He was smiling as he took my hand and slid the ring on my finger, nestling it next to the beautiful Asscher diamond he’d given me at our wedding.
Applause and cheers jolted both of us. We looked at the house and saw our families lined up along the railing, watching us. The children were already running down the stairs, chasing Lucky, who was eager to get to Gideon.
I understood that feeling all too well. For the rest of our lives, I would always run to him.
Taking a deep cleansing breath, I let the hope and the joy push the guilt and grief away, just for a moment.
“This is perfect,” I murmured, the words lost in the wind. No dress, no flowers, no formality or ritual. Just Gideon and me, committed to each other, with those who loved us nearby.
Gideon caught me up and spun me, making me laugh with pure pleasure.
“I love you!” I shouted, for all the world to hear.
My husband set me down and kissed me breathless. Then, with his lips to my ear, he whispered, “Crossfire.”
It was difficult to watch Eva trying to console Richard Stanton, who was a shell of the man we’d spent the weekend with in Westport. He had been vibrantly alive then, seemingly younger than his years. Now, he looked frail and stooped, his broad shoulders weighted by grief.
A profusion of white flower arrangements covered every available surface in Stanton’s sprawling penthouse living room, heavily perfuming the air. Photos of Monica were sprinkled liberally around the bouquets, showing Eva’s mother in the best moments of her time with Stanton.
Victor sat with Cary and Trey in a smaller area tucked away from the main floor. When we first arrived, there had been a moment when Eva’s father and Stanton stood frozen and staring at each other. I suspected each of them resented what the other man had possessed of Monica: Victor had her love, Stanton had the woman herself.
The doorbell rang. My gaze followed Eva and Martin as they walked together to answer it. Stanton didn’t move from his wingback chair, his thoughts clearly turned inward. I’d felt his pain when he first opened the door to us, his body visibly jerking at the sight of Eva.
It was good that my wife and I were leaving for the airport directly after. For a month, we’d be away from the city and out of the spotlight. Hopefully, by the time we returned, Stanton could bear the sight of the daughter who looked so much like her mother, the woman he’d loved.
Turning my head, I found Benjamin Clancy. Like Detective Graves, Clancy’s eyes held the knowledge of what I’d done to eliminate Nathan Barker as a threat to my wife. Unlike Graves, Clancy had helped cover up my involvement, staging the scene of the crime and another unrelated scene to cast blame onto a dead man who’d paid for his own crimes with his life and wouldn’t pay further for mine.
My brows rose in silent inquiry.
“I need a minute.” He gestured to the hallway beyond him without waiting for my agreement.
“Lead the way.”
I followed him to a library, taking in the shelves of books that lined the walls. The room smelled of leather and paper, the color palette a masculine blend of cognac and evergreen. Four distinct seating areas and a fully stocked bar invited guests to get comfortable and linger.
Clancy shut the door behind us and sat in one of the two club chairs facing the unlit fireplace. I took the other.
He got right to the point. “Mrs. Stanton left behind over twenty-five years’ worth of handwritten journals and a backup computer drive with electronic journal entries. She asked that I pass them along to Eva in the event of her death.”
Keeping my curiosity to myself, I said, “I’ll make sure she gets them.”
He sat forward, setting his elbows on his knees. Ben Clancy was a big man, his biceps and thighs thick with muscle. He wore his dark blond hair in a severe military cut and his eyes had the flat, cold lethality of a great white shark—but they warmed when he looked at Eva, like the loving glance of a very protective older brother.
“You’ll need to judge the best time to give them to her,” he said. “And you may decide she should never see them.”
“I see.” So I’d have to go through them. It made me uncomfortable to think of doing so.
“Regardless,” Clancy went on, “you now have a new financial responsibility that you’ll have to take over on Lauren’s behalf. It’s not inconsiderable, but you won’t have any trouble managing it.”
I’d stiffened at the name he used, then grown more alert as he continued.
Nodding, he said, “You started researching her story after the Tramells died.”
“But you’d cleaned most of it up.” Out of the entire conversation thus far, that was the one thing that made sense.
“What I could. I dug into her past when Mr. Stanton became serious about their relationship. When I confronted her, she told me what I’m about to tell you—none of which is known to Mr. Stanton. I’d like to keep it that way. He was happy. Who she was didn’t affect him, so he doesn’t need to know.”
Whatever it was, Clancy had been swayed. Whether I would be, remained to be seen.
Clancy paused a moment. “You’ll get more out of the journals. I haven’t read them, but Lauren’s story is certainly more compelling than the dry facts I’ll give you.”
“I understand. Go ahead.”
“Lauren Kittrie was raised in a small town on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. Her family was poor. Her mother abandoned her and her twin sister with their father, who worked as a hand on a local ranch. He was a busy man, not much interested in or capable of raising two beautiful headstrong girls.”
Sitting back, I took a page from Eva’s book and tried to picture two teenage Monicas. The image was more than striking.
“As you can imagine,” he continued, “they got noticed. Toward the end of high school, they’d caught the attention of a group of wealthy college students from Austin. Punks, with a dangerous sense of entitlement. The leader was Jackson Tramell.”
I nodded. “She married him.”
“That was later,” he said flatly. “Lauren was savvy about men from the outset. She wanted out of the life her parents had, but she knew trouble when she saw it. She rebuffed him, many times. Her sister, Katherine, wasn’t as smart. She thought Tramell could be her ticket out.”
Unease caused me to sit back. “How much of this do I need to hear?”
“Against Lauren’s advice, Katherine went out with him. When she didn’t come home either that night or the next day, Lauren called the police. Katherine was discovered by a local farmer in his field, barely conscious thanks to a toxic combination of street drugs and alcohol. She’d been violently assaulted. Although it wasn’t proven, it was suspected that multiple individuals were involved.”
“Katherine was in bad shape,” Clancy went on. “The hallucinogenic drugs in her system combined with the physical trauma of gang rape caused permanent brain damage. She needed round-the-clock care for an indefinite period of time, something their father couldn’t afford.”
Restless, I went to the bar, then realized a drink was the last thing I wanted.
“Lauren went to the Tramells, confronted them about their son and what she suspected he’d done. He denied it and no one was able to prove a connection to him, owing to a lack of physical evidence at that time. But he saw an opportunity and took it. Lauren was the one he’d wanted, so he got his parents to cover the expenses of basic care for Katherine in return for Lauren herself and her silence about the assault.”
Turning to face him, I stared. Money could hide a multitude of sins. The fact that Stanton had effectively hidden Eva’s past with sealed court files and nondisclosure agreements proved that. But Nathan Barker’s father had let him pay for his crimes. The Tramells had gone out of their way to conceal their son’s.
Clancy straightened in his chair. “Jackson wanted sex. Lauren negotiated with his parents to secure marriage, which she thought would provide some sort of guarantee that Katherine would always be looked after.”
I changed my mind about the drink and filled a tumbler to the halfway point with scotch.
“For a span of months, the situation between Lauren and Jackson was stable. They lived—”
“Stable?” A harsh laugh tore at my throat. “She just about sold herself to the man who orchestrated the gang rape of her twin sister. My God …”
I tossed back the liquor.
Monica—or Lauren—had been stronger than any of us had given her credit for. But was it worth it to Eva to learn that, considering the horror of the rest of it?
“The situation was stable,” Clancy reiterated, “until she met Victor.”
I caught his gaze. Just when you thought a situation was as bad as it could be, there was always worse.
His jaw tightened. “She became pregnant with Eva. When Jackson found out the baby wasn’t his, he tried to take care of it—with his fists. Although they lived in his parents’ home, the older Tramells never interceded during arguments between the two. Lauren feared for the life of her child.”