She sighed, folded her hands on the chest-high mahogany counter and studied the high-priced travel accessories under the glass.
Okay, she admitted, she was robbing Stuart blind, and probably deaf and dumb, too, but there seemed to be no alternative.
She watched the clerk scanning tag after tag on the heavy woolen sweaters and sturdy jeans that would serve her well in her new life in Montana. Stuart will have a fit when he gets these bills. Or a heart attack.
Well, she didn’t want that exactly. In fact, Laura wanted Stuart to live on and on. Live on, and be completely miserable with that piglet, Charlene. Laura smiled again, not quite so sadly.
Yeah. Wouldn’t it be just lovely if Charlene got fat, and Stuart got fatter? Yeah. Stuart would end up being the absentee father she’d always known he would be, and Charlene would morph into the whiny hag that lurked under that false-eyelashed facade.
A guilty frown replaced Laura’s smile. She couldn’t really wish for that. Unhappy parents wouldn’t be good for a child, and Laura truly loved kids. Unfortunately, nature had denied her the ability to bear one of her own.
And right there in the upscale sportswear shop, Laura’s eyes started to mist up. Because that was the reason Stuart was leaving her. At least that was her least-painful theory—that he’d only married her because she was a young sexy aerobics instructor who exuded health and…fertility.
When he discovered she wasn’t fertile, he’d moved on to the next sweet young thing—Charlene. Charlene, who was destined to be his fourth wife. Charlene, destined—Laura had learned only two days ago—to be the mother of the heir to the Crestwood fortune.
And that fortune, she’d learned later the same day, was now parked nineteen thousand miles off the coast of New Zealand. On the Cook Islands to be exact. In an offshore trust.
“Safeguarded,” Stuart had claimed, “from frivolous lawsuits.”
Safeguarded from Laura was what he meant. After splitting his assets with two previous wives, Stuart Crestwood the Third was not about to allow another divvying up.
“Fraud,” Laura’s attorney Irene had said as she studied the documents. “But no way to prove it. ‘Spouse of the Settlor’—very clever language.” She riffled the thick stack of pages with a thumb. “Your name isn’t anywhere in here.” Irene propped her elbows on her desk. “Face it, Laura. You will never get your hands on one penny of that nine million.”
Laura sighed, then shielded her eyes with a shaky hand. Alone and poor. Just the way she’d started. “Once, when I’d gotten to feeling so hollow, so dead, in this marriage, I actually asked Stuart for a divorce.”
“And?” Irene prompted.
“And he started yelling, saying stuff like, ‘You came into this marriage with nothing and, by God, you will leave it with nothing.”’
Irene shook her head and spread her palms over the compelling documents. “Unfortunately that was not an idle threat. It would take an entire law firm working full-time to beat this contract, not to mention your prenuptial agreement. Besides, Stuart keeps several big Dallas firms on retainer. None of them will touch your case. Let’s face it—Stuart has arranged things so that you can’t get at his assets no matter how costly a lawsuit you launch.”
Costly lawsuit? Laura couldn’t imagine how she was even going to pay Irene’s fee for this one brief consultation. Stuart had made certain he held all the purse strings.
The sportswear clerk coughed and looked at her apologetically. “Sorry this is taking so long, Mrs. Crestwood.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Laura flapped a dismissive hand at the pile. So many clothes! But she knew these things would have to last her a very long time. That was why she was buying the best.
She felt suddenly self-conscious, wondering if the young woman had noticed the tears in her eyes. She turned away, focusing on a nearby mirror, pretending to arrange her masses of blond curls.
How could you have been such a class-A idiot? she asked herself as she studied her reflection. No use mentally kicking herself for the millionth time for getting involved with a cold-hearted creep like Stuart Crestwood. She supposed she’d reaped exactly what she’d sown: all this stuff and not one shred of happiness.
When she met Stuart right after Gran had died, she’d naively thought he was the answer to a prayer. A handsome man, that powerful, that rich, interested in her, a girl barely out of her teens, a girl who couldn’t stick with anything, a—what had her second stepdad called her?—a dingbat.
Stuart had seemed so perfect, so together. Older. Wiser. Who would have guessed he was such a manipulator? Vicious. Cunning.
Thoughts of the real Stuart brought back the defiance Laura had felt that day in Irene’s office when she’d first gotten the bad news, when she’d first hatched this crazy plan.
She wasn’t going to wait for Stuart’s precious divorce to go through. She was leaving him. Without a trace. No lengthy, fruitless court battle like the other wives had fought. Not for her. All she wanted was a little boost to kickstart her new life, to help finance an education that would allow her to be self-supporting. This time she would create a life that was totally her own, without relying on Prince Charming to save her. Never again would she look to a man for security.
But her hand shook a little as she tucked a strand of fluffy hair behind one ear. She had never lived on her own, and she had never lived anywhere but Texas.
She was about to cry. “I’ll take these, too.” She added a pair of two-hundred-dollar sunglasses to the pile.
The clerk nodded and gave Laura a thin smile as the machine clicked and whirred obligingly, converting another little chunk of Stuart’s money into contraband for Laura’s flight to freedom.
“Do come back and see us again soon, Mrs. Crestwood,” the girl crooned as she slid the charge slip forward.
For a second, Laura wondered if she would miss that. Being Mrs. Stuart Crestwood, getting that reflected respect clerks showed when she whipped out a platinum card and signed that well-heeled last name, dropping a couple of grand as casually as if she was buying a pack of gum. Would she miss that? Without even checking the total, Laura scrawled Mrs. Stuart H. Crestwood.
Undoubtedly, in this radical new life she’d set up for herself, she would miss many things—the glittering social life, reported almost weekly in the Dallas Morning News; the mansion in Briarwood; never having to cook, clean or even run her own errands—but Stuart was not one of the things she would miss.
Her best friend, Janie, had urged her to “battle it out in court for any of the SOB’s money you can get. After all,” Janie had argued, “you’re already twenty-eight, honey, and even if you are petite and kind of…voluptuous, you’re no supermodel. You know what I mean? What are you going to do if you can’t find another man to support you? Spend your life working? Can you even imagine yourself being some…some secretary?”
Maybe Janie’s way was smarter. Maybe even easier. Laura was leaving Dallas unskilled and friendless—the future was so uncertain! But however uncertain, this way felt right to Laura. She would make a new life up north; she had to.
Laura gathered her bags of loot, feeling their weight and another twinge of guilt about the devious way she was doing this.
“Goodbye,” she told the clerk, and turned, wrapping her determination around herself like armor.
She’d be fine, somehow. Even if she ended up poor, it would be an honest poverty. Well, she’d make it honest. Eventually.
She crammed the sunglasses, with the tag still dangling from the earpiece, onto her nose, and marched out of the store with her chin up.
All that remained was to park her Mercedes convertible in an inconspicuous space in the crowded Wal-Mart lot, stuff her hair under the nondescript hat she’d just bought and call for a taxi.
Investment account, converted to cash.
Plane ticket, bought under an assumed name.
Mrs. Stuart Hayden Crestwood, vanished into thin air.
Four years later, fifty miles deep in the remote Kootenai National Forest of northwestern Montana
“THIS MAN IS IMPOSSIBLE.” Sylvia Summers, the nursing supervisor at Mountain Home Health Care, complained as she stood putting together a copy of a patient’s chart for Laura. “Even over the phone he comes across as brooding, wants everything his own way, including the exact timing of our visits. Can you imagine how hard it is to time our trips up to the Yakk River and then along that Sixteen Mile…cowpath to the exact hour? Why he chooses to live out there—”
“Even with all that money,” one of the field nurses interrupted as she scooted past Laura’s desk, “he lives an austere existence on the side of the mountain. Doesn’t even have a TV.”
“The man’s a hermit, who hardly speaks except to snap my nurses’ heads off,” Sylvia continued. “And he’s already run off two other physical therapists. Now it’s your turn.” She handed Laura the chart.
Another nurse peeked around the supply shelves and chimed in. “That chart should be labeled P.I.A., because if ever there was one, that guy’s a genuine pain in the—”
“I’ve handled P.I.A.’s before,” Laura answered quietly as she walked to her desk. And I’m an expert on rich, demanding men, she added to herself as she thought of Stuart Crestwood for the first time in ages. “Difficult patients don’t bother me. Remember Mr. Buchanan? Wouldn’t even get out of bed at first.” She sat down and pushed her glasses up on her nose, trying to focus her mind on the chart, in spite of the nurses’ discouraging verbal barrage.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Hon-nee child!” another nurse hooted. “Mr. Scott makes old man Buchanan seem like a sweet cuddly teddy bear.”
The others muttered their agreement.