Romance Novel by RITA Award Winning writer Inglath Cooper
A little jaunt through the Caribbean is just what Kate Winthrop needs to put one last cap on her past. But paybacks don’t always go as planned…
Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked. – American Proverb
Kate Winthrop had reached an all-time low. She was broke. Desperate. And about to become a thief.
She had her ex-husband to thank for each of these mantles. And if it were the last thing she did on God’s green earth, she planned to get even with him.
She made this resolution in the back yard of the castle-size Georgian house Karl had recently purchased in one of Richmond, Virginia’s more lavish neighborhoods. Amazing in itself, considering he supposedly had no money. But then he had her money, and it didn’t look as though either conscience or good sense had preventing him from spending it.
A car drove by on the street just out from the house, the lights arcing across the backyard, catching her in its glare for a flash of a second. She stepped back into the shadows, her heart relocating in her throat. She waited a full minute after the car had passed before peeling herself off the brick wall.
A headline flashed in front of her: Kate Winthrop, daughter of self-made millionaire Hart Winthrop, 5 to 10 in State Pen.
Long headline, but point taken.
She knew it was crazy, coming here like this. Even so, she could no more make herself leave than she could erase the mental image of Karl stealing her blind day by day, week by week for the past three years. As it always did, the thought brought with it a fresh river of humiliation.
She stepped back and studied the house now, brazen in its excess. Karl lived by the creed that more was more. Here, his theory had been put to adequate test.
A pool took up most of the suburban backyard, surrounded by expensive, imported planters that anchored boxwoods the size of an overfed sumo wrestler. Wrought iron loungers with plump cushions sat in neat rows at the water’s edge.
She pictured herself upending each of them into the contact lens blue water. That was too petty, though. She was here for real evidence. Something concrete. Something she could take to the police, wave in their formerly disbelieving faces with an indignant, “See, I told you he was a scumbag!”
As to what that would be, she had no idea. She’d know it when she saw it. In all reality, could someone really embezzle millions of dollars without leaving a trail of some sort?
She patted a hand against the pocket of her zip-up vest and pulled out the flashlight she had stowed there earlier. She glanced down at the rest of her outfit. Turtleneck, gloves, cargo pants, boots. So maybe she’d gotten a little carried away with the Mission Impossible theme.
French doors served as a wall to the back of the house. She stepped forward and pressed her face against the glass, peering into the darkened living room with its walk-in stone fireplace. After learning that Karl and his new wife would be out of town until tomorrow afternoon, Kate had called the house earlier in the day to inform the maid she had a package to deliver to Mr. Forrester. Berta—leave it to Karl to import a German housekeeper—had said she would be there until six p.m. It was now seven-thirty. All the lights were off in the house, no one home. Still, her stomach dropped at the thought of being caught.
But then she envisioned herself standing in front of the divorce court judge, heard him say that as far as he could see, she had knowingly and willingly given her husband the authority to do with their joint funds as he had seen fit. “His name is on all the accounts, dear,” he’d said, Southern disdain for her idiocy marking each word. “Your husband might have made some bad decisions, but there’s no law against that. I suggest you be careful who you marry next time, young lady.”
So there was no law against robbing your wife blind. There was, however, a law against breaking and entering. She sent a quick glance over both shoulders, then turned the flashlight around and placed the butt of it against the glass pane nearest the door handle. A quick jab, and the glass shattered, falling to the floor on the other side. She reached through the open cavity and pressed the lock. The door swung open, and the silence exploded.
She jumped as if poked with a cattle prod, even though she’d fully expected an extra-loud alarm system. Extra was Karl’s style. If you could Super-size it, his name was on the dotted line.
She stepped inside and closed the door, using the flashlight to wind her way down the hall to the front of the house.
The control panel was where she’d thought it would be: to the left of the door. She had forty-five seconds to figure out the code and turn off the alarm before the security company called. Earlier that day, she’d invested a couple of hours in coming up with the combinations Karl might have used.
Being married to Karl had left her with an absolute understanding of the three engines that pulled his train of thought: golf, women and money. And not necessarily in that order.
From her pants pocket, she pulled the piece of paper on which she’d written her three best guesses.
First, golf. With one gloved finger, she punched in the two scores he had bragged about so often that the numbers were seared in her brain. 6265.
But the ear-piercing wail continued.
Door number two: women. She punched in 3624, picturing Karl’s live-in, Tiffany-the-interior-decorator, and the surgically-enhanced figure that left little doubt as to what had initiated his defection.
But clearly Karl had not immortalized Tiffany’s measurements in his alarm control panel. It continued its wail. Her nerve-endings were beginning to feel as if they’d been dipped in Tabasco sauce.
One more. Time was running out. She had ten seconds max. Next on the list: Karl’s penchant for picking stocks. He played the market the way little old ladies in Las Vegas played the quarter slot machines, going on-line ten or fifteen times a day to monitor his latest picks. He’d hit the jackpot once, quoting the stock’s sell price to anyone who would listen. She glanced at the piece of notepaper on which she’d written the last of her three guesses.
What if she were wrong?
She drew in a deep, hopeful breath and punched in the numbers.
The wailing immediately ceased. Ah. Silence. Peaceful, blessed silence.
And then she grew indignant again. It figured, after all. When it came right down to it, everything that mattered most to Karl centered around money. Without it, he couldn’t afford golf or women.
She leaned her head against the wall, gathering up her now shredded nerves of steel. A neighbor could have heard the alarm. The police could be on their way right this minute.
Even as she indulged her paranoia, she knew the closest house lay well out of earshot. It wasn’t likely that a fleet of police cars was swooping its way toward the Winthrop mansion. Now that the alarm was off, she should have all night to search the house.
Still slumping with relief, she turned around and waved the flashlight across the room. The main living area looked like a candy cane factory, the red and white stripes on the walls nearly blinding. A hysterical giggle bubbled up from her throat and broke free, the sound ridiculous in the otherwise tomb-still house. Appearances were important to Karl. She wondered if he provided the business associates he entertained here with protective eyewear.
She left the vertigo-inducing living room and swiped the flashlight down the hallway that led to the rest of the house. Tiffany’s touch had found its way to these walls as well. Karl now had stripes in black and white, green and white, pink and white. The up side? If she could find something to convince the police he was a crook, he’d have no problem adjusting to his prison uniform. She might visit him in jail just so she could see what he looked like in something other than an Armani suit.
The house felt eerie, pitch black as it was. But she didn’t dare turn on any lights for fear that someone would notice and report it. Like the code alarms, she had planned this part of her efforts as well. She’d start with the most obvious place. Karl’s office. Using the flashlight as a guide, she poked her head inside several different rooms until she found it.
Here, Tiffany had given up the striped wallpaper for paint. Purple was her color of choice, although Kate would bet Karl had dubbed it eggplant. Purple was far closer to accurate.
She headed for the desk, sat down in Karl’s leather chair and began opening drawers, using the flashlight to illuminate their contents. The first three yielded nothing more than paper clips and files full of papers that meant nothing to her.
The bottom drawer was locked.
But she’d come prepared for locked drawers. She reached inside her vest pocket and pulled out the small black case that held a series of lock picks she’d managed to purchase at a pawn shop in the seedier part of Richmond.
She chose one and got to work, fumbling at first, then better getting the hang of it. The first four did nothing. The fifth one, however, did the trick.
The drawer popped open. Again, there were files, neatly organized. Behind them sat a metal box. She reached for it first, surprised to find it unlocked. She popped the latch and then sat a little straighter at the sight of the gun nestled inside. What was Karl doing with a gun? A big one at that. In three years of marriage, she’d never known he had one.
Maybe he and Tiffany played games with it. A mental Kodak she didn’t need.
Glad she’d reached the point where she could actually joke about the biggest mistake of her life, she slammed the lid closed and stuck the box back in the drawer. She worked on the files then, leafing through each of them in the hope that something incriminating would jump out at her.
Twenty minutes later, she’d found little more than records of car loans, garage services, health insurance.
She slumped in the chair, her ponytail squished against the cushioned back. There had to be something in this mausoleum of a house to prove what a lying, cheating-—
She put the brakes on this particular rant. It was old territory, after all. Trekked across one too many times.
Looking back, she could see through it all now. Not that it did her any good to have such remarkable hindsight. It was a worthless commodity.
With renewed determination, she got up from the chair and headed for the master bedroom. It looked like a page out of Fredericks of Hollywood. Lace and mirrors the key decorating ingredients. She wondered where Tiffany had actually managed to get her hands on an interior design degree. The house was an aesthetic assault to the senses.
She started with the nightstands by the bed, emptying the contents of their drawers on top of the black duvet. Black? Really.
She rifled through hand lotion, chapstick, a few receipts, theater ticket stubs. She worked her way through each drawer in the room, ending up in an enormous walk-in closet that could easily double as a retail store. She closed the door and flipped on the light switch. She patted down every suit, looked under every sweater, opened every shoe box.
She sank onto the floor, dropped her head in her hands. Maybe it was time to accept the fact that she had been used. That she’d let herself be conned by a man who planned her fleecing down to the last dime. Maybe it was time to put it all behind her and start over again. At McDonald’s, maybe. Polyster uniforms could do a lot for a girl with natural curves. Emphasis on natural.
She got to her feet, glanced at her watch. Time to admit defeat. She gave one of Karl’s Ferragamo loafers a kick and sent it hurtling across the floor. It landed against the baseboard of the closet with a loud whack.
She stared at it for a moment. Was the board loose, or had she finally landed just the other side of desperate?
She got down on her knees, tipped forward on her elbows and poked it with an index finger. The baseboard moved. She shoved the shoe aside and gave it a tug. It loosened easily.
Renewed hope tumbled through her like a shot of straight adrenaline. Pressing her left ear to the floor, she peered into the hole, then stuck her hand in, encountering something hard.
She fumbled for the flashlight, and then beaming it into the hole, spotted what looked like a leather bag.
Heart pounding, she dropped onto the carpet, planted one foot on either side of the opening, then grabbed the bottom of the exposed wall with both hands and pulled. It gave, and a small section of the wall opened up like the entrance to Aladdin’s cave.
She sat there for a stunned second or two, staring at the bag. She reached out and eased it forward. She popped the latches, then went still as a statue.
Money. Stacks and stacks of it. She picked up a bundle and fanned the edges. All one hundred dollar bills. Too many to count.
She sat for a long time, not moving, just staring at what she’d found, the taste of revenge sweet on her tongue even as she reached a whole new level of understanding about her husband’s betrayal.
She tilted the satchel up and emptied its contents onto the floor. There had to be at least a million dollars. Maybe more.
So what now?
If she left this house with the money, Karl would be hot on her heels as soon as he discovered it missing.
But what could he do? Go to the police and accuse her of stealing back what was hers to begin with? Let him try. Stupid, once, yes. Next time, he would find her a worthy opponent.
She waited until she’d arrived back at her apartment with the bag of money tucked under her bed before she picked up the phone and dialed Tyler Bennett’s home number. He’d worked for her father for years and represented Kate in her divorce from Karl as well. After three rings, he answered with an indignant hello.
“It’s Kate,” she said. “Sorry to call so late.”
A fumbling sound was followed by, “It’s the middle of the night.”
“I know. You’ll be happy to hear I can now be removed from your delinquent accounts list.”
A big sigh, and then, “You called to tell me this?”
“I thought you’d be pleased,” she said.
“You want to tell me what this is really about?”
“You won’t approve.”
“Kate, didn’t I tell you to stay away from Karl?”
“You did, yes. Which I agree, under normal circumstances, is very good advice. It just so happens he separated himself from a good portion of my money long enough for me to find it.”
The ensuing stretch of silence made her wonder if he had fallen back to sleep. “I realize your fondest dream is to put Karl in jail,” he said in a careful voice. “But as your attorney, I have to tell you this kind of behavior is going to land you behind bars.”
“For taking back what was mine to begin with?” she asked, unable to keep the indignation from her voice.
“There are ways to handle these things, Kate. This is not one of them.“
“Yes, I’ve had a relatively good indoctrination to the legal version.”
“And what do you think he’s going to do when he finds the money missing?”
“I’d love to be there to see it, but I think I’ll forego the pleasure and give him a little time to cool off. In fact, that’s why I’m calling. You and Peg are leaving for a cruise day after tomorrow, right? She mentioned a buddy of yours from law school runs it.”
“Yeah,” Tyler said, cautious.
“How much would you take for those tickets?” she asked.
A full fifteen minutes later, she had finally convinced Tyler to sell her the tickets. Although he made a valiant effort to convince her she might be stepping off the ledge of sanity.
“I’ll pick them up at your office first thing in the morning,” she said and then hung up. She quickly stuffed the money back in the satchel, the thick shell of self-disgust she’d been wearing these past months melting under a wave of self-congratulation.
In finding Karl’s stash, she had reversed the wheel of fortune. For a washed up artist with a demolished inheritance, it was a step in the right direction. Maybe Karl would be the one applying for a job at the Golden Arches.
She closed the latches on the leather bag and got to her feet. Paybacks were hell.