By Sandra Brown
Read by Kyf Brewer
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Former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Zach Bridger hasn’t seen his ex-wife, Rebecca Pratt, for some time—not since their volatile marriage imploded—so he’s shocked to receive a life-altering call about her. Rebecca has been placed on life support after a violent assault, and he—despite their divorce—has medical power-of-attorney. Zach is asked to make an impossible choice: keep her on life support or take her off of it. Buckling under the weight of the responsibility and the glare of public scrutiny, Zach ultimately walks away, letting Rebecca's parents have the final say.
Four years later, Rebecca's attacker, Eban—the scion of a wealthy family in Atlanta—gets an early release from prison. The ludicrous miscarriage of justice reeks of favoritism, and Kate Lennon, a brilliant state prosecutor, is determined to put him back behind bars. Rebecca’s parents have kept her alive all these years, but if her condition were to change—if she were to die—Eban could be retried on a new charge: murder.
It isn’t lost on Zach that in order for Eban to be charged with Rebecca’s murder, Zach must actually be the one to kill her. He rejects Kate’s legal standpoint but can’t resist their ill-timed attraction to each other. Eban, having realized the jeopardy he’s in, plots to make certain that neither Zach nor Kate lives to see the death of Rebecca—and the end of his freedom.
The blowout was in full swing.
It had gotten off to a comparably moderate start at around ten o’clock. By midnight, boundaries of behavior had begun to wobble under the influence of liquor, controlled substances, and carnality.
By now, in the wee hours, any semblance of civilization had been abandoned. More guests than not had discarded articles of clothing. All had thrown off their inhibitions. Rap pounded from speakers discreetly hidden throughout the stately home, making it seem as though the walls themselves were secreting the cacophony. It thumped through the otherwise decorous Buckhead neighborhood. For hours, that precinct of the Atlanta P.D. had been kept busy taking noise complaint calls.
The host of the bacchanal had issued a blanket invitation. The majority of revelers overflowing his house were strangers to him, including the young woman who’d offered her inner thigh as the surface from which he was snorting a line of cocaine.
For a while now, the two of them had been lounging on a sofa in a relatively private corner, sharing not only a vial of the white powder but also a bottle of vodka. The latter had been the source of numerous phallic innuendos.
If she’d ever told him her name, he was too stoned to remember. When he’d asked her what she did, as in a vocation, she’d replied, “This.”
Perfect. She was here to have a good time, and that happened to be his specialty.
She was a looker. She had dark eyes, which were heavily lined like Cleopatra’s. Her hair was black and sleek, worn perfectly straight and long enough to almost reach her oh-so-smokin’ ass. Plush breasts were on display above the low, loose neckline of her slinky dress. The fabric was gold and shimmery and so gossamer-sheer that her areolae showed through.
When he’d complimented her on the dress, she’d told him she’d worn it “on the red carpet,” but he didn’t know which red carpet, and didn’t care. From his vantage point as he sniffed the remaining cocaine, he enjoyed the view beneath her short skirt all the way up.
This girl had a spirit of adventure and no modesty.
He inhaled deeply, then sat up, flung his head back, and shouted an obscenity toward the ceiling to express his ecstasy.
She giggled and took a drink from the bottle of vodka as she slid her bare foot up his thigh, stopping just short of her toes touching his crotch. “While you were down there, did you peek?”
“What do you think?” He grinned. “I’m a naughty boy.”
“Naughty boys are just my thing.”
She raised her pair of perfectly shaped brows.
He laughed. “Then you’re going to love us.”
He looked around for his two best friends and spotted them across the room at the food buffet, which looked like it had been plundered by a wolf pack. A naked girl was curled up asleep on a bed of lettuce where chilled shrimp had been earlier. His friends were garnishing her slumbering form with leftover slices of citrus.
“Come with me,” he said, taking Cleopatra’s hand.
She resisted. Reclining against the sofa cushions, she raised one knee and swayed it back and forth as she whined, “What’s wrong with right here?”
“Too public.” He hauled her up and caught her around the waist when she swayed against him.
As they walked toward the buffet table, she looked over her shoulder. “I left my sandals.”
“They’ll be fine. I want you to meet my friends.” When they reached the table, he said, “Boys, we’re going upstairs for some grown-up fun and games. Wanna come?” He laughed. “No pun intended.”
With glazed eyes, the two looked Cleopatra over. The tall blond, who had a drowsy smile that women found irresistible, drawled, “Sure.”
The other looked down at the girl sleeping among the lettuce. “What about her?”
“You can come back for her later,” the host said. “If you have the energy.”
“You won’t,” Cleopatra purred, tiptoeing her fingers up his sleeve. “I can go all night.”
“My kind of girl,” said the handsome blond.
She gave him the look most women did, like she wanted to lick him all over. “We’re gonna have fun.”
The host felt a pang of jealousy, but another line of coke and a swig of vodka would take care of it. He would be the one Cleopatra remembered from tonight, not his irresistible buddy.
“I left the coke on the table over there. Go get it and her sandals,” he said to the third man. “We’ll take the elevator. I don’t trust any of us trying to climb the stairs.”
The cocaine and gold sandals were retrieved. The quartet threaded their way through other guests who were either already passed out or engaged in their own debauchery.
The elevator was situated beneath the sweeping staircase and was for the private use of the homeowner. It was built seamlessly and invisibly into the paneling. It was small. The four of them crowded in, which required sandwiching Cleopatra’s curvy body between the host and the blond. The third wrapped them in a group hug.
The ride to the second floor was brief. They piled out of the elevator and staggered their way down the wide hallway to the bedroom. The host went in first, then bowed at the waist and gestured them all in with a wide sweep of his arm. He shut the door and locked it.
He turned Cleopatra to face him and, smiling, said, “Our games have only one rule. I call the shots.”
She slid the skinny straps of her dress off her shoulders and let it slither down her body to the floor, then walked naked across the room and stretched out on the bed, arms extended above her head. “Fire away.”
Zach Bridger’s life was upended while in the Cayman Islands, sitting at the pool bar, sipping a cold beer, and chillin’ to Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
It was only eight-thirty in the morning, but his date-of-the-week had wanted to claim an ideal spot for sunbathing the day away, so she’d dragged him out of bed early. Other guests at the swanky resort must’ve been of the same mind. A line had formed for the breakfast buffet at the open-air restaurant, and the bar itself was doing a lively business.
“Isn’t that your ex?”
Zach, who’d been enjoying the array of lubricated female flesh around the swimming pool, turned toward the bartender, who hitched his goatee up toward the TV, where a photo of Rebecca dominated the upper right-hand corner of the screen behind the anchorwoman’s shoulder.
An indifferent grunt was Zach’s response to both the bartender’s question and the picture. He couldn’t attach the word “wife” to the woman beguiling the camera with her sloe eyes. It escaped him how he could have pledged his everlasting love, honor, and fidelity to her. Neither of them had kept the vows. He had, however, endowed Rebecca with a helluva lot of his worldly goods.
He said, “Best years of my life have been the five since our divorce.”
“Hear ya.” The bartender gave him a kindred grin. “It’s been three since mine.” He reached for Zach’s plastic glass and topped it off from the beer tap, then glanced over his shoulder at the TV, which now featured another picture of Rebecca. “Recently she’s been hanging with a hockey player. One of those without any vowels in his name.”
“Pity the poor bastard,” Zach said.
The bartender chuckled. “I think they’ve split.”
“I don’t keep up.”
Zach hadn’t seen Rebecca in the flesh since she’d flounced out of the divorce court. She’d left through the front entrance to endear herself to the paparazzi waiting there, while his lawyer had sneaked him out through a rear exit to avoid them.
Occasionally, by accident, he’d catch a mention of her on one of those hyperactive, celeb-tracking shows. She was usually featured as a gorgeous accessory draped over the arm of a guy who was trending on social media.
The bartender wiped up a spill. “You must’ve whetted her appetite for professional athletes.”
Zach saluted the bartender with his fresh beer.
“We’re supposed to be cool with celebrity guests. Not make a big deal, you know. But I have to tell you, I’m a huge fan.”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” The bartender produced a ballpoint. Zach pulled a cocktail napkin from the holder on the bar and scrawled his autograph on it.
With sleight of hand, the bartender pocketed the signed napkin. “Thanks, man.”
Zach was tipping the glass of beer toward his mouth when he saw that the images on the TV had changed. Now live video was being transmitted from either a drone or a helicopter as it circled above what appeared to be a sprawling private estate, currently encircled by police cars and emergency vehicles. Rebecca’s name still appeared in the bulletin scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
Zach set down his beer and slid his sunglasses onto the top of his head. “Turn up the sound, please.”
The bartender did as requested, upping the volume enough for the anchorwoman to be heard above “Good Vibrations.”
She was saying, “Authorities have told us that the nine-one-one call came in at three-oh-eight this morning, but the caller has yet to be identified.”
Zach and the bartender exchanged a look. Zach got up from his barstool and moved around behind the bar in order to better see and hear.
“First responders arrived at the Clarke mansion within thirteen minutes of the nine-one-one and found Rebecca Pratt in an upstairs guest bedroom. We don’t have details yet, but her condition has been described as unresponsive. She was taken to Emory University Hospital, but there’s been no word on either the cause or seriousness of her condition.
“Investigators are at the scene, questioning everyone who was attending the party at the lavish home. It’s estimated there were between forty and sixty guests. Police report that illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia were found in various rooms of the mansion. Foul play has not been ruled out.
“Rebecca Pratt, often seen on red carpets with high-profile personalities, has remained single since her bitter divorce in 2017 from Super Bowl MVP quarterback Zach Bridger, who as yet has been unavailable for comment. We’ll bring you updates on this breaking story as we get them. Now, we’ll turn to the political brouhaha being raised in Washington over comments made by—”
Zach took the remote from the bartender and clicked off the audio. The Beach Boys had given way to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” but nearby activity had been suspended and conversations had ceased.
Zach became aware that he had the undivided attention of everyone in the immediate area.
He came out from behind the bar, replaced his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, and avoided making direct eye contact with anyone. He and Rebecca had walked away from their brief but tumultuous marriage without looking back. But it seemed that nobody else was willing to let it go.
She’d reverted to using her maiden name, but their names were still linked, and rarely was one of them mentioned in the media without a reference being made to the other, like it or not. He didn’t like it. In fact, he hated it like hell because her current reputation was an ongoing embarrassment to him. But there it was: the price of fame.
Even though he had to dig deep to find any emotion beyond indifference toward her, he had never wished her ill. “Unresponsive” didn’t sound good at all. He wandered back toward the pool, trying to remember where he’d deposited his date-of-the-week, trying to remember her name.
He finally spotted her chatting up a slender, hairless Euro type in a Speedo, who was half reclined on the chaise next to hers, which Zach had vacated not twenty minutes earlier.
As he wended his way around other sunbathers toward them, his cell phone rang. He was often razzed about never being without it. It was an extension of his hand.
Recognizing an Atlanta area code, he figured it was a news outlet who’d bribed his number out of somebody. Likely they would want a sound bite from him regarding Rebecca and what was certain to be today’s lead story.
In his mind, he formed something appropriate to say, something to which no one could take exception, something conveying concern but disconnection. He thumbed on his phone.
“This is Zach.”
Within thirty seconds, he wished he’d never answered that call.
It took him almost twelve hours to get from the hotel swimming pool on Grand Cayman to the hospital in Atlanta.
He didn’t feel too bad about abandoning his date; she and the Speedo seemed to be hitting it off. He told her to enjoy the rest of her stay and to charge everything to his credit card the hotel had on file. He tipped the concierge three hundred bucks to get him a seat on the next flight to the States and to book ground transportation at both ends.
The car that had been arranged to meet him at ATL was an innocuous black sedan. After the mandatory greeting, the driver, who’d already been told which building of the medical complex where Zach was to be dropped, sensed his passenger’s disinclination to chat during the drive from the airport.
Zach had braced himself for a chaotic scene, but there was even more pandemonium than he’d anticipated. It was escalated by his arrival. As soon as he was seen getting out of the car, the media throng waiting outside the main entrance converged on him with the impetus of a tidal wave, or more like a school of sharks that had smelled fresh blood.
“Zach, when did you hear?”
“Was it a drug overdose?”
“Was she depressed over her recent breakup with—”
The female reporter shouted a name that sounded foreign and like it didn’t have any vowels. Zach kept his head down and didn’t even deign to say “no comment” to the barrage of questions. He plowed through the reporters and videographers until, through the glass doors of the entrance, he spotted Bing.
Ned “Bing” Bingham had coached him at Clemson. The bond they’d forged there had grown even stronger when Zach went pro. Now retired, Bing was still his go-to person whenever the shit hit the fan.
He saw Bing bark an order to the uniformed men guarding the door. Like most people did when Bing barked an order, the officers hopped to. They opened the door for Zach and he squeezed through, leaving the news throng outside disappointed, but all the more frenzied.
His showing up here had added considerable spice to the story, catapulted it into the stratosphere of the sensational. Ordinarily he took the media’s insatiable appetite for buzz in stride. But these circumstances weren’t ordinary, and he resented like hell the intrusion, not only into his privacy, but into that of Rebecca and her parents.
He thanked the officers who’d allowed him in, then went over to his friend and mentor. “You’re a welcome sight, Bing.”
“Not you. You look like hell.”
“Feel like it. An administrator of something or other here at the hospital called, said I had to get here ASAP.”
Bing nodded glumly. “Fourth floor.”
He motioned Zach toward the bank of elevators. As they strode across the lobby, Zach was aware of people blatantly holding up their phones, cameras trained on him. Every move, every expression, anything he said or did would be orbiting in cyberspace within seconds.
He and Bing got into the elevator alone. When the doors closed, he said, “Thanks for coming.”
Bing frowned, although his face was so leathered and creased, it was hard to distinguish one expression from another. “I texted you to expect me.”
“I saw, but my phone was blowing up, so I stopped even looking. I’m damn glad you’re here.”
“You’re in a shit show. Where else would I be?”
His familiar gruffness was comforting. “Do you know what happened?”
Bing shook his head. “Either nobody knows yet, or they aren’t saying.”
“Eban, son of Sid. Bigwig locally. Big rich on anybody’s list. Eban was with Rebecca in that bedroom when she lost consciousness.”
“News labeled her unresponsive.”
Bing shot him a bleak look. “While waiting on you to get here, I got those cops guarding the door to talking. Some of them had talked to the EMTs who brought her in. What they said was, her heart’s still beating.”
Zach said nothing, waiting in dread of hearing the rest.
Bing sighed. “But it looked to them like all the lights upstairs had gone out for good.”
Zach covered his mouth with his hand. “Jesus.”
Zach looked at the lighted panel beside the elevator door. They were passing the third floor, so he spoke with urgency. “The administrator who called me referred to a document.”
“Medical Power of Attorney.”
“Rebecca and I divorced five years ago. That should have automatically canceled it. How’s it still valid?”
“I don’t know, Zach, but her daddy has a copy of it, and he’s waving it around and frothing at the mouth.”
The elevator began to slow. Zach said quickly, “Boil it down for me.”
Bing looked at him with pity. “Boiled down, the decision of whether or not to take Rebecca off life support falls to you.”
Four years later…
This morning, Zach’s view of the waterfall was spectacular.
After one of the wettest North Carolinian summers on record, the falls were gushing an enormous amount of water down the rocky mountainside into the river two hundred fifty feet below. Sunlight shining through the overspray created a rainbow.
He stood on the very edge of the cliff, staring out across the wide chasm between him and the falls. Overnight, a storm had brought with it heavy rain. The ground beneath the multilayered, multicolored carpet of recently fallen leaves was so saturated it squished beneath the soles of his hiking boots.
But the weather front had moved on east, leaving the sky a crystal-clear blue. The air was crisp and chilly. He smelled woodsmoke and spotted a wisp of it curling up out of a chimney on the opposite side of the gorge. A dense forest of dark evergreens blanketed the mountainside. Hardwoods at their autumn peak added vibrant splashes of color.
Cruelly reminding him that it was football season.
His decline as a player had started four years ago with that fateful telephone call about Rebecca. Two years later, he’d hit rock bottom and had gotten booted from the sport entirely. The bite of regret was still sharp.
He cursed into the coffee mug he raised to his mouth. Steam rising from it momentarily blurred his view, but the distant roar of the waterfall didn’t drown out the sound of an approaching vehicle.
An SUV pulled to a stop just beyond the stacked river rock pillars flanking his front walkway. For the curving, climbing roads in this mountainous region, nearly everybody who lived around here owned some model of utility vehicle.
But this one wasn’t standard issue. It was new and sported an optional matte black grille and matching wheels. They screamed Watch out. I’m a badass.
Zach gave a snuffle of disdain for such an obvious attempt to intimidate him. He’d spent three-quarters of his life averting defensive players who had one steely purpose: to put the quarterback out of commission. He hadn’t been easy to sack. He still wasn’t. Whoever this hustler was, no matter how glib the sales pitch, his answer would still be no.
She got out. She.
The first three envoys dispatched by GreenRidge Incorporated had been good-ol’-boy, favorite uncle types who’d waxed nostalgic about Zach’s glory days on the gridiron.
When the folksy approach failed, they’d sent a cool dude in a sports car and aviator sunglasses, oozing expensive fragrance and bullshit in equal portions.
The next had been a fifty-something, maternal type who offered to make him pot roast on Sunday. Then an attractive divorcée who was trying to make it on her own with two kids to put through college and an ex always late on child support checks. Her blatant appeal to Zach’s softer side failed.
She’d been followed by a babe. He suspected she was being paid by the hour rather than working on commission, because her none too subtle body language had telegraphed Sign on the dotted line and I’m yours for the asking. He’d turned down both the contract and her favors.
And now here came the babe’s successor. Her arrival was spoiling his peaceful morning, but he was curious to see what tack this one would take. He set his coffee mug on the tree stump he’d created for just that purpose and folded his arms across his chest.
She came around the hood of her SUV and smiled at him. “Mr. Bridger? Zachary Bridger? Good morning.”
“It’s not for sale.”
Even now with the rock pillars, she drew up short between them and shook her head slightly. “Pardon me?”
“It’s not for sale. So you’d just as well leave before you get permanently stuck.” He gestured toward her feet where the heels of her stilettos had sunk into the waterlogged strip of ground between the paving stones.
She didn’t seem particularly troubled by her predicament. Nor was she deterred. She pulled first one heel out of the mud, then the other, and proceeded on tiptoe, which had to have been difficult, considering the height of the heels.
They didn’t contribute all that much to her stature, however. When she reached him, she had to tilt her head far back in order to look into his face. People usually did. But she had to tip her head back at a steeper angle than most.
“Mr. Bridger, my name is Kate Lennon.”
She handed him a business card. He took it from her but didn’t bother to look at it before slipping it into the pocket of his flannel shirt. He also ignored the right hand she extended for him to shake.
“When are you people going to give up?” He gestured broadly at the vista. “Why would I want to leave this?”
She pulled her hand back and took in the panorama, spending several seconds on the waterfall alone before coming back to him. “I can’t imagine that you would. It’s breathtaking.”
“Right. More importantly, it’s mine, and it will stay mine till the day I die. Got that?”
If her recoil was any indication, she had. Good. Point made.
But her reaction also made him feel like he’d slapped a fairy. The pixie haircut, heart-shaped face, and all. And the constant whoosh of the waterfall was no excuse for his raised voice. Not entirely anyway. “Look, I don’t want to be rude, but—”
“But you are. Being rude, that is.” She plucked a sealed gray envelope from her oversize shoulder bag. “Personally, I take no offense, but, under the circumstances, your rudeness is grossly misplaced.”
She pushed the envelope at him with the snapping precision of a Pro Bowl center. He caught it against his chest to prevent a fumble.
She said, “The envelope contains several documents, but of particular importance is—”
“I’ve seen them.”
“Yes, but it’s been a while.”
“I’ve got a good memory.”
“Excellent. It will serve—”
He ripped the envelope in two, documents and all, and dropped the halves to the ground.
Slowly she lowered her head and looked down at them, and then with the same lack of haste raised her head and met his unyielding gaze with her own.
And he’d thought the sky was crystal clear blue.
She said, “Tomorrow morning at ten o’clock.”
He shifted his feet into a wider, more assertive stance, which was wasted because she’d already turned her back on him. “Tomorrow at ten, what?”
“We’ll meet. The location is handwritten on the back of my business card. Room two-oh-three.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
He wanted to add one more line, something with a bit more of a sting, but he was distracted by her calf muscles, which were well defined and strong enough to keep her balanced as she covered the distance back to her SUV on tiptoe.
And he looked at her butt. PC or no PC, he still had a pair, and they worked.
- "A masterful storyteller."—USA Today
- "One of the best thriller writers around, period."—Providence Journal
- "Brown deserves her own genre."—Dallas Morning News
- "A novelist who can't write them fast enough."—San Antonio Express-News
- On Sale
- Aug 16, 2022
- Hachette Audio