SIX WEEKS AGO
THE MERIT SUBURBS
THE night Marcella died, she made her husband’s favorite dinner.
Not because it was a special occasion, but because it wasn’t—spontaneity, people insisted, was the secret to love. Marcella didn’t know if she believed all that, but she was willing to try her hand at a home-cooked meal. Nothing too fancy—a good steak, edges seared with black pepper, slow-baked sweet potatoes, a bottle of merlot.
But six o’clock came and went, and Marcus wasn’t home.
Marcella put the food in the oven to keep it warm, then checked her lipstick in the hall mirror. She freed her long black hair from its loose bun, then put it up again, teasing a few strands out before smoothing her A-line dress. People called her a natural beauty, but nature only went so far. The truth was, Marcella spent two hours in the gym six days a week, trimming and toning and stretching every lean muscle on her willowy five-foot-ten frame, and she never left her bedroom without her makeup expertly applied. It wasn’t easy, but neither was being married to Marcus Andover Riggins—better known as Marc the Shark, Tony Hutch’s right-hand man.
It wasn’t easy—but it was worth it.
Her mother liked to say she’d gone fishing and somehow bagged a great white. But what her mother didn’t understand was that Marcella had baited her hook with her prize in mind. And she’d caught exactly what she’d wanted.
Her cherry red heels clicked across the wood floor before being swallowed by the silk rug as she finished setting the table and lit each of the twenty-four tapers in the pair of iron candelabras that framed the door.
Marcus hated them, but for once Marcella didn’t care. She loved the candelabras, with their long stems and branching limbs—they looked like the kind of thing you’d find in a French chateau. They made the home feel luxurious. Made new money feel old.
She checked the time—seven, now—but resisted the urge to call. The fastest way to kill a flame was to smother it. Besides, if Marcus had business, then business always came first.
Marcella poured herself a glass of wine and leaned back against the counter, imagining his strong hands closing around someone’s throat. A head forced underwater, a jaw cracking sideways. Once he’d come home with blood on his hands and she’d fucked him right there on the marble island, the metal shaft of his gun still in its holster, the steel hard against her ribs.
People thought Marcella loved her husband in spite of his work. The truth was, she loved him because of it.
His voice always shifted when he’d been drinking, slowing to a lazy drawl. It was his only tell. He never stumbled or swayed, his hands never shook. No, Marcus Riggins was made of stronger stuff—but he wasn’t without his flaws.
“It’s fine,” said Marcella, hating the edge in her own voice. She turned toward the kitchen, but Marcus caught her wrist, pulling her hard enough that she lost her balance. His arms folded around her, and she looked up into his face.
Sure, her husband’s waist had widened a little, while hers had narrowed, that beautiful swimmer’s body bloating a fraction with each passing year, but his summer brown hair hadn’t thinned, and his eyes were still the rugged blue of slate or dark water. Marcus had always been good-looking, though she wasn’t sure how much of that was his tailored suits or the way he moved through the world, as if expecting it get out of his way. It usually did.
“You’re gorgeous,” he whispered, and Marcella could feel the press of him, hungry against her hip. But Marcella wasn’t in the mood.
She reached up, nails dragging down his stubbled cheek. “You hungry, sweetheart?”
“Always,” he growled against her neck.
“Good,” said Marcella, stepping away and smoothing her skirt. “Dinner’s ready.”
* * *
A bead of red wine slid like sweat down the side of the raised glass, tracing its way toward the white tablecloth. Marcella had filled it too full, her hand made clumsy by her worsening mood. Marcus didn’t seem to notice the stain. He didn’t seem to notice anything.
“To my beautiful wife.”
Marcus never prayed before meals, but he always made a toast, had since the night they met. It didn’t matter if he had an audience of twenty or if they ate alone. She’d found it endearing on their first date, but these days the gesture felt hollow, rehearsed. Designed to charm instead of being genuinely charming. But he never failed to say the words, and perhaps that was a kind of love. Or perhaps Marcus was simply a creature of habit.
Marcella lifted her own glass.
“To my elegant husband,” she answered automatically.
The rim was halfway to her lips when she noticed the smudge on Marcus’s cuff. At first she thought it was only blood, but it was too bright, too pink.
It was lipstick.
Every conversation she’d had with the other wives came rushing back.
His eyes start to wander yet?
Keeping his stick wet?
All men are rotten.
Marcus was busy cutting into his steak, and rambling on about insurance, but Marcella had stopped listening. Behind her eyes, her husband traced his thumb across a pair of stained lips, parting them around his knuckle.
He didn’t stop chewing. “Excuse me?”
His gaze drifted languidly down toward the bloom of pink. He didn’t even have the decency to look surprised. “Must be yours,” he said, as if she’d ever worn that shade, ever owned anything so tacky and twee—
“Who is she?”
“Who is she?” demanded Marcella, gritting her perfect teeth.
Marcus finally stopped eating, and leaned back in his chair, blue eyes hanging on her. “Nobody.”
“Oh, so you’re fucking a ghost?”
He rolled his eyes, clearly tired of the subject, which was ironic, considering he usually relished any topic that revolved around him. “Marcella, envy really doesn’t suit you.”
“Twelve years, Marcus. Twelve. And now you can’t keep it in your pants?”
Surprise flickered across his face, and the truth hit her like a blow—of course this wasn’t his first time cheating. This was only the first time he’d been caught.
“How long?” she asked icily.
“Let it go, Marce.”
Let it go—as if his cheating were like the wineglass in her hand, something she’d just happened to pick up, could just as easily set down.
It wasn’t the betrayal itself—she could forgive a lot, in the interest of this life she’d made—but it was the look in the other women’s eyes that Marcella had always taken for envy, it was the stoic warnings of the first wives, the twitch at the corner of a smile, the realization that they all knew, had known, for god knows how long, and she—hadn’t.
Let it go.
Marcella set the wineglass down. And picked up the steak knife. And as she did, her husband had the nerve to scoff. As if she wouldn’t know what to do with it. As if she hadn’t listened to all his stories, hadn’t begged for details. As if he didn’t go on and on about his job when he was drunk. As if she hadn’t practiced with a pillow. A bag of flour. A steak.
Marcus raised a single brow. “What do you plan to do now?” he asked, voice dripping with condescension.
How silly she must look to him, with her perfectly manicured nails gripping the monogrammed hilt of the blade.
“Dollface,” he crooned, and the word made Marcella seethe.
Dollface. Baby. Darling. Was that how he really thought of her, after all this time? As helpless, brittle, weak, something ornamental, a glass figurine designed to shimmer and shine and look pretty on a shelf?
When she didn’t let go, his gaze darkened.
“Don’t you turn that knife on me unless you plan to use it . . .”
Perhaps she was glass.
But glass is only brittle until it breaks.
Then it’s sharp.
She lunged, and had the thrill of seeing her husband’s eyes widen a fraction in surprise, the bourbon spilling as he jerked backward. But Marcella’s knife had barely skimmed his silk tie before Marcus’s hand cracked across her mouth. Blood poured across her tongue, and Marcella’s eyes blurred with tears as she tumbled back into the oak table, rattling the china plates.
She still had the knife, but Marcus had his hand wrapped around her wrist, pinning it to the table so hard the bones began to grind together.
He’d been rough with her before, but that had always been in the heat of the moment, signaled by some unspoken pact, and she’d always been the one to signal it.
This was different.
Marcus was two hundred pounds of brute strength, a man who’d made his living breaking things. And people. He clucked his tongue now, as if she were being ridiculous. Blowing things out of proportion. As if she’d made him do this. Made him fuck another woman. Made him ruin all that she’d worked so hard to build.
“Ah, Marce, you’ve always known how to rile me up.”
“Let me go,” she hissed.
Marcus brought his face close to hers, ran a hand through her hair, cupped her cheek. “Only if you play nice.”
He was smiling. Smiling. As if this were just another game.
Marcella spit her blood into his face.
Her husband let out a long-suffering sigh. And then he slammed her head against the table.
Marcella’s world went suddenly white. She didn’t remember falling, but when her vision flickered back she was on the silk carpet beside her chair, her head throbbing. She tried to get up, but the room swayed viciously. Bile rose in her throat, and she rolled over, vomited.
“You should have let it go,” said Marcus.
Blood ran into one of her eyes, staining the dining room red as her husband reached out and wrapped his hand around the nearest candelabra. “I always hated these,” he said, tipping the pole until it fell.
The flame caught the silk curtains on the way down, before the candelabra hit the floor.
Marcella struggled to her hands and knees. She felt like she was underwater. Slow, too slow.
Marcus stood in the doorway, watching. Just watching.
A steak knife gleamed on the hardwood floor. Marcella forced herself up through the heavy air. She was almost there when the blow hit her from behind. Marcus had knocked over the second candelabra. It came crashing down, iron arms pinning her to the floor.
It was disconcerting how fast the fire had spread. It leapt from the curtain to a puddle of spilled bourbon, to the tablecloth and the rug. It was already everywhere.
Marcus’s voice, through the haze. “We had a good run, Marce.”
That fucking prick. As if any of it had been his idea, his doing. “You’re nothing without me,” she said, her words unsteady. “I made you, Marcus.” She heaved against the candelabra. It didn’t move. “I will unmake you.”
“People say a lot of things before they die, sweetheart. I’ve heard them all.”
There was no answer.
“Do you hear me, Marcus?”
Nothing, only silence.
“I will ruin you!”
She screamed the words until her throat burned, until the smoke stole her vision, and her voice, and even then it echoed in her head, her last thoughts following her down, down, down into the dark.
I will ruin you.
I will ruin.
* * *
OFFICER Perry Carson had been stuck on the twenty-seventh level of Radical Raid for the better part of an hour when he heard an engine rev to life. He looked up in time to see Marcus Riggins’s sleek black sedan peel out of the slate half circle that formed the mansion’s drive. It tore down the road, a good thirty over the suburb-mandated speed limit, but Perry wasn’t in a patrol car, and even if he had been, he hadn’t spent the last three weeks in this shit-heap eating greasy takeout just to bust Riggins for such a minor infraction.
No, the Merit PD needed something that would stick—and not just to Marc the Shark. They needed the whole crooked sea.
No doubt some asshole setting a poolside bonfire without a permit. He squinted out the window—it was late, half past ten, the sky an inky black this far from Merit, and the smoke didn’t stand out against the dark.
But the fire did.
The officer was out of the car and across the street by the time the flames lit the front windows of the Riggins mansion. Calling it in by the time he reached the front door. It was unlocked—thank god it was unlocked—and he threw it open, already composing his report. He’d say it was ajar, say he heard a call for help, even though the truth was he didn’t hear anything but the crack of burning wood, the whoosh of flame sliding up the hall.
“Police!” he called through the smoke. “Is anyone here?”
He’d seen Marcella Riggins arrive home. But he hadn’t seen her leave. The sedan had gone by fast, but not fast enough to leave any doubt—there was no one in the passenger seat.
Perry coughed into his sleeve. Sirens were already sounding in the distance. He knew he should go back outside and wait, outside, where the air was clean and cool and safe.
But then he rounded the corner and saw the body trapped beneath a coil of iron the size of a coatrack. The tapers had all melted, but Perry realized it was a candelabra. Who even owned a candelabra?
Perry reached for its stem and then recoiled—it was searing to the touch. He cursed himself. The metal arms had already burned through Marcella’s dress wherever they touched her, the skin raw and red, but the woman didn’t cry out, didn’t scream.
She wasn’t moving. Her eyes were closed and blood slicked the side of her head, matting the dark hair against her scalp.
He felt for a pulse, and found one that fluttered, then seemed to fall away beneath his touch. The fire was getting hotter. The smoke was getting thicker.
“Shit shit shit,” muttered Perry, scanning the room as sirens wailed outside. A pitcher of water had spilled across a napkin, leaving it unburnt. He wrapped the cloth around his hand and then took hold of the candelabra. The damp fabric hissed and heat shot toward his fingers as he heaved the iron bar up with all his strength. It lifted, and rolled off Marcella’s body just as voices filled the hall. Firefighters came storming into the house.
“In here!” he wheezed, choking on the smoke.
A pair of firemen cut through the haze right before the ceiling groaned and a chandelier came toppling down. It shattered against the dining room table, which split and threw up flames, and the next thing Perry knew, he was being hauled backward out of the room and the burning mansion, and into the cool night.
Another firefighter followed close behind, Marcella’s body slung over one shoulder.
Outside, the trucks were splayed across the manicured lawn, and ambulance lights strobed across the slate drive.
The house was going up in flames, and his hand was throbbing, his lungs burned, and Perry didn’t give a damn about any of it. The only thing he cared about right then and there was saving the life of Marcella Riggins. Marcella, who had always flashed a wan smile and a pert wave to the cops whenever she was followed. Marcella, who would never, ever snitch on her crooked husband.
But judging by the gash in her head, and the house on fire, and the husband’s swift departure, there was a chance her position had changed. And Perry wasn’t about to waste it.
Hoses sent jets of water into the flames, and Perry hacked and spat, but pulled away from an oxygen mask as two medics loaded Marcella onto a stretcher.
“She’s not breathing,” said a medic, cutting open her dress.
Perry jogged after the medics.
“No pulse,” said the other, beginning compressions.
“Then bring it back!” shouted Perry, hauling himself up into the ambulance. He couldn’t put a corpse on the stand.
“Ox-sat levels tanking,” said the first, strapping an oxygen mask over Marcella’s nose and mouth. Her temperature was too high, and the medic pulled out a stack of cold packs and began to break the seals, applying them to her temples, neck, wrists. He handed the last one to Perry, who grudgingly accepted.
Marcella’s heartbeat appeared on a small screen, a solid line, even and unmoving.
The van pulled away, the burning mansion quickly shrinking in the window. Three weeks Perry had spent outside that place. Three years he’d been trying to nail Tony Hutch’s crew. Fate had handed him the perfect witness, and he’d be damned if he was giving her back without a fight.
A third medic tried to tend to Perry’s burned hand, but he pulled away. “Focus on her,” he ordered.
The sirens cut through the night as the medics worked, trying to force her lungs to breathe, her heart to beat. Trying to coax life out of the ashes.
But it wasn’t working.
Marcella lay there, limp and lifeless, and Perry’s hope began to gutter, die.
And then, between one compression and the next, the horrible static line of her pulse gave a lurch, and a stutter, and finally began to beep.