Technically, I crashed box first.
“Cuss!” I pushed myself up, careful not to place my hand on any fragments of my great-grandmother's china, now decorating the driveway with sprays of delicate roses and gold leaf. My grandma had bestowed this set upon me at my bridal shower. While I'd sold our fancy Wedgwood to catch up on the electric bill, I'd dreamed of eating turkey dinners with my own grandkids off this set someday. Not anymore. As I lifted a busted box corner, a dozen smashed dinner plates spilled from their tissue wrappings to the ground. I cradled a teapot, now resembling a cracked egg. A gallon of superglue couldn’t put it back together again.
“Ivy, honey―any particular reason you're slinging tea sets at me?” As Melinda placed her hand on her hip, the glare from her diamond ring flashed like heat lightning.
I wiped the sweat from my upper lip, smearing a dirt mustache across my pale skin. My frizzy ponytail sprouted from a NASCAR cap I'd dug out of the garage. Dirt striped my tank top and my cut-offs sported a glaring hole in the rear. I hadn't bothered with makeup or razor blades for weeks, and blood oozed from my stubbly knee.
“Yeah, well, forget the Divorce Diet. The weight of widowhood can whittle any woman down to the nub.”
My days of whining about the treadmill were but a plodding memory. After enacting extreme austerity measures, I'd learned to vacuum my own pool, scrub all five bathrooms, and push my dad's old mower through the shin-high grass. My former country club buddies blanched behind their luxury SUV windows as they passed me by.
“His car. . . it must have hit a tree or something. It was on fire when I got here. It's bad, Ivy, real bad. The police said . . .” He began weeping into the phone. “I wanted to call you first. Just come. Meet us at the hospital. Oh, man . . . Ivy, I'm so damn sorry. I don't know what to—”
Oh, thank you, baby. “Be there in a sec, Brady,” I shouted back. “Sorry, but it seems my presence is required elsewhere. Enjoy your ... competition.”
“Mom?” My son appeared before me, his eyes remorseful, his hands stained. “Moe knocked over my juice. He didn't mean to. He's REALLY sorry.”
“Oh, buddy, it's okay.” I wrapped my arms around my son and his faithful companion, Moe the stuffed monkey. They were a two-for-one deal. Velcro kept Moe's furry brown arms and legs bound around my child every moment he was not submerged in water.
The family room looked like a murder scene. Splatters of cranberry juice doused the creamy carpet and pooled under the empty bottle.
Through the front windows, I watched as Melinda yapped away into her rhinestone-studded cell phone. She hadn't even made it to the end of the driveway before she broadcast the latest update on poor Ivy Branson and the depths to which she had fallen.
I filled two donation boxes with sooty souvenir glasses, award plaques, and travel guides. Fighting the urge to doodle devil horns on his framed celebrity-studded ego shots, I packed them away for Brady like a good mom instead. Every Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition from the last two decades was unceremoniously dumped into the recycling bin.
Why in the world had my husband needed a safe?
I hadn't a clue until I discovered my Escalade missing. I'd spun around the driveway, searching for the hulking SUV like it was a misplaced set of keys, before I freaked out and called the police. Hours later, I discovered it had not been stolen, but repossessed.
Repossessed. The word had ricocheted inside my head for days. People like us didn’t have things repossessed. I'd ignored Chet's calls and the pile of mail spilling off the counter for nearly two months. I couldn’t manage to dress myself most days, so how could I possibly hold a coherent financial discussion in Chet’s downtown office? After my SUV disappeared, I finally paid him a visit.
“I know you're still mourning, but I've been tempted to bang down your door to get ahold of you.” Chet had settled me into a leather chair facing his sleek desk.“We need to talk. Now, how much did Derek keep you in the loop regarding his business?”
I picked at the remnants of chipped polish on my fingernails. “He'd tell me about how his day went, what projects he was working on, but, honestly, I tuned out most of it. Roofing trusses and drywall never interested me―”
“What about the financial aspects?”
I shrugged. “I know the housing market stinks. Business was slow, but he said it would bounce back soon.”
Chet leaned across his desk, his smooth fingers folding together. “I apologize if this comes as a shock to you, but Branson Construction filed for bankruptcy three months ago.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out, not even a breath. My husband had never whispered a word about his business going under. Had I been so disconnected from reality—between the morning sickness, the nerves, and the eventual loss—that I hadn't even noticed if he'd gone to work each day? Was that why he'd insisted he wasn't ready for another baby?
“I’m afraid there's more. I’ve been reconciling your personal finances, trying to make heads or tails of the mess he left―”
“Mess? What mess? He just bought that BMW. We'd been planning a trip to Hawaii in June and . . .” I crumpled back into the chair. “Why is it all a mess?”
“You haven't checked your bank balance lately? Opened any mail? Received any alarming phone calls?”
I stared blankly at the bold Dali print hanging on the far wall, feeling like one of the surreal clocks melting into the void of hot desert sand. “What about all his life insurance policies?” I whispered. “I think he had a few.”
“One policy, worth ten grand, should be coming to you any day. It should just about cover the funeral expenses.” He paused and looked me dead in the eyes. “But the other policy―the five million dollar whole life account―was cashed out last year. I wholeheartedly would have advised him against that, had I know. The cash out value was nowhere near that much, of course, but, it’s gone.”
Gone, gone, gone. All our money had evaporated faster than a puddle on a sizzling summer day, leaving me gasping like a tadpole out of water. The real estate losses could be tracked. But where did the rest go? What else had my husband kept from me?
How about a big safe. His gut-punch from the grave.
Anger propelled me up to the keypad. How dare that man hide our money from me? He'd always used the same password for all his accounts. I punched each stupid digit in—11223344. The light on the top of the keypad flashed red. Crap. Okay, how about his birthday? Red light. My birthday? Red light. Brady’s birthday. Red light. Our anniversary, his mother’s birthday, our ages, home address, phone numbers, social security numbers―every time that blasted red dot vexed me like an eternal stoplight.
What was his password? I yanked each hand-mitered drawer from his desk, searching for a paper taped in a recess, feeling for any strange notches accessing a secret compartment. Slamming the last drawer to the floor, I collapsed beside the packed recycling bin. Tears of frustration blurred my vision.
“Curse you, Derek. What is your code?”
The perfect body. Derek had been slightly obsessed with it. While he paid for me to fill out the 36 on top, I never achieved the exalted 24-inch waist or 36-inch hips. 36-24-36. I sprang to my feet and punched in the numbers, gawking with disbelief as the light flashed green. I wiped my eyes, took a deep breath, and opened the safe.
No stacks of cash spilled out of the cool metal hollow. No diamonds, velveteen boxes of gems, or gold coins hid within the void. Where I should have found something expensive, illicit, worthy of such stealth, I found only a sheet of paper and an envelope tucked under a ring of keys.
Looping my finger through the ring, I lifted the keys into the light. My fingers traced each crook, searching for glimmers of recognition. The first key was utterly nondescript, like any house key, anywhere. The second had jagged teeth and a number etched on the oval head. The third was small, brassy, and beat up. I had never seen them before.
Amante paid off. Used cash from your account.
Nothing was attached. It was dated two weeks before his death.
I let the paper flutter to the desk before I grabbed the blank envelope. Its flap sliced me, a sentry protecting its contents. Whipping my finger to my lips, I smoothed the letter upon the desk with my trembling left hand.
The air heaved out of my lungs, like a football had slammed dead center into my chest. I teetered against his desk, then sank to the floor before my legs gave out.
Who in the world was Bella?
And who was my husband?