Stacey Allen was not at a funeral so she could avoid her husband.
She nudged her sunglasses up her nose and ground her teeth together. Her focus never strayed from the wooden box as it disappeared around the edge of the dirt. Not many people remained. It wasn’t often that people stayed to see a casket lowered into the ground. Even less common when the woman inside the casket was a ghost for the last five months.
Stacey wasn’t there because they were friends. She was there out of obligation. Holly was a client of Stacey’s. They talked every day for a month, then weekly for another three months. Stacey recommended Holly go back to her life. She thought the woman was healthy. She thought she was safe.
Stacey was dead wrong. And now Holly was dead.
Stacey blamed herself for Holly’s death. She wasn’t the one who dragged Holly from her car and stabbed her, but Stacey was the one who told Holly she would be okay.
“We’re heading out,” Captain Patrick said quietly.
Stacey nodded. “Thank you. I won’t be long.”
Captain Patrick nodded and offered her a sympathetic smile. Stacey’s boss and friend, Frannie, hugged Stacey, then looped her arm through the captain’s. They walked together, past the rows of stones on the hill.
Stacey tried to hold back her tears, but she was losing the battle. She was angry. Not just at herself for thinking Holly would be safe when she left the shelter and tried to live her life again, and not just at Holly’s husband who was the one and only suspect as far as Stacey was concerned, even though he hadn’t been charged. No, Stacey was mad at her own husband.
Wray Allen. The man Stacey fell in love with a lifetime ago. The man she planned to spend her life with. He was a good man, at least, she thought he was. But for the last six months, Stacey couldn’t see that version of her husband. The only one she saw was the one who gambled away almost everything they had and nearly bankrupted them. The man who put his problems, his addiction, above the safety of his wife and sons.
One woman was dead because of the sins of her husband. Stacey told her patients they deserved better, but she never took the advice herself. She’d spent years counseling abuse victims that it wasn’t their fault and that they didn’t need the men who hurt them the way the men convinced them they did. Stacey empowered women to stand on their own and make a new life for themselves.
Instead of listening to her own words, Stacey was letting her past dictate her present. Her parents’ divorce ruined her childhood. She hated them for not trying to save their marriage. Stacey wouldn’t do the same thing to her sons. She needed to try. But trying wasn’t getting them anywhere. Something had to change, and she knew what it was.
Stacey had been sitting on the sidelines of her own life, afraid to make the leap and tell her husband it was over. Maybe it was time.
“We should get home,” a man’s voice said from not far away.
Stacey looked up and her stomach turned. She’d never known hate so strong as she felt in that moment. It tore her heart out and flipped her insides and made her want to do something she knew she couldn’t do. It made her want revenge.
Oscar Hyatt stared at Stacey, a triumphant look of pleasure curling his lips up. His arm was draped over the shoulders of his daughter, Vera, as Vera stared at the hole in the ground where her mother’s body would stay.
Stacey wanted to rip Vera from her father’s arms. She was a teenager, barely old enough to know her own mind, and she was under the care of a monster. A man who not only abused Holly, but who Stacey was completely convinced also killed her.
Except he had an alibi and was not a suspect.
“I just want to stay a little longer,” Vera said. She sniffed and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Stacey knew Vera. They’d spoken regularly when Vera lived in Shelter from the Storm with her mother. Stacey counseled both of them to help them through the situation they were in. Vera hadn’t been a victim of her father’s, but she knew what he did to her mother. But Oscar doted on Vera. Manipulated her to love him.
Vera leaned against her father’s side, and Oscar hugged her tighter, his hand rubbing her shoulder for comfort. The entire time, he smirked at Stacey. He knew exactly who she was, and she knew he was guilty, but they both knew there was nothing Stacey could do about it.
“Vera,” Stacey said softly, ignoring the cancer around the girl.
“Stacey!” Vera rushed over to her, throwing her arms around Stacey’s neck and burrowing in. She sobbed against Stacey’s shoulder. “Why did this happen?”
Stacey glared at Oscar. “I wish I could tell you that, honey. Your mom was a beautiful person, inside and out, and some ugly, evil person stole her from all of us.”
Oscar flinched ever so slightly when Stacey called him ugly and evil. He quickly schooled his expression and sneered. It wasn’t a confession, but it was enough for Stacey to know for sure he was guilty. Too bad she couldn’t go to the cops with a guilty look.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”
“I know, sweetheart. Where are you staying?”
“With my dad. He didn’t do this, Stacey. It wasn’t him. And he would never hurt me.”
Stacey brushed Vera’s blonde hair back from her face and smiled at the trustworthy child. Vera was fourteen. Barely old enough to know her own mind, let alone understand how disgusting some of the world was. Holly was a miracle-worker to have kept her daughter so hidden from the horrors of their home, not to mention the rest of the evils of the world. Especially when that evil lived under the same roof.
“You know you can always come see me. And you can always call me. I’m always going to be here for you.”
Vera nodded. “I know. Thanks, Stacey.”
“Vera, we need to go,” Oscar demanded.
Vera looked over at him and saw the scowl on his face. She ducked her head, then said a quick goodbye to Stacey before rushing back to her father’s side.
Oscar smirked at Stacey, then guided Vera to the waiting car.
Stacey stared after them, watching the way he touched his daughter. He wasn’t inappropriate, which both relieved and bothered Stacey. If he grabbed Vera’s arm or did anything that made it look like he hurt the girl, Stacey would have the power to remove Vera from his care. But Oscar did nothing.
Stacey waited until they got in the car and drove away. She turned back to the grave and stared at the simple box that held Holly. Stacey closed her eyes and promised Holly that she would find proof that Oscar killed her and get Vera away from him.
She just hoped she could keep the promise.
* * *
Wray Allen tackled his older son, Joey, and tickled him until he squealed. Evan, his baby, jumped on Wray and dug his chubby fingers into Wray’s side, laughing the whole time like he was the one being tickled.
Wray pretended Evan’s uncoordinated fingers were the funniest things in the world and laughed loudly. Joey jumped in and joined his little brother, both of them jabbing their fingers into the soft tissue on Wray’s neck and sides. It wouldn’t be long before those little fingers would hurt more than tickle, but Wray wasn’t going to think about that. He was going to enjoy the time he had with his sons and hope he could fix things with his wife so he didn’t miss out on more than he already had.
A car door slammed outside, and both boys jumped up.
“Mommy’s home!” Joey shouted as he ran for the door.
“Wait,” Wray commanded his six year old in the dad voice he didn’t break out often. Joey had started opening the door when he felt like it and answering the door without a parent. It didn’t matter how many times they told him to wait, he never did. It was bad enough that Wray installed a video doorbell so they would always know if Joey left the house.
Joey stopped and gave Wray an annoyed look that nearly made him laugh. He held it together and cocked an eyebrow at his oldest.
“You know you’re not supposed to open the door without a parent.”
“But it’s Mommy. She’s a parent.”
Wray tried to figure out how to talk around that logic and was grateful when Stacey let herself in the house before he had to come up with something.
Evan threw himself at Stacey, wrapping his arms around her legs so she couldn’t get inside far enough to close the door. “Hi, Evs. Did you have fun with Daddy?”
“We tickled,” Evan said in his three year old blabber. He’d grown a lot in the last six months. He was still a baby, but going from two to three and starting preschool were big changes. So big that Wray dreaded how much more he’d miss. His guess was the way his wife avoided his gaze, his time on the couch was coming to an end.
Wray fell in love with Stacey the night they met. He was playing cards at a game a friend organized in college. Stacey walked in and he felt an odd buzz of energy, like a piece of his he hadn’t known was missing was finally back. Her pull was magnetic, and Wray couldn’t have resisted it if he tried. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to know her, and as the night wore on and she indulged his claim that she was his good luck charm, Wray knew he’d never be able to walk away from her.
After the game, Wray talked her into breakfast at a local diner, paid for with his winnings, then convinced her to let him take her to dinner that night. From then on, they were together.
In the decade since, Wray had learned everything about his wife. Normally it was a blessing to know someone so well, but when the words she held back were bad, it was a curse. A curse to know his time at home was short-lived.
“Did you guys eat a snack?” Stacey asked the boys when she finally got Evan off her leg and closed the door.
“Yep. Daddy made us cheese and crackers,” Joey said.
“Okay, good. Give me a few minutes to change and then we can talk about dinner,” Stacey said. She made a move toward the stairs. Her black dress, black boots, and black purse would have looked a little dramatic at the party they were going to, but the mention of dinner told Wray she forgot.
“Emily will be here at five. Do you want to wait to figure out dinner until she gets here?” Wray asked. It was a gentle reminder that they wouldn’t be home to eat. A way for him to tell her they had plans without making her feel bad for forgetting. At least, he hoped.
Stacey hung her head. Her shoulders slumped. She looked like she might collapse right there on the stairs. “Taylor’s party. I forgot.”
Wray didn’t reply. There was nothing he could say that would not piss her off, so staying silent felt like the right move.
“Let me change into something less formal. Yeah, we’ll talk to Emily about dinner.”
Wray nodded even though Stacey wasn’t looking at him. Evan made a move to follow Stacey up the stairs, but Wray scooped him up and rolled him up onto his shoulders, tickling his exposed belly and making Evan squeal with laughter.
Stacey trudged up the stairs without looking back.
Wray set Evan on the floor and smiled at the wide grin on his son’s face. Both boys were blissfully unaware of the tension between Stacey and Wray. One of the good things about them being so young when their parents’ marriage was faltering. Wray hated it, but he was the one to blame. If it hadn’t been for him getting sucked into an illegal gambling ring and nearly losing everything, he wouldn’t be sleeping on the couch.
While Stacey was changing, Wray and the boys cleaned up the living room. Joey insisted on helping pull out the takeout menus to show Emily when she arrived. He told Wray Emily really liked pizza and made sure that menu was on the top.
Wray smiled to himself. His son had his first crush on his babysitter. Stacey would think it was adorable.
The doorbell rang before Stacey came downstairs. Wray let Emily in and thanked her for coming. Emily lived a few houses down from them and was a regular babysitter for the boys. She was fun and kind, but also responsible and considerate. She was always their first choice for babysitters.
Stacey hurried downstairs while Wray was talking to Emily. Stacey’s eyes were red and puffy. She was still avoiding Wray’s gaze. Tension coiled tighter and tighter inside him. He was running out of time.
Wray hurried upstairs and changed, then said goodbye to the boys and Emily and followed Stacey outside to his truck.
Their drive to Taylor’s was quiet. Wray tried to think of what to say to her, but nothing ever felt right.
They turned onto Taylor’s street, and Stacey finally said, “We need to talk.”
“Now? When we’re about to pull into the driveway?”
She looked through the windshield like she hadn’t realized where they were and shook her head. “No. Not now. Soon.”
“Okay,” Wray said. His time in front of the firing squad would be here soon. Dammit.
* * *
Stacey was happy to be home. Not that she didn’t love Taylor, but Taylor was convinced she could save Stacey and Wray’s marriage. Stacey appreciated her friend’s positivity, but Stacey wasn’t so sure. The biggest sticking point for her was her sons, which was why she wanted to talk to Wray about making a change to their situation. She didn’t know what, but him sleeping on the couch wasn’t working. They didn’t talk. They didn’t touch. They didn’t do anything. They were strangers under the same roof pretending to be married and in love for the rest of the world.
Stacey knew living a lie was not the way to go through life.
She was so sure after Holly’s funeral that ending things was the only option left, but every time she saw her husband, the idea wasn’t so solid. She couldn’t imagine her life without him, even if a life with him wasn’t much of a life.
Wray parked the truck in the driveway and got out without a word. He hadn’t tried talking to her lately. At first, he apologized at least once a day, but it had been months since he said he was sorry and weeks since he initiated a conversation about anything.
Wray unlocked the front door and stepped back to let Stacey go through first. Even if he wasn’t speaking to her, he was still the man she loved. That man was buried deep inside, but little things like that gave Stacey a glimmer of hope that if she could get past the hurt, maybe they could find their way back to each other.
Stacey unzipped her boots and set them on the rack, then hung her purse on the hook by the door. The house was quiet, telling her the boys were asleep. The TV flickered in the living room where Emily usually settled after the boys fell asleep.
Stacey walked into the living room and stopped. Instead of stretched out on the couch like normal, Emily was curled up in the lounge chair, her neck at an awkward angle. She didn’t look comfortable at all.
“Why is she in the chair?” Wray asked.
Stacey shook her head and walked over to Emily. She was close to Vera’s age, but the differences between the two girls’ situations was shocking. Stacey wished Vera could have the stable life Emily had.
Stacey put her hand on Emily’s shoulder and gently shook her, calling her name. “Emily. We’re home. Wake up.”
Emily stretched and blinked her eyes open. “Hey.” She rolled her neck and winced, rubbing the kink.
“Why aren’t you on the couch? That would have been more comfortable.”
Emily shrugged. “Joey wouldn’t let me sit there.”
“What? Why not?”
Emily nibbled her lip. Her gaze flickered between Stacey and Wray, then settled on her hands. “He said it was his daddy’s bed and I wasn’t allowed to sleep there or sit there.”
“He… What?” Stacey gasped. She thought they were hiding Wray sleeping on the couch from the boys. She thought they had no idea.
“Why don’t I walk you home?” Wray suggested to the silent room. It was their normal. Stacey checked on the boys and Wray walked Emily home and paid her. But nothing felt normal with that bombshell.
“Um, yeah. Thanks,” Emily said. She uncurled herself from the chair and gave Stacey a red-cheeked smile, then ducked her head and grabbed her shoes.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Wray said, although Stacey thought it was more for Emily’s benefit than hers.
The door closed behind them, and Stacey sank to the chair. Joey knew. And if Joey knew, then fixing things before the kids found out anything wasn’t an option. He already knew.
After a minute, Stacey forced herself to get up. She didn’t want to be sitting there when Wray got home. She wanted to be upstairs, in her room, hidden from her husband.
She checked in on the boys and kissed both their cheeks. She hurried to her room and changed into pajamas. She flushed the toilet just as the camera at the front door alerted her to Wray’s return. Stacey rushed to bed and jumped under the covers, turning away from the door and pretending to be asleep.
Wray came in a few minutes later. He called her name quietly, but she didn’t move. He sighed heavily, then opened and closed a drawer before closing himself in the bathroom. Stacey didn’t move until after he was out of the bathroom and his soft footsteps padded down the stairs.
She’d decide what to do tomorrow.