Vengeful, p.10

Vengeful, page 10

 

Vengeful
 



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Marcella had looked at him straight on, his eyes bleary, hers sharp, and said simply, “Yes.”

  “Bitch,” he’d muttered, storming away. Predictable.

  Marcella had promised her friends she’d stay for a drink. She tipped the bottle back, eager to finish the beer.

  “I see you found the good stuff,” said a deep voice, rich, with a faint southern lilt.

  She glanced up and saw a guy leaning back against the kitchen island. Marcella didn’t know what he was talking about, not until he nodded at the glass bottle in her hand with the plastic cup in his own. She gestured at the fridge. He crossed to it, retrieving two more bottles. He cracked them open against the counter’s edge and offered one to her.

  Marcella took it, considering him over the rim.

  His eyes were dark blue, his hair sun-kissed, that warm shade between blond and brown. Most of the guys at the party hadn’t shed their baby fat, high school still clinging to them like wet clothes, but his black shirt stretched tight over strong shoulders, and his jaw was sharp, a small cleft denting his chin.

  “Marcus,” he said by way of introduction. She knew who he was. She’d seen him on campus, but it was Alice who’d told her—Marcus Riggins was trouble. Not because he was gorgeous. Not because he was rich. Nothing so bland as all that. No, Marcus was trouble for one simple, delicious reason: his family was in the mob. Alice had said it like it was a bad thing, a deal breaker, but if anything, it only piqued her interest.

  “Marcella,” she said, uncrossing and recrossing her legs.

  He smiled. “Marcus and Marcella,” he said, lifting his drink. “We sound like a matching set.”

  Someone turned the music up, and his next words were lost under the bass.

  “What did you say?” she called over the song, and he took the opportunity to close the gap between them. She shifted her legs to the side, and he stepped closer, smelling like apples and linen, clean and crisp, such a welcome change from the sticky, tacky grime of lazy, drunken bodies.

  He rested his beer on the counter just beside her arm, the cold glass brushing her elbow and sending a small shiver through her. A slow smile crossed his face.

  He leaned in close, as if telling her a secret. “Follow me.”

  He stepped back, taking the scent of linen and the blush of heat with him.

  He didn’t pull her off the counter, but she felt pulled, drawn in his wake as he turned away, slipped through the crowd. She followed him, through the party, up the stairs, down the hall to a bedroom door.

  “Still with me?” he asked, glancing back.

  The door swung open onto a room at odds with the rest of the frat house. The laundry was hampered, the desk clean, the bed made, the only clutter a neat stack of books on the comforter.

  Marcella hovered in the doorway, waiting to see what he’d do next. If he would come to her, or make her come to him.

  Instead, Marcus went to the window, slid up the glass, and stepped out onto a widow’s walk. A fall breeze whispered through the room as Marcella followed, slipping off her heels.

  Marcus offered his hand and helped her up and through. The city spiraled away beneath them, the darkened buildings a sky, the lights like stars. Merit always looked larger at night.

  Marcus sipped his beer. “Better?”

  Marcella smiled. “Better.”

  The music, obnoxiously loud downstairs, was now a muted pulse against her back.

  Marcus leaned against the wooden rail. “You from here?”

  “Not far,” she said. “You?”

  “Born and raised,” he said. “What are you studying?”

  “Business,” she said shortly. Marcella hated small talk, but that was because so often it felt like a chore. Just noise, empty words meant to fill empty space. “Why did you bring me up here?”

  “I didn’t,” he said, all mock innocence. “You followed me.”

  “You asked,” she said, realizing he hadn’t. There’d been no question in his voice, only a simple command.

  “You were about to leave,” said Marcus. “And I didn’t want you to.”

  Marcella considered him. “Are you used to getting what you want?”

  The edge of a smile. “I have a feeling we both are.” He returned her long look. “Marcella the Business Major. What do you want to be?”

  Marcella twirled her beer. “In charge.”

  Marcus laughed. A soft, breathy sound.

  “You think I’m joking?”

  “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because,” he said, closing the narrow space between them, “we are a matching set.” A breeze cut through, just crisp enough to make her shiver.

  “We better go inside,” said Marcus, pulling away.

  He stepped back through the window, offering his hand. But this time he didn’t lead.

  “After you,” he said, gesturing toward the bedroom door. It was still cracked open, music and laughter pouring up from the party below. But when Marcella reached the door, she hesitated, fingers coming to rest against the wood. She could picture Marcus standing a few feet behind her, hands in his pockets, waiting to see what she would do.

  She pushed the door shut.

  The lock caught with a soft click, and Marcus was there as if summoned, lips brushing the back of her neck. His hands slid, feather light, over her shoulders, against her waist. Heat flooded through her at the almost-touch.

  “I won’t break,” she said, turning in time to catch Marcus’s mouth with hers. He pressed into her, pushed her back against the wood. Her nails dug into his arms as he unbuttoned his shirt. His teeth scraped her shoulder as her own came off. They laid waste to the order of his room, shedding clothes, knocking over a chair, a lamp, sweeping the books from the bed as Marcus pressed her down into the sheets.

  They fit together perfectly.

  A matching set.

  II

  FOUR WEEKS AGO

  DOWNTOWN MERIT

  THE cab stopped in front of the Heights, a pale stone spire seated in the heart of the city. Marcella paid the driver in cash and climbed out, her limbs a dull roar of pain with every step.

  When she had first discovered the secret apartment—on a goddamn bank statement—she’d assumed the worst, but Marcus had claimed the place was purely practical. A safe house. He’d even insisted on bringing her there, showing off his thorough work—her favorite designer labels in the closet, her brand of coffee in the cupboard, her shampoo in the shower.

  And Marcella had actually believed him.

  Found a way to make it their secret instead of his. Now and then she’d phone him up, insisting there was some emergency, and he’d somberly order her to meet him at the safe house, and he’d arrive to find her waiting, wearing nothing but a gold ribbon carefully wrapped and finished with a bow.

  Now the image of the tawdry pink lipstick flared like pain behind Marcella’s eyes.

  What a fool.

  The concierge rose from the front desk to greet her.

  “Mrs. Riggins,” said Ainsley, surprise lighting his face. He glanced quickly at her ill-fitting clothes, the bandages peeking out from collar and cuff, but the residents at the Heights paid for discretion as much as floor-to-ceiling windows (now Marcella wondered how many times Ainsley had employed that same discretion with her husband).

  “Is . . . everything all right?” he ventured.

  She flicked a wrist dismissively. “It’s a long story.” And then, after a moment, “Marcus isn’t here, is he?”

  “No, ma’am,” he said solemnly.

  “Good,” said Marcella. “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten my keys.”

  Ainsley nodded briskly and rounded the desk to summon the elevator. When the doors opened, he followed her inside. As it rose, she rubbed her forehead, as if simply tired, and asked the date.

  The concierge told her, and Marcella stiffened.

  She’d been in the hospital for almost two weeks.

  But that did
n’t matter, not now. What mattered was that it was a Friday night.

  She knew exactly where Marcus would be.

  The elevator stopped. Ainsley followed her out onto the fourteenth floor, unlocked the cream-colored door, and wished her a pleasant night.

  Marcella waited until he was gone, then stepped inside and flicked on the lights.

  “Honey, I’m home,” she cooed to the empty apartment. She should have felt something—a pang of sorrow, or regret—but there was only the ache in her skin and the rising tide of anger beneath, and when she reached for one of the wineglasses on the counter, it warped under her touch and turned to sand. A thousand grains rained down between Marcella’s glowing fingers, spilled onto the floor.

  She stared down at her hand, the remains of the glass dusting her palm. The strange light was already sinking back beneath her skin, and when she reached for a fresh glass, it held under her touch.

  A bottle of chardonnay sat chilling in the fridge, and Marcella poured herself a drink and flicked on the news—now eager to know what she’d missed—as she clicked the volume up and headed for the bedroom.

  One of Marcus’s shirts lay thrown across the bed . . . along with one of her own. The glass in her hand threatened to give, so Marcella set it aside. The doors to the walk-in closet were thrown wide, Marcus’s dark suits lining one wall, while the rest was given over to a medley of couture dresses, blouses, heels.

  Marcella glanced back at the clothes still twined in a lover’s embrace atop the bed and felt her anger rising like steam. Fingers glowing, she ran her hand along her husband’s side of the closet, and watched the garments fade and rot under her touch. Cotton, silk, and wool all withered and dropped from the hangers, crumbling by the time they hit the floor.

  Hell hath no fury, she thought, dusting her palms.

  Satisfied—no, not satisfied, nowhere near satisfied, but momentarily appeased—Marcella took up her drink and went into the luxury bathroom, where she set the glass on the rim of the marble sink and began to peel away the frumpy stolen clothes. She stripped until she was dressed in nothing but bandages. The sterile white wrappings weren’t nearly as seductive as the gold ribbons, but they seemed to trace the same path across her leg, her stomach, her arms.

  Marking her. Mocking her.

  Marcella’s hands twitched with the sudden urge to reach out and ruin something, anything. Instead she stood there and took in her reflection, every angle, every flaw, memorized it while she waited for the rage to pass—not vanish, no, simply retract, like a cat’s claws. If this new power was temporary, a thing with limits, she didn’t want to pass them. She needed her nails sharp.

  The painkillers from the hospital were wearing off, and her head was ringing, so Marcella dug two Vicodin out of her emergency supply beneath the sink, washed them down with the last of the chardonnay, and went to get ready.

  III

  EIGHT YEARS AGO

  UPTOWN

  THE phone rang, and rang, and rang.

  “Don’t answer it,” said Marcus, pacing. A dark tie hung loose, unknotted, around his neck.

  “Darling,” said Marcella, sitting on the edge of the bed. “You knew they’d call.”

  He’d been on edge for days, weeks, waiting for the phone to ring. They both knew who it would be: Antony Edward Hutch, one of the four heads of the Merit crime syndicate, and Jack Riggins’s long-term benefactor.

  Marcus had finally told her, of course, what his father did. How, for them, the word family wasn’t just about blood—it was a profession. He’d told her in their senior year of college, looked like death when he said it, and Marcella had realized, halfway through the meal, that he was trying to break up with her.

  “Is it like joining the clergy?” she’d asked, sipping her wine. “Did you take a vow of celibacy?”

  “What? No . . .” he said, confused.

  “Then why can’t we face it together?”

  Marcus shook his head. “I’m trying to protect you.”

  “Hasn’t it occurred to you that I can protect myself?”

  “This isn’t like in the movies, Marcella. What my family does, it’s brutal, and bloody. In this world, in my world, people get hurt. They die.”

  Marcella blinked. Set down her glass. Leaned in. “People die in every world, Marcus. I’m not going anywhere.”

  Two weeks later, he’d proposed.

  Marcella adjusted the diamond on her finger as the phone stopped ringing.

  A few seconds later, it started again.

  “I’m not answering it.”

  “So don’t.”

  “I don’t have a choice,” he snapped, running a hand through his sun-streaked hair.

  Marcella rose to her feet and took his hand. “Huh,” she said, holding it up between them. “I don’t see any strings.”

  Marcus pulled free. “You don’t know what it’s like, having other people decide who you are, what you’re going to be.”

  Marcella resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Of course she knew. People looked at her and assumed a whole lot. That a pretty face meant an empty head, that a girl like her was only after an easy life, that she would be satisfied with luxury, instead of power—as if you couldn’t want both.

  Her own mother had told her to aim high, that she should never sell herself cheap. (The correct saying, of course, was short. As in, don’t sell yourself short.) But Marcella hadn’t sold herself cheap or short. She’d chosen Marcus Riggins. And he was going to choose this.

  The phone rang on, and on.

  “Take the call.”

  “If I take the call,” he said, “I take the job. If I take the job, I’m in. There’s no getting back out.”

  Marcella caught him by the shoulder, interrupting the pendulum of his movement. He faltered, drew up short as she wrapped her fingers around his silk tie, and pulled him toward her. Something flashed in Marcus’s eyes, anger, and fear, and violence, and Marcella knew that he could do this job, and do it well. Marcus wasn’t weak, wasn’t soft. He was simply stubborn. Which was why he needed her. Because where he saw a trap, she saw an opportunity.

  “What do you want to be?” asked Marcella. The same question he’d asked her the night they met. One Marcus himself had never answered.

  Now he looked at her, his eyes dark. “I want to be more.”

  “Then be more. That,” she said, turning his face toward the phone, “is just a door. A way in.” Her nails scraped against his cheek. “You want to be more, Marcus? Prove it. Pick up the phone and walk through the goddamn door.”

  The ringing stopped, and in the silence she could hear her quickening pulse, and his unsteady breath. The moment stretched taut, and then collapsed. They collided, Marcus kissing her, hard, and deep, one hand already sliding between her legs, the other dragging the nails from his cheek. He spun her around, bent her over the bed.

  He was already hard.

  She was already wet.

  Marcella stifled a gasp of pleasure, triumph, as he pressed himself against her—into her—her fingers knotting in the sheets, her gaze drifting to the cell phone beside her on the bed.

  And when it rang again, Marcus answered.

  IV

  FOUR WEEKS AGO

  THE HEIGHTS

  MARCELLA longed for a hot shower, but the first touch of water sent a searing pain over her tender skin, so instead she settled for a damp cloth, drawing lukewarm water from the bathroom sink.

  The edges of her hair were singed beyond repair, so she took up the sharpest scissors she could find and started to cut. When she was done, her black waves ended just above her shoulders. A thick coil swept across her brow, hiding the fresh scar above her left temple and framing her face.

  Her face, which had miraculously escaped the worst of the fight and the fire. She brushed mascara along her lashes and painted a fresh coat of red on her lips. Pain followed every gesture—each stretch and bend of tender skin a reminder in the shape of her husband’s name—but through it all, Marcella
’s mind felt . . . quiet. Smooth. Silk ribbons, instead of knotted rope.

  She returned to the closet, running her fingers lightly along the symphony of clothes that made up her wardrobe. A small, vindictive part of her wanted to choose something revealing, to put her injuries on display, but she knew better. Weakness was a thing best concealed. In the end she chose a pair of elegant black slacks, a silk blouse that wrapped around her sleek frame, and a pair of black stilettos, the heels as thin and chrome as switchblades.

  She was just fastening the buckles on her second shoe when a newscaster’s voice rose from the television in the other room.

  “New developments in the case of the house fire that raged through the upscale Brighton development last week . . .”

  She stepped out into the hall in time to see her own face on the screen.

  “. . . resulting in the death of Marcella Renee Riggins . . .”

  She’d been right, then. The police obviously wanted Marcus to believe she was dead. Which was probably the only reason she wasn’t. Marcella took up the remote, turning up the volume as the camera cut to a shot of their house, the exterior charred and smoldering.

  “Officials have yet to determine the cause of the fire, but it’s believed to be an accident.”

  Marcella’s grip tightened on the remote as the camera cut to a shot of Marcus running his hands through his hair, the picture of grief.

  “Husband Marcus Riggins admitted to police that the two had quarreled earlier that night, and that his wife was prone to outbursts, but adamantly denied the suggestion that she’d set the fire herself, saying that she had never been violent or destructive—”

  The remote crumbled in her hand, batteries liquefying as the plastic warped and melted.

  Marcella let the mess fall from her fingers, and went to find her husband.

  V

  THREE YEARS AGO

  DOWNTOWN MERIT

  MARCELLA had always liked the National building. It was a feat of glass and steel, a thirty-story prism at the heart of the city. She’d coveted it, the way one might a diamond, and Tony Hutch owned the whole thing, from the marble lobby all the way to the rooftop gardens where he threw his parties.

 
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