The Secret Unknown — Finalist, Mystery/Thriller.
“Please don’t hurt me. I’ll go away, never come back. I promise.” Tears trailed across Lucy Mae Brown’s round face and pooled on the car seat as she pleaded for her life and the life of her unborn twins. She was laid out on the backseat of an unknown car as big as a boat with her hands and feet bound behind her. The two masked men in the front seat had dragged her from her bed, and her nightgown was providing little protection against the roughness of the pock-marked vinyl seat.
“Shut up or I’ll shut you up,” the big man in the passenger seat said.
The coldness in his tone made her believe he’d like to do more than shut her up. It had been the other one, the shorter of the two, who’d stopped him from back slapping her after she bit him trying to escape. Lucy had seen a glint in his eyes as he watched her kick her legs in struggle, watched as her nightgown exposed her panties. So when he grabbed at her legs, spread them, rape had been on her mind and, she thought, his as well. A hard bite to his hand had transformed that glint into anger to her relief.
But the bite, combined with her struggles, hadn’t been enough to get away from the men. They’d learned their lesson because they tied her feet first, then her hands and carried her to the old Caddy. She hadn’t wasted her breath or energy on screaming. Her grandpa Jimmy was the only one not at the Christmas Eve revival, and he was as deaf as a rock. Plus she’d been so sure she could talk them into letting her go. Everyone always said she could talk her way out of anything. Anything but this, she thought and choked back a sob. She couldn’t cry, didn’t dare draw his attention again.
By her estimation they’d been on the road for a good hour and she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be alive. They most likely had orders from the queen bitch to kill her babies, maybe leave her in some wooded area to die from the abortion. Soon they’d be far enough from Savannah, from her home and the people who would care what happened to her, to her twins.
The worst part was that her predicament was mostly her own fault. Her arrogance had led her to believe that after their talk that Eugenia Tanner had understood she wanted to have nothing to do with her or her son. That she wanted her babies to have nothing to do with them. Her uncle Gene had told her more than once that her arrogance, her not knowing her place, would be her downfall. She could take some comfort he wasn’t here to say “I told you so,” to lecture her once again on the sins of sex outside marriage and her audacity to be keeping the results.
It didn’t matter now that she’d ignored what she’d been taught of how the world operated to be with the boy who made her heart sing. A boy she’d wrongly believed had the same commitment to their relationship as she. And maybe he hadn’t loved her enough to go against his mother and society’s dictates, but surely he would feel some loss at her death. He didn’t know about the babies, so he wouldn’t have to carry that loss as well.
As sleep beckoned, her short-lived relationship with Jackson Tanner played through her mind—the wild beating of her heart when he looked at her and saw what was on the inside, the joy when he confessed his feelings, the hours squirreled away talking about goals, about a shared future. It had been a heady time that no one could take away from her.
Lucy came awake to pressure building in her abdomen. She felt more than heard a pop followed by a flood of wetness between her thighs. Her babies were trying to be born and she was tied up in the back of some car with men she didn’t know, men who wouldn’t care if she and the babies got through the experience alive and well.
She started to call out, then changed her mind. It was better for her to keep quiet for as long as possible. If she were about to give birth, maybe the shorter one would hesitate to kill her, hesitate to kill babies who were close to being born.
So Lucy bit down on her lip when the first shot of pain rippled through her stomach. She panted softly through the second, the third, the fourth contraction, but she hadn’t counted on the strength of the contractions or the pain that kept coming until it felt like her lower half was a ball of fire. Pain that got more and more intense until she couldn’t keep silent anymore. A low groan escaped before she could bite it back.
“You be quiet.”
“My babies. My babies are coming.”
The mean one turned on the overhead light, took one look at her and said, “Shit! Thought she wasn’t due for a couple of weeks.”
“She’s not,” the driver said. “Minnie said she could even be late as it’s her first one. What’re we going to do?”
“Nothing. These things can take hours, right?”
“I guess so. We could stop at a gas station, give Minnie a call. She’s the one knows all that birth shit, not me.”
“They take a long time on TV and that’s good enough for me. Another hour and we’ll be there. Let him deal with her. He’s gonna get most of the money.”
“I don’t like it. We should at least untie her so she can do it better.”
“No, fool. Bear the pain. Having babies hurt.”
“So you know that, but you don’t know it can take hours. Pull over then. If she gets away it’s on you to deal with him and that knife he likes to use.”
Lucy could have told them escape was the last thought on her mind, but she was saving her strength to stay conscious through pain that seemed to paint the very air around her.
She felt the car stop, heard the back door open, and there he was, scowling at her.
“Don’t try anything,” he warned.
She thought it was hysteria that made her want to laugh at the statement. The way she felt, she couldn’t have taken down a day-old kitten, let alone a grown man with bulging muscles. But she did find a measure of mental relief when her feet and hands were free. She also felt physical relief at being able to curl up in the fetal position when the next contraction struck.
It seemed to Lucy that hours had passed by the time they slowed down and turned off the road. She wanted to sit up, try to get her bearings, but the motivation was lacking. She could only brace herself as the car dipped and shook on what had to be an unpaved road. When she wanted to scream from the constant jostling, they came to a stop.
Worn out, she didn’t make a fuss when the mean one told her to get her ass out of the car and into the house. On some level she realized they weren’t going to kill her yet, that there might be some hope for her babies. Surely they could fetch some money, even though she was not worth a cent to them alive.
She took one step toward a ramshackle building that was barely bigger than a shed and the ground shimmered and rolled. Only grabbing the car door kept her upright, kept her from losing the contents of her stomach.
Letting lose on a string of curses, the mean one picked her up. “I sure as hell hope he’s ready for this.”
What followed for Lucy was more body-wracking pain until she was told when to push, told when to stop. She heard a baby’s cry, heard a woman say it was girl and felt some of the dread leave her. When they let her hold the little body, stroke and kiss skin that was impossibly soft, she cried. Love burst fast and furious as she counted fingers so amazingly small, so amazingly perfect.
“My sweet, sweet April.”
She felt bereft when they took her baby away, but then the pain cycle began again. With what little strength she had left, Lucy pushed, stopped, and pushed so more.
“There’s too much blood with this one,” Lucy heard one of the women mutter. “Something’s not right.”
“Should I get the doc?”
“And do what? Have the girl tell him everything? Let someone know you’re here? No one can know you were here. No one can know about any of this, Letha. I thought you understood. Tell me you know what could happen if you ever tell.”
“But she could die. We can’t let her die, Minnie.”
“Sometimes you can only do so much. Now give the girl some more ice and let me deal with this mess. Remember now, nobody can ever know about this.”
I’ll know, Lucy thought, floating in a sea of pain. I’ll know and I’ll tell everyone about my babies and about Jackson Beauregard Tanner being their father.
But Lucy was dead moments after her second daughter was pulled from her body with forceps. She wasn’t around to give this baby girl a welcoming hug, wasn’t around to hear the exclamation of shock, didn’t see Letha cross herself at the sight of the white baby that had come from between Lucy’s dark brown thighs or hear her say reverently, “It’s a miracle.”
Shock fought anger as Eugenia Tanner watched the recording for the third time. She might be old, but she certainly wasn’t feeble enough to miss the unmistakable resemblance between the thirty-four-year-old woman in the video and the young pregnant girl she thought had been taken care of thirty-four years ago.
What a fool she’d been to trust that boy to take care of anything when he could barely take care of himself. But he’d begged for the chance to help the family, to pay her back for giving him a place to stay after his parents washed their hands of him. And because she believed he had potential, could be of further use to her, she’d given him that chance to prove himself. Lucky for him, he was long dead from the drugs he never could shake, sparing him the necessity of answering to her, of feeling her wrath.
It was anger, not age that made her tremble as she placed a call. With few words she told her personal soldier, as she thought of him, what had to be done. There could be no mistakes this time. She also had to make sure the buffoons the boy had hired to get rid of the girl were found, interrogated to see if there had been others involved in the operation and then silenced.
In an attempt to regain her usual calm, she crossed to the window overlooking the well-kept yard and let the sun play on her pampered skin. The yard didn’t have the stately appearance of the one at the Tanner estate where she’d lived the majority of her adult life, but that was okay. Her son was finally about to play the role she’d raised him for, and he and especially his eminently suitable wife didn’t need her underfoot while they ramped up the campaign to make Jackson Georgia’s newest US senator.
A smile softened her face as she thought of her beloved son. Sure, he was the cause of the current problem, but he’d only been a teen when it happened. As his mother it had been her job to see he didn’t suffer from that mistake the rest of his life. She’d believed she’d done her job. Until now. Until she’d seen the photo of that woman. Pressing her fingers against her temple, she could feel the blood throbbing in her veins.
Lord knows she’d almost been as arrogant as that foolish black chit who’d had the nerve to come sniffing around her Jackson. She’d thought nothing of the little flirtation, thought it wasn’t so bad that he sow his wild oats with one of the little well-mannered house servants while he was home from college for spring break.
How wrong she’d been in many ways. She hadn’t expected the girl to intrigue him, to make him think he was in love to the point where he began to get crazy notions of marriage and forever to a no-name black girl, of all things. It wasn’t done. It just was not done. Not on her watch. It was a good thing the housekeeper was on her toes. After hearing of their plans, she came directly to her. In turn, she went to the girl, and with a few words sent her on her way, clipping that relationship before it had a chance to really bloom. Jackson had been hurt, but she’d made sure he got over it. The little red Ferrari had been the first of many gifts to soothe the pain of separation.
She frowned as she heard the approaching footsteps of her current housekeeper. She wanted to be alone, to gather her thoughts, plot out a backup scenario should there be another mix-up or worse, outright failure. The thought wasn’t to be borne. The Nevada woman and all the people involved in her birth had to be dealt with before someone else noticed the unmistakable resemblance and began to wonder how a very pregnant Lucy Brown had managed to escape a fire and give birth without anyone noticing.
She could be grateful Jackson was too busy preparing to run for office to be bothered by the story of another school shooting. If he did catch a glimpse of Adeena Minor, she’d make sure he dismissed the resemblance between her and his former girlfriend as purely coincidental. There were plenty of people who could attest that Lucy Mae Brown had died while she was pregnant.
“What can I do for you, Miss Eugenia?”
She turned at the sound of her housekeeper’s too cheerful voice and recalled she’d been the one doing the summoning. “Ah yes, Martha. I believe I’ll call and invite Jackson and his family to dinner tomorrow. Make sure the dining room is set just so. And see that Delilah has the ingredients on hand to fix his favorites. This is a very important time for him.”
* * *
Thomasina Angelica Salamander tried for sophistication as she sipped the, to her, deadly dry white wine. She was hoping it would make her date see her in a different light if she was sipping a glass of wine rather than guzzling the rum and Coke—sans rum—that she usually ordered. And since she was close to being the female version of the guys on that TV show about physics geeks, she knew she needed all the help she could get to keep Trin’s interest for a little longer. She did have an advantage those guys didn’t and that was money. So far it had worked to attract the cute blondes she lusted for, but it hadn’t worked to keep them for very long.
Her best friend, Cyn, kept telling her to switch types, to try for not as pretty, not as blond. Well, she’d tried that once and had the trampled heart to prove it. While the cute ones might ding her feelings, it was the smart, geeky ones who had the power to cut her deep. Dinged feelings she could shake off in a few days, usually assisted by the purchase of a new toy. Sal was still working to fully recover from the slicing open of her heart that happened two years ago. So she tended to let Cyn’s advice drift free in space while she settled for the cute, the blond, the superficial.
A movement caught the corner of her eye, and she straightened her thin shoulders and fixed a smile—only to discover it was the snooty waiter, come to check on her yet again. Before he could ask if she was ready for another drink, her cell alarm pinged to let her know Trin had officially stood her up for the second time in a row.
“Check please,” she announced, taking a little pleasure in the fact that he wouldn’t be living off the hefty tip she would’ve had to pay if Trin had showed. The busty waitress and Broadway-star-wannabe had a habit of ordering the most exotic item on the menu. She’d take a few bites, declare it unsatisfactory and only then would she order something with ingredients she could pronounce. For reasons that obviously had nothing to do with logic, Sal had found that rather endearing.
That should have been a sign, she told herself. A sign Trin only tolerated her for a taste of the big-ticket items on the menu. Apparently that and great sex weren’t enough anymore, and that Sal couldn’t understand.
“Your check, madam. Please come again.”
She really wanted to knock that knowing smirk off his face. Instead, she threw down a twenty and said in her best British accent, “Not bloody likely, sir. The service leaves much to be desired.” With her own snooty lift of her chin, she walked out, all dressed up in an outfit Trin claimed made her look hot and with no place to go.
Outside, New York City was bustling with people who, unlike her, looked like they were going to have a good evening. A lot of them probably had a good chance to get laid, again unlike her. For all Trin’s faults, she did enjoy having sex after spending Sal’s money. No doubt some other woman was going to be the beneficiary of her enthusiastic calisthenics tonight.
Sal liked to think that Trin—and all the others of her ilk who had come before her—eventually came to miss what she brought to the bedroom. Being skinny and at best plain, at worst not pretty, she prided herself on being an attentive lover. And inventive, she added as she fought her way through the hoards of tourists who kept Times Square bustling at all hours.
Normally she would have taken the time to stop and gawk at the lights and the colorful electronic billboards, because she absolutely loved the look, the vibe of the area. Her love for the flashing lights, the neon signs, must have come from her mother. According to her father’s mother, who’d raised her, it hadn’t come from her father.
Sal hadn’t walked a full block before the magic of Times Square broke through her disappointment. She stopped, unmindful of those behind her, and breathed in the energy of the crowd, of the lights, of the best place on earth. Pouting about being stood up again was no reason for her to miss out on enjoyment. In fact, she was due a treat for getting her heart dinged, she reasoned. She turned around and headed to another of her favorite places, this one a toy store of the three-story variety.
Inside, she took the escalators up to the building block section on the top floor. As usual, she took the time to enjoy the large Lego replicas of buildings and monuments that New York City was known for, most of which could be found in the smaller-scale city that was taking over her home office. Before too long she was going to be forced to call her carpenter about adding more shelves so she could have full use of her desk again. Not that she would let that stop her from adding onto the city in the meantime.
While trying to decide which Lego set would follow her home, she stumbled onto a section with building sets of miniature monuments of not just New York, but the world. Sal would be the first to admit her eyes glazed over with joy at the number of sets to choose from. And okay, she might have drooled at the thought of the hours of fun laid out before her.
After much backing and forthing and going round and round, she picked the White House building set in honor of the first African-American president. She added the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building sets because she deserved them for the damage done to her heart. With her selections paid for, Sal hurried to the escalator. She wouldn’t be having sex, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be having fun. The blaring of her grandmother’s ringtone had Sal reaching for her phone.
“What are you doing answering your phone on a Friday night?”
“Because it rang?” she guessed. “No, wait. Because I knew it was you.”
Betty Salamander’s snort came through loud and clear. “You forget I’m not one of those bimbos you find so irresistible. You get stood up again, kiddo? That must be yes because I can hear kids in the background. And if there’s a kid around you, it has to be in a toy store. When are you going to learn that you’re more than that illegally gotten money of yours and leave those gold diggers alone? You need to settle down with a nice girl. I’m not getting any younger and you need someone who’ll watch over you.”
This is new, Sal thought. Something must be wrong. “Not getting any younger? Nobody is, Nan,” she joked as she walked down the escalator. “Everything okay in Beantown?”
A loud sigh was eventually followed by, “Yeah.”
The sigh and silence were unnerving. Her grandmother was not one to complain or be at loss for a word. “Tell me quick. I can take it.”
“There was another school shooting—”
“At your old school? Anyone you know get hurt?” Damn, why did she have to choose today to go off the grid? “I can be there in a couple of hours tops.”
“Nevada. It was Nevada. One of the teachers died saving the lives of the kids in her class. She taught English. Had been at the school for a long time.”
“Oh, Nan. I don’t know what to say anymore. I know high school’s no picnic, but this? It shouldn’t be the answer.”
“Middle school. He was only in seventh grade and he sees this as his only way out. It breaks your heart. For his parents and everyone else whose life will be changed forever.”
Sal remembered her school days. Being skinny, awkward and nerdy on top of having brown skin, glasses, red hair and freckles, she’d gotten plenty of looks of derision, words that could and did hurt. She supposed she was lucky she was a girl and therefore hadn’t suffered much physical abuse in addition to the verbal. “How many? How many were lost this time?”
“At first they thought it was only two. And how terrible is that? What have we come to if two dead can bring relief? Not a good place, I tell you. There were more. Six in all, including the boy.”
“I know it sounds selfish, but I’m glad you got out without that ever happening to you. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that for you anymore, Nan.”
“Days like today make me glad too. She had a daughter your age. The teacher from Nevada. That poor child barely had time to take a breath before those jackals were in her face, asking how she felt. Couldn’t help think it could’ve been you. Could have been my hard-headed granddaughter having to face something like that. Lord, if it didn’t hit me hard, baby girl.” Her grandmother had lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line for longer than Sal had been alive, but she hadn’t lost her southern roots.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Nan. It wasn’t you and it wasn’t me. I’ll catch a plane, come up and keep you company for a few days. You’ll see I’m okay.”
“You will not be wasting your money that way. Or your time, since you must be really busy not to call your Nan like you’ve done for every other school tragedy. It’s not such a hard hit now that I’ve talked to you. Tell me you’re okay. Tell me that this little girl you’ve been seeing didn’t break your heart.”
“I’m okay and I have the new toys to prove it. Tonight was a slight setback, that’s all. I’ll get it right with the next one. I promise. Now tell me what exciting things you did today.”
After she ended the call, Sal thought about her promise to “get it right.” She wondered if it had sounded as hollow to her grandmother’s ears as it had sounded to hers. She couldn’t count on her fingers the number of times she’d tried and failed to get the love thing right. Maybe it was time to stop trying. Time to stop giving the promise and, more importantly, time to stop thinking there was the possibility of her finding “the one.” That person didn’t seem to exist and wouldn’t, no matter how many times she dusted off her dinged heart and put out the “open for business” sign.
Six months. She’d give herself six months of leave from the pretty, the sexy, the blond. No more chasing them down, being at their beck and call or drooling at their feet. She was better than that, damn it, and now she would prove it to herself and those who knew her best. She would use this time to figure out what she really wanted and, more importantly, figure out if she was letting the one who got away dictate her life.
“New start,” she said as she went through the gate at the subway station, then rushed down the stairs to catch the coming train.
Once she was headed north to her apartment on the Upper West Side, Sal browsed the reports of the Nevada school shooting on her cell phone. She couldn’t help but look at the photos of the sweet-looking shooter, his devastated parents, the shell-shocked students, and wonder what drove these shootings. Like she’d told her grandmother, school could be a special hell all of its own, and yet there had to be more than the bullying that set these kids off.
She’d crossed paths with plenty of kids who’d been angry, who’d felt helpless. To her knowledge, none of them had gone on rampages. Now when she looked back on the two years she’d felt most angry and hopeless, could see them as a blip on her life timeline, she wondered if perhaps it was worse to feel helpless and unloved when you had a safe place to stay, plenty of food and parents in the picture. Maybe there were levels of hopelessness, levels of feeling unloved and unwanted. Or maybe there were simply nasty human beings who sought out and found reasons to take a life.
Seeing photos of the families who’d lost children pushed thoughts of the shooter’s psyche out of her mind. These poor people were probably too numb to analyze what the boy had been thinking when he sighted his gun on their kids like they were prey. It was all so senseless, so tragic and too common.
Sal was surprised when the photo of the daughter her grandmother had mentioned caused her a fleeting pain. She had lost her parents to senseless violence, so she could empathize with this Adeena Minor, could imagine the what-if scenarios running through her brain on a continuous loop. Unlike this poor woman, Sal hadn’t had to deal with a microphone stuck in her face, a camera seeking to record her grief. Her heart went out to the other woman, who probably only wanted a quiet place to grieve.
She looked closer and thought she saw a deeper kind of grief in the daughter’s eyes, then laughed at herself for being fanciful. Adeena Minor probably wouldn’t be considered beautiful, but there was something about the big brown eyes and the almost arrogant tilt of her head that made her worthy of a second and third look.
When her stop was announced, Sal pocketed her phone and jockeyed into position near the closest door. As she waited for the train to come to a stop, she realized thoughts of the shooting, of Adeena Minor, had taken her mind off Trin and being stood up. She wished the other woman well, knowing that getting over the hard pain of losing her mother would be a very long process. At least the short attention span of the press would assure they’d quickly move on to the next big story.
Sal’s phone gave three quick beeps as she took the escalator up and out of the 72nd Street Station. A glance at the information displayed brought a muttered curse. This seemed to be her day for heavy conversations with family. Cynthia Kennedy wasn’t related to her by blood, but Sal had considered her a sister since they roomed together freshman year at MIT, and for Sal family was everything. So she would do the hard, call her sister of choice and give her and her parents a heads-up about what tomorrow’s news would bring.
Before she made it the four blocks home, Cyn’s ringtone blared out. “Listen, I’m five minutes from home. Call you back when I get there.”
“Wait! It’s not that important. I can wait. In fact, forget I called. Forgot you have a date tonight.”
“Had. Stand-up number two if you’re counting.”
“Not me who should be counting. Anyway. You probably don’t want to talk right now. Call me tomorrow. I only want to bitch.”
“Four minutes now,” Sal said and disconnected the call. Cyn’s bossiness was alive and well. She gave Damon, the dapper-looking doorman, a fist bump, wished him an uneventful evening. Normally she would take the time to ask about his boys, his thoughts on the latest happenings in the city, but that had to wait.
Sal caught the elevator to the top. A little bit of luck in a lucrative, though illegal, card game had fattened her bank account. She’d used that money and honed computer skills to build a successful business. Information was the name of her game these days, and it paid very well.
Once inside her apartment, she ignored her rumbling stomach and took the curving staircase to the second floor where her office was located. She dropped her package on the desk with thoughts of getting to it later, then placed the call.
“Technically that was five minutes,” Cyn announced.
“Yeah, yeah. Here now, so bitch away. I’m all yours.”
“It’s Nate. He’s not getting any better.” Cyn sighed. “He barely talks, never smiles and nothing I do works. I feel helpless. And you know how much I hate feeling that way.”
Nate was Cyn’s four-year-old nephew. His mother, Cyn’s only sibling, had died five months ago. Nate lived with his dad in Boston but was currently visiting Cyn and her parents in Georgia. “You’re going to accuse me of repeating myself, but—”
“I know, I know. To be expected. Heather’s death hit us all hard. Why should Nate be any different? I just…” Another long sigh. “I just wish he would reach out to me or to Mom or Dad. It’s kind of hard to justify pursuing the custody deal if he doesn’t want to be with us.”
“Give it time. Sure, he’s been there before, but this is different. The first time without either of his parents.” Sal wasn’t telling Cyn anything she hadn’t said a million times before. Her hope was for repetition to lead to acceptance.
“Stephen has never been here.”
Sal went with the segue she was offered. “Uh, yeah…well, speaking of Stephen, I have, uh, good news and bad news.”
She’d clearly caught Cyn off guard. “Simple really. Bad or good first?”
“Bad. Bad should always go first.”
“He was cheating on Heather. The good news is that his girlfriend’s tell-all interview will be airing tomorrow morning. The whole world will know the kind of man he is.” Sal had expected the silence, and she was sorry to be the one to add to Cyn’s already heavy burden. “As soon as we’re done, I’ll try to get my hands on a copy. Let you know what’s what.”
“Great. Just great.” There was nothing humorous about Cyn’s laugh. “That bastard. That low-down, slimy bastard. All this crap about how Nate was his last remaining link to Heather, the love of his life. He had tears in his fucking eyes when my mother said how maybe it was best Nate come live with us until he could adjust. Tears. Wonder how long he’s had that thing on the side.”
“I’ll check, get back to you. Maybe then we can talk about how you’re dealing with all that’s been thrust on you.”
“I’m fine. Call me ASAP. This is more important.”
“At least try not to worry too much,” Sal felt compelled to say before ending the call, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. The past six months had given Cyn plenty of reasons to continue to worry. Along with her sister’s death and her father’s heart attack, had been the move from Dallas to Seneca, Georgia, to take over her father’s job as CEO of Kennedy Industries. While Cyn had been prepping for the job most of her life, Sal knew the suddenness of having to take on additional responsibilities on top of worrying about her family had been very stressful.
Cracking her knuckles, Sal sat down in front of her desktop computer. It didn’t take her long to hack through the system at the television network and find the interview. She downloaded a copy, then decided to view it before she forwarded it to Cyn.
The interview was everything wanted in a “mistress tells all exposé”—and more. She could only shake her head as she sent Cyn an encrypted message, including instructions to watch the video before sharing it with her parents. Cyn’s father, who was recovering from a heart attack, should be prepped first.
After watching the interview again, disbelief crowded out all her other emotions. Disbelief that Stephen had fallen in with a skanky, no-class, gold-digging stripper when he had Heather. Disbelief that he would look at any other woman when he had beautiful, smart, loving Heather as his wife.
“Come on, what normal person would do that?” she demanded of her computer monitor. “You’re exactly right. No sane person would be taken in by that silicon-breasted, low IQ, second-rate bimbo.”
While she’d never liked the guy, never thought he was good enough for Heather, she had believed he was somewhat intelligent. It burned her butt she’d been wrong. Burned her butt he hadn’t been the caring, loving husband Heather deserved and that she hadn’t seen that in him when Heather was alive. Sal could only hope Heather hadn’t seen it either.
When her office phone rang, she took a moment to throttle down. Cyn was sure to be angry enough for the both of them. She was right.
“That bastard!” Cyn raged. “Can you believe it? And her? Looking like something the cat wouldn’t drag in and trying to pretend she was sorry for cheating on my sister. That’s bullshit! The only thing she’s sorry about is that Stephen has no plans to marry her. It’s almost enough to make me glad Heather isn’t here, that she can’t see this. It would’ve broken her heart.”
Hearing the catch in Cyn’s voice, Sal could easily imagine the tears beading in Cyn’s eyes. “On the good side, after that performance, getting custody of Nate should be easy. If they spent a tenth of the time together that she claimed, I don’t see how he could’ve been spending any time with Nate. And that means that someone had to be with Nate.”
“That’s right. He claimed the nanny only worked during the day. That he made a point of being home every night. Claimed family was important to him. That fucking liar. How could he do that to her?” Cyn was sobbing now. Softly, so that it hit Sal in the heart.
“I don’t know.” Sal swiped at her own tears and thought about Heather, whom she’d thought of as her little sister though they were the same age. “It’s…Oh god, I really do not know.” She stayed silent, fighting for control and waiting for Cyn to find hers. “He couldn’t have been bringing her home, right? I know stripper girl said he only took her to the best restaurants, the best clubs, but come on. The way she claims they were going at it, he’d have run out of money. Unless…” She made a mental note to do an in-depth financial search on both Stephen and the bimbo. He worked in finance after all. There were ways for him to get his hands on money, and luckily she knew the majority of them.
“Unless what? What do you know that you’re not sharing?”
“He works with other people’s money, right? What if he found a creative way to get money so that Heather wouldn’t know?”
“No. No. Wouldn’t that be the smelly rose on top of the shit pile?” Cyn blew out a breath. “Problem is, I can see him doing it. His type is arrogant enough to believe he won’t be found out, that he’s entitled to it. How much do I tell Mom and Dad? They don’t need this on top of the other.”
“Nothing but the interview for now. Let me work my magic. If I find something, then we can break it to them gently.”
“I can’t ask you to come down here, Sal. You’ve been a rock these last months. You have your own work to worry about. You shouldn’t have to worry about us as well.”
“That’s what family’s supposed to do. You’re my sister and if I can’t help out my sister when she needs it, I’m no good. And you know I loved Heather too.”
“You certainly saw her more than I did these last few years.”
“Geography, Cyn. New York’s much closer to Boston than Dallas. Then with being up there to help Nan downsize to her new place, it only made sense that I saw her more than you did. Maybe if I’d been paying better attention, I would’ve seen what Stephen was up to. Though I don’t think I saw him more than twice in all the times I was up there. Heather made excuses, said he had a new account that was eating up his time. But I swear to you, Cyn, she didn’t seem worried or upset. If she had…well, I would have done something, said something. You know me.”
“If you don’t beat yourself up over this, I won’t either. It’s done. I love my sister, but let’s face it, she had a bit of a blind spot when it came to Stephen. She wouldn’t have wanted to hear anything negative about him from either of us. What you can do now is help us get as much damaging information as possible. Nate deserves better than that cheater.”
“If Stephen left the tiniest crumb, I’ll find it. Use it to hang him with. Heather deserved better too.”
“You always did have a little crush on my baby sis. No one would have been good enough for her in your mind.”
“Hey, you never liked him either.”
“Because I didn’t like what he wanted for her. I always thought she’d end up at some think tank solving the world’s problems. She used to talk about that before he showed up and bowled her over.”
“She had the brains for it. She also was smart enough to find other ways to stretch her brain once she married him. And she did love being a mom. Wanted to have another one, but he convinced her to wait.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Come on, Cyn. I didn’t tell you that to make you feel sad. I told you so you’d realize she was happy with her decision to get married and procreate. Maybe more happy with Nate than the marriage, but she was happy.”
“You’re right. Every time she talked about Nate you could hear how much she loved him, how happy she was to have him. Happier than she would’ve been with any job.”
“Hold on to that thought. It’ll help you get through the coming storm this interview will bring. The media will be all over your ass again.”
“You always know how to comfort a girl, Sal.”
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