**SNEAK PEEK - No Redemption **
“You look breathtaking.” My husband Dane’s hands rest on my exposed shoulders, his fingers dancing lightly across my skin.
“Thank you. You look handsome as ever.” I smile. “Hard to believe it’s already our five-year anniversary.”
I’m not sure I ever saw myself as the housewife type, yet here I am. And even stranger, I’m happy with how my life has turned out. When I was growing up, I was immersed in a world where women were trophies, my mother included. She didn’t do the cooking or cleaning; that was left to the hired help. She didn’t even do the child-rearing half the time; that was left to the nannies. I loved my mother, but it was clear to me from an early age that she was miserable and depressed, even if she tried masking it with pills and wine. As I got older, she would share little things with me that made me realize why she felt the way she did. She graduated top of her class at Yale, even had a PhD in bioengineering, but my father wouldn’t allow her to use her degree. She was the lady of the house, meant to attend events with him and give him children. I swore to myself I would never end up like her. I longed for freedom, an exciting life of adventure, and fiery, passionate romance that left me breathless.
“Mmm, yes.” He leans down, his soft lips running down the length of my neck. “And it’s been the best years of my life.”
Sometimes, I have to remind myself that my life is real, that it’s not a dream or fantasy. I was born into wealth and when my parents died unexpectedly, they left me with a trust fund that keeps me among the elites of society. Something so many would die to experience yet have no idea what it’s really like. So, I already understood luck in this life from a young age, but I never expected that I would go on to marry my actual soulmate. In this world, you marry someone else rich with status and legacy, and you’re really fortunate if they’re good-looking too, but the odds that they’re faithful and actually in love with you—well, you’d have a better chance at winning the lottery.
But not me. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I am one of the few that has a faithful husband who not only loves me, but spends every second away from work with me. And to say that he’s handsome is like saying the Mona Lisa is just a painting. Dane takes a lot of pride in his appearance, how he handles himself, how he dresses. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose his temper or overindulge in anything. He’s the perfect example of temperance. For not growing up with wealth, he knows exactly how to pretend that he did.
“I have a surprise for you,” he whispers against my ear, his breath tickling me. He reaches into his lapel, pulling out a signature navy-blue Harry Winston box.
“Dane,” I gasp as he opens the box, revealing a stunning diamond necklace of flowers. I spin around to look at it, the light in our dressing room dancing across the flawless diamonds. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Nonsense.” He smiles, pulling the necklace from the box and draping it gingerly around my neck. Instinctively, I lift my hand, dragging my fingertips over the two strands of diamonds that crisscross one another and hang down. “I remembered you mentioned how beautiful this necklace was when we were in Geneva last year and I just couldn’t allow you to not have it. It was made for you,” he says, pulling back to look at my reflection in the mirror. The necklace accents my diamond flower studs that I always wear—another gift he gave me from last year’s anniversary.
“Thank you.” I lift my gaze from the necklace, our eyes meeting in the mirror. I move my hand over his that’s still resting on my shoulder and wrap my fingers around his. It’s not about the money, it never is. In our world, spending six figures on a necklace is normal, but the fact that he remembered me casually mentioning something almost a year ago is what means so much. Like I said, in my world, most men aren’t exactly attentive to their wife’s needs. The wife merely fills a void; she’s eye candy and someone to give them an heir. A beautiful prop that is pulled off the shelf and put on display when needed. Meanwhile, they spend their evenings and work trips with a string of women, never even thinking to call home.
But not Dane. He’s different.
He calls me no matter what time his flight lands or dinner ends. He talks to me until I fall asleep when he’s traveling and always brings me home trinkets and treats that remind him of me. I am beyond blessed or lucky, whatever you want to call it. The only thing missing from our perfect little world is a baby… something I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.
Every once in a while, seemingly out of nowhere, doubt rears its ugly head and sends me into a spiral of guilt. Doubt about if I’m cut out for this world I was born into. Doubt about if the trophy wife and doting mother is what I truly want.
How could you ever want more when you have it all? A husband who would do anything for you, a name that will get you through any door… a bank account that rivals God.
But then, just as quickly, I remind myself that I’m blessed beyond measure and I’m just being selfish.
“You deserve it darling. Besides”—he adjusts his cuff link in the mirror, then reaches for his bow tie—“I can’t have you not dripping in diamonds at our anniversary party. What kind of husband would I be if I didn’t lavish you with gifts?” He winks at me before checking his watch. As much as I know the gifts he gives me are from the heart and clearly thought out, I can’t help but wonder if it’s him trying to prove something to the world, something to the people he surrounds himself with. Unlike them and me, Dane wasn’t born into wealth. He’s had to claw and work for every dime he has. “Speaking of the party, Andy will be here in a few minutes with the car. Are you almost ready?”
“I am.” I smile, snapping out of my overthinking before it spirals. I grab my red lipstick and slick on another layer before sliding it into my clutch. My auburn hair is pulled back in a half updo, the strapless sweetheart neckline of my dark-green velvet dress accentuating my cleavage.
“Mmm, you’re going to break necks in that dress.”
His eyes linger on my breasts for a moment, the attention from him still making me blush as a giddy feeling pools in my stomach. I knew Dane would love this dress, I chose it for him, just like I do all my clothing choices. Green isn’t my favorite color; it’s not even a color I like at all really, but he’s always insisted with my fair skin and hair color, I should aways wear green. And who am I to question a man with impeccable taste?
“Thank you.” I clear my throat nervously before trying to sound nonchalant. “Is Mads going to be at the party?”
I hate using the word perfect to describe a relationship but ours is, apart from one small constant… Dane’s best friend, Madden ‘Mads’ Bishop. A man who is the exact opposite of Dane in every way.
A man who like me, grew up with unimaginable wealth and privilege. Oddly, before Dane, our paths never crossed even though the circle of billionaires in Chicago is very small. Or maybe it had and I never noticed. Being that he’s a decade or more older than me, it would make sense.
“Of course he’ll be there; he was the best man at our wedding.” He walks over to me and kisses my cheek. “I really wish you two would try to get along.” I stand up and smile at my husband, his pale-blue eyes pleading. “He’s not that bad, sweetheart. Just give him a chance.”
I’ve given him multiple chances over the last five years and every time he crushes any hope of another.
Mads was the first person I met in Dane’s world. From that first meeting, he was cold and dismissive toward me. At first I had assumed it was because of my age. I’m sure he thought that his friend was just having a good time with a twenty-year-old before he found someone his own age and settled down. But when our three-month romance turned into an engagement and wedding by month five, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going anywhere.
We eloped to Vegas. Our wedding photos are some of my favorite memories to look back on. Our faces are filled with such genuine joy our eyes are practically shut from how wide we were smiling. The rest of our friends looked the same, mouths wide open as they cheered us on, arms in the air in excitement… but not Mads. His cold, dead eyes were hollow, his lips in a thin line, his hands crossed one over the other at his waist.
He’s never been a joyous person to be around. I think I’ve seen him genuinely smile maybe twice in the years I’ve known him. Unlike Dane with his classic all-American boy-next-door charm and his floppy blond hair and blue eyes, Mads is dark and moody, with black hair and even blacker eyes. His olive skin is peppered with tattoos that peek over his shirt collar and beneath the cuffs of his sleeves. I used to joke with Dane that he was the preppy country club kid who befriended the goth, emo kid.
“I’ll try.” I smile.
“He likes you, ya know. He just does a poor job of showing it.” Dane pecks my lips gently, not wanting to smear my lipstick, before taking my arm and leading me down the stairs of our stately home on the north shore of Chicago’s Lake Michigan.
“A really poor job,” I reiterate as we exit the house.
“Evening, Andy.” Dane nods to Andy who smiles broadly at us.
“Evening, Mr. and Mrs. Ashford. Happy anniversary. You both look positively stunning.”
“Thank you, Andy.” I smile as I slide into the back seat of our Rolls Royce.
“It’s all Emery, she’s the star. I’m merely the luckiest man on the planet who gets to stand next to her.” Dane winks at me as he smacks Andy’s shoulder, both men laughing. Yet another thing that is genuine and real about Dane that you don’t see in our world very often, he’s nice. He cares about people, no matter their job or status. He’s always treated any of the staff at our home or his company with such respect.
“Hey, I meant to ask you earlier, how did the merger talks go this week?” I rest my hand on Dane’s thigh, his muscles twitching beneath my fingers. He wraps his fingers around mine, bringing my hand to his lips.
“No work talk tonight, sweetheart. Tonight is a celebration of you”—he kisses my fingertip—“and me”—he kisses another, a spark shooting through my lower belly, between my thighs—“and our love.” He tugs my hand so that I fall halfway into his lap, his lips on mine. “Have I mentioned how much I love red lipstick on you?”
“A few times.” I smile as he runs his thumb over my bottom lip.
“Maybe we should skip the party,” he whispers, “and spend the evening in bed.” His tongue flicks my earlobe, his other hand traveling over my lap toward the thigh-high slit that runs up my gown.
The one area of our life I might not describe as perfect, would be our love life. It’s satisfying, more than adequate, and at least half the time I’m able to climax, but the other half, I fake it. I learned early on that if Dane knows he can’t bring me to orgasm, he takes it personally, often doubting himself and feeling inadequate. I was a virgin when I met him. It was exciting and fun being with an older man, but the secret desires I slowly tried to share with him were not reciprocated. He only wanted to make love and be gentle, something I’ve come to really appreciate over the years.
“As lovely as that sounds,” I say, placing my hand on his to stop his movements, “I think everyone at the aquarium might wonder where we are.”
“They’ll be so drunk and full of shrimp cocktail they won’t even notice us missing.” He laughs.
Every year Dane does something bigger than the year before to celebrate our anniversary and every year I tell him it’s completely unnecessary. I would be content to stay home and cuddle in pajamas, but in his words, “Our anniversary is something that needs to be celebrated lavishly because nothing about our love is ordinary.”
This year he rented out the great hall at the Shedd Aquarium. Sometimes I think he feels guilty that we had a Vegas wedding with an Elvis impersonator as our officiant so he wants to make up for it. But I loved it. Coming from a buttoned-up world of socialite status where everything was planned down to a T, it felt good to just let loose and have fun with our wedding. Truthfully, I was still reeling from the tragic and sudden loss of my parents in a plane crash that I think I just wanted to feel anything that wasn’t pain and sadness.
When we arrive, the place is decorated like something out of a fairy tale. Floral arches adorn the entrance, and more flowers hang from the ceiling with twinkle lights. A jazz band is playing in the corner. People are milling about with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. I’m immediately swept up in the celebration and excitement, and any unease I had about seeing Mads disappears.
“Honestly, Emery, how is it that every time we see you, you’re more beautiful?”
“Oh, Mrs. Diaz, you’re so sweet.” I squeeze her hand, her daughter Laila smiling broadly beside her.
“Seriously, Mother is right. You always seem to be glowing. Is there something special you’re going to announce tonight?”
My hand instinctively settles on my lower belly. “Uh, no.” I try to smile through the awkwardness, now very much aware of my figure in this dress I’m wearing. “I guess it’s just happiness and being in love.”
“You two really are the picture-perfect couple,” she says with big round eyes. “I just hope and pray my Laila will find a man half as good as Dane.” Both ladies look over at my husband who is laughing loudly at something one of his friends said. He catches us watching him and winks at me, causing the two women to audibly swoon.
“If you’ll excuse me.” I nod as I step away from the ladies, making my way through the crowds of people until I reach the bar on the far side of the room.
“Vodka martini, please, extra dirty.” I smile at the bartender, glancing over my shoulder, hoping that nobody tries to approach me. After two solid hours of mingling and talking, I’m already exhausted. “Thank you,” I say, taking my glass and climbing a set of stairs to a small door that leads to a private balcony overlooking Lake Michigan.
I close my eyes, the cool evening breeze washing over my skin as I take in several deep breaths. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning or like I’m lost. The guilt I feel for wondering if I’m meant for this life consumes me at times. I wish more than anything I could talk to my mom in times like this.
“I knew you’d be out here.”
My spine stiffens the second I hear his deep, syrupy voice behind me. I keep my gaze forward, taking a long sip of my martini. “How’d you know that, Mads?”
“Because every year about this time into the celebration, I watch you slink away to some quiet place where you can think…” The sleeve of his tux bumps my bare shoulder as he steps next to me. “Where you can convince yourself that you’re happy like the rest of these rich fucks.”
My brow furrows. “Last time I checked, your family is in the billionaire club just like mine and half of the people in there.”
“Exactly. We both know the kind of people they are”—he looks over at me but my gaze stays forward—“and you’re nothing like them.”
“Or maybe that’s just what you want to believe.” I square my shoulders, goosebumps breaking out across my skin as a shiver runs over my body. I can feel Mads’ eyes lingering on me. He reaches his hand out slowly, running it over my collarbone until he reaches my necklace. “It’s beautiful,” he murmurs. “Almost as beautiful as you.”
I brush his hand away, taking a step away from him. “Doesn’t it ever get tiring?” I look back at him when he doesn’t answer. “Every year you say the same thing to me about whatever piece of jewelry Dane bought me and every year I tell you not to fucking touch me.”
He shrugs. “Maybe I get off on the rejection.”
“You’re disgusting,” I murmur half under my breath but loud enough that he can still hear me. He doesn’t say anything and after a few minutes, I think he might have gone back inside when his voice, deeper than before, startles me.
“Does Dane know why you hate me?” He’s so close I can feel the warmth from his chest radiating against my back. I clutch my drink tighter as he reaches his hand out, one finger touching my neck before he slowly drags it down my spine. “Does he know that you think about me when he’s fucking you?”
I spin around so fast I almost fall over. I reach my hand back and bring it square across Mads’ jaw, his face jerking violently to the side. He brings his hand up to rub his jaw, a smirk pulling at his lips.
“Does Dane know that his best friend is a disgusting pig who tries to seduce his wife?” I narrow my eyes, my jaw clenched so tight I can already feel the headache forming.
“I think the better question is, why have you never told him?”
I ball my hand into a fist at my side as I grip the stem of my martini glass. The truth is, I don’t know why I’ve never told Dane. Partly because I’ve heard his sob story about when he was the poor kid at Yale with no friends and Mads befriended him with zero questions. He didn’t care about his family or lack of connections. But I also know there’s another reason, a deeper one that I’m scared to unravel.
I step around him, walking back to the door when I turn back to face him. “Why are you still pretending to be friends with him? You don’t owe him anything. Just leave us alone. Go slither back into whatever damp pit you came from and let us live our life in peace.”
I half expect him to laugh or say something even worse to get a rise out of me like he usually does. It’s the game he always plays, saying just enough to get me angry and get a reaction out of me. I try to remain calm. I try to tell myself to just shrug it off and move on, but I never succeed. It’s a thread I don’t want to pull at because deep down, somewhere messed up inside of me, I know it’s because I am attracted to him. And maybe that’s the reason I don’t tell Dane what his best friend is really like.
I noticed him the moment I met him. At first I convinced myself it was the allure of the forbidden—the troubled, bad-boy best friend. And who wouldn’t be attracted to him? He has all the traits to lure you in—dark eyes, dark hair, tall, a perfectly chiseled jawline and physique that leaves your jaw on the floor. He’s like sin packaged in lust, dripping with temptation… created to draw you in.
“Trust me, sweetheart, nothing would make me happier than to move on with my life, but you might want to ask your husband why I haven’t left you alone.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
His hand slides deep into his pocket as he takes a few steps toward me, his other hand still on his jaw. “Don’t you ever want to be bad, Emery?” A shiver runs through me at the sound of his voice saying my name. “Don’t you want to stop denying yourself?”
I know he’s just trying to get another reaction out of me and instead of running away, I tilt my chin upward defiantly. “Don’t you ever get tired of trying to get something you can’t have?” I level my eyes on his. “Don’t you ever get tired of being the big bad wolf?”
His eyes darken at my last statement, and his arm shoots up to press against the door so I can’t open it as he leans in, his lips an inch from mine.
“It’s not the wolf you need to be afraid of kitten; it’s the devil in disguise that you sleep next to.”
I watch as she walks away, looking back at me for a brief second before disappearing down the staircase. My eyes linger longer than they should on her; they always do. She’s my kryptonite. A siren that I know will only lure me to danger. Call me a masochist because I love the pain of denial.
I know she wants to know more about the things I’ve said, but she’s afraid. Afraid of the illusion she’s living shattering all around her.
She thinks she found the perfect man, the one in a million who isn’t like the rest.
He wouldn’t hurt her.
He wouldn’t lie or cheat on her.
He loves her.
I look back out over the lake, the moon reflecting off the black expanse that reaches farther than I can see, the image of her in that green dress burned into my brain. Just one taste is all I need. I close my eyes, imagining my lips on her silken skin, the smell of her exotic perfume lingering. I dig my nails into my palms, the pain reminding myself that the only way I’ll ever experience her, is if Dane is dead.
The door opens again, and I look over my shoulder to see Dane. “Why are you upsetting my wife on our anniversary?” He walks over and stands next to me.
“She tattled on me?”
“She didn’t have to; it was written all over her face. Why can’t you just act indifferent and stick to the goddamn plan?” He grits out the words.
“The plan? Because this wasn’t the fucking plan, Dane.” I turn to face him. “The plan was she falls in love with you and you get access to her money, name, and reputation to build an empire which you’ve fucking done. So why can’t you just be happy with that?”
“You want me to settle?” he scoffs. “Rich coming from someone born into billions.”
“No, I want you to live your life and stop being a piece of shit. Last week was the last time you’ll ever call me to come bail you out of a pile of cocaine and hookers that you can’t pay for at my own club.”
“Oh no,” he says, his tone mocking, “did the poor little rich boy suddenly grow a conscience after being a heartless asshole his entire life?”
He’s not wrong. I have a reputation for being cold and heartless; my entire family does. We aren’t the altruistic, do-good billionaires who pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. We’re the ruthless ones, the cutthroat, step on everyone to get ahead billionaires with ties to organized crime. In fact, my father’s nickname was Satan’s right-hand man, a nickname he took great pride in.
“Forbes just named you as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our generation with a projected net worth of one billion by the age of forty-five. That isn’t good enough?”
“Good enough? Is that good enough?” He spits the words at me, his face red with rage almost instantly. This is Dane. This is the real Dane that nobody ever sees but me. He’s a master of disguise, a true psychopath if I’ve ever seen one. “No, it’s not fucking good enough. I deserve the same wealth as you and Emery. My father would be CEO at Piedmont Financial right now had that lying sack of shit old man not fired him. It’s not good enough to make a billion, Mads. I want control of the company. I want the shares and her trust fund.”
A leap if I ever heard one. It’s the same narrative that Dane has clung to since I met him in college. He told all of us how his father had been one of the first hires at the now multibillion-dollar financial powerhouse Piedmont. And that Niles Piedmont Sr., who founded it, was a lying, money-hungry piece of shit who fired his dad without cause when he was just starting to rise within the company. It seemed unfair and we fell victim to his stories until we found out through others that his father was stealing from the company and risked their entire reputation when he was caught conducting fraud.
He was poor then, at Yale on a scholarship, but he was driven, more driven than anyone I’d ever met. He hung out with all the elites, rubbing elbows to learn tricks of the trade. He hung on to our every word, trying to fit in, to look like he belonged. He even spent summers with my family in the Hamptons and the South of France. He came into college looking every part the poor young man from Iowa and left looking like he was born and bred into generational wealth.
“And then,” he says around a cigar in his mouth as he lights it, “I’ll be richer than any of you.” He laughs, inhaling the sickly sweet smoke and smacking me on the back. “Isn’t that the American dream? To squash every person you can to rise to the top, taking every fucking cent and opportunity even if it was never yours to begin with?” He curls his hand into a fist as he speaks, like he’s a politician convincing a crowd. “I think your father would be proud of me.”
That’s what this has always been about for him. It wasn’t that he wanted to better himself and secure a future for his children… It was domination. He never felt like he fit in with us, even under all the designer clothes and high-end cars, partying in the hottest places, and staying in the most luxurious of accommodations, he was still that kid from Iowa. In his mind, the only way to become one of us, was to beat us. And there’s only one family that has more money than mine… Emery Wagner’s.
“So,” I say, my stomach churning, “what’s the new plan, then? Since you clearly don’t plan to stop fucking around and being a piece of shit to Emery behind her back… How are you going to gain control of her father’s empire and her trust? Knock her up?” Even saying that sentence makes me want to puke.
He doesn’t respond immediately. He takes a few more long puffs of the cigar before putting it out on the railing and turning to face me.
“Simple.” He smiles, his eyes void of any emotion. “I’m going to kill her.”
“That seems like a stretch, even for you.”
“It’s the perfect solution. The prenup I was forced to sign when I married her stated I would only receive her trust and her shares of the company if she died.”
I try to tell myself that Dane was a different person when I met him, but I don’t think he was. I think he fooled me, just like he’s fooled Emery. By the time I realized who he really was, it was too late. She was head over heels in love and I couldn’t leave her alone with him. Yeah, it was fucking selfish—it still is that I haven’t told her what kind of man he really is, but I know if I do, I’ll lose her. I’ll lose any tie or contact I have with her.
“Why now?” I ask, not really sure he even has the balls to go through with murder.
“The prenup states I only get access if we make it until our fifth anniversary.” I feel my eyes widen. He notices and laughs. “You didn’t believe me, did you?” He reaches over and squeezes my shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ve taken care of it already, but if you think for one second that you’re going to warn her, to tell her about my plan, I’ll make sure she knows that this was all your idea.”
I jerk my shoulder away. “My idea? I guess I missed that version of our history.”
“I didn’t. In fact, I remember you being the one who pointed her out to me. You’re the one who told me her father had just died and she was vulnerable, that I should get her to fall in love with me so I could use her.”
“Yeah, which is what you’ve done, but I never said to fucking kill her.”
“Well, yeah, I had to pivot, add my own demands on the deal. What kind of businessman would I be if I didn’t renegotiate the terms?” He smiles again, all his teeth showing like I’m supposed to be impressed.
“You’re a psycho, Dane, you know that?”
“Nah, I’m just highly motivated. And don’t think I don’t know why you’ve stuck around all these years, getting me out of tough spots and covering for me so Emery doesn’t know what I’ve been up to. If you think for one second that she’s going to run to you if you tell her, you’re a fucking moron. She’ll want even less to do with you, if that’s possible, when she realizes you’ve been cleaning up my messes all these years.”
“You’ve already taken care of it?” I ask, ignoring his comments.
“You think I’m going to tell you when it’s going to happen?” He laughs. “So you can save her?” He laughs again as he walks toward the door. “I know you’re in love with her, Mads; I’ve always known, but Emery will never be yours.” He walks through the door and closes it softly behind him.
He’s not wrong. I know I’m fighting a losing battle. There’s only one way this ends. Dane Ashford has to die.