go find the job, and the life, that I deserve.
The elevator pinged and the doors slid open onto the executive suite. Everything on this floor was plush, soft and expensive, unlike the utilitarian, budget-friendly accommodations two floors below in the Legal Department. I paced past the darkened offices of the CEO’s sycophants, more commonly referred to as the Executive Committee, before I reached Michael’s suite. Everything was dark here, too. If he dragged me up here at this ungodly hour and forgot about our meeting, I’d be royally pissed.
The company’s reserve lighting system created a menacing tangle of shapes and shadows in the anteoffice. A small pit-a-pat of fear slid through me as I flipped the light switch. His assistant’s desk was neat and orderly, just the way she always left it.
I tapped lightly on his door. “Michael, it’s me. Ellice.”
My skin prickled. I opened the door and flipped on the lights.
The bright crimson spray of blood was everywhere. Shock raced through me like a torpedo before landing in a hard knot at the pit of my stomach. My knees buckled as a tidal wave of nausea washed over me, like I would be sick and fade into black at any moment. But I didn’t panic. I didn’t utter a sound.
The star-shaped hole in Michael’s right temple was ragged and grisly, like someone had tried to open his skull with a sledgehammer instead of a bullet. Blood had oozed in erratic streams along the side of his face, creating diminutive red rivers in the wrinkles along his jawline, before pooling at the end of his chin and trickling onto his starched white oxford shirt. The air hung thick with the acrid, copper scent of blood. And the hum of the fluorescent lights, the only sound in the room, was like a thousand bumblebees.
An instant later, my mind clicked, as if someone else were inside my head, directing me.
Run. Just go.
I turned my eyes away from Michael’s lifeless body and the gun beside him. I hated myself for what I was thinking. Amid all this carnage, my first thoughts were to run, to leave without calling for help.
No one knows I’m here.
I slowly inched away from his body, careful not to touch anything. The few shreds of conscience I had left warned me that to leave would be reprehensible.
I prayed to God for forgiveness, turned off the lights, and quietly closed the office door behind me.
This would be the last secret between Michael and me.
Excerpted from the book All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M Morris. Copyright © 2021 by Wanda M. Morris. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
© 2021 Wanda M. Morris (P) 2021 HarperCollins Publishers
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