All the lights were ablaze at the Keene mansion that evening as if beckoning the citizens of Gracia, California, out of the darkness of the cool September night.
And it was a night that no one would forget, lights and all.
From a window in the sprawling backyard, one, if they were skillful enough to get past security, could see the great, high-ceilinged ballroom. The glittering marble floor was filled with formally dressed guests brandishing jewels and champagne. They talked, gossiped, and bantered as classical music swirled around them. Diamonds twinkled against black and small lights twinkled from their union with ivy. Most of the eyes in the room were on the current Mrs. Oswald Keene, and speculation passed over rims of champagne, some sympathetic, some downright cruel.
A petite blonde in a sleeveless black dress tried to ignore the whispers. Her long blond hair was loosely and stylishly pulled back to reveal diamond earrings that were the envy of nearly every woman in the room. She nursed a champagne flute that she had yet to drink from. She had danced and mingled with the guests in a manner that befitted a woman of her station. Her stomach was jittery and she did not think she could handle the drink. That, and the speculative stares from across the room, threatened to make her sick.
Mistakes. They were small, committed with no afterthought, and yet they made such a huge mess. The blonde remembered the day before with a barely perceptible wince. Before her mind could replay the scene of her husband punching a friend out of jealousy, she took a sip of champagne, finding that it in fact turned her stomach a little.
A tall woman glided toward her, unbeknownst to her. When the tall woman stopped beside her, she barely paid attention. It wasn’t until the woman spoke directly to her that she finally noticed her.
“You know, I wouldn’t pay any mind to those old bats over there anyway.”
Astonished, the blonde looked up at the tall woman, whose raven hair was pulled back more sharply than her own. A diamond choker dripped from her neck to accentuate an already striking, aristocratic face, and the strapless black dress heightened her long, lithe body. She seemed slightly familiar but the blonde couldn’t place her face.
“How did you know I was thinking about them?” the blonde asked, trying to mask her shock.
The raven-haired woman chuckled. “Because I’ve been where you’ve been.” She gestured to a knot of gossipers and locked gazes with them. Surprisingly, she won the stare-down. They clucked and scoffed, gesturing for a roving waiter to fill their glasses. She shifted her eyes back to the blonde. “And you just got to build up the spine to stare them down. That pisses them off more than any pair of diamond earrings ever could.”
“Thanks for the advice,” the blonde remarked. “I’ll keep that in mind for the next time I have to go hand-to-hand with those…”
The woman raised her hand and smiled. “I get where you’re coming from. No need to sully your innocent reputation over an insult for those Botox baronesses.”
The statement prompted a frown from the blonde. “Everyone thinks I’m innocent?”
There was something about the woman’s eyes that made the blonde think that her next statement wasn’t altogether true. “Of course,” she responded. “You seem incapable of guile. I can see that just by looking at you.” Something in her violet eyes sharpened. “Anyone could tell that just by looking at you. No matter what kind of things you do.”
No matter what kind of things you do. The chill that tingled her spine added a layer to the nausea she felt. There was suddenly the feeling that she didn’t know a thing about this woman, but she knew entirely too much about her. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where she could have heard things. The blonde’s hazel gaze flickered over at the gossipmongers. No, not a genius at all.
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” the blonde commented in a low tone.
“No,” the woman returned easily, shocking the blonde, “you really shouldn’t.”
Before the blonde could inquire as to what the woman meant, a hand rested on her hip, and the familiar scent of her husband filled her nostrils. She relaxed and stiffened all in the same instant. She suddenly wished the party was over so she could straighten things out with him. Things were still tense between them, and mostly everyone had caught on. She wanted to work out things before they caused any more damage. Or the gossipers did.
Oswald Demetrius Keene was like any middle-aged rich man worth his salt. He made insane amounts of money to give the people in his life the existence they deserved. He played golf for leisure and jetted off to the tropics when the opportunity rose. Underneath the noses of his most dedicated accountants, he donated to various charities. But Mrs. Keene knew her husband better than anyone there, perhaps even more than his two ex-wives, who were both currently in attendance and mingling.
In his tuxedo, Keene emanated class and mystery. He was handsome, with a full head of silvering tawny hair and blue-gray eyes. As Mrs. Keene tilted her head to look up him, she found that his slate-blue eyes were slightly shocked. Mrs. Keene blinked, bemused. What’s going on here? She started to say something, but something held her back. Fear?
The woman tilted her chin up at the sight of the host. “Mr. Keene,” she addressed him. “This is a nice house you have.” She gestured with her champagne flute. “I do like the Matisse you have hanging in your grand foyer. I find myself wanting it for my house in…Tripoli.”
The corners of Keene’s mouth turned up and his right eyebrow quirked. Mrs. Keene was even more perplexed. “Thank you…?” His voice trailed off in a manner that implied that he was trying to place her face to find a name.
“Mrs. Willows,” the woman supplied. She nodded slightly. “It was nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Keene. If you would excuse me…”
Mrs. Keene’s head swirled as the woman glided away. She had the nagging feeling that that conversation should have meant something to her. The question was, What?
There was no way that Mrs. Willows could be her husband’s mistress. While they were talking, she noticed a ring on Mrs. Willows’s left hand. She was married.
But then again, that didn’t hold back most people.
Keene squeezed his wife’s hand reassuringly. The familiar glint of love was back in his eyes. Relief washed through her. “I have to go up to my office for a moment,” he told her. He leaned down and, much to Mrs. Keene’s rivals’ chagrin, and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
She grabbed his hand, feeling a chill race down her spine. “Is there something wrong?”
He shook his head. “Don’t be silly.” He cupped her jaw in his hand. “I’ll be right back down.”
She nodded, and allowed him to leave her. She found that she could not explain the foreboding she felt as she watched him stride away. Could it have been because of the place that they were in? Did she feel anxious because they had not had much of a chance to talk?
She didn’t have the time to answer her own questions. As soon as she was alone again, she could sense the presence of Natasha Finch Keene, the first Mrs. Keene. It came on a cloud of Chanel No. 5, her signature scent.
“There you are, dear,” Natasha drawled, as if she had been looking for her all night. Really, she hadn’t. “I must say, this little get together certainly is classy. Tell me, who did the catering?”
She rattled off the name of some catering company distractedly.
“Oh, I must try them for my next party. The food is simply magnificent.” Natasha jabbered away, not noticing if she wasn’t being paid attention to. But then again, she had the reputation of talking the ears off any inanimate object. Even if it didn’t have any. But then suddenly she paused, her eyes following Jessica’s.
And at that moment, Jessica watched Mrs. Willows slip from the room skillfully. As if she had done it before.
Was she going up the office, too?
The mental inquiry had her going pale, and Natasha noticed.
“Oh,” Natasha began, and the tone of voice indicated that she was going to gossip. “I think I spoke to that woman briefly. Melissa Willows, I think her name is. Very…” Natasha’s eyes darkened a bit as she remembered her conversation with her. “Very impolite and sarcastic. But very attractive, and it wouldn’t be a lie to say that she knows it. Hopefully, she keeps that between herself and her own husband if you know what I mean.” Natasha paused again, and glanced around. “Oh dear, where is Oswald? There is something I must tell him.”
Oswald. His name in her brain, she wordlessly slipped from Natasha without a goodbye.
Without fully knowing where she was going, she left the grand ballroom and ventured out into the house she had lived in for two years. Her black high heels clicked on the marble floor as she walked to the staircase. She nodded to the housekeeper, who was standing in front of the newel post, and ascended the stairs.
Turning left, she walked in near darkness. She was used to it. Oswald was adamant about saving electricity, so a dim light from table lamp provided illumination, but not much. She knew her way around.
A loud crash had her pausing in her tracks. The crash was followed by the unmistakable sound of a gunshot.
Heart in her throat, she heard footsteps clamor down the hallway and into the darkness. She stumbled toward the office and found, with a heavy heart, that the door was open, and the air was still. Too still.
She walked in, and fumbled for the light switch. She flicked it, but nothing happened. Her hands started shaking. She was suddenly afraid of the dark.
She stepped forward, and ran into the desk. On its top, the lamp rattled. She tried it, too, but it did not work. She swallowed hard. She didn’t like what all this darkness meant. It was a mask for something sinister.
She stumbled into something solid, and not as hard as the desk. And it was on the floor. At her feet. What was it?
She bent down gingerly, hand still trembling. The moon was still hiding behind a cloud, making the room dark. She touched her feet, then her roving fingertips inched forward.
Eventually, they ran into warm liquid, and a prone, still-warm body.
Since the light didn’t work in the room, she could only rely on her sense of touch. Her hand touched a wrist, and the familiar texture of a Rolex watch. One that she herself had given.
As if on cue, the moon slid out from behind a thick cloud and she glimpsed the face of Oswald Keene.
When she heard the screams, she only realized they were her own shortly before things went completely black.