a-dangerous-widow-3

A Dangerous Widow

By

Christina Ross

PROLOGUE

New York City

October

Just hours before his brutal and unexpected death, Michael Stone woke to greet the day just as he had every day since he’d married Kate seven years ago—with optimism, with a hunger to tackle the day head on and to see what would come of it, and with the same burning sense of love he had for his wife.

In the master suite of their Park Avenue townhouse, he looked over at the clock on the bedside table and then turned onto his side, came up close behind Kate, kissed her on the base of the neck, and held her next to him as she woke up.

“It can’t be morning yet,” she said.

“Like clockwork, the globe has turned.”

“Didn’t we just go to bed?”

“Technically, we went to bed around eleven. But in reality, we went to sleep around twelve-thirty. You know, after I had my way with you.”

“That was nothing short of a marathon.”

“It was meant to be one. And let’s just call this day what it is—a celebration. StoneTech remains mine. Thank God I didn’t sell it.”

When she turned to face him, Michael thought how beautiful she was, even fresh from the throes of sleep. He watched her sweep her long brown hair away from her face before she leaned in to kiss him.

“Sorry about the morning breath,” she said when they parted. Her brown, almond-shaped eyes sparkled at him. “But consider it my gift to you—if you weren’t awake before, you certainly are now.”

“I’d exchange morning breath with you any day, love. And Kate, I want to thank you again for listening to me over the past week, and for helping me come to the decision I made.”

“You made the right call, Michael. I know how difficult it was for you to do what you did, but in the end, StoneTech is your baby. You’re the one who built it into what it is today. You’re the one who created a company that apparently everyone wants, and for good reason. You’ve turned it into a billion-dollar powerhouse. Let’s just be grateful that you never took the company public, because if you had, anyone with serious capital reserves—such as Apple, for instance—could have come in with an aggressive takeover strategy, and you’d be dealing with a whole host of other problems right now. I know that yesterday was hard on you because you let down two of your closest friends, but in comparison to a hostile takeover, that was minor. At least all you had to do was to give them an honest explanation for why you weren’t going to sell StoneTech, and then walk away from the deal that they proposed to you.”

“The deal that I’d pretty much promised them would happen,” he said.

“You had the right to change your mind. But I get it. I understand how you feel about letting people down, especially when it comes to Mark and Tom. They thought that everything was set to go. Legal was present, the papers had been drawn up, and everyone was excited for the buyout to happen. But in the end? It was your choice not to sign those papers. Yours hardly is the first deal to fall through in this city, that’s for sure. And it won’t be the last. We both know it—and so do they.”

She kissed him again on the lips. “How about some coffee?”

“I’d love some coffee.”

“Then let me make us both a cup. Because with the slate of meetings I have in front of me today—and after what you did to me last night—let’s just say that this girl needs one. Or three. Probably three.”

She slid out of bed, and he admired her naked body as she crossed the room with the same unaffected confidence that had attracted him to her the moment they first met in grad school at NYU.

Back then, each had been pursuing their graduate degrees in business, and when they met, the mutual attraction was as swift as it was powerful. Two years later, the summer after they graduated, they married in a small ceremony that included only family and close friends, because, at that point in their lives, they were so broke, they couldn’t afford a large wedding.

Each had hailed from modest backgrounds, and with hefty student loan debts hovering over them, there literally was no money for the sort of big, expensive wedding Michael wished he could have given Kate.

And look at us now, he thought as he watched her slip into a silky white robe. Christ, we’re lucky.

At thirty, Kate Stone was a senior vice president of finance for Bank of America in Manhattan. At thirty-one, Michael headed a multi-billion-dollar company that had made its fortune on the encryption software he’d written and perfected. It was now considered the industry standard in data protection.

StoneTech had been revising and selling versions of its software for the past seven years. Its clients included the government, the banking, insurance, medical, retail, and hospitality industries, as well as the airline industry, the global marketplace in its many forms, and also a whole host of other corporations and businesses that needed to ensure their clients that their personal data was locked down.

That’s where StoneTech shined—and that’s where Michael Stone had made his unlikely fortune in only a matter of a few short years. It was his deep affection for what he’d built that had stopped him from signing over his company—despite the three billion dollars he would have reaped in the process.

Neither he nor Kate denied that the lure of that kind of money was enticing. But the more he thought about the deal and giving up StoneTech—and the more he talked to Kate, who was against it because she thought that he’d eventually come to regret it—the more he realized that she was right. He would come to regret it.   Until he and Kate decided to have children, which each wanted sooner rather than later, StoneTech was his child for now. With new software in the works, there was a whole host of other opportunities to explore that excited him.

He wondered what he would have done with his life if he’d sold it. Since the contract had carried with it a non-compete clause, he couldn’t have designed a better version of his encryption software. So, where would he have gone next? Where would he have fit in? How could he ever duplicate that kind of success? Knowing that he couldn’t unnerved him, and so, with Kate’s support, he decided to keep the company, despite the anger and disappointment of too many people to count.

“Meet me in the kitchen?” Kate said from the bedroom door.

“Right behind you.”

She winked at him. “Just not behind me like you were last night, OK?”

“I can’t promise you that,” he said. “Not when you’re looking like that.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

After Kate had showered and dressed, and was ready to leave for work, Michael stood in the townhouse’s grand entryway in nothing but his boxer shorts with their towering Great Dane, Bruiser, sitting by his side.

Each watched her come down the curving staircase.

She was wearing a fitted black business suit, her long hair had been whipped up behind her head in a tight chignon, and the only jewelry she wore were her wedding and engagement rings and the diamond solitaire earrings he’d purchased for her last Christmas. He thought she looked beautiful.

When she saw him, she just stopped mid-staircase and looked down at him.

“How can you stand there looking like that?” she said. “You know I can’t handle seeing you like that. You’ve been spending so much time in the gym lately, I’ve become a wanton woman. Look at how ridiculous your pecs have become—and those abs. And then there’s your curly head of black hair, which you know I want to rake my fingers through. You’re nothing short of a tease, Michael Stone. And it’s not fair.”

“Maybe I’m trying to convince you to stay home with me…”

She grinned when he said that, and then started down the stairs again, her black briefcase swinging at her side.

“I wish I could, but today is so jam-packed with meetings, I already know that it’s going to be the day from hell. I can sense it. In fact, it’s probably going to be worse than I imagine because I know whom I’m dealing with at those meetings.”

“Well, that’s just another good reason to stay home.”

“Believe me when I say that I wish I could.” She furrowed her brow at him. “Lydia comes today, doesn’t she?”

“She does.”

“And thank God for that! When she cleans, would you mind asking her to leave my office the way it is? I know that it’s a hot mess, but in that mess, I also know exactly where everything is. And since I’m in the middle of writing up an important report, there are post-it notes everywhere with items that I need to include in that report. I’ll straighten things up before she comes next week. Tell her that’s a promise, even though she’ll already know that I’ll probably fail to pull through. Still, I’ll try.”

“You’ve got it.”

“You know, I’m glad that you’re staying home today,” she said as she crossed over to him and placed the palm of her hand against his cheek. “I know the workaholic in you wants to get back at it, but you need this day for yourself, if only to decompress from yesterday. Read a book. Watch a movie. Take Bruiser out for a walk—he could use one, and so could you, if only to clear your mind. And, please, forget about the upcoming takeover of MicroCom—that’s weeks away at this point, and you don’t need to be thinking about it. Even though I know you will. Still, after what you went through yesterday, you should try to do your best to relax, OK?”

“I’ll do my best. I love you, Kate.”

“I love you more than you’ll ever know—and I mean that from the bottom of my soul. I don’t know what I’d ever do without you.”

“I can say the same.”

When he said that, Bruiser, who long had been jealous of their relationship, made a low growling sound deep in his throat and stomped his foot on the parquet floor.

“And I love you, too, my giant Bruiser,” Kate said as she scratched his head and rubbed the steel-gray fur beneath his jaw. “Where would we be without you?”

The dog barked.

“Exactly,” she said. “So, keep your father company today, OK?”

The dog stomped his foot again.

“That’s a good boy. You’ve always been the best boy. And since you’ve put your foot down, I’m going to take that as a ‘yes.’”

“Dinner out tonight?” Michael asked.

“Absolutely. I’m up for anything, because the last thing I’ll want to do when I come home is cook.” She reached down, pulled back the waistband of his boxers, and released it so it slapped against his skin. “But just make sure that you’re properly dressed, stud. Otherwise, you might be the main course. Now, give me a kiss. I should leave.”

When they kissed, it was just like it always was before either of them headed off for work—quick and light so that Kate wouldn’t ruin her lipstick and his lips wouldn’t become stained with it. It was a kiss meant to begin their day, as well as a promise that they’d see each other at the end of the day.

But this time that didn’t happen. Though neither knew it, this kiss would mark the end of their lives together.

Michael stood alongside Bruiser and watched Kate sweep through the front door and into a blinding burst of sunlight. When the door clicked shut behind her, he looked down at Bruiser and said, “You see—I miss her already. But then, I always do regardless of how busy the day is.” He patted the top of Bruiser’s head. “Let’s get you something to eat.”

Less than two hours later, Michael Stone was dead.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The news came just before nine-thirty.

Kate was preparing to attend her first meeting of the day when her secretary, Carrie, came to her door looking shaken. The fingertips of her right hand were pressed against her lips. Her green eyes—usually so striking, and sometimes filled with mischief and good humor because they had become good friends over the years—were bright with a look of horror, grief, and loss. She was trembling.

“Kate,” she said.

Kate got up from her desk and came around it. “Carrie, what’s wrong? Why do you look so upset? What’s happened? Is it Charlie? Is he all right?”

Charlie was Carrie’s husband, who was undergoing chemo to battle leukemia. She moved to speak, but despite the effort she made, no words would come.

“We’ll take it from here, ma’am.”

In a haze, Kate watched Carrie step aside as two police officers—one male, one female, each with their hats held in their hands—stepped into the doorway.

Take over what from here? Kate thought as she faced them. And why are their hats in their hands? As fear grabbed hold of her heart, she thought, What is this? What’s happened…?

“Kate Stone?” the female officer said.

When she spoke, she became aware that her body was suddenly thrumming with anxiety. Was this somehow about her parents? Had something happened to either one of them? They were in their late-seventies, after all, and neither was in the best of health. Was that what this was about? Had one of them died? But if that were the case, then why were the police involved? It made no sense. Just beyond the officers, she saw that some of her colleagues had stopped in the hallway outside of her office—and like Carrie, they also looked as if they were in a state of shock.

“Yes, I’m Kate Stone,” she said in a voice that was stronger than she felt. “Why are you here? What’s happened?”

The woman looked over at Carrie, who had gone pale.

“Might we have a moment alone with Ms. Stone?”

“She’s a friend of mine,” Kate said. “I’d like her to stay. Carrie?”

“Of course I’ll stay with you, Kate.”

“Then for your own privacy, I believe that we should at least come inside and shut the door behind us,” the woman said. “Please trust me on this.”

“Trust you on what?” Kate said, realizing that her voice had become unnaturally high.

When the woman shut the door behind them, Carrie came over to her side and took her by the arm.

“Ms. Stone,” the policewoman said.

Mrs. Stone,” Kate corrected.

“Of course,” the woman said, and when she said that, Kate caught the woman glance up at her partner, whose face was grim. “Mrs. Stone, I’m afraid that there’s been an accident that involves your husband.”

“An accident?” she said. “Is Michael hurt? I just left him two hours ago.”

“There is no easy way to say this…”

Oh, my God…

“I’m sorry to be the one giving you this news…”

This can’t be happening…

“But your husband is dead, Mrs. Stone. By all accounts, it appears to have been an accident—”

The woman might have said more, but Kate didn’t hear it. Instead, the last thing she remembered was the swell of darkness that overcame her as she fainted and fell to the floor.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The rest of the day was a horrible blur.

She only remembered pieces of the block of time that came after she got the news about Michael—being escorted out of the Bank of America Tower, the press that were waiting outside to take her photograph as she was ushered into one of the waiting police cruisers, and then the even larger swarm of media who were waiting for her at Michael’s and her townhouse on Park.

Dead, she thought, still unable to comprehend it. Somehow, Michael is dead. How can this be? How could this have happened?

“We’ll get you into your home as swiftly as possible,” the female officer said as she placed a hand on Kate’s arm. The woman was sitting in the back of the cruiser next to her. What had she said her name was? Officer Ward? Kate was in such a state of shock, she couldn’t remember. She looked out the car’s front and side windows, saw photographers taking shots of her, and somehow came back into herself despite the fact that she felt faint again.

“Are you with me?” the woman asked again.

“Get me inside,” Kate said. “They’ve already stolen enough of me.”

“Then take my hand,” the officer said in a kind voice that Kate registered as genuine. “We’ll get out on my side—it’s closest to the sidewalk. The door to your home is just steps away from us.” And then she just stopped and studied Kate’s face. “Look, I’m concerned about you. I know you don’t want to faint in front of that crowd. Do you need another moment?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“All right. If you’re with me, we can get away from the press quickly. But I need you to focus and to keep up, as difficult as that sounds. But I’ll have your back. So, hold tightly onto my hand. I’ve got you.”

And she did.

The moment they exited the cruiser, the officer gripped Kate’s hand in her own. Despite the rise of voices that shouted at her as she stepped out of the car and onto the sidewalk, and the staccato flashes of lights that encompassed her as she was led toward her front door, Kate dug down deep, held it together as best she could, and soon found herself in the vestibule, with the door closed firmly behind her.

“Are you all right?” the officer asked.

Kate didn’t respond. Ahead of her, she saw officers moving in the foyer. More flashes of light, but these lights were somehow colder. And there was Lydia, crying somewhere in the distance.

“I’m here for you,” the woman said. “And by the way, my name is Anna. And I’m so sorry, Mrs. Stone. All of us are.”

As wealthy as she had become through her own hard-won successes and through Michael’s business hitting it big several years ago, Kate Stone remained, at heart, Kate O’Malley, the middle-class girl from Vermont who was raised by good parents that had instilled within her a sense of humility and kindness. And because of that, it was purely knee-jerk when she said, “Please—call me Kate.”

“If you wish.”

“Where is he?” Kate asked.

“In the foyer.”

“What happened to him?”

“Do you know a Lydia Brown?”

“Of course. She’s our cleaning lady. She was scheduled to clean today. And she’s here now. I can hear her crying.”

“She’s shaken.”

“What happened here? What happened to my husband?”

“Mrs. Brown was washing the foyer’s floor when your husband came to the top of the stairs to speak to her. Apparently, you have a Great Dane?”

“Bruiser,” she said.

“This is what Mrs. Brown witnessed and has testified to—when your husband approached the stairs, Bruiser allegedly rushed up them to greet him, but when he did, he clipped Mr. Stone at the knees, and Mr. Stone tripped over him and fell hard down the stairs. By all appearances—and given the hysterical state Mrs. Brown was in when she called 911—your husband fell over Bruiser, tumbled down the staircase, and broke his neck, according to the M.E. If this means anything to you, I was told that his death was instant. I’m so sorry, Mrs.—Kate,” she said, correcting herself. “I’m so sorry, Kate.”

“I need to see him.”

“My strongest recommendation is that you don’t see him now. Please trust me on this. There will be time for that later—when we’ll need for you to identify his body. But not like this.”

“Take me to my husband,” she said.

“Kate,” Anna said.

There was steel in her voice when she said, “I asked you to take me to my husband. He’s alone now. Do you even understand how awful that is? To be surrounded by people who don’t know or love him? Take me to him, or I’ll go by myself. I will not have him lying alone. Right now, he needs me just as much as I need him.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Since the enormous, curving staircase emptied into the marble-tiled foyer, the first thing Kate saw when she stepped into the space wasn’t the men and women in uniform who stopped to face her while they removed their hats.

Instead, it was the plain white sheet that had been placed over Michael’s body at the foot of the stairs.

She’d know his body anywhere—even in death and concealed by a sheet. After all, in their own bed, how many times over the years had she woken to find him lying on his stomach, arms stretched out on either side of him, legs sprawled out as if he alone owned the bed?

And with his head turned to the right—as it appeared to be now?

Michael was indeed beneath that sheet, but this time she wouldn’t be able to wake him. This time she wouldn’t be able to wish him good morning and slink out of bed to make them coffee so he could enjoy another ten minutes of sleep. This time there would be no other times between them—all of that was over now and their lives together were finished—which had seemed unreal to her when his death was first announced to her, but which now felt real to her in ways that made her close her eyes in pain and lean on Anna.

“Do you have family here, Kate? Somebody we can call? To help you through this?”

“All of my family is in Vermont.”

“Can I call any of them for you?”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll do that myself—when all of you are gone.”

“As for Michael?”

“His parents are closer, but they don’t live in Manhattan. They live in upstate New York.” She looked at Anna. “Have they been notified about what’s happened?”

“I tried to call his parents, but I got no answer.”

“His parents are mall walkers,” Kate said. “They walk three miles every day around this time, so they very well might be at the mall and unaware of any of this. And I hope that’s the case. I want to tell them myself. But right now, if it’s OK, I’d like to be alone with my husband. Has everyone here finished? Can I go over to him now? Touch him? Be with him?”

“You can.”

“Would it be too much to ask for the room to be cleared so Michael and I can be alone together?”

“I’m afraid that, due to protocol, at least one of us needs to be here.”

“Can that person be you?”

“It can.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“Then let me take care of that.”

When Anna did, Kate walked over to the sheet covering Michael. At first, because there were so many people in her house—strangers she didn’t know or want to know—she thought that she might get through this without completely breaking down. As a New Englander, it was in her roots not to do so.

But that wasn’t the case now.

The moment she touched Michael’s back and felt the chill of his skin through the thin sheet, she put her hand to her mouth and began to cry in ways that she hadn’t cried since…ever.

With heaving sobs—and with the reality that the love of her life was dead because of some fucking accident with their dog—all she could do was lay herself over the sheet, and press herself against Michael’s body.

She draped herself over him, and when she did, she felt how stiff his body already was becoming, which stabbed at her heart again. She then gently lifted the sheet away from his face and saw his dead eyes, wide open and staring at some point just beyond her. Gone were the deep blue eyes she knew so well—now, they were only wide pools of black as his pupils had become fully dilated in death.

“Michael,” she said. “Oh, my God, Michael…”

“Kate,” Anna said.

“Please leave me alone,” Kate said in despair. Her heart was literally breaking at that point. Tears streamed down her face as an overwhelming sense of grief overcame her. “Let me have this moment alone with him. Please!”

“Of course,” Anna said as she retreated to a corner of the room.

But Kate barely heard her. She pulled the sheet back farther and saw how Michael’s neck was bent in an unnatural position.

“I’m so sorry,” she said as she cried. “I’m so sorry, Michael. How am I to carry on without you? How am I even to wake up without you by my side? Why did this have to happen to you? To us? We haven’t even had a child yet! That was to come this year! Why the fuck has this happened?!” she screamed. “It’s not right—it’s not fair. I love you, my darling. I hope that you know that—that you can hear me even now, wherever you are, hopefully in this room with me. I will love you until the end of my life. And when that day comes, we’ll be together again. I can promise you that. So, go,” she said. “Set yourself free. I know how you are—you’re only going to worry about me. You’ll want to stay near me. But don’t. Somehow, I’ll get through this. Go and live out the rest of your life in the afterlife. See your family and friends again. Tell your grandparents that I love and miss them. I’ll be with you soon enough.”

After the long moments it took for her to collect herself, Kate Stone lowered her lips to her husband’s cool lips, and she kissed him in death while her gut clenched in despair.

When she finished, she placed the palm of her hand on the floor to steady herself, carefully wrapped the sheet around his body in such a way that cradled him as he lay there, and then bowed her head and burst into the sort of tears, grief, anger, and loss that would echo throughout her heart for the rest of her life.

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