August 11, 2006
Merrick Dalton slumped against the wall and slid to the tiled floor in the hospital corridor. His chest hurt. There was a buzzing noise in his ears that wouldn’t stop. The world tilted on its axis until he could see nothing but red. Red. The color of blood. The color of rage. The color he vowed he would watch spread over the dying bodies of the men who had done this to Theresa.
Theresa … his wife … his dead wife.
He would find them. He would find them, and then he would kill them, if it was the last act he did on this earth.
Fuck the police investigation. Fuck justice. There was no justice. Not in a world where this could happen. He’d make his own justice from now on.
And never again would he love a woman. Never again would he feel this searing pain.
October 5, 2013
Lynda Shelton ripped off the bracelet Rey had given her for her birthday last spring and flung it across her bedroom. She didn’t give a shit where it landed, or whether or not she ever saw it again. She rubbed her wrist where it had left a mark. She fell onto her bed, sobbing. Her entire body shook, and she felt sick to her stomach.
Seven years! Seven fucking years of her fucking life she’d given that fucking bastard. And where had it taken her? Straight into the worst humiliation she could imagine, and the deepest emotional pain she had ever felt.
Lynda sat up and hugged her knees. It was difficult to breathe lying down. Soft light filled her room, but even the beautiful sunset, painting the sky with gold and purple couldn’t chase this away. She’d never feel anything again. Hellfire. She’d never be able to have sex again. Not without first checking for hidden cameras, or making the guy sign a waiver.
Hot panic spread through her like someone had doused her veins with gasoline and lit a match. She rose and paced the room, praying he kept his word. She had watched him destroy all the videos he’d made of the two. Then she verified the email she’d found had never been sent, and it, too, had been deleted for good.
Or so she hoped.
How on earth could she trust his word that there weren’t copies? Six of the seven years she’d been with him, he had been filming them having sex without her consent. He would have gone on doing it if she hadn’t found the email on his laptop. He swore he’d never sent any of the videos to anyone, and he’d been drunk when he’d composed the discovered email to three college buddies.
She would never know the real truth. She’d live her life in fear that one day, at a time when it would benefit Rey Santos, he would send an email. Or one hundred emails. And if any of those videos hit the tabloids, she’d be royally fucked.
June 11, 2016
Wedding days were supposed to be happy days. Lynda Shelton was still undecided whether this, her wedding day, could be characterized as happy. She could do worse than Merrick Dalton, but she’d have preferred to choose her own groom as opposed to being forced into a marriage to save her family’s company.
She gripped her father’s arm tighter, not daring to look at his face. He’d see the conflict in her eyes, and this wasn’t the time to discuss the situation he’d placed her in. Not while she walked up the aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral toward her soon-to-be-husband, with more than five hundred pairs of eyes watching her.
The congregation rose, and almost instantly cell phones flashed. TV crews pointed their cameras at her. Lynda kept her eyes on the altar ahead. A string quartet played the traditional wedding march, but Lynda barely heard them.
By this afternoon, pictures of her in this insanely expensive Vera Wang dress would be all over the Internet. Everyone would know who she was. For a woman who had worked hard to avoid the limelight, despite having a father who couldn’t seem to stay out of the tabloids, this was her worst nightmare.
“Smile!” he hissed.
“This is my happy face.” She was smiling, although she imagined it looked forced. The media would jump all over that, but she couldn’t help it. This was the best she could manage today.
Lynda let her glance drift toward the groom. The man who would be her husband in less than an hour. The man who had agreed to marry her in order to save her family’s company. But this was a marriage in name only. It was a business arrangement. Her father had made sure Lynda knew that.
She’d met Merrick once when she was fifteen and he was twenty-six, at a party her father had given for business associates. Now, at forty years old, Merrick was still drop-dead gorgeous. No doubt about it. Her body responded to his good looks even though the two had barely spoken since the deal was struck. She’d never even kissed the man.
The aisle was long, so there was plenty of time to assess his looks as she walked. Dark hair, a bit longer than most men his age wore it, but on him it worked. He was graying at the temples, but that only added to the sexiness. His chocolate-colored eyes fueled the fantasies of women around the world. His wealth didn’t hurt, either, but Lynda had never been impressed with that. Her father was stinking rich, and it hadn’t made him a better person. Quite the opposite.
If rumors on the Internet could be believed, wealth hadn’t made Merrick Dalton a saint, either. He had deep, dark secrets. Secrets that had helped his meteoric rise to fame in the world of mergers and acquisitions. His company, Dalton Enterprises, had a business model that was now taught in MBA programs, but not everyone was his number one fan. There were plenty of undercurrents that strongly suggested he had ties to everything from the mob to hired assassins.
“Oh look!” Her father inclined his head to the right. “The governor is here.”
Oh goody. Lynda didn’t give a rat’s ass about the governor. She gave her father a quick glance. It was almost as difficult to pretend to like him as it was to pretend to be happy about this wedding. At least her uncles hadn’t shown up. She wouldn’t have been able to handle facing them both again and being forced to marry a man she didn’t know on the same day.
Lynda mentally shook away the memories of her uncles Ted and Tom, her father’s brothers, but not before her palms grew damp. André Massa, her wedding consultant, would throw a hissy fit if she started to visibly sweat before she reached the altar. She pushed the emotions down deep where she usually was able to keep them locked tightly away, and instead concentrated on walking. One foot in front of the other. Listen to the string quartet. They really are quite good. Think about your designs. That’s it. Much better now.
Lynda had earned an MFA five years ago and now worked freelance as a graphic designer because it made her happy, not because she aspired to be part of the crowd to which her father belonged. And she had never been part of the Merrick-worshipping gang, although she certainly understood their attraction to his looks.
Just this morning she’d read on Facebook about a group of women on the Upper East Side who had vowed to wear black for a year because he was no longer available. Lynda decided the group members were in serious need of a hobby. Or perhaps stronger medication.
They reached the steps leading to the altar, and her father shifted her hand toward Merrick’s. “She’s all yours,” he whispered. Lynda fought the sudden wave of panic washing over her. This would be okay. It would work out. And she’d be saving her family’s company.
“I’ll take good care of her, Todd.”
Lynda shivered. His voice was so smooth and tender. As he curled his fingers through hers, she dared to wonder if she’d ever hear it in bed. Until her father’s words rang in her ears.
This is a marriage in name only. It’s not a fairytale. You need to know that going in.
Merrick gave her an intense look filled more with lust than happiness, and tugged on her hand slightly when she hesitated to climb the last few stairs. She still didn’t move. Instead, she stared at him, uncertain.
Hellfire. The man was even more fucking gorgeous up close. But could she really handle being married to him? As in forever and ever, amen? Was her family’s company, their name, and her trust fund worth that?
Lynda clung to her last seconds of freedom before she climbed those steps and vowed before hundreds of people she barely knew that she would love, honor, and cherish this man until the day she died. The music stopped, and she swore she heard the crowd breathing behind her.
How could her father have let the company come to this? The only way to save it now was for her to marry Merrick. The company reverted to her when she turned thirty, or when she married, whichever came first.
She hadn’t known that little tidbit was in the trust provisions all these years. Her father had confessed he’d never bothered changing it after her mother died, twenty-eight years ago. He hadn’t thought it would matter.
But now, because he’d run it into the ground, Merrick had stepped in to save the day. He would marry Lynda, she would sign the company over to him, and voilà! The family business was saved. It was what Merrick did, after all. His business savvy was legendary, if a bit questionable. If anyone could fix the fucked-up mess her father had made, it was Merrick.
But why did she have to be part of the bargain? She had zero interest in running the family business. Her father knew that, and so did her uncles. From the time Lynda had understood the company was to be hers one day, she had made that known. It wasn’t who she was, and it never would be.
They should have changed the trust. They should have given this mess to someone else. Three grown men, and together they had as much business sense as a field mouse. How the hell they had kept it going this long was a mystery. Lynda didn’t need an MBA from Harvard, like Merrick had, to tell her that much.
At first, she had refused to marry him. She had insisted her father and uncles find another way to save it. But her father told her the three had tried everything and this was their last hope. It still had taken him three months to convince her he had exhausted all possible options.
In the end, despite the objections she’d raised along the way, and the alternatives she’d suggested, guilt and obligation had won out. She was good at that—becoming overwhelmed by guilt and obligation. In fact, one could say that was one of her greatest talents.
Lynda sighed as the expression on Merrick’s face changed from lustful to doubtful. He thought she was going to bolt. She could read it in his eyes. No. She wouldn’t do that. This was truly the last resort for the company that had been in her family for three generations. She couldn’t let it go under. Family was family, after all, even if they were fucked up, and even if she was fucked up to give a shit about them. And she could do far worse for a husband than Merrick Dalton.
He leaned close, brushed his lips against her veil, and whispered in her ear, “Lynda, everyone is waiting.”
She gave him a quick smile to hide the tremor that coursed through her body at the intimacy of that whisper. As she did, she caught the doubt and resignation in his eyes. He didn’t want this marriage anymore than she did. He only wanted Shelton Energy. Her father had also made that clear enough, and she had no reason to believe it wasn’t true.
Lynda climbed the last few steps and prepared to go through with the biggest sham of her life.